Category Archives: Journalism Education

Shilling for Social Media and Other New Tools

This post is part of the monthly Carnival of Journalism.  Here is the prompt: How do you decide to dedicate time to a new tool/platform/gadget? What is the process you go through mentally? And then later – how do you convince others to go through that process? And, last: How do you ensure that the tools you do adopt are used once the “newness” factor fades?

As a journalism educator, a big part of my job is convincing students to try new tools and cultivate the habit of using them regularly, so I’ll focus first on that part of the prompt. I teach reporting and social media, two courses in our curriculum that emphasize multimedia and experimenting with new technologies. Contrary to popular belief, many of these so-called “digital natives” are often neither savvy about new tech nor exceptionally eager to go beyond their Facebook and Internet Explorer (?!) comfort zones.

As David Cohn of Spot.us puts it, my main goal is less to teach mastery of any particular tool or software, but to “teach a mind-set of problem solving.” But cultivating the motivation in students to grapple with new things that may be initially frustrating is often difficult.

A few techniques I use:

  • Show as many examples of high-profile journalists using these technologies as possible. Yes, I will stoop to pimping Katie Couric’s Twitter account or showing them People magazine’s Facebook page, as well as many accounts from the New York Times, CNN, local journalists, and the like.  It’s hard to argue you don’t need to do it when you see the pros, especially the ones you have heard of and respect, are doing it.
  • Similarly, I show as many examples of students at other schools using new technologies as possible. Those of you at elite schools where your students on average are more motivated or have access to all the latest gadgets and shiny new labs help show my students the way and foster a little sense of healthy competition.
  • Find ways to generate a quick community of fellow beginners by fostering cross-campus conversation. For example, last semester my students participated in a Twitter chat with Bob Britten’s class at WVU and Jeremy Littau’s students at Lehigh, among other collective activities.  When you are new to a social network, it often takes time to cultivate enough contacts to make the experience meaningful; this technique lets students learn more about engaging with a community in the shorter semester time frame.
  • Make it fun. Scavenger hunts or live tweeting the Grammys may not be the most noble of educational or journalistic pursuits, but enthusiasm pays it forward. Classes that have fun doing assignments together also tend to get along better with their peers, and in intangible ways I don’t entirely understand, this raises overall effort level in the class.
  • Similarly, harness students’ passions. I used to be more adamant about “hard news” assignments. I’ve learned, however, that if you want students to learn, say, WordPress, let them blog about whatever they want. All the same standards of original reporting, verification, grammar, etc. still apply, of course. But when a technology is new to you, it helps to have a genuine sense of excitement about what you are trying to use it for. As students get more advanced and take higher-level courses, they do more meaty and investigative work, but when you are introducing lots of new tools, giving them some agency in deciding their final objective helps.
  • Do it yourself. The whole “do I say” thing is not a cliche. You’ll lack credibility if it’s obvious you aren’t really using these tools yourself.

By the way, I know some of you are probably aghast that not all young journalists are inherently curious and eager to learn “cool” new things, but remember many college students are not long out of high school, where their access to technology might have been limited to sporadic trips to the computer lab. I teach in the Mid-South, and although I’m seeing a much higher rate of smartphone adoption recently, my students don’t all have access to the expensive devices, either – and the culture here is not one in which education is necessarily highly valued or prioritized, regardless of what you study. Students who work long hours waiting tables or similar may not have many regular technology-related habits or experience developing them.

As far as my own tech adoption goes, well, I think others have described it better than I could.  I think  University of British Columbia professor Alfred Hermida’s post offers some great insight into thinking through your social media strategy, and Cohn’s thought process is pretty similar to mine – I keep an open mind but probably won’t use it often if it’s not simple to use.

I will say that at least at the moment, my intentions sometimes override my capacities. I love trying new tools and I think it’s important to do so as often as possible, but at the moment I’m pretty much utterly overwhelmed at work and I’m lucky if I can keep even half of the balls in the air. For something to really become part of my routine, it’s got to meet a pretty high bar of usefulness and enjoyment. Once I develop routines I also tend to latch on to them, which makes it difficult to fit in new things; that may be something I need to work on to make more time for experimentation.

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Boots on the Ground: Students as Local News Sources

Can’t believe a whole month has passed and it is once again time for another blazing round of blogging with the Carnival of Journalism. This time, our fearless leader David Cohn has asked us what steps we, as individuals, could do to increase the number of news sources in our communities.

I think those of us who teach at universities are especially well-positioned to add to the diversity and quantity of local news sources, and indeed, my colleagues and I are trying to do just that right now.  What else do we have but willing and able students who need to master reporting, writing, and multimedia skills not by listening to lectures, but by actually DOING journalism? Yes, our students are still, by definition, learning how to practice journalism and may not be quite up to par with the pros (though I’ve seen a few that could give some pros a run for their money), but they have faculty members who have years of newsroom experience to serve as their editors and guides. [Sorry the image here isn’t edited properly – burning the midnight oil here and running out of steam to fix.]

