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February 24 2011


How to Integrate Social Tools into the Journalism Classroom

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.

It's difficult to deny that social media platforms are changing the face of modern communication. Online tools are a growing part of how news is sourced, published, and consumed. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrated the importance of social media literacy for journalists.

Yet integrating social media into university classrooms can be a daunting task for many journalism educators. Professors are typically required to use clunky online systems for grading and communicating with students. It's an unpleasant experience for everyone involved. These awkward systems don't inspire creativity, enrich collaboration, or instill a passion for experimentation -- all of which are required to survive and succeed in a rapidly changing media industry.

This post will examine a few innovative uses of social media that journalism professors are trying out in the classroom. Not every tool is appropriate for every class, but there are undoubtedly ways in which most instructors can find room for at least some of these ideas.


Yes, Facebook can play a significant, positive role in the classroom. And no, professors don't have to become "friends" with their students to make use of it.

Facebook Groups provide a place where students can post ideas, links, and even photos or videos. When one uploads content to a Facebook group, neither the action nor the information shows up on a person's wall. It remains completely within the walls of the group.

Facebook Group Interaction

The main reason to use a Facebook group is that students are already there. They don't have to remember another log-in or remember to go visit "the class forum." It fits seamlessly into their lives. It takes very little effort to click "like" or add a comment to a classmate's idea. This fact alone encourages more interaction than other platforms.

Groups come in three varieties: open, closed or secret. "Open" groups are public, "closed" groups keep content private but allow others to see its list of members, and "secret" won't show up anywhere.

I recommend "closed" groups for classes. This gives students a private space to speak and makes it easy for others to join. Simply send a link to a closed group and others can request to join. (For more on Facebook Groups, read this excellent post by Jen Lee Reeves, who teaches at the University of Missouri.)

Facebook Pages are used by news organizations to share stories and even to find sources for stories. Journalism instructor Staci Baird has her students manage San Francisco Beat as part of the Digital News Gathering class at San Francisco State University.

"I want my students to get used to trying new things, thinking outside the box," she said. Other benefits Baird cited included "real-world experience" and thinking of Facebook in professional terms.

After you create a Page, you can add students as admins by entering their email addresses. This gets around having to add students as friends in order to invite them to participate.

Group Blogs

Blogs are a great way to expose students to online writing and basic web publishing. Students can post assignments for teachers to see, and the overall blog can contribute reporting to the local community.

Tumblr Screenshot

Tumblr has been in the spotlight recently for its rising popularity. It is elegant in its simplicity, standing somewhere between a Twitter feed and a WordPress blog.

Mashable community manager and social strategist Vadim Lavrusik uses Tumblr as the primary vehicle for the Social Media Skills for Journalists class he teaches at Columbia University.

"Because Tumblr is a social platform, other members of the community are able to follow and keep up," wrote Lavrusik in a recent post.

Each student has his or her own account and can contribute to a collaborative Tumblr that combines everyone's work.

Posterous is similar to Tumblr but has a few key differences. Its signature feature is the ability to post text, photos, or video by simply sending an email. Posterous also offers moderation and group blogs.

Educator Wesley Fryer posted a detailed screencast on setting up a moderated class blog.

Staci Baird also used Posterous for a mobile reporting class. She said some students were able to use smartphone apps while others could still post via email.


WordPress is another free blogging platform. There are two ways to set up WordPress blogs. The simplest way is to create an account at WordPress.com. It's fast and free, but also limited in terms of customizing its look and features.

Through WordPress.org, the source code can be downloaded and installed on any independent web server. This opens the door to extensive customization. Because it's open source, it allows web developers to create a rich library of free plug-ins that enhance the core components. Journalism professor Robert Hernandez recommends the BuddyPress plug-in to add social and collaborative features. Plug-ins are not available for WordPress.com accounts.

Some universities may allow WordPress installations on campus servers, but others have more restrictive IT policies. In this case, teachers may need to pay for a domain name and web hosting to run an independent server. It typically costs around $10 per year to register a domain name; server space to host a blog costs around $5 a month.

Hernandez runs his class blogs from a personal web hosting account. Multimedia lecturer Jeremy Rue uses the WP Super Cache plug-in to optimize the server load for self-hosted WordPress blogs.

