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April 10 2012

14:00

Mercer Center for Collaborative Journalism Aims to Put the 'Lab' in 'Collaboration'

April 1 marked my first month on the job as director of Mercer University's new Center for Collaborative Journalism. While the center doesn't open its doors until August, and the bulk of the program starts in late 2013, I already feel the pressure.

The vision established by Mercer, the Knight Foundation, and our media partners, The (Macon) Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting, could hardly be loftier -- not only establishing a new model for journalism education but also helping to transform local communities and save democracy itself. But it is the very audacity of that vision that, in two weeks' time, spun me around from plans to move to New York with my favorite magazine conglomerate to accepting an offer in Macon, Ga. (not long after telling my wife that Atlanta was "just too small" for me).

The ambition of the program is backed by $4.6 million in grants from the Knight Foundation and enabled by a unique collaborative arrangement between a liberal arts program, a public broadcaster and a daily newspaper. The center itself occupies the ground floor of a new development and houses the newsroom of The Telegraph, a McClatchy paper serving the region, and radio and television facilities for GPB. Students will take classes in the midst of a daily newsroom and radio station; some will even live in housing set aside for them above the center.

Students Embedded in Newsrooms

At the heart of the academic program is an adaptation of the medical school model of education. Students will train in a working newsroom, alongside professional journalists, throughout all four years of the program. Class projects will be integrated with the work of our media partners and the center's own digital news outlet (modeled after the University of North Carolina's reesenews).

Students will contribute to background research, shadow reporters, file reports, engage the community with social media, and perform most duties expected of a professional journalist. They will leave the program with a full portfolio of professional bylines, radio reports, and multimedia stories. This clinical model and high degree of collaboration offers students a truly unique experience.

Media Partners Working Together

Out of the gate, the community will benefit from the collaboration fostered in the center. GPB is tripling its local reporter presence and launching Macon Public Radio, making Macon the only community in Georgia, outside of Atlanta, to have significant locally focused public-radio programming. The university's journalism department is doubling its size and bringing in professionals skilled in digital media. And the combined efforts of The Telegraph and GPB allow for improved coverage.

The benefits of having a combined radio/newspaper newsroom were reinforced in a meeting with Dan Grech, news director at WLRN, which has a similar collaboration with The Miami Herald. (I believe we're the second outlet in the country to pursue this model.) Dan credits that collaboration with transforming WLRN's news department, allowing them to cover the area much better, with up to a four-fold increase in productivity. With all of the resources brought together by the center, we expect similarly transformational results.

Collaborating with the Citizens of Macon

While the collaboration of media partners and the university will fuel the center, I believe much of its success will depend on extending that collaboration. Students will need to leave the "Mercer bubble" to engage the community in new ways. Fortunately, that process began years ago, when Mercer went from an institution isolated by fences to a partner in the revitalization of, and a force for social justice in, Macon. The College of Liberal Arts implemented an experiential requirement, which often involves community service.

macon.jpg

For our student journalists to provide value and learn the real work of local journalism, they will need to view Macon as more than a stopping point on their way elsewhere. It will need to be their home and its citizens their collaborators in providing information, highlighting issues, and crafting solutions. Part of the center's grant provides for and requires two major community engagement projects each year -- projects where we seek the community's input on the issues most important to it and then work with our partners to investigate and report on those issues in depth.

The center will utilize tools such as the Public Insight Network, as well as low-tech, high-touch approaches, to engage the community in dialog. Various other community groups -- from a local television affiliate to the local arts alliance -- have already reached out to work with the center. Additionally, I envision working with local religious and civic organizations to get information to neglected segments of the community and to train their members in digital technology and media consumption.

Macon remains deeply divided along socioeconomic lines, with significant gaps in information dissemination and community attachment. By collaborating with existing organizations, the center has a real opportunity to help bridge the digital divide, close the information gap, and increase attachment.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

The center is housed in Mercer's College of Liberal Arts, which offers many key resources for collaboration. When I was an undergrad, several journalists advised my fellow students and me to find specific disciplines to study and use journalism as a way to explore and talk about those subjects. That mindset will undergird our new curriculum, where various tracks will train students to be environmental journalists, business reporters, or critics of the arts.

Proper training goes beyond simple double majors. It requires joint efforts from the faculty to not only train students in the substance of these fields but also in the nuances of conveying specific knowledge to a general public and of staying on top of controversies and advancements in those fields. My vision for this type of integration tracks closely with the yearlong seminars that form the core of Columbia University's M.A. in Journalism.

