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June 25 2011


May 28 2011

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May 27 2011


Scienceline: A Case Study in Teaching Specialty Journalism

I learned how to be a journalist at my college paper. I didn't go to journalism school. But I teach at one, and from the time that I became an adjunct at New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) in 2002, I would periodically think about how to recreate the experience of working at a college paper for a small group of graduate students learning how to do specialized journalism.

More and more outlets are looking for reporters and editors with expertise, whether it's so they can hit the ground running when they're hired, or curate more effectively. That's certainly true at the magazines, websites, and broadcast outlets where SHERP graduates want to work, and at my own, a specialized health wire service.

So when SHERP Director Dan Fagin, who also learned how to be a journalist at his college paper, and I realized in 2005 that we were thinking along the same lines, we did some brainstorming. How could we create a site that gave students the opportunity to run a specialized news organization? We wanted a versatile, adaptable platform that would let students jump in and enjoy the rewards -- and headaches -- of online publishing.

We settled on WordPress, and hired a great designer. We included students from the beginning, letting them decide everything from content categories to color palette. And they came up with the name, too: Scienceline.

Since 2006, Scienceline has been the online magazine of science that's written, edited and produced entirely by SHERP students, who call themselves "SHERPies." They have published hard-hitting news, features, blogs, videos and podcasts, and encouraged interactivity through comments and polls. Students typically post new stories three times per week, in addition to blogs. Here's a recent video on Scienceline about e-cigarettes:

E-Cigarettes in New York City from Scienceline on Vimeo.

A specialized sandbox

The site's content is divided into four categories. In Physical Science, visitors find stories on everything from the fates of universes to how scientists helped resolve a dispute over a massive telescope. In Health, they'll read about whether a walk in the park can replace a psychiatrist, and about research into using parasites to treat diseases.

In Environment, visitors can learn how a proposed road in the Serengeti is dividing people as it divides land, and about a scientist who, somewhat reluctantly, dropped everything to study the BP oil spill. And Life Science pieces explore what language says about the way we think, and how the state of Hawai'i used a natural predator to fight an invasive species, among other subjects.

All of those categories offer a rich selection of blogs, as well as audio, video and graphics.


The Scienceline staff -- which is made up of SHERP students, usually 15 per year -- plans every piece of content on the site, from pitching to editing to copyediting and posting. (I'm the faculty adviser, and Fagin is the publisher, but it's the SHERPies who run Scienceline.) Some stories are written for class, while others go directly to Scienceline. They have rigorous standards for copy, including multiple layers of editing and a transparent corrections policy. They hold weekly meetings, and publish throughout the year, even during the summer.

Scienceline content is highly regarded, and is frequently republished in leading science journalism outlets including Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science and LiveScience. It's on Scienceline itself, however, that students do what many news organizations are hoping to do: orchestrate a conversation around their content, whether it's text, audio or video. Visitors can even ask questions that the staff answers with reporting, in the Ever Wondered column. Readers apparently like what they find on Scienceline, since on a typical day about 3,000 of them stop by for a visit. There have been 4 million visits since the site launched in mid-2006.

The pros like it too: Scienceline is a three-time Region 1 finalist in the Society of Professional Journalists' Mark of Excellence Awards. Perhaps more importantly, students have tons of clips, which are attractively archived on the site, with each current and former student with his or her own author URL. Employers are impressed.

And so are Fagin and I. The site has been everything we imagined and more, allowing students to create rich, specialized content that shines. We learn something with every new Scienceline experiment, as the site changes with each class of SHERPies. It has recently been redesigned to improve the user experience and add various content types. And the students are even creating an iPad app.

We never know what's next for Scienceline, but we do know it's making SHERPies better prepared for an evolving job market -- and that's a big task.

Ivan Oransky, MD, is the executive editor of Reuters Health. He teaches medical journalism at New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program, is the treasurer of the Association of Health Care Journalists, and blogs at Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch. He has also served as managing editor, online, of Scientific American, deputy editor of The Scientist, and editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Praxis Post. For three years, he taught in the health and medicine track at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Ivan earned his bachelor's at Harvard, where he was executive editor of The Harvard Crimson, and his MD at the New York University of School of Medicine, where he holds an appointment as clinical assistant professor of medicine.

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April 19 2011


March 10 2011


What John Keats Can Tell Us About Teaching Journalism

Perhaps it's because I've got a Ph.D. in English and a background in print journalism, but when I consider the state of the press today, it brings to mind the poet John Keats' idea of negative capability. In a letter he wrote to his brother in December 1817, Keats described the concept as "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

Comfort when faced with conflicting ideas, or ambiguity, is required today of any thoughtful consumer of journalism. How can I get the news the way I want it while also doing right by the struggling industry which produces and delivers it? My hard-copy newspaper on the stoop downstairs waiting for me in the morning? Paid apps and podcasts? Browsing the mobile web?

These are questions I weigh when immersing myself in media. As a reader, I love 5,000-word-plus narrative pieces. But I also love Chrome with multiple newspaper tabs open, and Facebook and an aggregator in the background. As a professor, I fear that I'm a member of the last generation who has the luxury of switching between mediums and genres this easily. And as a citizen of a partially functional democracy, I'm concerned that something's been lost in the 24-hour news/spin cycle, in the excessive meta-analysis-as-news, and in our push toward brevity.

