Engaging diverse communities

Students in the capstone course I’m teaching this semester hopefully will come away with some valuable experience engaging diverse communities — and possibly some ideas to share. I’m excited to see what they develop as they ponder ways to reach their unique audiences.

As I discussed with them during the first class, the course affords them a fascinating laboratory to explore and understand — in a meaningful and practical way — the many methods journalists can use to engage the communities they serve. And in this case, the communities are diverse — refugees from a variety of countries. Lincoln has a long tradition as a federally recognized refugee resettlement community.

home_pageThe course, called Mosaic (Journalism 446), is one of two required capstones for journalism majors in our college. The capstones are designed to help students demonstrate all they have learned during their four years in the major through the creation of a creative or scholarly product. In Mosaic, that creative product are the stories students publish stories to the website  and the site’s social media channels – Twitter and Facebook.

Mosaic was created in 2010 after receiving start-up funds from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Its purpose: create news and information for and about Lincoln’s growing refugee population. In those six years, Mosaic has attracted a small following — on its website and social channels.

A big goal for the class: Increase the audience and reach of Mosaic by establishing a set of engagement benchmarks with metrics; then experiment with a variety of engagement techniques to reach those benchmarks.

Students have a small “engagement” budget so they can participate in real life critical thinking and decision making. This budget allows them to create and implement their ideas to benefit a real audience. And they also will determine and analyze the effectiveness of their efforts.

Some possible examples of what they might propose: printing particular stories to distribute at refugee centers to get better distribution and create awareness of the website; organizing a public forum in which refugees could discuss their news needs and community issues; or Facebook and Twitter ad purchases to boost social media engagement.

In today’s news environment, audience engagement is critical. In addition to grooming future journalists to be more knowledgeable about engagement practices, the course could serve as a case study for news outlets interested in reaching diverse audiences. As the nation continues to diversify, there is great interest in how news organizations can better serve diverse communities as well as developing future journalists to have the expertise and experience in reaching them.

Hopefully, students in Mosaic not only will be better journalists when the course is done but can go out into the world with a greater understanding of engagement.

Here’s the syllabus we’re using. Stay tuned for more as the semester progresses.




News engagement lab launches

After many months of preparation, I’m excited to have finally launched the news engagement lab, a new course I created to help students learn and practice the concepts and techniques of news engagement.

I know. I know. “Engagement.” It’s a term that everyone seems to be talking about these days. Some refer to it as a “buzz word.” What does it even mean? For me, I view it as an important process that goes hand-in-hand with reporting, writing, editing and other journalism skills that we teach.

2015-11-05_1452Sure, the act of engagement isn’t really new. Efforts to engage audiences have been around for as long as news has. Today, though, in the digital realm, engagement takes on new meaning — and importance. News organizations have so many technological ways to engage and measure — and they desperately need to reach out to audiences in order to stay viable and relevant.

I wanted to teach students this new process through hands-on experiences. So I was fortunate enough to partner with the fine folks at NET, Nebraska’s statewide public broadcasting entity. Students in the course will be conducting audience research, creating social media content and developing engagement strategies for two NET long-range news projects.

Should be an interesting experiment! We plan to document everything we do so we can share our findings with others. And because I am using the class as the focus of a  course portfolio for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Peer Review of Teaching program, I’ll be doing a lot of documenting of and reflecting on my teaching methods as part of my inquiry. The course portfolio will be published later in the summer.

UPDATE: Link to course portfolio.

I’m always happy to share. I wouldn’t be teaching this course had it not been for the  many people passionate about engagement who have shared their expertise, research, best practices — and enthusiasm.  You can learn from them as well; their writings make up the reading list for the class, which you can find in the syllabus.






The challenges and complexities of ‘muddling through’ the disruption

I spent a good part of a yesterday afternoon transfixed by the leaked internal report on innovation at The New York Times. It is a fascinating and frank behind-the-scenes assessment of the state of digital journalism at one of the nation’s most respected news organizations. A must-read for educators, journalists and students.

The leaked Times memo came on the heels of another report — this one public — that reached similar conclusions. Duke University’s “The Goat Must Be Fed”  surmised that many U.S. newsrooms aren’t taking advantage of emerging low-cost digital tools that allow journalists to report and present their work in innovative ways.

MP900405436 (2)Depressing. But no big surprise there. However, when you add the Times analysis to the mix,  the issue becomes a bit more alarming. With ground-breaking online packages like “Snowfall,” innovative apps and amazing interactive data visualization pieces, the Times seemed immune from the ravages of disruption. So when The New York Times seems to be running scared — it’s another ballgame.

The big takeaway for me: Dealing with disruption is harder than we thought; it’s an extremely messy, complex and challenging problem for legacy media — even The New York Times.

What also was clear to me from both reports: the degree to which news organizations are paralyzed because they have to straddle print and digital. It’s both a cultural and business paralysis, as the Times notes in its report:

More than three quarters of our advertising and subscription revenue still comes from the newspaper, and most of our employees have spent their careers building skills to succeed in print. But the huge majority of our readers are digital, and this represents our single biggest opportunity for growth.

