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.

Smarter: 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, a new experiment. 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.

Image: D3.js examples

The One Tech Buzzword Every Journalist Should Know. In this post, John Paul Titlow (a writer for Fast Company‘s FastCoLabs) explains why cutting-edge news organizations such as Quartz are using D3.js, a JavaScript library. What they use it for: maps, charts, and data visualizations. This post is short, and not technical.

Takeaways: Journalists need to know how to work with data, but they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Tools like Chartbuilder and OpenStreetMap give you a big head start.

Image: BuzzFeed video examples

“We’re still babies at it”: BuzzFeed Video’s strategy … Journalists need to think (really think) abut why people share things, because social sharing is the main driver of news dissemination today. BuzzFeed is the exemplar for content sharing. Nieman Journalism Lab goes behind the scenes with Ze Frank, boss of video at BuzzFeed. (Online video ad revenues are growing, so some news organizations are ramping up video production to chase the ad dollars — but what if the audience does not flock to the videos?)

Takeaways: What does a video producer at BuzzFeed do? What does analysis of video sharing tell us?

Image: NSA Files top of story

NSA Files Decoded: What the revelations mean for you. This multimedia package from The Guardian — which broke the Edward Snowden story and has published many stories based on Snowden’s leaked materials — makes journalism history. Unlike previously released beautiful article designs in long scrolling formats, this time the subject of the story has worldwide and long-lasting significance. The NSA/Snowden is probably THE story of the decade, and this manner of presenting it demonstrates the range of skill sets needed in newsrooms in the 21st century.

Takeaways: Know what the NSA story means. Understand the diverse journalism skills behind making the videos and information graphics in this package.

Let me know what you think. Had you already seen all three of these? How many are new to you? Did they make you think? Did you learn something? Tell me via Twitter or Facebook or here, in the comments.

Code for journalists, or why journalists should learn code

Friday I was visiting the Center for Collaborative Journalism, and I watched director Tim Regan-Porter teaching a class called Hacking the Media. In it, about 12 students were learning to do something with Ruby on Rails. Some of the students were journalism majors. Others were from engineering or technical communication. They told the visitors how the course was helping them learn to approach and solve problems (and not only problems of code) in new ways. The students were very positive and enthusiastic. Only four of them volunteered information, though, so we don’t know what the others think.

“Coding for journalists” might be the flavor of the day, the way “backpack journalism” was a few years ago. Emotions run hot over the question, with people inside and outside journalism digging their heels in and pulling for their side.

Here’s a summary of the ever-recurring conversation about whether journalists (or journalism students) should learn to code.

What Should Reporters Learn in Journalism School? This is the immensely useful follow-up to a less useful (in my opinion) article, Should Journalism Schools Require Reporters to ‘Learn Code’? No, by the same author, Olga Khazan, who is an editor at The Atlantic. The reason I prefer the “What Should Reporters Learn” article: It talks about statistics, scraping, numeracy, using the Web to generate story ideas quickly, understanding research studies (and which ones are junk), pitching stories (brilliant), and more. In other words, the article does not pull out the old trope “Journalists must learn to write,” and leave it at that. Favorite quote:

If I had one or two years of grad school to become an effective reporter, though, I would try to save time by making full use of the ready-made scraping tools geared toward non-programmers … (In this case, the “everyone needs a little bit of code” argument is flawed, too, since you can’t “little bit” scrape some data.)

Those required courses in journalism school are there for a reason. This article, by Khazan’s former journalism professor Robert Hernandez, talks about how undergraduates in general don’t know what they should know, and journalism schools have a responsibility to expose students to many things they might consider pointless or not related to their future career aspirations. Hernandez defines some terms related to “code” and makes a neat distinction between two types he calls “a modern journalist” and “a digital journalist.” Favorite quote:

While journalism saved my life, the web and technology gave me a direction. I’ve had an incredible career because I learned the power behind the phrase “Hello World.”

