Teaching Online Journalism

The coming death of print newspapers

Say you’re a journalist now working for a newspaper. You know your job is anything but secure.

I asked several reporters, editors, and scholars what journalists should do to get ready for the next wave of firings. There were three strong consensus answers: first, get good at understanding and presenting data. Second, understand how social media can work as a newsroom tool. Third, get whatever newsroom experience you can working in teams, and in launching new things.

That’s from Clay Shirky, writing in Last Call: The end of the printed newspaper. He goes on to explain those three bits of advice, a little way below the halfway mark in his post.

There was one other common reaction among the people I spoke with about the coming changes: almost to a person, they noted that journalists can no longer rely on their employers to provide the opportunities to learn new skills. … If you’re a journalist working inside a newspaper and you want to train for your next job, you’re largely on your own.

This should be important to journalism educators! Why? It’s imperative for us to give students more opportunities to teach themselves — to prime them for lifetime learning. Otherwise, they’ll never succeed in journalism.


Setting up a private WordPress.com blog for group editing

When you have a free WordPress.com blog, you can make it private, limiting it to only people you select.

You can also allow multiple authors, editors, or a mix of roles on a free WordPress.com blog, whether it is private or public.

Here’s what I learned by setting up a private blog that gave editing privileges to several users:

  1. It was easy to make it private: Dashboard > Settings > Reading — find and tick “I would like my site to be private, visible only to users I choose.”
  2. It was easy to add new users and assign “roles” to them: Dashboard > Users > Invite New – but you need to get either their correct WP username or the correct email they used when they signed up for WordPress!
  3. It can be hard to get people to send their correct WP username to the person who is trying to add new users. (They send what they think is their username, but it is not.)
  4. Sometimes people do not know which email address they used to sign up for WordPress, and as a result, they never receive the invitation email (because it is sent to that email account, which they are not checking).
  5. If a person goes to a private WP blog’s URL and submits an email request to “view the blog,” that process DOES NOT add the person as a user, and the blog administrator then cannot assign a role (such as “editor”) to that person.
  6. If someone else is in the midst of editing a post, and you attempt to edit it, WordPress gives you a warning. Depending on your user role, you might be able to override and edit anyway.

What are WordPress user roles? For example, a “contributor” cannot publish or upload, but she can write and save posts, and post comments. There a few different options.

At first you’ll have only one all-powerful Administrator on the blog. That person can assign the Administrator role to others.

This would all be very easy to do as part of a course, but it might be best to do the role-assigning and user-inviting while students are all together in a room, maybe a computer lab, so issues with usernames can be resolved quickly and in person.

Journalism education: There is no spoon

At a journalism education conference in Canada recently, it appears media economics scholar Robert Picard gave a stirring keynote address. Stirring as in “stir things up!”

He began by reminding the audience that journalism and the media environment today are vastly different from what they were in the previous century. I’d say the decline began in 1995 and became undeniably apparent around 2008, when job losses in the newspaper industry first spiked.

Of course, you know this. But probably you take it for granted. Probably, like most journalism educators, you have not really stared into the eyes of a reality where children under the age of 10 have a powerful tiny computer in their pocket that is connected to a global 24/7 cornucopia of news, information and entertainment.

It changes everything.

The concept of speaking truth to power presumes that journalists know what is true, that power listens, and that journalists don’t have power and aren’t part of the power system. Those are highly debatable assumptions. (Picard)

Journalists aren’t going to like what Picard said in Toronto, and neither are most journalism educators. But not liking it doesn’t make it any less true.

Today, other functional forms of communication have emerged and these are every bit as important to speaking truth and holding power to account as journalism. While journalists continue to cling to the old conceptualization, society is moving past it. (Picard)

No newspaper or radio station or TV network has a monopoly anymore. No one with Internet access is held captive by a media corporation that tells people what to think about. This alone means that the power of the media is not what it was. There’s still power. But it’s shifted.

