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Dear Younger Self: Push Back, Take Risks, Be Aware (Carnival of Journalism)

The Carnival of Journalism Assignment: “For December I would like you all to write a letter to your younger self. You can write about anything, no rules, no apologies. You may like to share with yourself advice, things to look out for, things you wished you did differently, regrets, hopes, what you’ve learned, about your life, choices… or just about anything that is on your mind. Ideally these are deeply personal to you and I hope it’ll be enlightening to others in its universality to the human condition.”

Dear Self,

All of the other bloggers are writing incredibly profound and insightful comments to their younger selves. Today, you feel somewhat humbled in their company. Every time you go to craft a worthy advice column that will be enlightening to the human condition, everything seems preachy and cliche. The truth is, young Self, I could tell you all sorts of things to watch out for (editors with personal agendas, that liar you trusted on the beat, lima beans) or to pay more attention to (that HTML class you took, that stats class you took, those cookies in the oven). But you won’t really listen. In your 20s, you thought you knew everything already. (Heck, at 12 you thought you knew everything). You had travelled the world. Lived in France. Your work had been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. You knew how to do your homework before an interview already. You knew not to make stuff up. You knew how to pretend you knew what was going on even when you didn’t. You pretended so well you even convinced yourself. Youth, you thought, was not wasted on THIS youth. What could an older Self possibly have to share with you?

Self, now you’re in your 40s. I’m here to tell you: you do not matter so much. That’s pretty blasphemous both in the culture you grew up in and in today’s sticker world where your kids get claps and hugs just for not playing a video game. I’ll say it a different way: everything around you – everyONE around you – matters more.

So yes, yes, you were very prescient to be learning HTML in your 20s when most people around you thought “online” meant the wait at the movies and email was a novel phase. Yes yes, you are very brilliant. But um… Self? Why didn’t you stick with it? Keep building web pages? So that you had to relearn it again when you turned 40 so you could talk about it with these other young Selves you are now teaching so they don’t miss out on opportunities? Think of how much more helpful you could have been in your subsequent newsrooms as you watched them struggle with digital transitions.

And true, true, you and your fellow reporters thought yourselves fighting the good fight afflicting the comfortable and all that. But you shied away from chances to really probe inequities — class, racial, gender — that you saw all around you. You really spent way too much time writing about annual reports and company perspective than you had to. At some point you will finally do all the reading you should be doing in your 20s and conduct the interviews that you should have done along the way to help you really grasp what disparity looks like. You thought you knew and you did understand in an abstract way, but not really in a nitty-gritty-reality-check way. What if you had opened your eyes sooner while you were regularly reaching so many people?

And yes, yes, perhaps you were right not to take the web reporting job and stick with the safe gig at a print newspaper in Vermont; after all that .com company folded within a couple years and you thrived on the business beat with the help of that incredible staff of mentors at the Burlington Free Press. You thought yourself quite the smartie. But what if you had taken the less safe path for once? What if you had taken yourself just a little less seriously, given yourself over to chance just a little bit more, and opened yourself up much more to mistake and failure than you did?

I guess we don’t know, Self.

Somewhere along the way, Self, you finally figured out in your 40s how little you really know. And that lesson — the knowledge that many, many, many more lessons await — is probably the most important one you’ve had so far.

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.)

Better photos for better stories

By Karen Hess

Guest Blogger

We know it when we see it: a beautifully composed, striking photo. But how can we define good photography, and more importantly, what guidelines can storytellers follow to help ensure high quality images in our multimedia pieces?

News vs. feature

The type of story you are doing can dictate the type of photos to include. In chapter four of Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach, Kenneth Kobre tells us that news and features can be differentiated like this: a news story is about a famous person, important event, or a tragic outcome. A feature story on the other hand is a slice of life story.

The right subject

Feature stories enable us more freedom in choosing the subject of our photos. Kobre suggests finding children acting as adults, animals acting as people, and the unexpected (someone doing something really surprising). Kobre goes on to state that a great photo “evokes a reaction in the viewer.”

Composition

Good composition creates the visual interest needed to elicit that emotional reaction. Some great tips to achieve this include:

Portraits

Digital Photography School offers some great suggestions for taking unique portraits, including one of my favorites: altering the perspective of a photo (avoiding taking a photo at eye level and trying out unusual angles).

Audio slideshows

Tying these carefully thought out photos into an audio slideshow adds another element of difficulty. Photos need to be arranged well to tell a compelling story with a beginning, middle, and end. Audio must also drive the story and should be created first with photos added later.

Audio Journalism has put together a great Dos and Don’ts list for audio slideshows. Here are a few of their suggestions:

  • Tie together the audio and visuals (but don’t be redundant, per AIM chapter 7)
  • Use background sound
  • Keep it under three or four minutes

The Multimedia Journalist offers their own suggestions:

  • Open with natural sound, not a voice
  • Pay extra close attention to the first ten seconds
  • Play around with the structure, maybe switching the beginning and the end

Some great examples of strong audio slideshows can be found in the 1 in 8 Million series by the New York Times. My personal favorite is Christian Hubert: The Bridge Bicyclist. Although the story is somewhat weakened by our lack of understanding why Hubert insists on riding his bike, the photos display many rules of good composition and work together to tell a story that has a clear beginning, middle, and end in under two minutes.

