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Teaching Online Journalism

Top 10 posts of 2013: Teaching online journalism

In case you missed them, here are links to the posts on this blog that were viewed most often in the past year, according to the stats provided by WordPress. Only three on the list are from 2013 (I published only 27 posts this year). The oldest are from 2008 (also three posts), demonstrating the value of the long tail.

If you like these posts, please share the links with others.

1) Timelines in journalism: A closer look – 4,591 views (I’ve studied the stats on this post — people come mostly via search, often with terms including the words history or examples)

2) 10 examples of bespoke article design and scrolling goodness – 3,082 views

3) 10 Rules for Visual Storytelling – 2,964 views

4) Advice to journalism students: Forget grad school! – 2,094 views

5) Recording phone interviews: A solution that works – 1,840 views

6) Best social media tools for journalists – 1,601 views

7) Get started with Web coding. Part 1: HTML and CSS – 1,514 views (there were five posts in this series)

8) How to shoot video interviews – 1,240 views

9) Cheat sheet for multimedia story decisions – 1,120 views

10) Aggregation and curation in journalism – 1,077 views


Smarter(7): A list for journalism students

Each Sunday, I post links to three (and only three) recent articles that are informative about, or pointing the way to, the future in journalism. (Oops — this week, it’s Monday.) Previous posts can be found here. There is also a Tumblr for this series, named Smarter.

Screen capture - National Geographic - 2013 Year in Review

National Geographic: Year in Review. Get on your big screen for this lush, photo-filled extravaganza. Each of 12 categories (Adventure, Animals, Cultures, Space, and more) offers 10 or more glimpses into amazement (brain-eating amoebas! Kyrgyz nomads! nano flowers! Eurasian otters! cougars!), and most link out to a full-text story from NatGeo’s famous magazine. Just browsing provides plenty of satisfaction, but it’s nice to know that when your curiosity is truly piqued, you’re one click away from deeper details.

Takeaways: Having perfected this full-screen interface in the brilliant Serengeti Lion multimedia epic, NatGeo applied it to a year-end roundup that features its own best stories. There are two lessons here: (1) Re-use and repurpose code and design when appropriate; and (2) Do not let your past stories, photos, etc., go to waste, forgotten and unviewed. NatGeo plays to its strengths here, showcasing stories and images that other publications do not have.

Photo: tape measure by Flickr user Leo Reynolds (lwr)

Tomorrow’s metric for news is action. Measuring things is important, especially when those things are growing or shrinking and we’re not sure why. Newspapers, magazines, and TV networks always liked to measure (or count) subscribers or viewers. Online, however, that measurement breaks apart into individual stories or segments, and journalists look to the numbers as indicators of what they should produce more of. But wait — does that mean more stupid viral videos? NPR reporter Elise Hu says no — in this article for Nieman Journalism Lab, she suggests we should really be measuring how our journalism influences real outcomes in the world. In other words: Measure the difference your journalism makes.

Takeaways: Students should make themselves familiar with the terms Hu uses in this article, such as “social lift,” “impact,” “engagement,” “time reading” (also called “time spent”). Follow her links to learn about the engagement strategies of ProPublica and Medium, two journalism organizations you definitely should be following. If you don’t know exactly what she means by “agency,” “participation,” and “community,” then get busy. Hu is writing about journalism that has value, and that’s journalism that knows what its purpose is. How do you measure that?

Screen capture from Michael Wolff's column

Even the New York Times can’t resist going lowbrow with native advertising. Writers now inhabit “a flattened world … in which there is only one real measure, traffic,” says Guardian columnist Michael Wolff. He means traffic to stories, which means audience, and sharing, and how many people view (and presumably also read, although that’s up for debate). Native advertising (also known as branded content) “can sometimes blur the distinction between advertising and editorial, especially in the digital space” (Joe Pompeo, writing at Capital), and that’s something most journalists know to be both dangerous and distasteful. For the esteemed New York Times to stoop so low(brow) is, well, a giant flashing confirmation that the business of journalism has changed. The question remains whether the ethics and values of journalism can survive this.

Takeaways: Students who want to be writers might scoff at the idea, but everyone who works in journalism today needs to be looking at the business side. It’s how you get paid, after all! Wolff’s column provides a good introduction to the stakes and the present playing field. If you read it carefully, you’ll understand why he says: “How advertising is handled has always been a key distinction between low and high order publishing,” and “it’s very hard, if not pointless, to separate real content from phony stuff.” Pay attention to what he means by “content disaggregation” and “traffic aggregation” — these are two very important factors in the business of journalism online. Those who aspire to be writers need to understand that even The New York Times has “lost the wherewithal to sell high publishing.”


