Teaching Online Journalism

What people search for online

When you’re writing a blog, you should check your stats from time to time (I’m not as obsessive about it as some are) to see what people are reading, where they came from (referrers), what they click in your posts.

Search terms are especially interesting to me. They don’t exactly correlate with the most-viewed posts on a blog.

Chart: Total Visits by Search Term

I find the popularity of the search terms timeline, timelines, and — check out the detail list! — the Chinese characters for “timeline” to be mystifying. When I do a Google search for timelines, my post about that topic doesn’t even appear on the first two pages of results.

That brings me to a key observation about paying attention to your stats. If people are coming to your site because of a search, you should think about whether you might want to offer them more on that topic. I don’t mean you should add stuff that doesn’t match the mission or purpose of your blog — but think about whether it makes sense for you to beef up your content to satisfy those searchers.

Early in 2011, I looked at my blog stats and saw that a large number of searches then included the word timeline. So I searched my blog and found I didn’t have any posts devoted to the design or production of timeline graphics. So I made a mental note to get around to that, someday — because those graphics are part of teaching about online journalism.

Later that year, in April, I was asking students in a journalism course to create an interactive timeline graphic in Adobe Flash. I wanted to show them examples, so I dug into my bookmarks — and then I had the material for a blog post about timelines (already linked above). I suppose that accounts for the extraordinary dominance of related terms in my stats for 2012.

There are hundreds of search terms (in my WordPress stats for this blog) that resulted in fewer than 40 site visits in 2012. If I did a text analysis of all the search terms (maybe using a clustering algorithm from Overview?), maybe I would find others in the 200-300 count range, or even higher, but I’m not that into it. I had enough interest to paste the top search terms into Excel and generate the chart you see above — which took a lot less time to do than writing this post!

Take a look at your blog’s search stats — if you’re serious about blogging.

Update: Total search terms that people used in 2012 to come to Teaching Online Journalism: 498 (my WordPress logs do not show any terms that were used fewer than 5 times). Total visits from those search terms: 10,837. (So the people who came for timelines may represent about one-fifth of all who came via search.) Total site visits for the year: 99,567.

Should you get a master’s in journalism?

To answer that question, make sure you know what you want to gain from the experience. Because getting a master’s degree is an experience — as well as an investment of your time and your money.

Mu Lin, a professor at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey, has addressed this in a new blog post:

A survey of master’s programs in digital journalism in US

Lin wrote:

Digital expertise is no longer an option for journalism students at both undergraduate and graduate levels, and digital training should be an integral part of any journalism program.

Unfortunately, digital training is not always desired by students who enroll in a journalism master’s degree program.

When students enroll in a graduate program for journalism, they come with a very wide range of expectations and assumptions (this is true not only at my university — I’ve discussed this with professors at various j-schools around the United States and Canada, and they see the same range).

Some students have not thoroughly researched what real journalists do in their jobs. Some students are not fully aware of how the journalism field has changed in the past 10 years.

One consequence of that shortage of information: Students may resist or even reject training in digital skills necessary for, say, data-driven journalism. Why? Because the student wants to be “a writer” or “a TV reporter.”

Everyone who wants to apply to any journalism graduate program, at any university, needs to research the field and the jobs in that field. Don’t make any assumptions. Check out the ads for real journalism jobs today.

Related post: Advice to journalism students: Forget grad school!

Required reading: How open source makes you better

In this blog post (Why Journalism Tools Gather Dust), Dan Schultz of The Boston Globe describes what amounts to one of the big reasons why news websites are not as successful as they could be.

If you borrow code then you are more likely to be familiar with what the rest of the world is doing. If you share code then you are going to build your systems with an emphasis on reuse and extensibility (i.e. correctly). If you regularly borrow AND share code then you are building a community around whatever it is you do.

What I’m trying to say is that if newspapers can buy into the mantra of openness — even just internal openness — they can kill about thirty birds with one stone.

But they usually don’t.

Legacy media companies have a lot of bad habits. Like some close-minded people, these companies have dragged their ancient prejudices and beliefs with them into their old age.

What Schultz describes reminded me of a newsroom that jealously guards a “scoop” that’s not really a scoop — some news they uncovered that — seriously, guys — either no one really cares about except other journalists, or everyone will find out about anyway within an hour, so who the heck cares if you break it first? (I’m not saying there are no real scoops; I’m just saying that journalists sometimes get all proprietary and hush-hush about something that truly is not groundbreaking or even secret.)

As Schultz points out, some media organizations such as The New York Times do follow open-source principles — but there’s more to it than that:

[W]ithout a supportive institutional strategy, open source and reusable code are just nice-to-haves.

A deadline mentality (also dragged along from the past) encourages short-term thinking. Almost everything in most newsrooms is about today and right now; very little is about planning and building for the future.

Recently a friend of mine — formerly a professional programmer and systems analyst — lectured me about my plan to teach journalism student to code. Teach them to respect commenting and documentation, she said. Teach them to write code that others can come along later and read, because by doing so, they will become better programmers, and their future code will be better because of the effort.

Why is this required reading?  These ideas are important for discussion, both in the classroom and in the newsroom.

Teaching programming to journalists

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve been preparing a syllabus for an upper-level undergraduate journalism course that I will begin teaching in January. I’ve been learning Python and starting to learn about jQuery.

I’ve got some advantages: I learned HTML in 1995. (I bought a book and did all the exercises in it, at home, on my own time.) I played with the BASIC programming language on my first computer in 1984 until I learned how programming works. (I bought a book and did many of the exercises in it.) I bought an account at an early online community called the WeLL, which gave me access to a Unix command line, which helped me learn about the Internet before we had the Web. I think that was around 1989. (I bought a book to learn Unix commands.)

