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January 04 2011

20:51

Should Journalism Schools Give Students Specialized Beats?

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

Does journalism education need a new approach? The University of Toronto thinks so. In fact, Robert Steiner, director of the journalism lab at U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs and a former Wall Street Journal reporter, thinks the school's proposed master's of journalism program currently under consideration is the future of journalism.

Late in 2010, Steiner asked 30 working journalists for feedback regarding a proposal for a new specialized masters program [Word doc]. The letter said that Steiner and his colleagues in the investigative group -- Janice Stein of the Munk Centre of Global Affairs and John Fraser, an award-winning Canadian journalist and current Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto -- want to recruit students from around the world who have expertise in a given field. The goal is to teach them to be correspondents for that specific field. Essentially, the letter said, the program will cater to "professionals who want to become journalists or who want to add journalism to their professional work."

The proposal includes details about an 18-month practicum where seasoned journalists with international experience will mentor students. Students will be expected to freelance by the second semester and will graduate with a year's worth of "genuine clippings," according to the plan.

In an email, Steiner said that any public discussion on specifics involving the masters program is "grossly premature." He said it would be at least spring before the university seriously considers implementing the program.

Specialized vs. General

Robert Steiner.jpgRyerson University has long held a monopoly on journalism education in downtown Toronto. The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Carleton University in Ottawa, Concordia University in Montreal and the University of Western Ontario in London also have strong, long-standing journalism programs, to name just a few in the country. To distinguish themselves from their competitors, Steiner and his colleagues have taken on a strong position against the current model of journalism education.

In defense of a new program, Steiner's letter said that journalism students are currently being trained to work as general assignment reporters when there is more demand for specialists. As well, it said that newsrooms are no longer strong teaching environments, citing the fact that staff reductions have left fewer people able to mentor young journalists. Staff reductions, the argument goes, have created the expectation that interns will teach older reporters how to use new technologies and social media -- not necessarily a bad thing for rookie reporters who want to establish their credibility.

Don McCurdy, who recently designed a graduate journalism program at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario, said specialized training is valuable in certain circumstances, but fledgling reports need to be able to write stories about a wide variety of topics if full-time work is what they're seeking. The masters program at U of T may be useful to people who want to do journalism on the side, according to him.

"[Steiner's] not talking about run-of-the-mill freelance, they're talking Scientific American or Time magazine, something that pays well, something that's well researched," said McCurd, who is also executive director of the Ontario Press Council. "Technically, you could survive doing one piece a week but you've got to build that base, you can't just start good."

The Toronto Star's Roger Gillespie, one of the senior editors in charge of hiring at the largest newsroom in Canada, said that all the expertise in a single area doesn't help unless you are also in the right place at the right time. As an example, he cited a recent National Post front-page story about the bridge collapse in Cambodia that was written by a young freelancer who happened to be in the area. The reality is, he said, that "there's a long time between those assignments." Opportunities to write those kinds of stories don't happen everyday and most publications don't routinely assign those kinds of stories to young, unseasoned freelancers.

Gillespie said it's "hazardous" to predict a single approach. The market is changing, he said, but that doesn't mean the focus is on specialization. The journalists he hires are nimble, technologically adept and write easily about any topic that needs coverage.

End of Staff Positions?

Steiner's proposal for U of T talks about the end of staff positions and general assignment reporters, but a new report by Toronto-based marketing research and consulting firm Canadian Primedia surveyed more than 400 newspapers in North America and predicted that 2011 will bring increased revenues from advertising and likely more editorial job opportunities -- a drastic change in tune from 2008.

UKClogo.pngThe economic slow-down hasn't curbed journalism school enrollment, and U of T isn't the only school trying to meet the demand: The University of King's College recently announced a new 10-month masters in journalism program as of June 2011, in addition to the school's bachelor program. For the first six months, students will branch off and specialize in either data-driven investigative journalism or what the school website calls "new ventures in journalism." Both streams will take classes on digital journalism.

Carving out a career in journalism has always been an entrepreneurial endeavor, so if a J-school grad wants a job in journalism, they will find one, Gillespie said.

Gillespie said he entered a dismal market when he graduated but still managed to land a job and said he knows many recent graduates who have found jobs in the media.

"I don't know that we can forecast the market," he said. "We've been hiring people at the Star, and that's not something I would have forecast."

Alexandra Bosanac is the Student's Lounge editor at J-Source. She is a third-year journalism student at Ryerson University who has worked for The Ryerson Free Press, The Eyeopener and the Toronto Star blog New Kids on the Blog.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.


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This article was originally published on J-Source. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.

