How to assign a Snapchat story in a journalism class

University of New Mexico students Savana Carollo, Arianna Sena and John Acosta created a Snapchat My Story on Feb. 11, 2016 as part of an assignment aimed at learning how to use the app as a storytelling platform.

University of New Mexico students Savana Carollo, Arianna Sena and John Acosta created a Snapchat My Story on Feb. 11, 2016 as part of an assignment aimed at learning how to use the app as a storytelling platform.

As journalism educators, we can’t ignore the emergence of Snapchat as a storytelling platform. With news outlets and Snapchat itself hiring reporters to cover major news like the presidential elections using the app, I feel compelled to talk with students about Snapchat’s potential to tell stories and connect with the audience. During a 300-level multimedia journalism class this semester, I tried an assignment where students worked on deadline to create a short story on campus.

When I mentioned the assignment at the start of the semester, students immediately were interested in how it might work in a news context. About half of them said they use the app on a regular basis.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a frequent user, although I do spend more and more time looking at how news organizations use the platform. So to prepare, I focused on the My Story function, where journalists can create stories of an event that can be shared for 24 hours (unlike Snap photos or video, which are shared with friends for up to 10 seconds and then disappear.)

I didn’t focus as much on the other features of Snapchat, including filters that are added to people’s faces. When I showed filters that put your city name on a photo based on your geolocation, a few students excitedly piped in and said I should try the “face filters.” Sure enough, you can take a photo and then add a filter that looks as if you are breathing fire. Or swimming underwater. Or have purple eyes. I wouldn’t use those in a news context of course, but that’s the interesting intersection we’re at with social platforms that can be used as journalism tools but that largely are used for more lighthearted topics. I made everyone laugh as I projected my fire-breathing selfie onto the large screen in the front of the room — a moment captured in a video Snap by a student. I am a little bummed that the student sent the video to her friends instead of saving it to her My Story, as that moment is gone forever. Of course, that’s part of what Snapchat is.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 11.36.03 AM

To start the lecture, I talked about the history of Snapchat. I showed the first Snapchat resume and then went through the basics of using the app.

Students seemed well versed in the how tos of using the app to communicate with friends, so we also talked about the Discover section of Snapchat, where news organizations like CNN and the Wall Street Journal are presenting news. A quick survey in the room showed that students were equally interested in news topics as much as content from outlets like Cosmo and people like DJ Khaled.

My goal was for students to think about using a tool they already understand and enjoy as a platform for journalism. I wanted them to practice their interviewing skills using the video Snap option, and I wanted them to practice producing something on deadline. So I gave them about 30 minutes to do five interviews and five photos with at least two titles.

I tied their interviews into a project we have on campus where journalism students ask the public what they are curious about and then report on those questions. For this assignment, students were to ask people what they want to know about Albuquerque or New Mexico.

The results were pretty good. In their work, I saw my more shy students open up on camera. I saw my more visual students show their talents. And I saw the students who were newer to the app take an interest in how they could use it for reporting. Along the way, they produced a story that could be used to complement other reporting. They also seemed excited, and many of you know that getting students excited in the classroom can be a challenge.

One student tweeted:

I would try this assignment again for sure, maybe as a component to larger story that students are producing using more traditional multi-media approaches.

Here are my takeaways for other journalism educators considering a Snapchat assignment:

Assign groups and team captains.

Chances are, one-fourth of your students are experts in Snapchat and can show others. They also can help you during your demonstration if you aren’t a Snapchat pro.

Explain the limitations of the app.

For video, there’s a 10-second limit in Snapchat, so students had to prep their sources that their answers had to be succinct.

Have a specific content focus for the assignment.

Newer students will be focused on learning how to use the app, so directing them on the content side lets them focus on learning the tool.

Explain that there might be a disconnect between the tone of Snapchat and the subject of the story.

For example, students don’t want to be lighthearted and using all kinds of emoji if they are covering something serious.

Remind students that accuracy and good cutlines still matter.

I asked students to get the same kind of cutline information they would get if they were publishing a photo online or in a news outlet.

Journalism students at the University of New Mexico recently completed a Snapchat story as part of a class assignment aimed at having students explore the popular app's journalism potential.

Journalism students at the University of New Mexico recently completed a Snapchat story as part of a class assignment aimed at having students explore the popular app’s journalism potential.

Remember to have students save their My Stories so you can see them later on for grading and class critique.

If they don’t, you have nothing to see.

Have fun.

Many of my students this semester are in the middle of learning the technical aspects of professional video cameras and audio recorders, which are unfamiliar and can be complicated. Allowing them to try storytelling with something a little more familiar allowed them to relax a bit — which is what Snapchat is all about.


The most interesting 12 months of my career

Ever have the sense that you are so busy teaching students how to blog that you don’t have time to blog yourself?

I’m guilty. For about the past year, I have neglected my own writing about journalism and journalism education. But the things that have kept me busy are good ones. In short, this has been the best and most dynamic year of my teaching career. I’ve learned more in the past 12 months than during any other point in my time on this planet.

In July 2014, I was named as the editor of the New Mexico News Port, a student journalism lab at the University of New Mexico, where I teach journalism. The lab, first funded by the Online News Association and now by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, serves as a hub for journalism students to collaborate with local media partners including the public television and radio stations on campus as well as the independent student newspaper.

To date, we’ve done three theme-based projects, including covering the mid-term election; producing audience-based reporting based on the WBEZ Curious City model and crafting an in-depth look at New Mexico’s innovation economy. Our work has won several local and national awards.

My work at the News Port includes story planning and editing with students in various classes in the department, overseeing a crew of student employees, and designing and developing our website.

Here’s a look at a student-produced video about our first year. The project continues to expand and grow as we reach out to new partners and help more students publish their work as they prepare for careers in journalism.