Social Curation

As newsmakers engage on Twitter and Facebook, it's important that students know how to collect and annotate these messages. Storify, Curated.by and Keepstream all allow users to gather and embed social media messages for use in blog posts and articles.

As I was gathering ideas for this article, I asked journalism educators on Twitter about their use of these tools in the classroom. I collected their responses using Storify.

Storify screenshotWhile Storify and Keepstream are designed around discrete collections of content, Curated.by is geared more toward ongoing curation.

For that reason, I suggest using Curated.by for student coverage of live events or for long-term collaboration. Another useful feature is that it allows multiple contributors to work together on the same collection.

Storify does allow users to share accounts as "editors," but I don't recommend this because it gives students full access to edit all content in each other's accounts. The privacy features in Curated.by allow users to limit access to specific projects.

Collaborative Writing

Google Docs allows multiple contributors to write at the same time and track revisions. This service is simple and popular.

But beyond Google Docs, a cluster of collaborative writing apps may have a more practical use in class. In addition to allowing multiple contributors, they record detailed keystrokes. This means you can replay the entire writing process.

As an example, I used iEtherPad to draft this article (you can watch me write it by pressing play). In math classes, students must show their work. Why not require students to show their writing? (For another example of collaborative writing on iEtherPad, check out this story by Mark Glaser on MediaShift.)

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping, or structured brainstorming, helps organize ideas based on their relationship to other elements. There are several free mind mapping applications, but one in particular offers a useful feature for the classroom: online collaboration. And like the collaborative writing applications, Mind Meister records all actions.

I used Mind Meister to begin a class on multimedia journalism. I asked students to define journalism, describe multimedia, and organize how each element related to the others. The mind map tracked the updates as we talked about various definitions. It was fun for them to interact with each other, and it kept them engaged from their workstations rather than watching me write on a whiteboard.


Journalism educators need to lead by example and experiment. It's OK to try something that doesn't work perfectly. No tool is perfect. In six months, the sites mentioned here will inevitably be upgraded with new features. What's important is inspiring students to apply their journalistic curiosity to exploring how new social tools can further their storytelling.

If you have experience using social services like these in the classroom, I hope you'll share your perspective in the comments.

Nathan Gibbs teaches multimedia journalism as an adjunct instructor for Point Loma Nazarene University and the SDSU Digital and Social Media Collaborative. Gibbs oversees multimedia content as web producer for KPBS, the PBS and NPR affiliate in San Diego. He played a key role in the station's groundbreaking use of social media during the 2007 Southern California wildfires and continues to drive interactive strategy. Gibbs is on Twitter as @nathangibbs and runs Modern Journalist, a blog for journalists exploring multimedia.

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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October 29 2010


Net2 Recommends - October's Interesting Posts From Around The Web

The NetSquared team reads and shares lots of different blog posts, articles, reports, and surveys within our team. We have a lot of fun sharing within the team and it occurred to us that we should start sharing them with you, too! Net2 Recommends is a monthly series of news and blog posts from around the web that we found interesting or inspiring, mind-bending or opinion-changing, fun or just plain weird.

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October 25 2010


GOP Beating Democrats with Social Media for Midterm Elections

There is a major shift going on in politics this election cycle, with more candidates and campaigns using social media and technology to boost their chances. From today until the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 2, MediaShift presents an in-depth special report, PoliticalShift 2010, with data visualizations, analysis, a 5Across video roundtable and live CoverItLive chat on Election Night with special guests. Stay tuned.

If 2008 was the year that social networks like Facebook and Twitter broke through to mainstream America, then 2010 is shaping up to be the election year that's defined by social media.

Consider that three out of five Americans who consider themselves somewhat politically active are members of a social network, and 70 percent of them expect to vote on Nov. 2, according to a recent study from the E-Voter Institute.

mediashift_politics 2010 small.jpg

Meanwhile, a report from the non-partisan HeadCount.org shows Republicans appear to be more engaged online than Democrats in this election cycle. Out of the current crop of Senate candidates, the Republicans have more than 1.4 million friends on Facebook and over 500,000 followers on Twitter.

