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July 30 2010

17:57

Learning From Failure in Community-Building at Missouri

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

I recently had an opportunity that is rarely handed to a journalism school professor: The chance to be a member of the inaugural class of the Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellows in the 2008-09 school year.

I already have a unique job. As an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, I am also a new media director at the university-owned NBC-affiliate, KOMU-TV. I teach new media and I manage its production in a professional newsroom that is staffed with students. (We have a professional promotions, production and sales department just like any other television news station.)

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I had a big idea back in 2007. I wanted to find a way to bring multiple newsrooms together to make it easier for news consumers to learn about their candidates leading up to election day. I wanted to partner with the other newsrooms owned by the University of Missouri: KBIA-FM (the local NPR station) and the Columbia Missourian (the daily morning paper in town). I wanted to plan for the big election in November 2008 and had already tried a similar project during the mid-term 2006 November election season.

Smart Decision '08

In 2006, we put a lot of content into one place but it was all hand-coded. I won't go into the nit-picky details. What I will tell you is it was time consuming and almost impossible to keep up to date as three newsrooms populated the site. I wanted automation and simple collaboration so the site could make it easier for news consumers to learn about information without worrying about where it came from. Information first, newsroom second. In the end, news consumers would end up using all of the newsrooms' information instead of just one or none.

I launched the Smart Decision '08 site and went into my RJI fellowship with a plan to complete my goal. I had already started building a new website that would collect RSS feeds of each newsroom's politically branded content. I had a small group of web managers tag each story that arrived into our site and categorize it under the race and candidate names mentioned in the news piece. It was a relatively simple process.

Unfortunately, our site was not simple. It was not clean and it was hand built by students with my oversight. It did not have a welcoming user experience. It did not encourage participation. I had a vision, but I lacked the technical ability to create a user-friendly site. I figured the content would rule and people would come to it. Not a great assumption.

Back in 2008, I still had old-school thoughts in my head. I thought media could lead the masses by informing voters who were hungry for details about candidates. I thought a project's content was more important than user experience. I thought I knew what I was talking about.

We did find a way to gather up some participation on the night of the big November 2008 election. We invited the general public to a viewing party where they could watch multiple national broadcasts, eat free food and participate in a live town forum during a four-hour live webcast we produced in the Reynolds Journalism Institute building.

We brought four newsrooms together in a separate environment where we produced web-only content while each newsroom produced its own content for air or print. We had a Twitter watch desk, a blog watch desk and insights from all kinds of people in the area. You can see a very quick video that captures some of the experience of that night:

Assumptions About the Audience

But in the end, my project was a failure.

Still, without that failure, I would not have learned so much.

You see, I came into this project with the idea that I was progressive. I was thinking about the future of journalism. I was going to change it all. But it all started out with a very old view of journalism: I made assumptions about my audience.

  • I assumed people wanted the information I was collecting.
  • I assumed the online audience wanted to take the time to dig into the information I was collecting for them.
  • I assumed the audience wanted to participate in a new space I created for them.
  • I assumed the newsrooms that were partners in the project would promote the site without any prompting.

My assumptions killed my project. I had invested so much time into the project that I had to finish it. I arrived into the fellowship with a work in progress and I wasn't going to stop -- even though I could see we were not getting the public participation. I created the content and hoped participation would follow.

The truth is that things work the other way around.

But I would not have learned that without my fellowship.

I worked with an amazing team of people. Jane Stevens and Matt Thompson led me into a new perspective in community building and content collection. I watched as we talked about community building. My biggest "a-ha moment" was when we discussed how community builders need a personal relationship with its first 1,000 members on a website. I realized that my Smart Decision project was doomed to fail from the start because I did not start with my community first. I expected the community to come to me. I needed to go to them.

I also learned a major project needs two managers: One to keep up with the content and one to make sure it gets promoted. That promotion needed to happen in each individual newsroom and in the public.

Being More Agile

During my fellowship, I also learned to be more agile. These days, when I start a project, I'm ready to move on to the next idea a lot faster. I launch multiple ideas at the same time and see what floats. I also cherish the relationships I form with members of the community. Instead of creating many different sites, I'm bringing the information to where they are. I'm focused on delivering information to Twitter and Facebook. I have news employees working on blogs, but most people go to those posts through Facebook. They do not go directly to the sites or from our main news web page.

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I'm constantly learning as a news manager. But I will always cherish the time I had as a fellow because I was allowed to fail. The Smart Decision project was not something I could have managed while I was also in charge of a newsroom. It was an experiment that taught me how not to launch a new website.

I learned Drupal sites can be awesome if you know what you are doing. (I did not know what I was doing until it was too late). I also learned that my job in my newsroom does not make it easy to launch major multiple-newsroom projects. I am not sure if I will do it again in 2012. I would like to, but I'll need to consult my community first.

Jennifer Reeves worked in television news for the majority of her career. In the last six years, she has moved from traditional journalist to non-traditional thinker about journalism and education. Jen is currently the New Media Director at KOMU-TV and komu.com. At the same time, she is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and was a part of the inaugural class of Reynolds Journalism Institute fellows (2008-09).

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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July 19 2010

15:33

Can in-depth journalism flourish online?

How much do we want to read online? Is the screen really the domain of the breaking-news headline, while paper is better suited to in-depth reports?

Apparently not, according to techdirt.com, who refer to the case of online magazine Slate, where writers were given the opportunity to research and produce lengthy pieces of journalism, with their work receiving millions of page views.

No content farm is going to create the type of content described above. They won’t even come close. Perhaps one of the problems with traditional media is that they’ve focused on writing stories that can be easily copied by content farms. Instead, they should be focusing on deeper, quality work.