Beyond those core curricular structures, I envision particularly close collaboration with schools and departments in areas at the heart of the disruption in, and the way forward for, journalism: computer science and engineering, design, business, and social entrepreneurship (another exciting new program at Mercer). In addition to formal training across these disciplines, faculty and students will work together to constantly experiment with new technology, designs, and business models.

The center aims to put the "lab" in "collaboration." Imagine a journalism graduate who understands the core terminology of web and mobile technologies, how to experiment with various solutions, and how to evaluate various business models -- or a computer science graduate who understands the language and needs of journalism and the core drivers of its economic models. Add to that, exposure to agile methodologies and a continuous deployment environment where experiments are routinely pushed out and evaluated. I can think of nothing more valuable to a graduating student or a potential employer.

Transformation

When I started a month ago, I wondered if our moniker was broad enough (and modern enough) to contain our vision. Perhaps it should focus on "media" or "digital media" and point to innovation as its core. But I've come to regard "journalism" as capturing the civic responsibility at the core of our mission and "collaboration" as something much broader than the partnership between the university and our primary media partners.

Collaboration is the modus operandi that will power the transformation we seek.

Much of this vision has yet to be fleshed out in operational detail, and much work remains to actualize it. Success is not guaranteed. We need sharp students, willing partners, and the right structure. It seems we have the first two and are on our way to the last element. Undergirding all of this are remarkable energy and excitement throughout the university, our partners, and the community. It will take decades for our students to filter out into society and impact democracy, but it seems that a small transformation of those directly involved has already begun.

What are some examples of innovation in journalism education or media collaboration that we should examine as we build toward the vision I've outlined above?

Above photo by Flickr user Taber Andrew Bain.

Tim Regan-Porter is the inaugural director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University. Previously, he was co-founder and president of Paste Magazine, where he created Obamicon.Me and the Paste mPlayer. Prior to Paste, he spent a decade in web development as solutions architect at IBM's e-Business national practice and director of development at Enterpulse.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly described April 1 as the author's first day on the job.







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February 18 2011

21:30

UPIU Mentors, Publishes Student Journalists Around the Globe







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.

Suleiman Abdullahi was recently an eyewitness to the birth of the world's newest nation.

In early January, the 20-year-old Kenyan journalism student flew to Juba, Sudan, to cover the massive referendum responsible for the creation and upcoming independence of South Sudan. As Abdullahi wrote, he arrived in the prospective nation's capital city with a travel visa, a press pass, a story budget, and a 48-hour window to interview, observe, and report upon "the history that was about to be made."

By the end of his first day, he was under arrest.

Abdullahi was part of a two-man student reporting crew hired by UPIU, a student journalism project run by the United Press International news service. UPIU is an emerging player in the college media and journalism education arenas. Its website features a self-publishing platform for news stories and multimedia journalism projects posted by students around the globe.

More than a platform

The most standout aspect of UPIU: It does not just publish content by students; it provides classroom workshops, story editing, and one-on-one mentoring to help their pieces sing. The students who take advantage of its services undergo what UPIU senior mentor Krista Kapralos calls a "mini-internship experience."

It currently partners with more than 30 schools in roughly a dozen countries, leading to a cluster of student-produced stories touching on things such as Kenyans and antibiotic resistance, Moroccans and Christianity, the Chinese and homosexuality, and Egyptians and a revolution. The UPIU motto: "Mentoring Student Journalists Worldwide."

"We want to leverage UPI's solid reputation to attract aspiring journalists and improve foreign coverage," said UPIU Asia regional director Harumi Gondo. "I've not encountered another program that has such direct communication and relationships with journalism schools around the world."

No contracts are signed. UPIU does not collect any revenue from the posted stories. Students retain ownership of their work and are free to submit elsewhere. In the meantime, their content is vetted by professionals and considered for pick-up by UPI. Since its creation in late 2008, more than 2,300 stories have been published on the site. More than 100 -- roughly 4 percent of all submissions -- have been approved for placement on UPI.com.

Extra Help in the Classroom

UPIU transparent-grey-logo 225.jpgI can personally vouch for its potential. I have incorporated UPIU into multiple sections of my news reporting classes at the University of Tampa to mostly positive results. The process is five-fold: 1) an introductory video chat with each class hosted by veteran journalist Kapralos, who oversees UPIU's initiatives in Africa, Europe, and the Americas; 2) an optional video session in which students pitch story ideas; 3) a critique from a UPIU mentor on subsequent story drafts students post to the site; 4) a video chat round-up with Kapralos commenting on the quality of submissions overall; and 5) revisions by the students based on the feedback from Kapralos and, of course, their professor.

Students' involvement with UPIU ultimately helps underscore the lessons I am teaching them -- if nothing else, the importance of a news hook, timeliness, editorial collaboration, and three-source minimums.