Probably the most impressive effort to increase local news sources at the  University of Memphis is just launching now. My colleague Dr. Lurene Kelley and our new multimedia capstone class are taking on the hyperlocal reporting challenge by providing extensive online coverage of one community: Cooper Young in Midtown Memphis. Their site just launched this very week, and they hope to not only give these senior-level students a culminating experience that brings all of their writing, reporting, photojournalism, video and web production skills  together, but also to offer this neighborhood the kind of extensive coverage not available from the major metro media. Because this is a new course, enrollment is small, but will grow in subsequent semesters, and Kelley plans on expanding to other neighborhoods as well.

In my reporting and social media courses, each student chooses a beat and creates a beat blog, which may range from anything as serious as local politics to something more fun like Memphis music or MMA. While the beats aren’t explicitly local per se, in-person reporting is required so they definitely have at least a local angle. These blogs are often fledgling efforts by inexperienced students, but local voices get heard that might not otherwise get media attention. You can check out my undergraduate and graduate students blogs via the blogrolls on our class sites. We are just getting started this semester, so there may not be much content yet.

My student Nicole Blum took this great Twitpic of a local fundraiser for St. Jude.

This semester, my social media students are also using a variety of tools such as Twitter and Flickr to report the news and share stories. For example, during a major snowstorm in Memphis last week, my students took photos and reported on everything from road conditions and wrecks to sledding spots from all over the greater metro area using the class hashtag #j4801 and #snOMG. My students have also been participating in campus and city-wide “Scavenger Hunts” that in a sense are also a form of local news reporting as they gather photos and quotes that tell a story about university and civic life. In fact, if you check out the hashtag #j7200 this week you could learn a little bit about some of the places and people in Memphis.

My goal is to continue to build upon and expand efforts such as these and get more of our courses involved in these efforts.

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Universities and Community Information Needs

When I mentioned I was participating in a blog carnival, perhaps unsurprisingly, my husband asked me if this involved the Caribbean/South America and boobs. No, though frankly I wouldn’t mind escaping from winter to a booze-soaked paradise ;). But I digress from a topic that is quite near and dear to my heart as a journalism professor, and the first one assigned in the Carnival of Journalism set up by journalism innovator and Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow David Cohn: How do we increase the role of higher education as a hub of journalistic activity and increase digital and media literacy in the academy, as recommended by the Knight Foundation?

First of all, let me say that I think this recommendation is nothing short of critical. As the metropolitan/local news ecosystem continues to experience layoffs and economic strife that decreases the quality and quantity of the available journalism, journalism schools have to step up and be innovators and news providers. Lacking the same commercial imperatives that newsrooms face, we need to be bold even if  our unexperienced charges can’t fully replicate the work of a long-time professional. It’s good for society and it’s good for our students, who can benefit from every ounce of real-world experience they can get.

Here’s how I think we need to make this ACTUALLY happen, beyond the lip service and pontificating the academy is all too fond of:

