Category Archives: journalism education

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 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.


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.

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.

Hope for journalism

Interesting comments about the future of journalism and some excellent examples of how to engage the community.

Back in the day, as I’m oft to say, community engagement meant reading an occasional letter to the editor that addressed your story and sometimes hearing back from the sources (especially if they took issue with the story.)

That reporters today can engage their readers at any step in the newsgathering process is truly a revolution — and one more reason I wish I could be a reporter again!

I’m not so sure my students yet appreciate the power and scope of engagement. The subject is definitely something I plan to highlight in my multimedia course this semester. Any suggestions or good examples of engagement are greatly appreciated. I’m planning to compile links to articles and examples — and will upload those here when they’re complete.

Reporting session for Nebraska High School Press Association students

After presenting a session on reporting this morning at the Nebraska High School Press Association, I came away with some positive vibes. First, the sheer numbers were impressive. It was standing-room-only in the Union auditorium — more than 500 students signed up — and my session was packed, as well.

These days, with all the negative press about the press, it’s heartening to witness students who are interested — and enthusiastic about journalism.  The students in my session were eager and engaged; they asked great questions and offered great comments.

We talked about how setting up RSS feeds can help reporters develop good story ideas. In the case of high school publications, I suggested a couple of sites students should include in their feeds (see “Brushing up on the Basics” PowerPoint presentation in the “Workshop and Presentation” tab at the top). While not many of the students had used RSS readers before, most seemed willing to give it a shot.  (Students: be sure to check out a short tutorial on RSS I uploaded that is based on my presentation. It also is in the section on workshops and presentations.)

All in all, it was invigorating to be surrounded by enthusiastic and intelligent  high school students. The future looks brighter.

Great ideas: Helping students with story development

One of the most difficult skills for journalism instructors to teach is the ability to develop creative and engaging story ideas. (I have several theories about why students are lacking in this area, but that’s for another post.)

To help them develop better ideas,  I suggest they explore how technology can make the task easier. One of my first lessons focuses on how they can strategically set up an RSS feeder to “feed” them ideas. I use Google Reader for the in-class demonstration, but I encourage them to experiment with other feeders until they find one they like.

Because the online news class I teach  “covers” the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the city of Lincoln, Neb., I suggest they fill their readers with feeds from local news outlets, local blogs and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, including its calendars. I also suggest Al Tompkin’s column on Poytner —“Al’s Morning Meeting” — because it’s awesome and is an excellent example of how to study current events and apply them to local coverage. And, despite their disdain, I suggest they include local Twitter feeds —  #LNK and #UNL.

I’ve found many of my students roll their eyes when Twitter is mentioned, but I’m adamant about helping them see the potential of Twitter in news gathering and crowd sourcing. So the RSS exercise also opens their eyes to Twitter’s possibilities.

In our online news classes, we also require students to write story pitches to help them focus their ideas. After a particularly feeble pitch session in a class last year, I decided to monitor the news feed and pull ideas as an example. In less than 45 minutes, I found five viable and interesting story ideas — and all of them came from the Twitter feeds. Here are the five examples (in some cases, I included the actual tweet, which is italicized):

  • A local group has started a food bank for pets because of the recession. For those in need who are in #LNK – A pet food bank – more info on our blog.
  • How local moms are using the iPhone: TechCrunch Study Reveals More Details About The iPhone Mom by @leenarao
  • UNL’s Love Library is tweeting a lot these days — and some of its tweets are very clever and quite interesting. Do library officials think they reaching people? Why use Twitter? Who is doing the tweeting? Any other city agencies or campus agencies using Twitter? or (City Library also is using.)
  • Lincoln entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas in a competition. This is happening tonight — Oct. 1. Is it on your calendar, Lincoln? Pitch Session this Thursday at Turbine Flats (, details here: #LNK

  • Sheldon Museum of Art offers a college night for students. The first is next Monday. Do any attend? Why should they attend? Are students as cultured as they should be?

I shared those ideas in a “story idea cache” I created on Blackboard — and I think the students were impressed by what I found in a short time.  During the semester, I continued to periodically troll the feed and post new ideas in the class story cache, thereby modeling to them how to find a nugget of information and mold it into a valid and interesting story idea.