Late addition: In On journalism and learning to code (again), Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellow Noah Veltman addresses “a lot of fallacies about code and journalism” in Khazan’s first article (the one that says j-schools should not require student to learn code). Veltman has better chops than most of us, and right now he’s embedded with the BBC in London. Favorite quote:

If you think you can compartmentalize the “data” work and give it to someone else, or that you’re fine only reporting stories you can find browsing Excel, someone else is going to eat your lunch.

Should journalists learn to code? Hernandez was a major participant in this Twitter conversation, archived by me (although I hardly participated at all). If you’re tempted to have this discussion yourself, you could just read this first and save yourself some trouble. One of several favorite tweets:

Every 6 months the “should journalists learn to code” article is instant traffic/social media discussion. We’re being played. — David Cohn

What is ‘code,’ anyway?

That conversation brings out a part of the issue that might be glossed over in some venues or instances: What do we mean by “code”? Some people are willing to lump all Internet things together under the word code. Others distinguish carefully between HMTL and CSS (not “code,” but “markup”) and the programming languages Python and Ruby (definitely “code”). I participated in a brief argument at a conference in August when a professor claimed JavaScript is not a programming language (it is).

And then, there are tools. Are you “learning to code” if you learn a program such as Adobe Dreamweaver? Usually, no. You can write HTML, CSS and even JavaScript inside Dreamweaver — but most students will not learn code by using Dreamweaver, so I would recommend ignoring it, and certainly never teaching it.

What about scraping? There are tools out here that let you scrape without knowing how to code. Getting the job done is good. Not doing it with code? You can decide.

Break it down for a j-school curriculum

This is a series of posts I wrote earlier this year to differentiate among the things journalists talk about when they talk about “code.” The series was titled “Get started with Web coding.”

Part 1: HTML and CSS

Part 2: JavaScript and jQuery

Part 3: The command line

Part 4: Software and CMSs

Part 5: How to use Git and GitHub

What do journalists need?

Answering this question is complicated, but let’s cut to the chase and admit that every journalist today must know how to do more than only write and interview people. Finding public records requires online search skills. Analyzing the claims made in science and health studies requires numeracy skills.

If you’re a great video storyteller, for example, you might never need to know any code. But how does a student in j-school know (really know) what path his or her career will follow? So many journalism students proclaim that they “can’t do math,” or say, “Computers don’t like me.” I hear these statements all the time, and that’s something the j-schools must — absolutely must — address.

Does code need to be part of that? I think it does. Learning how to learn to code (not rote memorization) encourages and empowers the kind of student who has been hiding behind an “I can’t do math” defensive shield.

Aggregation and curation in journalism

About two months ago, I had to explain the concept and use of aggregation in online journalism to a group of journalists (mostly editors) in Vietnam. I found most of my material in this blog post by Steve Buttry — and in fact, much of what you need to know is in his headline: Link, attribute, add value.

To aggregate is to bring things together in one place, to gather a number of different items, to create a collection.

“Aggregation and curation are techniques of using content from other sources to provide content for your audience. They occupy overlapping spaces …” (Buttry)

Types of aggregation can be viewed as a continuum:

  • Fully automated, no humans are selecting content (for example, Google search)
  • Partly automated (for example, an RSS feed from one or mored selected sources)
  • Only automated in a small way (for example, a reporter performs numerous Google searches to create a short list of links to useful resources)
  • Not automated at all: Mainly uses human intelligence and judgment (for example, a reporter interviews several experts to compile a set of items culled from various sources) — this is more like curation

A couple of generalized examples from Buttry:

  • “Original reporting supplemented by curation of some background content from your [newspaper’s] own archives”
  • “Aggregation of data from public records, with value added by [the reporter’s] original analysis and/or reporting”

Is aggregation ethical?

You might ask: Why is this acceptable? How is it different from stealing, or violating copyright?