By contrast, the Democratic Senate candidates have roughly 300,000 friends on Facebook and around 90,000 followers on Twitter as of September 21. Use the interactive chart below to compare the social media clout of current Democratic, Independent and Republican Senate candidates:

Social Media Senate Snapshot
Social Media Senate Snapshot

You can also track Facebook page stats by using the Facebook Page Leaderboard over at AllFacebook.com. The site also provides an interactive 2010 election guide made using Facebook stats. And you can find the top Twitter rankings and stats at Twitaholic.

Republicans On the Rise

Campaign Spending Pie Chart, 99% of ads offline and 1% online

Democrats were early adopters of social media, user-generated content and blogging, but it appears that Republican supporters have caught up with, and in some ways surpassed, their rivals online. In seven of the eight races listed as toss-ups by the New York Times on Oct. 21, the Facebook fan gap has widened over the past month. Also worth watching are the difficult-to-poll three-way race in Alaska and the race in California, which was used by Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight as a case study on last-minute comebacks.

In contrast to the 2008 presidential elections, many campaigns are choosing traditional forms of political advertising instead of online ads. "This year, ascendant Republicans are flush with cash," wrote Mike Shields at AdWeek. "So why not spend big on TV and use the web for its free communications platforms." Shields cited a Borrell Associates estimate that about $44 million would be spent on web ads but that would make up a miniscule fraction of total ad spending this year.

Who Are the Social Media Rock Stars?

Use the interactive chart below to see how the most popular politicians and political parties measure up online. How do they compare to other widely followed sometimes controversial public figures?

Who Is A Social Media Rockstar?
Who Is A Social Media Rockstar?

How are voters using social media in 2010 and what do they expect of politicians? Use the interactive chart below to see how the Web is changing politics.

A Look At Voter Participation and Expectations
A Look At Voter Participation and Expectations

Outside of the Senate candidates, the Republicans have several social media rock stars, while the Democrats have just one. Although @barackobama has more online friends and followers than any American politician, several Democratic heavy-hitters are sitting on the sidelines while Republicans are revving up their political base.

Vice President Joe Biden's Twitter account went silent shortly before he was chosen by Obama as a running mate in August 2008. And while Hillary Clinton does not appear to have a working Facebook or Twitter account (outside of occasional quotes on the @StateDept Twitter feed), Sarah Palin tops 2 million fans on Facebook and @SarahPalinUSA has over 280,000 followers

Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, has more Facebook friends than Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States. President Clinton's Twitter account -- assuming it is not a fake -- is set to private and is punching way below its weight.

Senator John McCain has two active Twitter accounts with a combined total over 1.73 million followers. They are @TeamMcCain for his Senate re-election campaign and @SenJohnMcCain.

About the Data

In the interest of openness and transparency, I am making the curated data set available as a public Google Spreadsheet. If you use it, be sure to cite the original sources. The data used in the above visualizations come from several primary sources:

E-Voter Institute -- The E-Voter Institute is a non-partisan trade association founded in 1999 to advance the interests of web publishers and solution providers within the political and advocacy communities. They worked with HCD Research to survey more than 1,500 people on a range of issues related to technology and politics. The Fifth Annual Survey of Voter Expectations was released in September of 2010. You can download a free version of the report: Executive Summary (PDF)

HeadCount -- HeadCount is a nonpartisan 501©(3) organization that registers voters at concerts and works with musicians to promote participation in democracy. Since the HeadCount report was published in late September, the Facebook fan and Twitter follower counts for 10 races and 22 selected politicians, political parties or public figures were updated by hand on Oct. 21. You can download a free copy of the full report: G.O.P. Winning Social Media Battle By Wide Margin (PDF)

Borrell Associates -- The company's 2010 Political Advertising Outlook was widely cited in media reports.


Do you think that social media will play a large role in future elections? Does social media engagement translate into volunteer work, campaign contributions and voter turnout? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Anthony Calabrese is journalist based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in data visualization and digital storytelling. He works as a web producer for the State of the USA where he blogs about measuring the nation's progress. Previously, he worked as a data researcher on the Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools publications at U.S. News & World Report. He holds a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University and is an active member of the Online News Association.