Digital First Media, which had the right idea to “unbolt” from print, had similar problems earlier this year with the shuttering of Thunderdome and other cuts. As Ken Doctor noted in a Nieman Journalism Lab piece:  “The ongoing devastation in print is overwhelming even DFM’s relatively faster pace of digital innovation.”

Newsroom culture and the desire for the status quo don’t help the situation, as the Duke report notes:

Local news leaders often cite budget, time and people as their biggest constraints. But conversations with more than 20 senior editors and producers also revealed deeper issues — part infrastructure, part culture. This includes a lack of technical understanding and ability and an unwillingness to break reporting habits that could create time and space to experiment.

And “print-first” habits die hard, even at the The New York Times, as the “Innovation” report notes in several places:

  • “The newsroom is unanimous: we are focusing too much time and energy on Page One.”
  • The Times has “a cadre of editors who remain unfamiliar with the web.”
  • “Many desks lack editors who even know how to evaluate digital work.”

What The New York Times seems to hint at — and what others have said — Amy Webb comes prominently to mind — is that legacy media companies need to be “tech first,” not “digital first.” (Hear Webb’s lucid explanation here, starting at 2:25.)

In citing them specifically, The New York Times seems to be most afraid of media start-ups  First Look Media, Vox, Huffington Post, Business Insider and BuzzFeed. These digital companies would better fit Webb’s definition.  They are free from the confines of printing presses and newsprint; they can focus on innovation and how to use technology to best serve their audience.

I think Webb has a great point about “tech first” — but it’s obviously a huge chasm, if most newspapers aren’t even close to being “digital first,” as the Duke report noted:

But there is a still significant gap between the industry’s digital haves and have-nots — particularly between big national organizations, which have been most willing to try data reporting and digital tools, and smaller local ones, which haven’t.

So the question becomes: How to get to “tech first,” especially when you are struggling just to get to “digital first.”

All of this sobering and unsettling — and as The New York Times noted — something media companies will continue to struggle with as the pace of change accelerates.

Difficult new questions will arrive with each new shift. In all likelihood, we will spend the rest of our careers wrestling with them. The leader of another organization called this era, “A period of muddling through.”

In future posts, I’ll tackle what I think these reports mean for journalism education and also address some of the positive points. 

Story ideas: Start with a question

Developing great story ideas is an important skill that journalism students need to nurture and practice.

In my presentation to students attending the Nebraska High School Press Association on Oct. 22, 2013, I offer some suggestions and strategies, including ways they can mine social media for inspiration.


The breaking news blues

In the aftermath of yet another breaking news frenzy on Twitter (Asiana plane crash at SFO), Matthew Ingram again argues that we better get used to chaos — or get off Twitter. His mantra:  This is just the way news works now. 

I personally have a love/hate relationship with Twitter and breaking news.  As a former police reporter, I grimace when I see all the blemishes of real-time reporting displayed for the world. Yet, as a news junkie, I just can’t look away.

But I agree with Ingram. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. And he makes some good points about the amount of good information and informed debate on Twitter as the news broke (even the National Transportation Board got into the act by tweeting photos of the crash site).

In effect, anyone following the event in real time has had as much or more information than they could have gotten from any traditional news source.

And in arguing that the news ecosystem has permanently shifted, he also points out that the change might not be as dramatic — or ominous — as we might think.

The reality is that a breaking news event like a plane crash or a bombing is an inherently chaotic situation, and no one really has a firm command of the facts, including the first responders and emergency workers who are on the scene and talking about the event on the police scanner. That maelstrom of conflicting information used to be hidden behind the walls of the command station or the walls of the newspaper and TV newsrooms reporting on the event — but now, thanks to Twitter, it is everywhere.

So what does the “new normal” mean for news organizations? I don’t think it means they simply throw up their hands and carry on as they have been. Acting like the adults in the room would help. In the heat of the moment, I believe restraint and thoughtful consideration definitely have a place in social media, and more news organizations would be wise to foster that expectation in the newsroom.   

But to be more proactive — and ultimately relevant and helpful in the chaos — I think media organizations need to step up their game and do a better job of curating, fact-checking and explaining the fast-moving information.  

As a consumer, I’d like to see more “here’s what we know now” stories as news breaks.  Providing background and perspective is what news organizations do well. Perhaps, “context is king” should be the rallying cry going forward with regard to breaking news.

Story seeding: Harnessing the power of the public

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the media could leverage the expertise and interests of the public via social media long before a story is published.

What I imagine goes beyond standard crowd sourcing. I envision a strategic effort in which reporters and editors reach out to the public early on to identify sources, issues, anecdotes, etc. I hadn’t really thought much about what to call this plan, but after reading a recent social media marketing article, I now have a descriptive name for it: seeding.

Here’s how strategic seeding might work in a big project:

Finding/engaging sources

Reporters assigned to the project would develop robust RSS feeds and Twitter lists to develop better expertise on the topic and to determine valuable and credible sources. Once a valuable source is identified, reporters should start interacting with them through social media. The beauty of social media interaction is that it is transparent — so, for example, folks following the identified sources also would learn about the reporting project and join in on the conversation. 

