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July 27 2012

14:00

Student Journalists Go Global, Think Locally in #Olympics Coverage from London

Amid the thousands of professional journalists gathered in London for the start of the Summer Olympics will be a handful of journalism students with the unusual opportunity to work in school-sponsored teams to cover the high-profile games.

Several U.S. universities have launched new programs to bring journalists-in-training directly to the scene of the giant international sporting event, where they have set up working newsrooms to create content for news media partners, school outlets, and in one case, for the U.S. Olympics Committee itself.

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Boston University's College of Communication, for example, has created a six-week study abroad program that brings 14 journalism majors and grad students to London. They'll primarily be producing sidebar coverage of New England athletes for half-a-dozen media partners.

News outlets the BU team will be reporting for include Boston's CBS network affiliate WBZ TV and Radio. Boston.com, MetroWest Daily News, WBUR's Only a Game, and other outlets in Providence and Worcester, Mass. The BU students will also tweet to their own Twitter account, and post to their own website, which launched July 25.

"We're trying to teach real reporting...It's a great exercise for the students," said Susan Walker, an Emmy Award-winning TV journalist who teaches at BU and is supervising its London newsroom. "The idea is to give them a great education in how to cover an international event, cross-platform."

[DISCLOSURE: I'm a graduate of Boston University's journalism program, but have had no formal and little informal contact with the program since graduating 30 years ago].

Putting games in context; covering 'backyard heroes'

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The student team -- made up mostly of broadcast journalism majors, with a few print journalism majors and one or two photojournalists -- will operate as a multimedia newsroom for the partner sites and its own outlets, Walker said. That means tweeting, blogging, and filing video reports, still photos and audio slideshows, as well as written articles.

Walker also added that the first three weeks of the program were organized as a for-credit summer course into the history, politics and issues surrounding the Olympic Games, with the final three weeks of coverage structured as working internships.

"Student[s] need to learn the context before they go out to cover [the Games]," she said. For example, students learned about the history of women in the Olympics prior to covering one of the first female members of the Saudi Arabian team. They also did classroom work on the Munich massacre, Olympic judges, doping, and presidential politics around the Games, to create long-form reporting projects prior to the start of the games.

But Walker said her team is focused on carving out coverage of Boston's "backyard heroes" at the games. One example is a video report on a Rhode Island boxer who barely missed making the U.S. team and must now decide whether or not to go pro. Another is a report on a local high school choral group that is raising money to go perform at the Olympics.

Walker is under no illusions her student journalists will get big stories that other journalists can't, if only because her reporters could not be credentialed by the International Olympic Committee.

But the challenge of sidestepping Olympics security has already been the source of much resourcefulness in the team's coverage, she added. For instance, students are getting information directly from Olympic athletes who are using social media to share their views on their housing, the Olympic Village, and more. They've also pigeonholed athletes crowding a nearby shopping mall in the days before the Opening Ceremonies. And numerous stateside interviews were also arranged, some with athletes even before they made the U.S. team.

Scripps program an 'opportunity to take risks'

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A similar team of 16 students from the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University has also formed an Olympics summer abroad newsroom in London, where they will be reporting for a school-sponsored news site and Twitter feed.

Hans Meyer, a one-time community newspaper reporter who now teaches online and multimedia journalism at Scripps, called the school's Olympics initiative "the perfect opportunity for students to take risks. They'll be in an environment where there are a wealth of stories and reporters. I'm urging them to tell different stories than all their counterparts."

His students will report a range of spot news, long-form features, and sidebars on local athletes, and he said he's encouraging students to use as many multimedia tools as possible to experiment with backpack journalism. The stockpile brought on the road include digital SLRs with boom mic attachments, digital audio recorders, and video editing laptops.

Meyer said, "I'm pushing them as much as I can to think differently about their work... I really want them to try something they haven't, such as video if they are primarily a writer, or social media tools, such as Storify."

Like their BU counterparts, Meyer said the Scripps students dedicated themselves ahead of time to researching athletes of local interest, along with issues affecting the games. As part of the preparation, they took a spring semester course covering Olympic history, issues and media coverage, and Meyer worked with them on web-first reporting approaches.