You can connect on LinkedIn, find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @2mrw

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October 15 2010


Public, Closed or Secret? How to Use the New Facebook Groups

I was wrapping up a normal evening of checking through my newsroom's content before bed when I noticed I had been invited to a Facebook group. This was about seven hours after Mark Zuckerberg and his team introduced a number of changes to groups. The change that most piqued my interest was the new groups process. So when I noticed the invite, I decided to stay up a little longer.

Two hours later, I was hooked and looking for ways to engage with this new and improved groups tool for my newsroom.

Along with joining a group created for social media journalists, I decided to launch new groups for my newsroom, my neighborhood, and for my digital media class (fondly known as #jenclass). I wanted to see what types of engagement I could find.

There are three different types of new Facebook groups:

  • Public
  • Closed
  • Secret

I have used each setting with my groups. Below is a look at what I've done, along with some initial reaction and results.

My Groups

Newsroom community - KOMU8 News - Public setting
I created an open group and invited members of our station's Facebook fan page to see what kind of engagement I could get. It grew quickly at first. Members said hello in posts, while others played with the new chat function. What is most interesting is how a few members have turned it into a chat room for their own conversations. I have jumped in to try to encourage others to join in, but two men tend to the chat more than anyone else.

In order to increase engagement, I've posted fun questions and hard news topics to the group. The biggest topics that have engaged members so far include a discussion of where to spot the best fall colors outside, and a member-driven conversation about taxing fast food and cigarettes.

I've found most people join in on the group when they see the alerts I post on the KOMU8 Facebook page. I've sent notes with specific times when I was available to add new members and take part in a conversation. I also take the time to warn new members to change their settings so they don't get constant email alerts about new activity on the page. I also offer a chance to share story ideas. So far I've taken at least three stories that emerged from the conversations within the group and brought them to the newsroom.

One challenge is that the group is not gaining new members outside of my daily appointment engagement. Once members join the group, they don't seem inclined to invite others. I can't decide if this is because most people do not know how to invite a new member, or if it's because they don't want to bring a new person into the group.

Students and alumni - #jenclass - Closed group
I wanted my students to see how this new Facebook group feature works. After my social journalism interaction test with our station, I didn't want to miss the chance to chat with my students outside of class. I figured we could geek out in a similar way I have geeked out with other journalists. And since I have a new set of students every semester, I decided many of my former students would be very curious about new Facebook tweaks. So I started inviting current students and alumni. Once again, very few members invited other people. But students and alumni have contributed comments and links. So far, most conversations have started thanks to my prompts, but I don't think that will be the case forever.

Neighbors - Jen's Neighborhood - Secret group
My final group is for my neighbors. I invited all of my current Facebook friends who live near my house. Not everyone knows each other personally. In this early stage, each person who's commented said they were really excited to have an easy way to connect all of our busy families together. One neighbor saw me walking on the street and told me the group has encouraged her husband to start figuring out a way to formally create a neighborhood watch program in our area. I love the fact that a virtual group has the potential to foster even better relationships in person.


My experience with groups may not be the same as everyone, but I'm really glad I've taken the time to explore them in order to engage with different sets of people. The conversations in some groups are very Twitter-like, but they're now taking place inside Facebook. So far, I don't see groups growing past Facebook fan pages. They do seem like a chance to expand the pages and take conversations beyond a static page.

Just like anything else in social media, this new community opportunity requires attention. If I ignore my news group, a member could easily take over and use the space as a venue to push their own interests. I need to peek in on a regular basis and encourage diverse conversations.

My student/alumni page is mainly driven by my conversations -- but it is also focused on a class I run. Hopefully its members will soon feel more comfortable to share more of their own thoughts and opinions. My students probably don't realize the number of connections they could start if they start talking to members of the group who are working in different industries.

As for my neighborhood group, I do not plan to push that community. I will chat with each member face-to-face as I see them and we'll talk about what we want the group to become. I envision it as a place to warn about wandering dogs and upcoming vacations, and to search for trustworthy babysitters.

My three groups have different focuses, but all have the potential to grow new and existing communities based on common interests.

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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