This is also the thinking over at The Times, who believe such journalism can not only thrive online, but should be paid for.

See the full post here…Similar Posts:



April 12 2010

16:45

How Going Online Can Help Save Struggling College Papers

In an old episode of "The West Wing," a leader of an AIDS-stricken African nation tells the president plainly, "It's a terrible thing to beg for your life."

The quote comes to mind as I read about the current plight of the Technician, the student newspaper at North Carolina State University. In a recent editorial, the few remaining staff at the newspaper declared that the publication "is looking down the business end of the barrel and is in serious need of student involvement ... Without student support, the paper could cease publication at the end of the semester ... Today's paper was only on the stand because of what the staff would describe as a printing miracle."

The newspaper's decline rapidly accelerated last fall when a lack of staffers in higher editorial positions left the multi-tasking editor-in-chief "overwhelmed and overworked." His extra effort in the newsroom cost him in the classroom, leading to poor grades which, ironically enough dealt him an automatic suspension from the newspaper. So the guy holding the paper together by the skin of his ink-stained hands was suddenly gone. Cue free-fall, or what one editor called, "sort of mayhem."

But the Technician can take heart in the advent of small campus publications that have sprung up online on smaller budgets, often surving and thriving without print editions.

On the Cusp of Extinction

The Technician's mayhem is also an important reminder: College media, on the whole, are not rich, overstaffed, well-oiled machines. In fact, most student journalism outlets are one bad semester, staff shortage or poor leadership transition away from near-extinction every academic term.

And yet, this reality is often overlooked on campuses and within news reports.

A few years back, Newsweek told the story of a young man named David Burrick. As the piece noted:

David Burrick edits a daily newspaper in Philadelphia. When big news breaks he deploys a staff of 200 reporters and photographers, flying them across the country if necessary, keeping an eye toward his $1 million budget. And then he goes to class. Burrick's paper? The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania. "We're a bunch of 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds," he says, "but we operate like a major business and a professional paper."

What the article did not mention: The DP, Daily Northwestern, Independent Florida Alligator, Columbia Spectator, Daily Californian, and a few other big-money campus pubs are the exceptions, not the rule.

For the most part, college media are about the mayhem, not the millions. Many college news outlets are run on shoestring budgets. They are supported by the blood, sweat, and red pens of a small group of unpaid students who juggle competing commitments and operate with little journalistic training. A fair number of papers are run out of dorm rooms and via meet-ups in campus cafeterias -- newsrooms are a luxury that staff or their schools cannot afford. Ultimately, most student media are not looking to break the bank. They are fighting simply to stay alive.

Fortunately, student media survival and success with less -- less staff, less training, less time -- has never been more assured. Need proof? Look online, and onward.

A 'Rogue Campus Blog'

Onward State, a student news site at Penn State University, has been dubbed a "rogue campus blog" and a "sociological petri dish." Its founder, Davis Shaver, calls the outlet simply "a blogging fraternity."

onward.jpg The frat rushed into hyperlinked existence in November 2008, built atop Shaver's frustrations with what he considered the "technologically-phobic bureaucracy" of the campus newspaper, the Daily Collegian. Just 16 months later, even while still "as new as Joe Paterno is old," it has grown into a 20-student operation averaging 40,000 visitors per month, regularly breaking stories, and "giving the Daily Collegian a run for its money."

(A similar online-only publication, NYU Local serves the New York University campus.)

Blueprint for Reinvention

Onward State's "flash-bang success" is a chin-up for college media in mayhem, and a reason for the troubled Technician to take heart -- and take notice. The site's structure and style serve as a potential blueprint for saving (and reinventing) a student newspaper in peril.

The key rules it breaks are as follows:

  • Print, Out: Print publications provide student media an undeniable presence on campus, but they are expensive and require extraordinary care and special design skills to produce. Onward State's online-only push has allowed fewer staff to put out more news with much greater ease. Staffers serving on what I'll call Technician 2.0 could conceivably publish on their own terms, at their own speed, and without the specter of empty pages looming over them, waiting to be filled. As a student editor at an online news outlet at Ohio University told me a few years ago, "Ink stains are so 20th century."
  • Virtual Workspace: Face-to-face meetings and nights in the newsroom can be great for bonding, but are increasingly overwhelming for students already weighed down by classes, club meetings, and upcoming Spring Break trips. Onward State operates digitally, with a (Google) wave and a nod to the online-inspired portability of modern undergrads. Staff can live their lives and balance their outside workloads while still communicating constantly and feeding the site. No last-minute trudging across campus or sigh-inducing newsroom shifts needed.
  • User Friendly: Onward State has 20 dedicated staffers, and more than 40,000 potential contributors. Since its inception, the outlet has focused on generating involvement and content from the student body, in part by using social media. As Shaver recently told Mashable, "We focused on our Twitter presence from the very beginning, and it's paid dividends for us in terms of referring traffic to the site and really becoming a part of the community ... in the sense that people will actually send stories to us on Twitter."
  • Dress Down: Onward State is snarky, personal, occasionally gossipy -- and extremely well-informed. Too many student media think the key is parroting the professionals. One student described it to me as "dress up journalism." A campus outlet with a tiny or inexperienced editorial board should not pretend to be the New York Times. It's a disservice to student readers, and a turn-off to potential staff. Drop the pretense. Do something else, something new. As journalist and blogger Will Sullivan wrote, "College is one of the few times in your career that you can try something totally wacky, fail and it won't really set you back or ruin your career. Try alternative story forms. Learn new technologies. Break the mold of traditional journalism. Your generation and its ability to innovate will save the craft."

Dan Reimold is a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the daily blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book on a major modern college media trend, "Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy and a Student Journalism Revolution," is due out later this year by Rutgers University Press.

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