Also like BU, Scripps reporters lack credentials, something Meyers said almost derailed the program before he got offers of help to submit one-off media requests for individual events and was reassured by sports journalist alumni that there were many stories beyond officially sanctioned events; students just needed to keep their eyes and ears open.

For instance, Meyer said he and student Melissa Wells were on a tour bus that was diverted off a bridge, so the two of them jumped down to start reporting, and then put together a soon-to-be-published story on a London cabbie protest.

Meyer added in an email from London shortly after arriving and getting online: "The most important measure of success for me, and I hope for the students, is the experience. As a reporter, I attended only a handful of events where there was more than one media outlet present, but I always remember those events as good gauges of my reporting ability. I could compare my coverage against those of more seasoned professionals and identify what I did correctly, and on what I could improve. For students, I think this opportunity is invaluable. I'll consider the program a success if students come away knowing how they stand in their preparation for a journalism career."

Testing the waters at Olympics trials

Among other Olympics-related programs is one at Penn State, where the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism has a sent a team of five undergrad and grad students to London to produce feature material for the U.S. Olympics Committee's press service, as well as for a school outlet and as freelancers for news organizations (More here, plus a video).

Another initiative involved the University of Oregon. Prior to the games, the school's Daily Emerald had a small team covering the Olympic trials in Eugene, an experiment publisher Ryan Frank wrote about earlier in a PBS Mediashift column.

Frank explained that for the project, "Our big focus was local athletes, especially ones with UO ties. Most of the fans were from within our region." But he added that the team also tried to cover major news and tried to compete with the local professionals and the nationals for the big stories.

The project also aimed for a 50-50 digital-print mix, said Frank. One or two longer daily print stories were matched by a series of what he called short web-based "stub" pieces for each significant event as it concluded. He added that the team live-tweeted almost every development, that by the end it was live-streaming every press conference, and that it developed a stream of user-generated Instagram pictures of the action.

A. Adam Glenn is associate professor, interactive, at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime digital journalist and media consultant. Connect with him on Facebook or LinkedIn, and follow his Twitter feed. This monthly column draws liberally from conversations about digital journalism teaching practices on the online educators Facebook group of the Online News Association. The ONA Facebook group is currently a closed group but you can view ongoing conversations (see our group Q&A tracker), or join in via ONA membership.

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April 23 2012

14:00

A Progress Report on a College Paper's Pioneering Metered Pay Wall

It was just over a year ago that a college newspaper in Oklahoma became a digital media pioneer.

In what was believed to be a first for a college news outlet, The Daily O'Collegian at Oklahoma State University began charging for online content. Sure, the Wall Street Journal, Times of London and other professional publications had already gone for pay walls, but college newspapers are known for being a free and readily available resource on campus and online. As one commenter put it when the news broke, "They might as well charge a million dollars."

Bloggers and media watchers shared the skepticism. Why restrict access to work by student journalists who need all the exposure they can get? Who would pay for student content? Should they even have to, given that student newspapers are more about training future journalists and serving a campus community than turning a profit?

The O'Colly's decision to charge was more of a "why not?" than a grab for riches or precedent. General manager Ray Catalino figured it was worth placing a value on the outlet's content, and said he'd be happy if 100 subscribers signed up in the first year.

With that year now up, how is it going? Was it indeed a pioneering move in the march to monetize online content, or another failed experiment in the wild west of the web world?

Of course, the answer isn't simple or even fully formed yet.

The Update

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The O'Collegian worked with a company called Press+ to launch what both call a "metered system" in March 2011. After viewing three free articles within a month, readers outside a 25-mile radius of the Stillwater campus and without an .edu email address were asked to pay $10 for a year of unlimited access. Those who said yes will be automatically renewed each year unless they cancel.

Press+ launched in 2010 and counts media entrepreneur Steven Brill among its three co-founders. The company works primarily with professional outlets to monetize online content through donation solicitation and metered systems. (Brill repudiates the term "pay wall" because readers are usually given some free content before being asked to pay. Others just call that a softer pay wall.)

A year in, Catalino's admittedly informal goal of 100 paid subscribers was met and exceeded. On the one-year anniversary, there were 156 paid subscribers, and as of last week there were 177. Not a windfall, considering the paper has a print circulation of 25,000 and a regular online audience of 2,000, but enough that Catalino recently upped the annual fee to $15 for new subscribers.