I’ve had no formal training in programming or Web technologies. My B.A. is in print journalism.

I’ve got some disadvantages: I don’t have strong inclinations toward investigative reporting. I’ve taken two or three workshops with the old computer-assisted reporting crowd, and I admire what they do. I attended a wonderful presentation by Jennifer LaFleur (director of computer-assisted reporting at ProPublica) at a recent conference. However, I seem to lack all interest in examining large datasets. I can download them, dump them into Excel, and clean them. After that, I have no desire to do anything else with them. (I’m not proud of this. I’m just saying.)

I’ve had almost no math education. High school algebra and, in college, symbolic logic. No calculus. Not even a geometry class.

So I think about my journalism students. I think about what I like and don’t like, what I consider fun and interesting, and what I don’t. And I look at all the great work being done online by all kinds of journalists using a wide variety of digital tools.

What I want to do is open doors.

I want to be able to show journalism students that they can do things with code. Even if they think they can’t.

Above all, I want them to understand that “doing things with code” can lead you in several very different directions in the field of journalism.

This is important.

We can offer a course that focuses on Web technologies — HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc. But there is no data journalism in that class. And a lot of the students are going to hate typing those little brackets and so on. They’ll be so happy when that course is done and they never have to do that again.

Moreover, they won’t practice what they learned, and very soon, they will forget all of it.

We can offer a course about scraping and doing stuff with large data sets. We can teach students how to find stories in data. Students who like this, who learn how to do it and want to continue doing it, are probably among those most likely to get a journalism job. Like the Web technologies course, though, this is a class that many students will either avoid like the plague or take and then count the minutes until it’s over.

Right now, many of you might be thinking thoughts about two types of students: those who appreciate such a course and use what they learn in it, and those who are not appreciative — and so what? Forget about them.

What I’ve been thinking about — a lot — is that there are a zillion ways to turn students off. To make them do things in a class that result in the students forming negative opinions. “I don’t like this,” or “I’m no good at this.” (I think this often happens in Reporting 101 courses too.)

Learning that you can do these things — these code type things — is the first step. Learning that you are capable. You can figure this out. You are not “bad at math,” or “bad at computers.”

Most journalism students learned — back in high school, or even before — that they are “good at writing.” Some of them are quite surprised to learn (in Reporting 101) that they are not good at writing a lede, finding appropriate sources, avoiding cliches, or using commas correctly. Yet the confidence that they are good at writing will sustain many of them through all kinds of setbacks.

If students realize that they can write code — they can figure it out, solve problems, make things that work properly — they will have opened a door that leads to dozens of different journeys in journalism.

My concern is that the way we introduce code to journalism students can push away those who might really excel in one of those areas.

I don’t have a solution. I don’t know if there is one.

But again and again I return to the way I felt in 1984 when I was learning BASIC, in 1995 when I was learning HTML. It was fun. I was happy to be learning. I completed little exercises and they worked. I felt proud of myself.

I thought: I can do this.

(Image credits: Python interpreter, Mindy McAdams; “Our database,” Jennifer LaFleur; Data Journalism Handbook; WTF cartoon, Martin Schmid)

Most-viewed posts in 2012

According to my WordPress stats, these are the posts with the most pageviews in the past 12 months:

  1. Best social media tools for journalists (5,669)
  2. Timelines in journalism: A closer look (4,365)
  3. A few words about digital audio recorders (3,626)
  4. How to shoot video interviews (3,465)
  5. 10 Rules for Visual Storytelling (3,043)
  6. Advice to journalism students: Forget grad school! (2,442)
  7. Why does anyone major in journalism? (2,296)
  8. Getting a journalism degree, getting a journalism job (2,197)
  9. Updated tutorials for Audacity (audio editing) (2,083)
  10. Recording phone interviews: A solution that works (1,605)
  11. Now printable! Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency (1,486)
  12. Skills needed by today’s journalists (1,464)

Most of us who blog don’t blog as often as we used to, four or five years ago (before Twitter), but I gratefully learn from others’ old blog posts all the time.

Now in Portuguese and Chinese: Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency

A new translation of this guide is now available, thanks to the efforts of Alessandra de Falco, a journalism professor at Universidade Federal de São João del-Rei in Brazil. She uses the guide in her classes.

Em Português: Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency (PDF; 1 MB)

Also, I neglected to post earlier about a new Chinese translation, by Xiaonan Wang, a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She sent this to me in June, and I failed to post it before now.

中文版 : Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency (PDF; 438 KB)

I wrote the guide here, on this blog, in 2009. It has not been updated, but it seems a lot of the advice and instructions still hold up today. Some links might be broken. I regret that I do not have time to update the guide at this time.

> Read more about the guide here.

Other free downloads

In English: Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency (PDF; 536 KB)

En Español: Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency (PDF; 614 KB) — translation by María Elena Brizuela, a journalist and journalism educator based in Córdoba, Argentina.

Online versions

Auf Deutsch — translation by Ulrike Langer, a journalist based in Cologne. (Part 15 of 15 posted Jan. 13, 2010.)

In Russian — a translation sponsored by Deutsche Welle on a training blog, кладезь знаний для журналистов. (Part 15 of 15 posted June 2, 2011.)

Election 2012 maps: Showing data

This was the first U.S. presidential election in the post-Flash era. In 2008, data maps were made with Flash. Now the online mapmakers have moved on to other technologies, largely using JavaScript. Here are three examples, with a full view and a zoom of each:

WNYC Radio, New York:

LA Times/AP:

Huffington Post, Visual.ly:

The data in all three maps were updated throughout the night on November 6.

Screenshots taken November 7, between 10:45 and 11 a.m., U.S. Eastern Time.