Smarter(6): A list for journalism students

Each Sunday, I post links to three (and only three) recent articles that are informative about, or pointing the way to, the future in journalism. Previous posts can be found here. There is also a Tumblr for this series, named Smarter.

Refuge: Exodus from Syria

Refuge: 18 stories from the Syrian exodus. Many Americans are unaware of what is going on in Syria. The civil war there started almost three years ago. This collection shows — with photographs, videos, text and maps — what happens after Syrians have fled from the fighting. This is “one of the largest forced migrations of people since World War II” — more than 2 million people.

Takeaways: We can scan through these stories in a random, casual way, and stop whenever something catches our attention. It might be a photo. It might be a pullout quote. This is not a traditionally structured “long form” journalism narrative. How does that affect our understanding of the Syrian situation? Does this manner of storytelling have a stronger chance of getting attention in a media-saturated world?

Scraper code by @kleinmatic

Scooped by code. There’s been plenty of discussion among journalists lately about learning to code. Here, Scott Klein of ProPublica (a nonprofit investigative journalism organization) explains how journalists use their code skills to uncover stories that no one else has found.

Takeaways: ”Scraping websites, cleaning data, and querying Excel-breaking data sets are enormously useful ways to get great stories.” If you don’t know what “scraping” means, get busy with Google. If you think code is only used for making apps, check out the three story examples Klein links to in his essay. If you want to be the journalist who gets stories that others don’t, learn how learning code can help you.

Map showing homophobic tweets

Data and visualization year in review, 2013. Do you like seeing cool charts that explain things clearly? This roundup of examples and links highlights a wide range of information graphics that help us understand things better. Some of them come from journalists, and some come from scientists and statisticians. This was published on the excellent blog Flowing Data, by Nathan Yau.

Takeaways: Maybe you’re not an artist, and maybe you lack love for statistics, but most of us comprehend numeric data more quickly when we see it represented in graphic form. Notice how many of these examples use a map. Have you played with Google Maps Engine? How much do you know about making accurate charts and graphics to communicate about money, people, and amounts of things? Did you ever use Excel to make a chart (say, in high school)? If data visualization is a good tool for explaining, then more journalists should be able to do it.


Smarter(5): A list for journalism students

Each Sunday, I post links to three (and only three) recent articles that are informative about, or pointing the way to, the future in journalism. Previous posts can be found here. There is also a Tumblr for this series, named Smarter. (I missed posting the past two weeks.)

Planet Money T-shirt

Planet Money Makes a T-shirt. This is one of the most effective uses of multimedia storytelling I’ve seen. It started with a cool question: How do T-shirts (ubiquitous and usually taken for granted) get made? In April 2013, the Planet Money team of journalists launched a Kickstarter campaign  to fund a reporting project about the global garment industry. People could pledge $25 to get a T-shirt, and Planet Money would report every step of that T-shirt’s production, starting in the cotton fields of Mississippi. Backers put up $590,807. Ten reporters covered the story, some of them traveling to Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Colombia along with the cotton as it became cloth and, finally, 25,000 T-shirts.

Takeaways: Tight integration of video, text, and information graphics makes this a seamless (pun!) story from the reader/viewer’s perspective. You can choose among five chapters, but you never have to click and leave the main story. It’s easy to follow. Ruthless editing kept each part of the story short and snappy. The videos take us to places we’ve never seen before in a whirlwind tour — no time to feel bored. Charts are clean and clear. The text is straightforward and engaging. This is a great example of how to make a story interesting and use all media types to their very best advantage.

Facebook drives traffic

Why Are Upworthy Headlines Suddenly Everywhere? Don’t let the headline fool you — this article from The Atlantic is not all about Upworthy OR headlines! It’s actually about how Facebook and Twitter drive traffic to news sites, which in turn drives editors to try anything they can think of to get people to click what they post on Facebook and Twitter. The power of these sites was illustrated in October when Facebook changed the algorithm that controls its News Feed, and traffic to news sites from Facebook increased even more.

Takeaways: It used to be that people bought a newspaper or tuned in to their favorite nightly news show on TV. That’s not how most people get news today. The phrase “drives traffic” obscures a larger truth: Facebook is responsible for what a lot of people find out about what’s happening in the world. This affects how they think about issues and maybe even how they vote. Find out how Facebook determines what appears in your News Feed.