Today many journalistic functions have been stripped from the news media. Social media are the primary carriers of breaking news. Online news sites, blogs, and social media are far more often willing to publicly shame elites than legacy media. The locations of opinion and debate have moved to digital media. All of these reduce the necessity for and influence of news organizations. (Picard)

When Picard turned his attention to journalism education, he pointed out that other faculties in the university sometimes snub their noses at the journalism schools. “They are not completely wrong in doing so,” he added.

In the 150 years since journalism education entered universities, it has not developed a fundamental knowledge base, widely agreed upon journalistic practices, or unambiguous professional standards. Large numbers of journalism educators have failed to make even rudimentary contributions toward understanding the impact of journalism and media on society. Some of the reasons for these failures are philosophical. Some are because we have tended to separate journalism education from media studies. Many of the deficiencies exist because journalism is closer to craft than a profession. (Picard)

Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! But … is Picard completely wrong?

Before you angrily close this window, know that Picard then confronts a vital question about the future of journalism education: Are we training students for jobs that no longer exist — or jobs that soon will cease to exist?

Higher education isn’t about ensuring employment. It is about shaping and sharpening students’ abilities to think and about giving them skills to can use in a variety of types of activity in future years. It is about helping them understand the past, how people and societies work, what forces affect the human condition, how to deal with the inevitable changes they will encounter in their lives, and how to find their own paths to success. (Picard)

Professional programs in other fields, including business, engineering, and the biomedical sciences, “help students learn how to discover, interpret, and navigate their ways through” the future, however uncertain it might be, Picard said.

I love that: discover, interpret, navigate.

And I agree with Picard: we’re not doing a great job of that in our j-schools. Somewhere in our efforts to cope with students’ abysmal lack of skill in punctuation and to teach them how to use cameras and code, many journalism educators and institutions have lost sight of the big picture.

Picard said those other professional programs focus on:

And journalism programs … don’t. They:

… teach students to communicate well, but without having anything to communicate and with little rationale for communicating. Minimal effort is expended on teaching students how to think and critically analyze social developments. Journalists who can’t think effectively will be even more worthless in the future than they are now.  (Picard)

Journalism programs focus on training students to do jobs that already exist in media companies.

Are we doing it wrong?

Journalism programmes need to teach students how to become more self-sufficient journalists, provide much more training is specialized forms of journalism, and teach how to cover local communities and topics such as climate, energy, defence, and social policy. These are where value is truly created, and they all require interdisciplinary programs with tight relations with other disciplines in the university — something few journalism programmes have developed.  …

We need to be teaching about how to write and produce content for multiple digital platforms for which audiences have different requirements. We need to teach how to understand audiences and use the avalanche of user data that is overwhelming news organisations. We need to help them prepare their work and lives for new types of journalistic employment. We need to teach them to be digital developers and how to be problem solvers. (Picard)

Picard skewered a few popular ideas that have been floating in the journalism education waters for a while — like the “teaching hospital” notion, and courses about “entrepreneurial journalism” taught by people who have never been entrepreneurs.

Few are teaching [students] what is necessary to establish and operate successful small news enterprises in the 21st century. (Picard)

Picard concluded his talk with recommendations where journalism education needs to go in the next decade. Since I’ve quoted so much of his address already, I’ll invite you to go to his site to read his conclusion.

Of course he says we need to break down the silos. Everybody at every journalism school I’ve ever visited agrees on that — but how many j-schools actually do it? Most take timid, tiny measures that result in essentially no difference at all.

It is not a matter of thinking outside the box, because the box no longer exists. (Picard)

You can read the full text of Picard’s address at his website.

Other points about improving journalism education were noted as well. (The conference apparently has no homepage.)

If you need a reference: “There is no spoon.

Teaching online journalism in South Africa

Thanks to an invitation from the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, I was awarded a Mellon Scholar-in-Residence fellowship. I’ve been in Grahamstown, South Africa, since May 30. Here are some things I have learned so far.