How do you ensure you take good photos? What rules of composition do you follow?

Karen Hess is a MA professional-track journalism student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication. 

edUtopia Wisconsin site launched!

It’s finally done: The website called edUtopia Wisconsin that Steve Walters, I and our beginning newswriting students have been working on. Check it out: http://sites.journalism.wisc.edu/edutopia/

Here’s what I wrote on the About page and, as I think it sums up what I was trying to say pretty well, I repeat it here:

edUtopia Wisconsin is a collaborative final project for 30 students enrolled in Intermediate Reporting in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Instead of rehashing the problems facing Wisconsin’s educational system—both K-12 and higher education, this project seeks to advance the conversations happening in society in order to provide fodder for a dialogue about possible solutions. For these pieces, students researched and investigated the existing challenges, interviewed more than 100 experts, teachers, principals, superintendents, parents and students, and brainstormed solutions to these problems.

Many of the stories highlight innovative and forward-thinking programs and initiatives throughout the state; some pose a conversation about the ideal. In four topical areas — Education CostsToday’s Student, the Utopian Classroom and Benchmarks— this website offers a positive frame for rejuvenating and improving the academic life of our children. In our Project Blog, you will find student thoughts on the whole process as well as material we could not fit in the stories. Students Rebecca Smith and Vince Huth, both Class of 2013, served as our incredible Webmasters.

Led by Professor Sue Robinson and WisconsinEye Senior Producer Steven Walters, the students include:

Christian Medina Beltz
Alison Dirr
Brock Fritz
Kristen Kukowski
Jay Olle
Alexandria Rodriquez
Stefanie Schmidbauer
Rebecca Smith
Mai Vang
Ana Will
Alicia Wolff
Adam Wollner
Jake Wolter

Kevin Boettcher
Corinne Burgermeister
Sherree Burruss
Stacy Day
Julia Eagleburger
Kelly Erickson
Sarah Henry
Vince Huth
Douglas Ingels
Kathryn Johnson
Ethan Krupp
Leah Linsheid
Devin Mulertt
Mallory Warner

If you have questions or suggestions, please contact either Robinson (robinson4@wisc.edu) or Walters (swalters@facstaff.wisc.edu). If you have comments, we’d love to hear from you in any of the commenting sections provided under the stories. If you like it, please share the url (http://sites.journalism.wisc.edu/edutopia/) with others via Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, your blog or any other social-media platform!

I think the students did a wonderful job! Congratulations!!

Transformations(?)

I am reading some material from the late 1990s about the early days of online journalism research. Specifically, a piece by Pablo J. Boczkowski (who was at MIT and then went to Northwestern, where he is now becoming Director of Northwestern’s Program in Media, Technology & Society). In the Online Journalism Review, back in 2005, a portion of Boczkowski’s final chapter of his then-new book, Digitizing the News, was reprinted. In it he talked about how digital technologies would eventually transform the way that news was produced. He used terms like “co-production.” His ethnography — one of the first for online newsrooms — revealed that:

In the online environment, a greater variety of groups of actors appear to be involved in, and have a more direct impact on, the production process than what is typically accounted for in studies of print and broadcast newsrooms.

Taking a constructivist approach, Boczkowski argued that an increasing number of agents — from computer programmers to advertisers to readers — would require new ways of thinking about journalistic authority, that civic journalism might be rejuvenated, and that citizens’ conversations would be vibrant and active in online public spaces. The public had its chance to redefine news, he suggested.

Since then, so much has happened.

The jury is still out on whether public journalism will be reborn, citizens will be empowered or democracy has been saved. Indeed several scholars have documented the “myth” of interactivity — that is, the reality that though connected people have the opportunity to engage online, very few actually do. As Boczkowski himself writes in this early work, any transformation arises from already entrenched institutions, which shape and modify any potential a new technology might hold.

Yet, who could have foreseen the impact of Twitter and Facebook on news? Social media are just a few avenues for those journalistic transformations to occur. The tools largely dismissed by many as a silly phase have transformed the way some people interact with the news. It boasts 100 million active users and 1 billion tweets every seven days, according to a recent talk by Twitter’s CEO. I know Twitter is my primary (or I should say, my first) source of news these days. And, in my interviews with journalists this past month, reporters talk about Twitter as essential not only to the marketing of their finished stories but also as a key ingredient in their news-gathering process.

But as most technology analysts have mentioned, often the new medium doesn’t transform things in the way it is predicted to, in part because its track must be laid within existing infrastructure. I should note that one reporter I talked to used to frequent Facebook and Twitter for his job and has since backed off, saying his job got too hectic to “play around” in those spaces. I noted the separation of the new technology from the job — a gimmick rather than a utensil in this particular interview.

I think as we move on, reporters like this one will be the anomaly and not the norm. Otherwise the transformations will go forward without the journalists — as settled as they may be in their infrastructure.