Dear College Journalism Students, Think: Journalism as Process

When I was an editor on my college newspaper back in 1993, we were just getting on email and trying to learn Pagemaker (remember that?). A traditional news organization, The New Hampshire — and the journalism professors at the University of New Hampshire — taught me solid reporting and writing skills, not to mention the protocols of vetting sources and assuming anyone who contacted us had an agenda they wanted publicity for. I remember 40-hour weeks on top of my classes — and that was without producing any video, having to learn anything as complicated as After Effects, and thinking at all about starting a buzz on Twitter.

Times have changed for college news organizations.

Photo courtesy of Erik Abderhalden.

Photo courtesy of Erik Abderhalden.

Now, as a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I am in the position of those college-newspaper professor advisers. And it happens that this month’s Carnival of Journalism conversation has asked us to pontificate on advice for our college newspapers. Founded by David Cohn of Spot.us fame, the Carnival is made up of a “a group of bloggers who enjoy writing about journalism and related topics. Once a month we get together and write about the same topic chosen by a different host each time.”

The mission of the call, the first after a hiatus, is thus:

Student news organizations have traditionally existed to give students experience before entering the workforce. The kinds of journalism jobs and journalism companies have changed considerably in the past 10 years, and most student news organizations are set up to mimic traditional print or broadcast news outlets. How would you set up a student news organization in 2013 or how could an existing college news organization modernize itself?…What kinds of skills do you and your organization look for in new hires? What kind of “clips” should college students have by graduation?

And a side suggestion is to think about whether it’s a good idea for college journalists to learn how to aggregate. I’d like to take up both.

My schtick is “journalism as process,” advocating for a major paradigm shift among journalists and journalism educators to stop thinking about the news as a discrete product and to start considering its production and dissemination as a never-ending cycle of community dialogue among different platforms. Jeff Jarvis first coined the term several years ago (many journalists and mediawatchers have taken it up, as well) and the industry itself has been moving toward this conception. But it’s been slow to catch on among some newsrooms, some professors, and many college papers. In their Carnival posts, Jack Rosenberry emphasized digital first and multimedia, Steve Fox encouraged accurate reporting even on Twitter, and Steve Outing listed ways to be innovative. All of these pieces of advice subscribe to the notion of journalism as process.

How do you do this? All of the blogs in the Carnival will have great suggestions, given the incredible breadth of experience represented in this group. You can find a round-up of them here this weekend. It’s not just about doing video with your story. It’s not just about slapping a commenting section under your articles or a forum on your site. It’s not just about pushing your stories in your social-media platforms. It’s about embracing in a real way the (actually VERY) traditional notion that journalism is about inspiring citizens so that they become more civically engaged in democracy and public life on all of its levels — politically, culturally, socially. It’s about not only informing people with the who, what, where, and why, but to provoke thought, encourage conversation, and improve our public deliberation so that we can have better government and also just be better people. We have more ways of doing that than ever before. Finally, we can move away from the letters-to-the-editor techniques of interactivity that reigned when I was at my college newspaper. We can actually offer platforms of sustained, meaningful talk and analysis that doesn’t end with the –30– of a deadline. Even — and especially — on our campuses.

Here are a few thoughts on how to apply this thinking to a college news organization:

  • Part of understanding how to be accurate today is how to vet social-media sources on the fly. Learn about ways to detect falsities, spot a hoax, or just to debunk rumors by understanding how Twitter and Facebook work, knowing how to tell if a Twitter account is fake, or uncovering whether a photo has been photoshopped. Transparency — which has always been an important tenet of journalism — has become even more important;
  • Tell your contributors they are expected to tweet/post while they report (always using the organization’s handle), respond to tweets/posts, ask questions on the Facebook page to generate conversations, crowdsource, think about whether a Pinterest or some other accompanying content makes sense, market the story to key influencers via blogs and Twitter hashtags etc., and think about post-publication content such as a Google Hangout with expert sources to keep up the conversation and advance what you have done. This is not the job of just a couple over-worked editors, but a mentality that every single person at the organization must adopt, including the freelancers;
  • Have every student working on a story partner with someone in charge of some other aspect of the story for multimedia or a blog post or Storify;
  • Become engaged as an organization throughout social media — virtual worlds — as well as campus — physical worlds. Meld the two and make use of the audience-base in both (for your entire audience is also operating in both worlds). For example, host conversations in established hashtags, extend that to some kind of panel discussion on campus with live participants and market the two simultaneously.
  • Partner with local media organizations, particularly those who may be struggling with the “digital first” mentality. Work collaboratively on projects where your reporters can learn from the seasoned veterans and their reporters can find journalistic value in social media and multimedia through you.
  • Experiment with figuring out new business models that are dependent on a journalism as process way of production by finding sponsors for those live chats you can do post-publication, for example, or partnering with local businesses for Foursquare or Facebook location meet-ups to discuss the story of the day.
  • And yes, learn how to aggregate. Or better yet, curate. Part of “journalism as process” is showing audiences all the news gathering you’ve done (i.e. aggregation). It helps demonstrate that you’ve done your homework, that you have the evidence for what it is you are writing about. But it’s also about helping to organize the ensuing conversation in platforms like Storify or Facebook or Google Plus or just in your own blog on your site (curation).

So we can talk about “clips” still, I guess. After all, content will always be king (and you still gotta know how to write a decent sentence). But alongside every feature you do, you should have the dynamic elements, examples of the tweets and blog posts you did, and snippets of the conversation you helped create — all as part of that “clip.” Use your college news organization experience as a grand experiment, trying out all of the things you are learning in those classes and bringing them together under a philosophy of journalism as process. (Cue some kind of grandiose music here.)

College news organizations operate on shoe-string budgets with staff that are always turning over. They do herculean work, given their constraints. But they also represent the first real-world testing lab for a bunch of brand-new, eager reporters who hope to get jobs in the industry. They can change things, having used their college experience to experiment with different forms and concepts of storytelling.

They will change things — as long as they break out of the rut of traditional thinking.

(You can follow me on Twitter at @suerobinsonUW.)

One comment

  1. Pingback: Carnival of Journalism: Modernizing college media organizations | The Journalism Iconoclast

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