Home of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at RU

Journalism education

A journalism degree here can take three years or four. A student must apply to be accepted for a fourth year. Others go straight into newsrooms after the third year.

The academic year begins in February, after the long summer break (December and January). They have four terms, with two terms constituting a semester. At the end of a semester, the students take exams in all their subjects.

First-year students take four subjects — the same four throughout the year — one of which is journalism. In their journalism class, the first-years meet in a lecture of about 200 students four times a week. They also have smaller tutorial meetings, in groups of about 20. As there are not many graduate students, many of the tutors are third- or fourth year undergrads.

The journalism classes after first year are smaller, mostly about 25 students (I think), but I haven’t figured all that out yet.

There’s something called a post-graduate diploma, which falls in between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Rhodes JMS has one in Media Management, for example. It’s a one-year, full-time, residential program. The students are a combination of recent graduates and people who have been working for a while — not always in journalism.

The (several) computer labs in the j-school are excellent. The Internet is good; the Windows computers have current, licensed software installed; the machines appear to be virus-free. There is a rather large IT staff for the j-school, and they’re been very helpful to me.

I haven’t been to the university library yet, but I see new books with library stickers on the spine in almost every lecturer’s office I go into — good, current theory books as well as recently published textbooks in the communication field. Some lecturers have a stack of them. In other words, the library apparently does a good job of buying the current texts in the field, and the lecturers are consulting those books.

English is the language of instruction at Rhodes University, so the students are fluent in English. However, English is not the first language of many. I was told the most common first language in Grahamstown and the surrounding area is Xhosa, followed by Afrikaans, with English third. Xhosa is the dominant African language in the Eastern Cape — the state that Grahamstown is in. When I go into shops, though, English is spoken.

Daily life

My “cottage” is a generous space, all on one floor, with a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bath. The Internet is excellent, and free, because the cottage is on campus. It’s a 5-min. walk to the Africa Media Matrix, home of the j-school. It’s about half a mile (1 km) to the shopping center and the center of town.

My "cottage" at Rhodes U.

Although the Internet is free, I have to pay for the metered electricity. I buy a voucher card at a university office, take it home, scratch off a number, and then send a text message with that number to the power company. Soon I get a text back with another number, which I then key into the meter in my kitchen. I get 180 kWh for 100 rands (about $10).

There’s a (small) TV with excellent reception of the four South African channels. That’s it. Four. The local programs at night are mostly soap-opera-like dramas. The actors speak in multiple languages, and there are English subtitles. English-language news is on at 7 p.m.

The nearest supermarket is large and modern. The town is small, but there are several good options for meals and for coffee (so important!). There is no movie theater (there was one; it is closed). I have seen two video rental shops, which seem to do a good business. Lots of people walk, which includes me, as I have no vehicle. Car rentals are comparable to U.S. prices, but only if you rent a manual; automatic transmissions are almost twice the cost.

The weather has been lovely — sunny at mid-80s (Farenheit) in the afternoon, cool in the mornings. It will be getting colder through July, and the cottage is heated only by two stand-alone electric heaters. Nights right now are in the mid-50s, and some have dipped into the high 40s. I love the clean air, low humidity, and gorgeous blue sky!

Grahamstown map

(Re)defining multimedia journalism

I published a post on Medium.com 11 days ago. The title is (Re)defining multimedia journalism. I thought it would be interesting to publish it there, instead of here, on my own blog, and see what would happen.

Stats for (Re)defining multimedia journalism, at Medium.com, April 19

Medium has this nice graph with options to see how many people viewed my post, or how many people READ my post. (I don’t have that option in WordPress.) I also get to see how many people recommended my post (and who they are), and the percentage of readers out of viewers.

I feel good that 992 people read my post, but not so good that only 37 percent who viewed it actually read it.