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November 17 2010

19:30

The neverending broadcast: Frontline looks to expand its docs into a continual conversation

Frontline, PBS’s public affairs documentary series, has one of the best reputations in the business for the things that journalism values most highly: courageous reporting, artful storytelling, the kind of context-heavy narrative that treats stories not simply as stories, but as vehicles of wisdom. It’s a “news magazine” in the most meaningful sense of the term.

But even an institution like Frontline isn’t immune to the disruptions of the web. Which is to say, even an institution like Frontline stands to benefit from smart leveraging of the web. The program’s leadership team is rethinking its identity to marry what it’s always done well — produce fantastic broadcasts — with something that represents new territory: joining the continuous conversation of the web. To that end, Frontline will supplement its long-form documentaries with shorter, magazine-style pieces — which require a shorter turnaround time to produce — and with online-only investigations. (The site’s motto: “Thought-provoking journalism on air and online.”)

But it’s also expanding its editorial efforts beyond packaged investigations, hoping to shift its content in a more discursive direction. Which leads to a familiar question, but one that each organization has to tackle in its own way: How do you preserve your brand and your value while expanding your presence in the online world?

One tool Frontline is hoping can help answer that question: Twitter. And not just Twitter, the conversational medium — though “we really want to be part of the journalism conversation,” Frontline’s senior producer, Raney Aronson-Rath, told me — but also Twitter, the aggregator. This afternoon, Frontline rolled out four topic-focused Twitter accounts — “micro-feeds,” it’s calling them:

Conflict Zones & Critical Threats (@FrontlineCZCT), which covers national security and shares the series’ conflict-zone reporting;

Media Watchers (@FrontlineMW), which tracks news innovation and the changing landscape of journalism;

Investigations (@FrontlineINVSTG), which covers true crime, corruption, and justice — spotlighting the best investigative reporting by Frontline and other outlets; and

World (@FrontlineWRLD), which covers international affairs.

The topic-focused feeds are basically a beat system, applied to Twitter. They’re a way of leveraging one of the core strengths of Frontline’s journalism: its depth. Which is something that would be almost impossible for Frontline, Aronson-Rath notes, to achieve with a single feed. So “we decided that the best thing for us was to be really intentional about who we were going to reach out to and what kind of topics we were going to tweet about — and not just have it be a promotional tool.”

Each feed will be run by two-person teams, one from the editorial side and the other from the promotional — under the broad logic, Aronson-Rath notes, that those two broad fields are increasingly collapsing into each other. And, even more importantly, that “all the work that we do in the social media landscape is, by its very essence, editorial.” Even something as simple as a retweet is the result of an editorial decision — and one that requires the kind of contextual judgment that comes from deep knowledge of a given topic.

So Frontline’s feed runners, Aronson-Rath notes, “are also the people who have, historically, been working in those beats in Frontline’s broadcast work.” (Frontline communications manager Jessica Smith, for example, who’ll be helping to run the “Conflict Zones” feed, covered that area previously, in cultivating the conversation between Frontline and the national security blogosphere as a component of the program’s earlier web efforts.) In other words: “These guys know what they’re doing on these beats.”

To that end, the teams’ members will be charged with leveraging their knowledge to curate content from the collective resources of all of Frontline’s contributors — from reporters to producers, public media partners to internal staff — and, of course, from the contributors across the web. The teams will work collaboratively to produce their tweets (they’ll even sit next to each other to maximize the teamwork). And some feeds will contain not just curated content, but original reporting, as well. Frontline reporters Stephen Grey and Murray Smith are about to dispatch to Afghanistan; while they’re there, they’ll tweet from @FrontlineCZCT. (They’ll tweet from personal feeds, as well, which @FrontlineCZCT curators will pull into the Frontline-branded feed.)

The broad idea behind the new approach is that audiences identify with topics as much as they do with brands. And there’s also, of course, the recognition of the sea of material out there which is of interest to consumers, but which ends up, documentary filmmaking being what it is, on the cutting-room floor. The new approach, it’s hoped, will give Frontline fans a behind-the-scenes look into the film production process. “You wouldn’t actually know where Frontline’s reporting teams are right now,” Aronson-Rath points out. “You only know when we show up.” Now, though, “when a team goes into Afghanistan, we’re going to let you know where they are. We’re going to give you some intelligence about what they’re doing. And it’ll be a completely different level of a conversation, we’re hoping.”

It’ll also be a different level of engagement — for Frontline’s producers and its consumers. It’s a small way of expanding the idea of what a public affairs documentary is, and can be, in the digital world: a process, indeed, as much as a product. “We think,” Aronson-Rath says, “that this is going to help keep our stories alive.”