When I set about designing the syllabus for "Journalism in the 21st Century," a course that I'm teaching for the first time this semester at City University of New York, I measured these concerns against the obvious possibilities of new media. As the introductory course in our new journalism minor, it prepares students who don't necessarily consume media critically for further courses in writing, editing, and digital media production.

As I rode the subway into Manhattan one morning in January with a still-damp copy of the New York Times in one hand, and the Guardian offline reader running on my iPhone in the other, I thought about the course. Then I pondered the death of print and how I'd treat it in the curriculum and embraced "negative capability." This is the bifurcating world that our students are reading and writing in, and it presents new challenges and new rewards that are practical as well as theoretical.

Originally, I wanted to strike a balance between craft-based, nuts-and-bolts writing, and media studies or mass communication and culture-style analysis. However, as the spring semester approached, the media ecosystem and the global political order were changing rapidly and were, seemingly, intrinsically linked, and I began to refine my focus, or tried to.

An Evolving Curriculum

In light of this connection, how do you teach a subject evolving as rapidly as journalism? Particularly when assumptions that we've made for generations about the relationship between the press, democracy and capitalism are being challenged domestically and on the global stage? I planned to begin the class by assigning as a textbook The Death and Life of American Journalism by Nation contributors Robert McChesney and John Nichols. But, given recent events, it felt counterintuitive to teach a new media course out of a book. So I pushed the text back to after Spring Break, and decided to teach "Journalism in the 21st Century" as the 21st century happened in real time.

By the second week of class, the protests in Tunisia and Egypt were deemed the Facebook Revolutions, and WikiLeaks was revealing the unsavory opinions diplomats had of dictators in the Arab world, whose people were now rising up against them.

When I asked the class to consider the efficacy of social networks as vehicles for activism and news dissemination, 4chan came up. We read a great profile of its founder, moot, and a piece on trolls.

As Mubarak's regime tottered, we read an academic article recommended by a colleague called Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Networked Society by Manuel Castells. He charted the rise of two-way "mass self-communication," and suggested that new media's subversive potential lies in its ability to work horizontally rather than vertically as the legacy media does.

The Role of Social Media

In Egypt, social media mobilized millions -- outside the hierarchy of the state-run media -- and Mubarack fell. Or did it? We read an article about the revolution's careful planning and execution. Then we learned how Mubarak turned off the Internet. This raised questions not only about the role of social media in the so-called Facebook Revolutions but also, closer to home, about the implications of Sen. Joe Lieberman's bill to give the President similar power over America's vast web network.

The Internet "kill switch" lesson digressed into pre-Internet online history. I recounted the bulletin board systems of my youth, in which a guy had a bunch of modems in his basement, and you'd dial in and hear the handshake, and be treated to ANSI art, grainy monochrome pornography and Anarchist's Cookbook-style bomb-building instructions. This was the pre-Internet/pre-Sept. 11 world, and it felt naively dangerous.

I referred to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's previous incarnation as a hacker, and suggested he should find a way to make a news delivery system that was dictator-proof.

A week or so later, I talked to an electrical engineer friend and pushed this admittedly polemical idea to the point of absurdity. I envisioned torrent-style news packets running over Bluetooth or Internet-less LAN in urban areas. Or small capacity disposable flash drives or old-school CD magazines sent by snail mail. Or low wattage pirate digital television stations sending Flash videos over the airwaves to be reassembled covertly by Xbox or PlayStation.

Yes, paranoid, but in the face of grasping totalitarian states, perhaps we need a way to future-proof the news that is modeled on pre-Internet social networking and magazine publishing circa-1989. Particularly in soon-to-be-emerging democracies where the Open Society Institute is investing heavily in journalism education.

What does it all mean?

While watching the revolutions unfold in the Middle East, and teaching a course parsing the media's relationship to those revolutions, I've been reminded that our primary modes of getting the news aren't necessarily fail-safe. The 161-year-old magazine Harper's is slowly folding, a content conglomerate Demand Media is now worth more than the New York Times, and the nation's foremost media critic is Jon Stewart, a comedian on basic cable.

At the same time, though, recent events -- from the coverage of the Arab uprisings to the AOL buyout of the Huffington Post -- have revealed the paradoxical robustness and frailty of new media. I can't help but think that given this fickleness, for news that's not breaking, and that requires detail, subtlety, or a capacity for ambiguity, then there might still be a place for print, or at least for some sort of hybridity.

Or it could just be that I've read too much Keats.

Devin Harner is an assistant professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York where he teaches journalism, film, and contemporary literature. His recent scholarly work has included essays on Chuck Palahniuk's non-fiction; on the film Adaptation's relationship to Susan Orlean's, "The Orchid Thief;" and on virtual time travel through YouTube. He is currently at work on a piece that treats Buddhist philosophy in Richard Kelly's film, "Donnie Darko."

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February 11 2011


Canadian Association of Newspaper Editors

Great tip sheets on various aspects of journalism from finding story ideas to editing, interviewing etc

http://www.delicious.com Bookmark this on Delicious - Saved by thea_chevrantbreton to teaching journalism - More about this bookmark
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