There wasn't any national news on the OSU campus that might have lured a burst of new paid subscribers. They came slow and steady, never exceeding three per day. Looking ahead, Catalino has budgeted $3,000 to $4,000 in revenue from online subscribers for the next fiscal year -- again, a mere drop in the outlet's $700,000 budget, but a drop nonetheless.

"The pay wall to me is almost a no-brainer," Catalino said. "It's very simple to implement; it's basically a technical change, and the money comes in. And as long as you're providing good content, it continues. So it has very little cost, has a nice upside and very little downside, in my opinion."

So how is it going? Well enough that the O'Colly will keep charging, and might even further up the price if readers continue to show a willingness to pay. But it's no cash cow and likely won't be anytime soon.

The Impact

Once anathema in the wide open world of the Internet, the idea of charging for online news content is becoming more comfortable for publishers squeezed by plummeting print subscriptions, declining ad sales, and few other revenue options.

Press+ began with 24 clients. Another 300 have signed up since then, and still more are devising their own pay systems and seeing some success, the most prominent example being The New York Times. Those who sign up with Press+ generally pay a set-up fee of a few thousand dollars and hand over 20 percent of revenue.

The O'Collegian was the company's first college publication, but others quickly followed suit, including Boston University's Daily Free Press, the Kansas State Collegian and Tufts University's Tufts Daily. Grant money from the Knight Foundation covered the set-up fee for those that got in early, including the O'Collegian, but Press+ now offers colleges a 10 percent discount as an enticement.

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Brill says college newspapers are not a huge business priority for Press+ and counts about 50 on the client list, but he predicts that more and more will turn to the company for help with either seeking donations (the option most current clients choose) or charging for online content.

"We wanted to seed the landscape there and have them benefit from it," Brill said of colleges. "We'll probably have twice the number today by next winter. It's worked well, and it's easy. It doesn't take any work on their part. It's found money."

Brill says the company's geo-location technology is crucial for college outlets because they can aim pay requirements solely at readers outside the campus community, preserving limitless access for students, faculty members, and local residents. If a mega-story breaks and a college newspaper wants full exposure for its content, it can exempt that coverage from the metered system.

The Implications

So the Press+ client list proves that at least some college papers are willing to ask online readers for money, and OSU's first year suggests that at least some readers are willing to comply. Neither addresses the question of whether student publications should make this move.

Dan Reimold, a journalism professor and student media adviser at the University of Tampa in Florida, wrote in January 2010 that college media "should ignore the siren song of pay walls." Why? Because as professional outlets increasingly wall off their online content, college media might become a viable alternative for readers, and because student journalists deserve maximum exposure for their work.

Reimold's opinion today is essentially unchanged. He applauds the O'Collegian for taking the lead on new ways to make money. And he obviously recognizes the significance of their decision to charge, because he broke the news of it on his blog, College Media Matters, in January 2011. But he worries about the long-term implications of a world in which online student content is increasingly restricted.

"I still feel strongly that it is not such an effective revenue technique that it should trump the main purpose of the student press, which is enabling students to get exposure for their work and hopefully join a larger conversation that will help them learn more about the process of reporting things to the world," Reimold said. "The learning vehicle aspect should trump the notion of restricting access."

Brill counters that his company has found no evidence that charging for content restricts the number of unique visitors to a site. If people don't want to pay, they might stop reading for that month, but they return the next month.

Personally, I'm not convinced that access to a student's work, and therefore valuable exposure for that student, remains unchanged in a pay wall world. How can it, when a reader might have read 10 stories but stops at five because he or she won't pay for more?

At the same time, I'm not sure the siren song should be avoided. Professional news publications must find new revenue sources to survive, and their online content does have value. If readers don't agree, that's that. But if they are willing to pay, and remarkably it looks like many are, then why not keep this trend rolling? And why not train future publishers, editors and reporters (not to mention consumers) that it's OK to put a price on such work?

Alexa Capeloto is a journalism professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York. She earned her master's degree at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and spent 10 years as a metro reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune before transitioning into academia.

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