Home page - The Wire

Do mobile-friendly redesigns run the risk of frustrating desktop users? Recent redesigns of news sites favor mobile visitors over people who view the site on a larger screen (whether desktop or laptop). Writer Sam Kirkland argues that “millions of us still sit at a desk in front of a computer at work all day” and “sometimes prefer the larger screen.”

Takeaways: Mobile design advocates, including Miranda Mulligan and Damon Kiesow (quoted in the article), mostly dismiss Kirkland’s concerns. Mobile viewing of news sites is the present and the future, and the number of people who browse a big, crowded “home page” or “landing page” is expected to continue its decline. Therefore, resources invested in those large-screen formats are (largely) wasted.


Smarter(4): A list for journalism students

Each Sunday, I post links to three (and only three) articles that are informative about, or pointing the way to, the future in journalism. Previous posts can be found here. There is also a Tumblr for this series, named Smarter.

Photo: Clock face

Medium’s metric that matters: Total Time Reading. Are you reading Medium? It’s a longer-form writing and social platform developed by Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter, and it just recently opened its doors to all writers. This article discusses why a common metric used to (supposedly) show how popular articles or sites are — pageviews — is NOT the metric Medium considers most important. It also discusses engagement, a pretty hot topic in journalism circles right now.

Takeaways: Understand engagement and attention and how they contribute to success or failure of a content operation (a publication, a website). If you spend your time writing or editing a great story, don’t you want people to spend time reading or watching it? The questions listed at the bottom of this post are worth thinking about.

Screen capture: Chris Johanesen

Design, testing and launching new products at BuzzFeed. In this interview with Chris Johanesen, we learn about the design team and product managers at BuzzFeed, and how what they do contributes to the popularity of the site and the brand. The site’s mix of serious news and cute baby animals is a strategy, not an accident. Since Ben Smith became editor-in-chief in January 2012, BuzzFeed has added ”verticals” focused on politics, tech, and entertainment.

Takeaways: In a digital world, UX (user experience) is an important part of attracting people to a website or an app. BuzzFeed tracks all content and lets editors know, “in realtime, how their posts are performing.” The team also focuses on how fast pages load on both desktop and mobile platforms. Note the emphasis on scrolling rather than clicking. Making a successful information product (whether it’s journalism or entertainment or both) requires more than just a bunch of content.

Screen capture: Day to End Impunity

Free Expression, Surveillance, and the Fight Against Impunity. “When someone acts with impunity, it means that their actions have no consequences. Intimidation, threats, attacks and murders go unpunished” (source). Nov. 23 was International Day to End Impunity, and although the day has passed, this short blog post on the Deeplinks blog (from the Electronic Frontier Foundation) can still open your eyes to how threats to journalism are really threats to everyone’s safety and freedom, and to human rights in general. You can explore different kinds of challenges to free expression in this interactive feature: Break the Silence.

Takeaways: Physical threats are not the only kind of danger that journalists face. Systematic efforts to put journalists under surveillance are “crimes against privacy [that] can be used to intimidate or limit the work of free speech.” Also, it’s not only journalists who are standing up. Activists, artists, and everyday citizens around the world also put their personal safety on the line.

I’d love to know what you think. Are these three items new to you? Did they make you think? Did you learn something? Tell me via Twitter or Facebook or here, in the comments.


Smarter(3): A list for journalism students

Each Sunday, I post links to three (and only three) articles that are informative about, or pointing the way to, the future in journalism. Previous posts can be found here. There is also a Tumblr for this series, named Smarter.

Photo: More maths today, by Flickr user stuartpilbrow

How I faced my fears and learned to be good at math. Matt Waite used to be a reporter at a big Florida newspaper; now he’s a journalism professor. He writes code and is well known for giving fun and profanity-laced training sessions about investigative reporting. However, like many journalists, Waite always considered himself to be bad at math. When he took an undergrad math placement exam at the university where he now teaches, his score put him into a remedial math class. This article shows us what happened next — and why saying you are “bad at math” is — well, just stupid.

Takeaways: Today’s journalism requires journalists to be good at math. Becoming good at math does not require special talents or brilliance. If you’ve ever said, “I’m bad at math,” probably you just weren’t doing it right. This is a deficit you can fix, and Waite explains how.