December 16 2009

17:10

KNC 2010: NewsGraf wants to slap a search box on journalists’ brains

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The Knight News Challenge closed submissions for the 2010 awards last night at midnight, which means that another batch of great ideas, interesting concepts, and harebrained schemes gave their chance to convince the Knight Foundation they deserve funding. (Trust us — great, interesting, and harebrained are all well represented at this stage each year.) We've been picking through the applications available for public inspection the past few weeks, and over the next few days Mac is going to highlight some of the ideas that struck us as worthy of a closer look — starting today with NewsGraf, below.

But we also want your help. Do you know of a really interesting News Challenge application? Did you submit one yourself? Let us know about it. Either leave a comment on this post or email Mac Slocum. In either case, keep your remarks brief — 200 words or less. We'll run some of the ones you think are noteworthy in a post later this week. —Josh]

The most eye-catching thing about the NewsGraf’s proposal is its price tag; $950,000 over two years. That stands out in a sea of $50,000 and $100,000 requests.

But if you spend a little time digging into the intricacies of NewsGraf, that big price becomes downright reasonable. Cheap even. That’s because with NewsGraf, Mike Aldax and John Marshall want to digitally duplicate the knowledge, connections and synapses of a veteran journalist. That kind of audacity doesn’t come cheap.

Technologically speaking, NewsGraf ventures into the murky world of semantic tagging and social graphs. Unless you’ve got a computer science degree, it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what NewsGraf is. It’s a database, it’s a search engine, but it’s also a connectivity machine.

It’s easier to compare NewsGraf to a person — think of it as a veteran reporter. Someone who carries around a vast collection of interviews, research, and general knowledge gleaned from years working a beat. All this info is tucked neatly into her memory, and she taps this personal database whenever she’s assembling a story. It searches for red flags, patterns, and relationships. It’s an editorial sixth sense.

But there’s a big problem with this brain-based model: It disappears when the brain — and its associated owner — get laid off. With news organizations already running smaller and faster, how can they possibly overcome this growing knowledge gap?

Enter NewsGraf. The project is still on the drawing board, but the idea is to capture all that connective information in a format that’s accessible to anyone with a web browser. A visitor can enter the name of a local newsmaker and see the threads that bind that person to others in the community. It’s like Facebook, as designed by a beat reporter.

Data will come from government databases, local newspapers, blogs, and other sources. After running a query, a user can click through to the originating stories for deeper information. NewsGraf is merely the conduit here; Marshall said they want to send users to the information, not keep them locked within NewsGraf’s walls. As the application puts it:

As newspapers find it increasingly difficult to send reporters to monitor local politics and public discourse, communities will need alternative mechanisms to ensure transparency and good government. Local journalists and citizens will be able to draw upon NewsGraf’s data as a starting point for further investigation, uncovering important relationships that may be influencing decisions being made in their community.

The team behind the idea combines journalism (Aldax covers city hall for The San Francisco Examiner) and tech (Marshall is a software developer and a former VP at AOL). NewsGraf will focus on San Francisco and the Bay Area if it wins a News Challenge grant. But if funding doesn’t come through, Aldax hopes someone else runs with the idea. “We just want to see this happen,” he said.

November 04 2009

15:04

How a blog, a camera, and a court are feeding journalism’s long tail

When people talk about the long tail, they often focus on consumer goods, where the infinite shelf space at a company like Amazon or Netflix allows a huge variety of products to be sold. But the same concept can apply to news, where cheap servers make it possible for hyper-targeted coverage — the stuff that only appeals to a few hundred people — to live online with few concerns about space or scarcity. Toss in search engines and dead-simple publishing tools and you’ve got a bounty of easy-to-find, niche-friendly content.

Whether intended or not, Ron Sylvester is stocking the long tail. The veteran crime and courts reporter for The Wichita Eagle uses his blog What the Judge Ate for Breakfast to publish two-minute videos that dive into the intricacies of a courthouse. They’re fascinating clips, touching on everything from the role of prosecutors, to odd defendant behavior, to the less glamorous responsibilities judges assume. These glimpses into the life of a court are classic examples of long tail content: the type of stuff that would never see the light of day on traditional platforms.

It makes sense that something like this would come from Sylvester. He was one of the first beat reporters to jump on the Twitter bandwagon, tweeting updates from the courtroom. The positive response to the Twitter coverage encouraged him, and he started looking at different techniques for covering his beat. “There’s so much human drama in the courthouse,” he said. “I’m trying to find ways to expand the coverage and use multimedia to do that.”