Using WordPress stats, I can discover that my most-viewed post of all time on this blog is How to shoot video interviews (20,573 views), but who knows how many people just clicked and closed it. Same issue with my most-viewed post in the past 365 days, 10 Rules for Visual Storytelling (3,187 views).

Will I get more reads (or more pageviews) in the long term by having published on Medium? I don’t know. In 10 days the number of pageviews on Medium had exceeded those of my most-viewed post for the past 30 days here, What journalism students need to learn now (1,294 views), and I have to assume more people have in fact read the Medium post.

(If you’re wondering about the big spike on Medium on April 14 — 727 views, 272 reads — that’s the day when someone at Medium added it to the Editor’s Picks collection.)

Oh, one more cool feature for publishing on Medium: I also get to see a list of referrers for each post I’ve made. As of today,  (Re)defining multimedia journalism has 890 from email, IM, and direct (the highest), and 757 from Twitter.

Only 181 referrers from Facebook.

Referrers from Medium itself are split into the mobile app (306) and Web (160), with separate breakouts for referrers coming from specific collections, such as Editor’s Picks, 40, and Changing Journalism, 37.


Introducing the HTML5 canvas element

In a Web coding class, in which students work with HTML, CSS and JavaScript, they should also have some exposure to the canvas.

HTML5 canvas examples

Here are the materials I’ve developed for a basic introduction:

Feel free to use, copy, share or modify any of these for any class or course.

What journalism students need to learn now

Is blogging still relevant to journalism? This is one of the questions Mark Briggs is considering as he begins work on the third edition of his popular textbook Journalism Next. In his blog post, he listed the following chapters:

  1. How the web works
  2. Blogging for better journalism
  3. Crowd-powered collaboration
  4. Microblogging and social media
  5. Going mobile
  6. Visual storytelling with photographs
  7. Making audio journalism visible
  8. Telling stories with video
  9. Data-driven journalism and digitizing your life
  10. Managing news as a conversation
  11. Building a digital audience for news

This is a good outline for beginner journalism students. This is not a list of things they should learn in an elective course — all of these are basic to being a reporter in the 21st century. The first and second required courses in a journalism curriculum need to cover all of these.

But — what else? What is missing, as Briggs updates his book?

Encryption for reporters

I think he needs a new chapter about encryption and security of online communications. There was a lot of talk about that at ONA14, and while most journalists have no clue what that even means, it’s going to be important to every journalist who needs to protect a source and keep his/her identity private.

Blogging still matters

The chapter on blogging remains important because there are so many different types of blogs, including many different varieties of journalism blogs. One example that’s great to examine and discuss is The Lede from The New York Times. Reasons:

Too many journalists and journalism educators are not really up-to-date on the varieties of blogs and blogging. Just having students “write a blog about a beat” is not enough. We need more analysis and comparison in our journalism courses. Many students are unaware of the variety of styles and approaches the exist now, and educators need to deliberately expose the students to these.

Social skills for journalists

I think these three chapters need to be combined, possibly into two (new) chapters:

Reaching out to a geographic community OR to a community of interest requires the journalist to listen, daily. That means monitoring the conversation in a managed, deliberate way. While 90 percent (or more) of “the conversation” takes place on social media, not all social media platforms play the same way for different types of content. Students are very unaware of these subtleties. People read an article or view a video, but then the conversation takes place elsewhere — not on a news website. Journalists need to embed themselves in the conversation and play an active role in it.

Audio and video: Not optional

Audio and video are important for all journalism students to learn — and from what I’m told by editors and managers at organizations such as the Miami Herald, it’s all iPhone now. That’s not to say we don’t need broadcast quality equipment and training — students in TV specializations do, of course. But every student needs to be able to capture clean, usable audio AND clear, usable video on an iPhone. Concentrate on impromptu interviews, man on the street. Can the student capture a good 60-second statement from a stranger on video, not shaking, not wobbling, with clear audio? This is a key skill today.

What do you think? You can tell Mark at mark@journalism20.com (email) or @markbriggs on Twitter.