Creating an ongoing blog

Creating a reporting blog about the project would be serve as a central place where interested people would monitor updates about the project and contribute to the conversation. I envision the public working alongside reporters as the reporters start to develop stories and angles. This blog could become a forum where reporters could toss out an idea and get helpful feedback. Essentially, through the blog, the media organization shares with the online world what it is doing and encourages involvement. The blog would be RSS-enabled so interested people could receive updates with each new post.

The blog posts should be written for the audience that the outlet is trying to engage and develop. These posts should offer new information or insights. The goal is to get this new online community talking — and to solicit its help.

Engaging the community

Publicizing the blog is important so that new sources and interests are continually brought in to the conversation. Creating a separate Twitter account to tweet out new blog posts might be helpful. It also could serve as a “news source” for the issue. For example, when a reporter reads an interesting post from a blog, she could tweet that to the account.

Other ways to get engagement on the blog:

  • Have reporters/editors comment on the blogs of others who have expertise or interest in the area. 
  • Have reporters/editors participate in Twitter and/or Facebook discussions, constantly sending out a link to the blog.
  • Mention the blog prominently on the outlet’s home page. 

If the online engagement becomes vigorous, reporters get valuable insight on the topic –- how to frame it, how to develop and pursue specific angles, how to develop stories and how to cultivate and identify sources.

This type of reporting strategy would work well for big issues, on-going stories and investigative pieces. Of course, devoting the time and energy for such an endeavor might be a hard sell in many newsrooms.

I’ll talk more about why I think this strategy would be beneficial for news organizations in a subsequent post.


Social media flood

My new “Social Media for Journalists” class is going gangbusters — so much so that I think we need to start thinking about curation.

As part of their participation in the class, each of the 19 are supposed to tweet three times a week. The idea is to share helpful news and information about journalism and social media. And share they have! But in the process, I feel like we’re sharing too much, perhaps. Many a good topic and idea rushes by with little context or attention. We obviously discuss some of the topics in class, but we also have to talk about the course readings. So we need to figure out a way to maximize all the good information they are discovering.

Trying to make sense of the relentless flow of information has been a recurring theme in our class discussions, so I think I might just toss out the curation idea and see what happens. While I have some ideas about how they may go about organizing and curating the Twitter discussions, I want them to really think about how to do this — and come up with some suggestions on their own.

Stay tuned. I think this will be an interesting experiment.

In the meantime, if you want to see what they are sharing, follow this hashtag: #j491. It’s a cornucopia of all things social media. And I’ve been doing a little curating myself on Storify, where I have been archiving the discussions weekly.


[View the story “#j491 archive, Jan. 15-Jan. 22” on Storify]

A mobile experiment

I’m experimenting with using my phone to post to my blog. I’m writing this post on my iPhone in a car outside of Omaha. (I’m not driving!)

My colleagues and I are very interested in giving our students in the capstone online journalism course some valuable experience with mobile delivery and breaking news. We plan to send them into the field on election night to post short updates and photos to the college’s news website

So I wanted to see how well this would work. I never ask students to do something I haven’t done myself. That way I can hopefully ward off any potential problems.

While a part of the experience for students is getting them comfortable with the technology, a bigger lesson for them is learning what and when to post. Posting for the sake of posting doesn’t serve the audience. Focusing on the reporting and content is the challenge for us as educators. But one of the best ways is to have students practice and practice their live coverage, while getting valuable feedback from the instructors.

I’m looking forward to working with students this fall to help them hone their breaking news skills. If you have any suggestions of what has worked for you, please share in the comments.

Finding story ideas

If you’re one of the Nebraska High School Press Association students who attended my Oct. 17 session on “Finding Story Ideas,” you’ll find the links I mentioned and my presentation here.

I wanted to compliment you all on a fabulous session and great discussion. I was impressed with thoughts and ideas. Keep up the good work!

The handwriting on the wall

I’ve been fascinated lately with the debate about whether schools should continue the teaching of handwriting.

The latest tidbit I read discussed the mental benefits of writing in cursive versus typing.

It’s an interesting issue on its own — but I’ve been trying to ferret out the repercussions for journalists, should most schools go the way of Indiana and ditch it.

First off — and most important — is note-taking, which seems to be a lost art for many journalism students anyway. I was once interviewed by a journalism student who barely put pen to notebook, yet produced a story full of facts and direct quotes. As you might expect, most of the facts were wrong and the quotes inaccurate. So I tell my students copious note-taking — and developing a unique short-hand style — is imperative if they want to be a good reporter.

During an interview, it’s less intrusive to be taking notes on a skinny reporter’s notebook than a clunky laptop. And it’s easier and quicker to take notes using cursive rather than printing individual letters.

And then there’s the aspect of deciphering handwriting. If you don’t learn cursive, you won’t be able to read it either — as the article in the link discusses. So how will we be able to expect reporters to translate old hand-written letters or documents?

I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this is one case where the old way shouldn’t be forsaken.