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Teaching Online Journalism

News21 project: Worth it or not?

I was going to write something about this, but Mark Glaser beat me to it and did a good and very thorough job of it.

News21, a nonprofit news project with some serious funding behind it, aims to improve journalism education. Students from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California completed reporting projects, and these are now online.

There’s some nice journalism in the collection, but very little innovation. My question is: If you’re funding a project that looks to “the future,” shouldn’t it require innovative approaches to the story selection, the reporting, the production, the approach to the work, the final delivery?

I mean, was the idea only to get some stories? Or was this supposed to show us some original and fresh approaches to stories? These packages should engage the visitor immediately. They should explain their purpose and their importance clearly and quickly, up front. Long menus of headlines don’t do that. Flash fronts with generic-looking photos don’t do that.

There’s nothing in the packages that we have not seen many times before. There are reams and reams of text. Yeah, there is some video and some Flash. But it seemed to me that 90 percent of what I opened up was text, text, and more text.

I feel disappointed.

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3 Comments

  1. Diana Day says:

    Thanks for writing about News21, Mindy.

    I was one of the USC fellows in the program. I just wanted to comment that one of the major goals of the program — called the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education — was the “reinvigoration of the journalism curriculum.”

    The incubator model used in News21 was a powerful way to learn and is worth exploring as a model for educating future journalists.

    A teaching model for the future & some “nice journalism” — not a bad start for a program in its infancy.

  2. Rich Gordon says:

    I was multimedia coordinator for the Medill School of Journalism’s portion of the project.

    I also co-directed the Carnegie-Knight-funded seminar, “Privacy, Civil Liberties and Homeland Security,” that all of the Medill fellows were required to take in preparation for their reporting project.

    News21 has ambitious goals, and many of them. It’s always been positioned as an experiment. Here are at least three of the propositions being tested:

    * Whether student journalists, prepared by academic study of a topic of public concern, can produce in-depth journalism of quality
    * Whether the “incubator model,” as Diana Day describes it, can provide lessons for journalism education
    * Whether it’s possible for student journalists to create innovative journalism content that would engage non-traditional news audiences.

    I would argue that the first goal has been met, and solidly. The students have produced some interesting, important work, and much of it has been both published through traditional media channels and circulated via links through the Web.

    Diana testifies to goal no. 2, at least for the students who participated in the project. I am quite comfortable saying these students have experienced something transformative and that it will shape their careers as journalists. What remains to be seen is whether lessons from this experience can be extended elsewhere in journalism education.

    As for the third goal, I think everyone involved would agree that more could be done to experiment with innovative ways of gathering, making sense out of and presenting the journalism. A key decision for future iterations of News21 is how important this goal is. If it’s important, it will affect decisions on how to operate next year’s program — especially in determining what skill sets the News21 fellows (students) should have. The four News21 schools chose most of their fellows, first and foremost, for their reporting and writing skills. They all did learn about innovative presentation approaches, and several students had hands-on multimedia skills that enabled them to produce original multimedia work.

    At Medill, students conceptualized and planned out two ambitious interactive pieces (Digital Trails and Government Data Mining) that we hired a Flash/database development firm to design and implement under the students’ supervision.

    I think these projects are interesting, and think they are worthy experiments in storytelling innovation. (I know we can — and probably will — be talking about whether it’s appropriate for a student journalism project to bring on outside help.) Comments on these projects welcome at richgor-at-northwestern.edu.

    Thanks to Mindy and to Mark Glaser for teeing up some important questions. Before next year’s News21 project, a healthy debate and discussion of what worked and didn’t work this year will can only be helpful.

    Rich Gordon

  3. Scot says:

    I’m Scot Hacker, and I helped develop the CMS behind News21.

    A big part of the question here is how to define “innovation,” which is a pretty ambiguous term.

    If by “innovation” the powers mean “do what’s never been done in online journalism,” I’m afraid to say that’s pretty much an unreachable goal. What would true innovation even mean? What kind of site would result? Something no one’s ever seen before and therefore doesn’t know what to do with, how to navigate, how to digest?

    If by “innovation” they mean “take advantage of the latest technologies, then let’s take stock.

    Blogging? Check. But Technorati tracks 53.2 million blogs. Blogging is hardly innovative. And besides, blogging by journalists is kind of an oxymoron, since journalists already have a voice in the public discourse. The power of blogging is that it gives voice to the unvoiced.

    Citizen journalism? Could have done more, but that’s a category where the journalists aren’t really doing the work (citizens are), so it only applies tangentially.

    Flash/multimedia? Plenty of that, but Flash has been around for a decade. Here it’s all about *how* Flash is used, how stories are put together. Most innovative Flash interfaces are just gee-whiz effects that don’t move journalism forward. Occassionally we see really fresh interfaces made in Flash that enhance rather than detract from information presentation and access. But I think what we’re really after here is “effective” more than “innovative.”

    Cool databases? Some of that was done, could have done more. But again, database technology itself is hardly innovative. Databases tied to Flash interfaces? That’s an avenue that should be explored more. Again, what we want is “effective,” not necessarily “innovative.”

    Ajax? Cool tech, but related only to little display widgets, not journalism per se’.

    Social networking? Most News21 stories allow public comments, but that’s about it. Maybe there are some innovative social networking approaches that could be taken that would “embrace and extend” the underlying journalism, but nothing leaps immediately to mind.

    RSS? Check. But not innovative.

    Web 2.0? Whatever that means. Social networking plus citizen journalism plus Ajax I guess. All interesting stuff, but again, this is in the territory of embracing modern tech, not innovation.

    Mash-ups? Some cool approaches possible there. But again, doing mash-ups would be embracing current technology, not innovating.

    The fellows did a great job of reporting and a great job of putting the site(s) together, a great job of learning new technologies along the way. That’s important stuff — all journalism students should be absorbing as much technology know-how along the way as possible. But innovative? Of course not. There are thousands of sites out there trying to “innovate” simultaneously. News21 isn’t alone in that goal.

    All I’m saying is that “innovation” is a nearly impossible goal. Innovation isn’t about gathering up this year’s buzzwords and deploying them. Innovation comes because someone has a brilliant, “rise above” insight that’s never been tried. It comes from an “Ah hah!” moment. You can’t tell someone to innovate on command.

    What kind of innovation was intended? Innovation in technology deployed? Barely possible. Innovation in story selection? That’s more do-able. But there are thousands of fresh voices out there – some of them citizens, some of them pro journalists. Do we set ourselves apart from the herd through technology, or through fresh approaches to journalism? And what does that look like?

    I’m not at all disappointed in what the fellows and coordinators created. It’s a great site, with good storytelling and lots of information, lots of access points and lots of ways to absorb data. It’s successful as far as that goes. But expecting true technology or storytelling innovation from the fellows is a pretty tall order. If they’re going to meet the charge in round 2, they’re going to need some “rise above,” web-changing insights, not just web tech training appended to journalism training.

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