And now… Time for a brain dump

My head is spinning around with a thousand ideas while I attend sessions at South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. I can go from a session on aggregating information to a session on mom blogs and bump into someone you’ve always wanted to talk to but never had a chance. It’s been a great experience.

It’s so interesting to be around so many people who understand technology… A conversation I’ve heard a lot is how these web and interactive-based ideas we are talking about are often not supported by higher management. It’s the case in industries across the board. It’s not just a problem for journalism. But watching another newspaper fall today (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) is more reason for me to feel the need to dump my ideas on how to change the way we teach journalism students of today. The P-I is doing things a little differently than the Rocky Mountain News closure. In Seattle’s case the “paper” will live on in a web-format only. That means many traditional journalists will have to turn their thought process completely around and put web as the priority. Sure, many newsrooms are starting to put that priority out there. This is the first time in a long time where the change in priority is about to be come the only priority. Journalists need to think web first.

So how do these long-standing journalism schools do it?

I have an idea that I’ve been working with for a while and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For years journalism students have been taught how to get dropped into a story (it can be breaking news, developing news or just feature stories) and be able to become “instant experts.” A general assignment reporter for a broadcast station is sent from story to story with no over arching purpose beyond covering the community or city. A general assignment reporter for most newsrooms follows a large beat on a city or education or entertainment (you get the drift)… But no one is specifically focused on one topic and tasked with building a community and understanding the existing community surrounding that topic.

Jane Stevens is working on fixing that challenge as part of the Reynolds Journalism Institute. She’s working on creating a web structure that will help journalists do good journalism even if they don’t have a traditional newsroom to back them up. It would basically be an out-of-the-box tool for community building and focused research and journalistic work. She’s leading a project to create what she calls a “health shell.” It’s a web structure were individual journalists can collect data about various aspects of the health issue and collaborate online with a website where you can share a community of people who care about that topic. It’s exciting to watch some of my students get to really know an element of health that they find important. Some current topics are fitness, senior health literacy and mental health. The student journalists are learning what it takes to gather sources and get a solid understanding of a niche. But here’s the trick: when the student wrap up this semester, some are going to graduate, others are going to run off for the summer. How can we keep this project sustainable within this higher education environment?

That got me thinking about journalism school curriculum.

Here’s my idea. I kind of base it off of how we make the radio-television sequence work. In the first semester you learn the foundation of skills. In the second semester you refine those skills and get good enough to work in the newsroom. In the third semester you are a regular reporter each week. For a community-based website, you could do something similar. In the first semester you learn the foundation of skills it takes to be a multi-media journalist and how to gather data and collect information. In the second semester you are an assistant to the lead community journalists for a specific niche website. In the third semester you are a leader of the community. It requires something different. Instead of becoming a general assignment reporter, you learn how to be a niche reporter. You learn what it takes to grow a connection with your community and get to know it well enough to be a legitimate presence online. The challenge: students would have to pick a niche during the first semester and stick with it. If they hate the niche by the end of a year and a half, then at least they know what it takes to gather up enough sources to really get a niche website rolling. Then they know what it takes to find another niche and get a job doing it elsewhere. That research and community building can be taken into so many directions after graduation. I think it would be amazing. Plus, the niche websites at the Missouri School of Journalism would continue to rock.

Ahhh. It feels better to let that out.

I have attended all kinds of sessions and I’ll try to write about some here and there as I go but I really felt like I needed to get this one out there as soon as possible!


  1. Rebekah Heil

    Hey Jen,

    I love your thoughts here. Having a new job and watching a lot of my friends about to graduate has got me thinking a lot along the same lines. I’m 100 percent certain that my resume got a second look because of my multimedia skills.

    I think it’s also really important to teach new media students about the business side of things and especially branding. For example, one of the most important things I think I learned at KOMU was about niche advertising on the web – KOMU does it for severe weather (I’m sure you already knew that). Taking that example, it makes me want to think about interactive products I can create that are great journalistically but also have their own personality that can be a new venue for advertising clients. It shouldn’t be the first priority, of course, but in any newsroom (especially now) the need for revenue and for setting yourself apart from the pack is great. One good example is the Times-Call’s Desk Jock videos ( ). A sports reporter challenges a local prep star at their sport, and tapes it and makes a 2-3 minute video. It’s great press time for local kids, and it’s hilarious – AND we share it with the local tv station. It’s also a great way for us to market web advertising to sporting goods places, local teams, and anybody that wants high school parents to buy their product.

    My boyfriend’s in advertising, and every day I learn something new from him about branding, for example, that it’s important even for public service industries like journalism. At the T-C, there’s an ongoing effort to reach younger readers in a town where you don’t see them all that often. That requires at least a little rebranding, in the form of getting some new features that those younger readers will like, and finding a way to effectively let those younger readers know they’re going on. It’s something I will be studying in my spare time as much as possible so I can help the paper any way I can. It’s also something that will be hugely important as more papers switch to online-only, like the PI and the web site the Rocky staff is starting.

    Anyway, keep the thoughts rolling 🙂 Always a pleasure to read.


  2. Great idea, I love it.

    So as you envision it – the actual site itself would pass to the leadership of one student to the next each semester? So the first semester is more of a traditional classroom experience, the second one is basically serving almost as an apprentice/intern for the community leader, and the third semester you take over as the community leader? Am I understanding that right?

    The other thing I like about something like this is that it could be feasible for schools that don’t currently have anything like the Missouri model structure. I’d love to bring that aspect of my alma mater to Memphis, though I don’t see us getting our own TV station/newspaper anytime soon. 🙂

    We are fiddling with a somewhat similar idea although we hadn’t figured out yet how to handle the community management aspect of it, which I agree is important. We are thinking about creating a kind of multimedia capstone in which all of our senior students from all sequences are involved in producing a Web site with all different kinds of content on it surrounding a particular issue e.g. crime or education in Memphis or similar. Some of the content as we envision it would actually be from the community, with our students serving as editors, and some of it would be of the more professional nature e.g. video and articles etc.

  3. You are understanding it the way I see it. You work your way towards community leadership of a website (and possibly other outlets that spin off from there). I really think there is a way to make dramatic changes to curriculum now. We can’t sit still – technology is SO much more agile than higher ed. We need to let go of some of the structure so we can help new journalists grow into this new world. (See – send Jen to SXSW and suddenly she gets all worked up)

  4. I’d go a step further and make someone a student/apprentice their first semester (working with profs and a mid-level student). 2nd semester they would be the master of the beatblog – on page among a small constellation of them circled around a larger topic like health, money, government. 3rd semester, they would be the “elder” and would advise the active master and get more experience teaching -AND- work on masterworks of their own.

    So, always with profs looking on and guiding the process, I see entry into this model as an apprentice sooner so that they can progress to masterworks, and so that they get 2 semesters helping to teach the concept because by teaching you learn much more…AND if they are to build this medium, they will have to be able to teach it.

    After all, we want Mizzou grads to lead these new newsrooms, not just go in as worker beatbloggers

  5. I’m thinking bigger than blogging – cultivating a beat. You are a leader in the online community and you cover the beat inside and out.

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