  • Journalism schools are increasingly likely to bring on aging former editors who worked for major national or local publications and can lend their glossy imprimatur of prestige to the school’s faculty. This is all well and good, and many make excellent professors – this is not any kind of attack on qualified and dedicated individuals, really, so don’t get in an offended huff, people.  But I think we need to also consider making riskier hires of younger and digital-savvy folks with big ideas and the energy to carry them out. Asking people who have made their entire careers off of a dying industry to now re-create an utterly new one at the twilight of their professional life is a tall order at best. You can also often hire a lot of younger people for the salary you pay the bigwig. Just sayin.
  • Support, cherish and reward student innovators who are making efforts to do things like modernize school newspaper’s websites, create entrepreneurial news ventures and the like. They will experience many obstacles in their path and they need our mentorship. Students, like members of any organization, respond to what leaders reward and what they punish, so we need to be conscious and deliberate about the messages we send to them. Yes, sometimes those that try new things will fail. That’s okay. Flexibility and fearlessness and good-old-fashioned effort will take them far. Please believe me that right now many face discouragement, fear and catastrophizing instead of support.
  • I think all students, regardless of major, should take a digital literacy course that empowers them to not only become more critical and wise consumers of media that will demand and support the best journalism, but also be savvy media creators comfortable with new tools.
  • It takes a village, to use a tired cliche. Universities need to foster an environment that supports the free and open flow of information and the foundational efforts of young journalists who MUST learn by doing, not just by snoozing through a lecture. Administrators, other professors, public officials, and the like need to be responsive to interview and information requests from student journalists and be willing to work constructively with them to improve the accuracy and quality of their work. Being aggressively pompous, belittling and/or denying them access will NOT help them grow as journalists nor serve the larger public good. We journalism professors work very, very, very hard helping our students improve, but we need others too – making up for a deficient primary and secondary education system (not to mention freshman English composition classes at our own universities staffed by overworked graduate students that so may borderline-illiterate students seem to pass) that leaves many students grappling with basic sentence structure is not something we can do all on our own.
  • Instead of having students turn papers in on dead trees to be seen only by you, increasingly find ways to integrate class work with actual online news production. It’s so easy and cheap to do. Got a neighborhood that never appears in your daily paper unless a crime is committed there? Send in some students, set up a blog and a Twitter account, and get them going. I’m biased as an alum, but the Missouri School of Journalism has been doing this FOR YEARS. It can be done. Even if the results aren’t perfect, they are often better than nothing and I nearly guarantee a better learning experience and buy-in.
  • Encourage innovative research into new media instead of yet another safe and predictable study on framing or agenda setting that does little to advance existing knowledge, instead just providing that nice tenure-padding on a vita. Research begets good teaching because it helps professors stay on the cutting edge of their field. I’ve been at conferences where professors who think that maybe the more interesting research path is not in print media are called “furry digital mammals” who are delusional and don’t understand the lasting primacy of print. Really. Not helpful. I’ve also seen really good research (not talking about my own here) denied inexplicably while yet another framing study rolls forward (I have nothing against framing, it’s just that we’ve kind of been there, done that.)
  • Finally, faculty need to USE new media. You can’t teach it credibly unless you DO IT. Students know when you are just blowing hot air. So try it. Get on Twitter, blog, what have you. Embrace new things. There’s a great community of committed journalism educators for you to join. It will be worth it.

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Tweeting From Campus

My students at have a neat opportunity to connect with other journalism students around the country through Twitter, yet another example of how social media is having an impact on education and news. Thought I would do a quick post to invite other journalism professors and students to join us in the experimenting.

Beginning last Thursday and continuing through tomorrow, students at Arizona State, the University of Memphis,  the University of Oregon, and Hofstra University were given what at least their professors think is a fun assignment (as far as assignments go ;)): To Tweet tidbits and photos about campus life, helping each other get to know a little bit about what it’s like to attend these schools. The goal is to get some practice using Twitter, knowing what’s news and worthy of noting about campus, and connecting with others. Students use the common hashtag #jweb; you can check it out via Twitter search or here. Each class also has their own hashtag (Leslie-Jean Thornton’s Arizona State students are #305t, Suzi Steffen’s Oregon students are #J361,  Mo Krochmal‘s Hofstra students are at #JRNL8011, and my students are at #J3120).

This is just a warmup; we hope to find ways to expand the connections in the future. If you are a journalism professor, feel free to use the hashtag as well.

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New Media Skills: Not Just For Monkeys

I gotta share something here that is bothering me here in the journalism Ivory Tower, and that is the tendency among some academics to view “new” media skills – anything from Web programming to social media to data crunching to Flash – as something that is wholly separate from the intellectual endeavor. While viewed as increasingly necessary, these are things seen as lacking an academic heft, especially at the graduate level.

For example, I’ve heard impassioned arguments for why it is critical for every graduate student to take courses in law and history (as well as theory, research methods, and administrative methods here in Memphis), because the knowledge and perspective gained is absolutely critical to becoming intellectually well-rounded and a thoughtful practitioner . Skills courses are pooh-poohed as something students could take as electives or maybe even just on their own in a workshop in the summer; the idea that social media could be considered part of course content is laughed at (literally – “if you come to graduate school to learn how to Twitter, well that is just sad.”)

Now, I have nothing against courses like law and history. Nothing at all. Yes, they are certainly valuable. But very few of our students are here because they are considering a PhD. They are here, basically, because they want to get a job, or a better job. I question why any editor on earth would care if a student got a Master’s degree if that didn’t include some sophisticated new journalism skills.

Sure, anybody can write a line of code, and there’s a purely technical aspect to a lot of Web-related skills. But a journalist has to bring to bear news values, ethics, and an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the audience to bear when coding for a news related Web site. Even less technical things like blogging and Twitter have taught me about as much as any course I ever took by forcing me to take what I have learned and make it clear, understandable, and attractive to an audience.

I think every skills course should be taught in a way that encourages critical thinking, analysis, and applied theory. For example, students creating any kind of multimedia project should have to consider explicitly how they are bringing our core values to life and/or how they’ve used the media choice model or uses & gratifications theory (etc.) to create an appealing Web site.