Aggregation can be done ethically if you follow these guidelines:

  1. Always link to the original source.
  2. Always include clear attribution (in addition to the link). For an example, see the first paragraph of this post.
  3. “Attribution helps consumers evaluate the reliability of information.” (Buttry)
  4. Always use quotation marks (as in the previous item) when you copy and paste someone else’s text.
  5. Add value to the material — add original reporting, updates, analysis (see examples below).
  6. Another way to add value is to summarize and/or compare reports from several other sources.
  7. Do not simply copy information, especially from unknown or unreliable sources.
  8. Part of the value that you add is that you are using only sources that you trust.

As a teacher, I realize that students do not know how to apply these ethical principles to aggregation — so this is now something we need to teach, explicitly, in the j-schools.

Three examples

Here are three very different examples of aggregation, each produced by a journalism organization:

Giant panda at Zoo Atlanta gives birth to twins (The Washington Post). This photo gallery gives us an example that won’t seem at all strange to experienced journalists — it’s a collection of photos from various wire services. We can assume that The Washington Post has paid all appropriate fees and has the legal right to publish each of these photos online. (For students, we have to make the point that it’s not legal to grab photos from websites and compile a gallery — that would be breaking the law, as BuzzFeed recently learned.)

Interesting points about the panda gallery:

  • Not a single photo was taken by a Washington Post photographer.
  • The panda twins were born at the Atlanta zoo, not the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
  • Only ONE photo in the gallery shows the new panda cubs.

Timeline: Syria’s bloodiest days (BBC News). In this text-only example, the news organization is aggregating or curating from itself. Every event listed in this timeline includes a link to a past BBC story about that event. I would be inclined to label this example curation, because it represents a careful process of selection and culling.

11 disturbing things [Edward] Snowden has taught us (so far) (GlobalPost). The (considerable) value added in this example is in the summary of a long and complex story. Each point has a link to an original source. Seven of the 12 links go to The Guardian, which broke the story; there are five links to other original news reports about this case. We could probably have a long discussion about whether this story is too derivative of Guardian reporting — I would argue that the value of the summary, and the “consequence” written for each of the 11 points, more than justifies the right of GlobalPost to publish this.

Are you teaching journalism students how to aggregate and curate?

UPDATE (Sept. 8): Steve Buttry approves of this post.

Twitter milestone: 8,000 followers

Yesterday my Twitter odometer rolled over, as follower No. 8,000 appeared.

Screen capture June 9, 2013

My Twitter handle is @macloo.

I use Twitter mainly as a news feed. I don’t follow friends from my personal life (unless they are in journalism), and for the most part, I don’t tweet personal things.

I use Hootsuite as my Twitter client both in my Web browser and on my phone.

Twitter has become my first and most-used news source. I use an RSS reader (Feedly), but I open it only when I’m stuck without any reading material (waiting at a doctor’s office, for example). I never go directly to any news organization’s home page. Seriously, never. (Unless I’m preparing something for a presentation and I need some screen shots.)

Many people — including most of my students — do not use Twitter this way. I find it invaluable, and I’m somewhat amazed at how my news habits have changed since  I started using Twitter on my phone several years ago.

  • I follow a number of news sites (actually very few) selected to be non-redundant. One of my stalwarts is Al Jazeera English.
  • I follow certain journalists who tweet selectively, such as The New York Times‘s Patrick LaForge.
  • I follow a lot of my online journalism heroes, who keep me up-to-date on new developments in the digital arena.
  • I cull the list of those I follow, eliminating people when they start tweeting things that don’t concern me (such as too much personal stuff).
  • When news breaks, I open a new stream in Hootsuite and follow hashtags.
  • I follow links every time I open Twitter. I favorite those I don’t have time to read right away.
  • I also have my bookmarks manager, Pinboard, configured to save any URL that I send in a tweet.

This is my news consumption now. It’s almost all Twitter.

Your syllabus as a blog: How to do it

For about three years, I have been using (a free blogging site) to create a syllabus for each one of my courses. I first tried it in 2007, and now I’m totally sold on the practice. (See two examples: graduate course; undergrad course.)

One of the best features for students: If you choose a WordPress theme that is mobile-ready, your students can very easily check their deadlines, assignments, etc., on their smartphones, from anywhere.