Chart: Pew Research Center

News Use across Social Media Platforms. The title of this Pew Research Center post might be dull, but the information certainly is not: About half of all Facebook and Twitter users get news on those sites, but on Pinterest, almost no one uses it to get news. Most YouTube and LinkedIn users also report that they do NOT get news from those sites. (These data seem to contradict a report posted here last week, which said Pinterest is the No. 2 driver of traffic to “publishers.” That report, however, did not focus on “news.”) Several interesting graphics enhance this post from Pew.

Takeaways: A news organization needs to know how people are using different social media platforms. It’s not enough to know which platform has the most activity or the most users — those stats might not be relevant to sharing news. Even if young people are leaving Facebook, lots of older people are still enthusiastic about it. (Check out the chart titled “Profile of the Social Media News Consumer” for data about age groups and news use.)

Illustration: Jeff Bezos as a paperboy

The Data-Driven Future of Journalism. This article is NOT about telling stories with data. Instead, longtime editor Owen Thomas looks at how other industries use data about customers to refine and improve products — and asks why journalism businesses fail to pay proper attention to what the audience is reading, viewing, commenting on, and sharing. This is not a data-heavy story — instead, it presents a simple argument in favor of listening to the audience and learning what people like — and why.

Takeaways:  Audience analysis and metrics are not (only) for the business office — editors and journalists need these too. Tallying pageviews (“the crudest possible approximation of the interaction between a writer and a reader”) is only the tip of the iceberg. We have sophisticated tools now (but we’re not using them) to find out why people read a story, how they found it, what they thought about it.

I’d love to know what you think. Are these three items new to you? Did they make you think? Did you learn something? Tell me via Twitter or Facebook or here, in the comments.


Smarter(2): A list for journalism students

Every week I read a lot of tweets and articles and blog posts about journalism. Every time I talk about the evolution of the field with journalism students, I see evidence that they are not keeping up.

So, I am trying something. Three articles, every Sunday, that I read this week. Three that are very different. Informative about, or pointing the way to, the future. Three, and only three.

This is the second installment. The first (from one week ago) is here.

Image: Forbes header

The Forbes digital content model and power of the long-tail. Forbes publishes hundreds of articles on its website every day, and 60 to 70 percent of the writers earned $45,000 in the past year, said Lewis D’Vorkin, Forbes‘s chief product officer. Of the remaining 30 to 40 percent, some writers are getting nothing but exposure — on a site said to have 52 million unique visitors per month. This conversation with D’Vorkin is not the first time the Forbes content model has been examined, but I liked the combination of business strategy and relevance to writers in this report. (Read more about Forbes.)

Takeaways: Understand the kinds of business models that news sites use. To work in journalism, you need to know how the game is played. It’s not only about how the individual writer gets paid; it’s also important for the organization to have a plan that enables it to survive, expand audience, and pay writers. Part of Forbes’s strategy is the long tail, an important idea in online content strategy.

Chart: From Mashable

Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube referrals up 52%+ in past year. This report from Shareaholic raises several questions (in my mind). I was led to the post by a compelling chart published on Mashable (shown above). But what I’d like to know is, how valid are the data from “200,000 publishers who reach more than 250 million unique monthly visitors”? For example, TripAdvisor has 260 million unique monthly visitors — is TripAdvisor a “publisher”? BuzzFeed has only 85 million — so does that mean BuzzFeed doesn’t matter?

Takeaways: The chart might represent something useful, but without knowing more about the “200,000 publishers,” we should not accept it without question. If we charted the data from only news websites, maybe the chart would look different. Referrers from sharing sites need to be studied and analyzed by all online information providers, but data from your own site is far more useful than an aggregate.

CPJ site: The report

America’s Shackled Press. This readable summary explains the importance of a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which never before now felt the need to commission a special report on the United States — where the press is supposedly free. CPJ tracks oppression of and attacks against journalists in countries all over the world. The new report details how the Obama White House has “undermined the media’s ability to hold the government accountable.” The full report, titled The Obama Administration and the Press, is available online.

Takeaways: Journalism students are taught about protecting their sources, but because of electronic surveillance, today you cannot guarantee such protection unless you take extraordinary measures. If you can’t protect a source, that source might not be able to give you information, because exposure will cost him or her too much — a job, a career, an identity, even his or her life. How much will remain hidden because we cannot ensure a source’s anonymity?

I’d love to know what you think. Are these three items new to you? Did they make you think? Did you learn something? Tell me via Twitter or Facebook or here, in the comments.