If you create a kind of skills ghetto and teach the “high-minded” stuff in a separate class, you are encouraging students to see theory and practice as being somehow totally separate things – and the whole point is that they shouldn’t be.

If anything, it’s the undergraduates that I think deserve to get some kind of broad intellectual base, and since in their case we are just desperately trying to get them to be able to write one clear sentence, the focus for them can be a little bit more on the very basic journalism skills. But a graduate student to me MUST come out with some strong new media skills in order to succeed in the job market.

When I look at friends with Master’s degrees who managed to get the job they wanted in the current media environment – well, it’s almost ALWAYS the ones who went the “more technical” route and learned a lot about data, Web programming, coding, or multimedia.

I don’t know, maybe I’m off base here with this little rant. Let me know in the comments.

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Verification in the Age of Twitter

Between a hoax about Scrubs star Zach Braff committing suicide and a staged “arrest” of a University of Memphis professor during a lecture on Internet piracy,  it was a bad day for false news on Twitter.

But I’d say that at least from my little corner of the world, it was a good day for journalism.

We can’t stop the noise, the rumors and the lies anymore than we can stop the sun from rising. But journalists trained to view information with a skeptical eye and to verify everything they see or hear are vital in helping us to know what we can believe.

At least two of the 15 students in my reporting class were on Twitter when pictures  surfaced of the professor being led away in handcuffs by the police. (I’ll leave aside for the moment that this is certainly a quite, er, dramatic way to put the fear in  people re: downloading songs). I’m quite pleased to see them using Twitter as one tool to keep up with what is going on around campus and that they had the good news sense to know a story when they saw one. But I am much more proud of how they responded.

Beth Spencer and Jessica Grammer didn’t simply immediately retweet. Both of them asked other students questions about what happened via Twitter, and both sent messages to the Commercial Appeal, our metro daily, letting them know that it was just a hoax.  Grammer even asked a student “how do you know that?”

[UPDATE: Spencer was also manning the student newspaper’s Twitter feed at the time.  She did retweet some photos of the professor in handcuffs, but was immediately working on verifying and clarifying the story via her personal account, and then corrected the info via Helmsman feed. I think this still showed overall good journalistic judgment.  In the web world, verification ideally occurs before publication, but it is also an ongoing process that new communication tools makes better and faster.]

A small and parochial victory no doubt, but I see it as a tiny battle in a bigger war.

I think that verifying information and, critically, being transparent with readers about that process, is crucial to the survival of journalism. It is even more important than ever in our age of always-on microblogging.

It is not something reserved only for professionals; “citizens” can verify information as well. However, I do think it pays to have some training or experience in journalism to become a good verifier. My experience from two years of teaching is that it is not inherently natural to most young people to double check things or to refuse to take information at face value.   “Get it right” seems intuitive, but until a professor points out that your  name and your integrity (and your grade) are on the line and gives you some tools to do it well, I think you have a tendency to a little bit more gullible about things you see and hear.

Some may bemoan that rumors can now spread so far and fast, but to me, when they can be corrected just as quickly a more open and participatory culture is  still a net gain.

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Get Your M.A. For Free and Help Change Lives of Memphis Teens

Earn your master’s degree in journalism at the University of Memphis and help change the lives of some bright, hardworking teens. We’re looking for an eager and energetic journalist who is flexible and loves to work with young people. The position pays your tuition and includes a $7,000 stipend.

The successful applicant will become the new assistant coordinator of The Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard citywide high school newspaper published in the U of M Department of Journalism. He or she will begin in August 2009, have an undergraduate degree in journalism, strong editing skills plus experience in layout and design and reporting for a campus or commercial newspaper.  Multimedia and Web production skills strongly preferred.

We’ve been operating for 11 years as a partnership with the Scripps Howard Foundation, our Scripps Howard daily newspaper in Memphis, The Commercial Appeal and Memphis City Schools. Many of the students we work with come from lower-income households, and, in part thanks to our program, our alumni are now working in a number of prestigious positions in journalism and other fields.

This position will allow you to learn more about the Web news habits of a critical demographic group that newspapers and other media nationwide hope to attract,  making this position a potential resume booster.  We have high hopes of improving our Web site in the coming year.  A redesign is in progress, but you find our temporary site at http://www.teenappeal.com/.

Please send a letter, CV/resume, and three writing samples (may be in the form of links to online work) to Carrie Brown, assistant professor, University of Memphis Department of Journalism, Brown.Carrie@memphis.edu You can also reach her at 202-251-5719. You will also need to go through the normal University of Memphis graduate school application process. See https://umdrive.memphis.edu/g-journalism/grad.html for more information about the program or contact graduate coordinator Dr. Rick Fischer at rfischer@memphis.edu

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