You can also update your syllabus from your smartphone. There’s an app for that: IOS and Android.

So how should you start? First, set up a free account. Everything you need to know is here: WordPress Basics.

You can always delete a blog — you can create and maintain multiple blogs under one single username. Your first blog can be a little testbed for you to get to know WordPress as a blogging platform, if you aren’t using it already. Then after you feel up to speed, launch a new blog and make that one your syllabus.

If you are using WordPress, there’s no reason to wait. Just launch a new blog before your next course begins, and set it up as the syllabus!

What to put on the ‘Pages’

Most WordPress themes make it easy for you to show the titles of “Pages” as big navigation buttons on every page of the blog. I’ve settled on a standard short list of Pages, based on some standard sections of a traditional syllabus.

About This Course: Key details at the top, such as the room number, meeting times, and contact info for the instructor. Those are followed by an informal description of the course (longer than the university catalog description) and reasons why a student might want to take it.

Course Schedule: This is the page that students will be checking all the time during the semester. It includes the day and dates for all class meetings, all deadlines, assigned readings, etc. However (and I feel this is very important), it does not include details about any of the work. It has an outline format and large headings for each week, making it very easy for students to use.

Required Work: For me, this is a really important part of the package, because it bridges between the skeletal Course Schedule page and the full-fledged descriptions of assignments, which will be posted on a weekly basis after the course gets under way. The Required Work page lays out the percentages or points for all assignments and provides a rationale for each type of assignment (e.g., blog posts, presentations).

Syllabus: Standard boilerplate items that do not change much, or at all, from year to year, such as the course description, attendance policies, honor code and accommodations for students with disabilities.

I’m sure for various kinds of courses, the instructor might want to add or subtract pages from this list. The way you organize it is quite important — you’ve got to be thinking about how students use documents and text. Not many of them are going to read everything!

What to put in the sidebar(s)

The Search box should be at the very top — typically on the far right side. Find it in the WordPress Widgets list, in the Dashboard list under “Appearance.”

A “subscribe by email” link is very helpful to some students (although not all will use it). Also in the Widgets list — “Follow Blog.” I always put this immediately below the Search box.

Sidebar links in WordPress default to one category: “Blogroll.” But you can change that (Dashboard > Links > Link Categories). I like to provide separate categories for links that are:

  • Specific to this particular course
  • Recommended, or generally useful for students who would take this course
  • Specific to our department, college and/or university

For a class in which students keep their own individual blogs, I use RSS (see Widgets) to display each student’s most recent post in the sidebar.

What to put in the footer

Most students will not look at the footer, so don’t put anything vital there.

How to post assignments

Most students like a predictable structure in their courses, so I make it clear to them which day of the week they can expect to see a new post on the course blog. Usually I say Monday, but I post on Sunday night. If I post anything on another day, it should be optional.

Most posts are specifically related to one single assignment. If there are a lot of details, I use subheadings and bullet lists. WordPress makes it easy to post links to resources, and I also like that students can ask questions directly on the assignment post, by leaving a comment. If students are creating something that can be linked to, you can require them to post their link in a comment on the assignment post.

With careful use of WordPress categories, you can make it easy for students to promptly find the latest assignment even if you are adding other kinds of posts as well.

How to use categories effectively

The categories for “Posts” are different from the categories for “Links.” You can easily set up a few key categories (Dashboard > Posts > Categories) such as:

  • Assignments (my most-used category in every syllabus blog)
  • Recommended (or, Resources)
  • In the News
  • Events

I think it’s sensible to limit the number of categories to the minimum you can tolerate. It doesn’t help anyone to have lots of categories that each have only one or two items. You can always add unlimited tags (such as topic names) to any post.

What to print for the first class

If the class meets in a computer lab, I can condense the printed document down to one page, providing my contact information, the URL of the course blog, and a few other details. We can go over the full syllabus online during the class.

If the class meets in a regular classroom, I will hand out a four-page version on the first day, and that will include a brief version of the Course Schedule and Required Work pages. It also includes my contact information and the URL of the course.