It also has served as the platform for award-winning work. In fall 2009, Michigan State University student Jeremy Blaney earned a Religion Newswriters Association honor for his reports on local Muslim issues that were published on UPIU and, soon after, UPI. The headline of one of his pieces, which touched on the intersection of Islam and technology was, "You're a Muslim? There's an App for That."

"When you're on our site, you're not only seeing students practicing journalism," Kapralos told a news-writing class during a recent video chat. "You're also seeing a lot of really groundbreaking work. And you're seeing it through a lens that you don't always see through the New York Times or CNN."

Lunch, Without the Education

One prime example involves peeling potatoes. Unbeknownst to many Westerners, a government program in India requires public schools to provide a hot lunch for all students. Since its roll-out roughly a decade ago, scattered stories from professional news media have been mainly glowing, focused on the positives of children eating at least one decent meal a day in a country where poverty and hunger are rampant.

It took a local student journalist -- and five days of editing oversight by a UPIU mentor -- to help present the truth. Shiv Sunny, a student at New Delhi's AJK Mass Communication Research Center, built upon his personal knowledge of the required lunches and close proximity to numerous schools to uncover the program's underbelly. In some schools, the teachers are the individuals required to receive the food shipments and prepare the meals -- forcing them to spend hours each day cooking, mixing, and peeling essentials like potatoes and carrots in place of teaching.

As Kapralos explained it, "The story our student found: Yeah, the students are getting lunch, but they're not getting any education because their teachers are spending literally the entire day in the kitchen." Another problem: Hungry students often attend school just for lunch, and then skip out on the learning.

Krista225.jpgAdmittedly, some students treat UPIU similarly. They use the site to gain a web presence with panache and ignore the professional mentors' editing feedback, leaving their articles' factual inaccuracies and grammar slips in public view. The operation also still screams young and scrappy rather than streamlined, at times seemingly run solely on the hard work and sheer tenacity of Kapralos. And the site's story template is somewhat restrictive -- sporting the same look for every piece and an accompanying photo slot that is a bit tiny.

According to Kapralos, template changes, multimedia add-ons, and paid freelancing opportunities are in the works. The latest call, which is for student reports on Internet infrastructure, access, and control, offers $100 for selected stories.

Back in Juba

The first major freelance initiative was the Sudan assignment, which spun into action quickly as hopes for the referendum became reality. UPI president Nicholas Chiaia was a strong advocate of hiring students as stringers for the seminal event.

"He really sees the value in student journalists and he is not one to turn them away simply because they have minimal professional experience," said Kapralos. "He's the one to say, 'We need to utilize students, if there's a way we can do it that equates to responsible reporting and provides quality work.'"

Kapralos contacted two student journalists in Kenya whose previous work impressed her: Abdi Latif Dahir and Abdullahi. She assigned Dahir to Nairobi, where he covered the referendum voting of Sudanese refugees. She asked Abdullahi to fly to the story's geographic center, Juba.

Along with his "fixer" (a local guide), Abdullahi boldly charged into the international reporting gig. He describes competing for stories with "thousands of foreign correspondents, each one eager to thrust their cameras and microphones at every passing local." At times, Abdullahi employed his "rudimentary Arabic" to interview residents who did not speak English.

Just before midnight on the day of the big vote, he went downtown to see if anyone had begun lining up. There, he said, an "extra cautious" security force detained him and demanded a curfew.

"You are welcome to do your work here and we appreciate you, but you must be indoors by midnight," the police told him. "After midnight, we really cannot guarantee your safety and we don't want your government breathing down on our necks."

In Washington, D.C., Kapralos was holding her breath. She had been trading messages with Abdullahi non-stop. He had been turning in all his reports on time. Suddenly, he had gone quiet, and a story deadline had passed.

"As an editor, it's one thing to have a story go missing in the melee of a major breaking news situation," she recalled. "But when the breaking news story is in a region of the world where violence has been a way of life for decades, and when what you've lost isn't a story, but a reporter, stakes are high."

Fortunately, Abdullahi was released a half hour later, unharmed, and went back to work. He ultimately earned three UPI bylines, reporting on the guns, flags, billboards, long lines, traditional folk songs, and ink-stained fingers of voters that comprised the spectacle of the historic referendum.

And along the way -- like his reporting partner Dahir -- he experienced his own unforgettable journalistic coming-of-age story.

"Seeing tens of thousands of people line up under the scorching sun with such zeal is a scene that is hard to describe," Abdullahi wrote soon after flying home. "When it's all done and the seemingly inevitable decision of secession is made, we'll be able to say that we were there when they became a nation."

Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. 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, was published this past fall by Rutgers University Press.







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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