What the Judge Ate for Breakfast (the name comes from a quote attributed to Jerome Frank) launched in early 2008 as an ancillary outlet to Sylvester’s court coverage. It initially featured interesting asides and courtroom miscellany, all delivered as regular text-based blog posts. Sylvester started mulling bigger ideas about a year into the site, and his growing interest in video dovetailed serendipitously. “I was kind of jealous of TV,” Sylvester said. “I wished people could actually hear some of this testimony and see the expressions instead of me describing it to them.”

With the help of colleagues in the Eagle’s photography and web departments, Sylvester cobbled together equipment and started learning. The first video in the series — which runs under the title “Common Law” — appeared in July, and he’s now posting a minimum of one new clip per week.

Juggling platforms and coverage

What the Judge Ate for Breakfast is part of The Wichita Eagle’s website, Kansas.com, but it isn’t Sylvester’s full-time gig. He juggles platforms, producing coverage for print, web, Twitter and the Common Law series. When journalism schools teach “multimedia journalism,” Sylvester is the kind of reporter they’ve got in mind.

The essential skill of multimedia reporting, Sylvester told me, is knowing how to match content, medium, and audience. Twitter requires brevity. Long-form print and web demand context. Blog posts, particularly those driven by video, need to be short and engaging.

That’s why you won’t find Common Law videos in Sylvester’s traditional coverage. The point is to offer something different for the audience and appropriate for the medium. Take a look at one of Sylvester’s favorite clips as an example: it’s a piece that follows sheriff’s deputy Dioane Gates as he unexpectedly arrests someone he knows. This is one of those slice-of-life tangents that typically gets cut when space is limited and a deadline looms. Recognizing that this is a story and then finding a place for it is where a skilled multimedia reporter shines. Otherwise, you’d never see this stuff.

A look inside the tool box

The role Sylvester plays varies with the subject matter. Big cases require a team, so for something like the upcoming trial of Scott Roeder, Sylvester tweets from the courtroom and provides print and web copy, while one photographer manages pool photos and a second grabs video from the TV feed and sends it to the website.

Sylvester handles all the coverage for smaller trials and hearings. His equipment needs can shift from case to case, so he rolls around a briefcase that holds a Canon HV20 camcorder, a Sennheiser EW100 wireless microphone, a MacBook Pro with Final Cut Express, and a collection of wires and A/V accessories. The jumble of gear occasionally raises eyebrows at the courthouse’s x-ray machine. (It also summons memories of a certain senator’s previous career.)

Posting new Common Law videos is a simple process: Sylvester uploads clips to VMIX, a video encoding service used by McClatchy papers, and then he adds video embed code to a new blog entry. The hardest part is the editing, which can take up to two hours. “It’s like writing a story,” Sylvester said. “You’ve got to try to get it down to two minutes, but capture the essence of what’s going on.”

Watch a few videos and you’ll see that Sylvester weaves in B-roll shots (e.g. a judge listening to an attorney). Sylvester only has one camera, so a “listening judge” clip may come from earlier or later in the hearing. That’s not a huge issue since most Common Law clips revolve around a concept rather than strict coverage, but Sylvester does limit B-roll footage to shots from the same hearing.

How Sylvester gets in

Kansas allows cameras in the courtroom at the judge’s discretion, so Sylvester coordinates his weekly coverage needs in advance. Whipping out a video rig isn’t a surprise most judges would welcome.

Access is made easier because Common Law clips almost always revolve around a de facto “cast”: public defender Lacy Gilmour, prosecutor Marc Bennett, sheriff’s deputies David Rank and the previously-mentioned Dioane Gates, and Judge David Kaufman, whom Sylvester has known since before he wore a robe.

Sylvester credits his 30-plus years in journalism and nearly 10 years on the court beat as keys to greasing the skids. “They’re letting me into places and through doors that normally we wouldn’t go [through],” he said. “You have to have trust in order to do that.”

Forget the numbers

Sylvester declined to share website stats, citing corporate policy. You can get a rough sense of traffic to Kansas.com’s blog section here, and Sylvester did note a gap between his regular coverage, which is often among the most popular stories on Kansas.com, and the limited gravitational pull of What the Judge Ate for Breakfast. That’s the big problem with the long tail of content: small audiences lead to tiny metrics, and those are tough to swallow even when you can rationalize the results.

Sylvester, who knows the humbling sting of web traffic, has a solution: when it comes to beat reporting, forget the numbers. “I’m like everybody else, I like to look at the numbers every once in a while,” he said. “But on this one I’ve stopped. I want to concentrate on producing good content, because I really do believe that as more people get their information on the Internet, I think that good content is going to win out.”

That’s not to say Sylvester disregards all forms of measurement. He just places more importance on the feedback he gets from readers and courthouse staff. “This blog is an extension of the beat,” he said. “This may not get huge numbers, but the people I deal with everyday like it, and it’s building credibility.”

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