In the spring of 2015, I taught the first Mobile Reporting course at UNM. I created and pitched this class, which is cross listed as an elective in the Interdisciplinary Film and Digital Media program and the Communication and Journalism Department here. To fund the iPad kits for students, I wrote my first grant.

In the class, students use an iPad mini to report and produce audio and video pieces that they publish to a group WordPress site. I will teach the class again in spring 2016, and the class has been chosen to be part of a new Innovation Academy at UNM.

Here’s some of the best work from the inaugural class.

Meanwhile, this summer, I started helping guide students at the New Mexico Daily Lobo from a daily print schedule into a twice-weekly, online-first approach. Part of my work with students as their writing coach involves helping them incorporate digital and social media into a new newsroom workflow and mentality. Next month, I will give a training on using Periscope to cover breaking news.

For the fall 2015 semester, I’m teaching a 200-level writing and editing for multimedia class. I was given the latitude and encouragement to shake up the syllabus a bit and run the course more as a newsroom than a classroom. I consider this my tiny corner of the teaching hospital model of journalism education. I believe students can only learn journalism from doing journalism and the sooner this starts in their college careers, the better.

As part of their work in my class, students write directly for the Daily Lobo as well as the News Port. So far, students have been excited to see their work in print and online. To ease students into the idea, I have a student editor in the classroom with me every other week to go over edits and workshop ideas. I think this helps the students feel more connected to the newsroom process.

As this semester progresses, I look forward to reporting back (more often) on this initiative and a few of the other projects I have underway. Stay here or follow my blog for updates.


What grad school taught me about teaching journalism students

When students come to see me just before they graduate, they are often a bit afraid of what their job prospects look like. Each year, I tell them I can relate to their fears, especially about the journalism job market. Never has that been more true than this year. In May, I completed my master’s degree in digital journalism and design, and I know intimately what the market looks like, both for journalists and journalism professors. Right now, it’s bleak for students who don’t have advanced digital skills to go along with their solid journalism acumen. Jobs in traditional news outlets are tough to come by. But the news is mixed: while those legacy jobs may be shrinking, digital journalism and journalism-related jobs exist like never before. A 2014 Pew Research study found that 500 digital news outlets employ almost 5,000 full time employees. That tally suggests that opportunities abound for those who combine their news savvy with their computer skills.

‘Journalism-related jobs’
So what are journalism-related jobs? And what can journalism programs do to prepare students for them?

Having taught college journalism for almost four years and having worked as a reporter for almost 15 years, I have thought about those questions a great deal. I spend time pondering how journalism programs prepare journalism students. I teach undergraduates, but I also just finished a nearly brand new graduate program. In one role, at the University of New Mexico, I help students write cover letters and resumes for the entry level jobs they are seeking, among other things. In some cases, I look at job ads to see if my students are a match for open positions. In my other role as a graduate student at the University of South Florida, I took classes that taught me skills that the directors of the program considered pertinent to students wanting to work (or teach) in digital journalism, including web publishing, data journalism and entrepreneurial know-how. The two universities are pretty different, but the experiences have helped me come up with this list of skills I think are most important for future reporters to know.

First, think about the web editor, or the person building/designing/maintaining and promoting the website of your local newspaper. In many cases, that person is not a journalist in the way we traditionally describe the person who does original reporting and produces content. But, you bet that he or she is using journalism skills to make phone calls, investigate tips and write copy as part of his or her work. And journalism programs by and large do a great job of teaching those kinds of basics. But it’s the other part of the web designer/editor’s work that many programs are missing. Students interested in journalism but perhaps not being the city hall reporter need coding, design and multimedia skills to work in jobs such as web producer or manager.

Or, think about those cool interactive graphics you see on websites like the New York Times or the Guardian or a favorite of mine, La Nacion of Argentina. The folks on the teams at each paper that produce infographics, interactive graphics and more have solid journalism credentials. But they also have related skills that took them to where they are. Those skills include (again) coding and design, but they also involve critical thinking and analysis and firm understanding of data, something that isn’t commonly taught as part of journalism curricula. That is changing, as more schools realize the value of data journalism (and facility with data in general), a recent special series of articles on the PBS EducationShift blog showed.

At the same time, there’s been a lot made of the importance of teaching journalism students journalism-related entrepreneurial skills. I’m mostly on board with that, although I think the number of journalists starting their own companies (vs. freelancing or working for a company) tends to be overestimated. Nonetheless, I believe it’s key for students to know what the economics are behind the news business. They should know what a new tablet or a nice DSLR camera costs, if only so they can be cognizant of how lucky they are when someone hands them new equipment — or of how many lattes they will have to skip to buy their own. Students also should understand the digital marketplace that can be key in determining who sees and buys their content.

Another theme I’ve seen at recent journalism education conferences is that students need to learn how to keep learning. That means many different things, but to me it means students must become comfortable enrolling and participating in online classes, whether the smaller for credit classes nearly all universities now offer, or the much larger Massive Open Online Courses offered by larger universities, often for a certificate instead of credit. Why? The technical savvy needed to operate (and troubleshoot) a learning management system is important, but so is the ability to communicate remotely, through live web cam video, virtual presentations and discussion boards. Doing that with ease is key for students who might work for a company that’s based in another city — or time zone. Along with the conversation of how students should learn what they need to learn (in person, online or a bit of both) comes the discussion of how we should teach. That’s an important part of what I’m outlining here, but I don’t think it’s the only discussion. If a student can learn basic coding for a news app at a school that doesn’t subscribe to the teaching hospital model for example, I think that’s great, even though I support the newer models of innovative teaching.

A separate set of skills that comes to mind as key for about-to-be graduates are those of the mobile journalist. I don’t consider those journalism related, however, I consider them the manifestation of journalism in its modern form. The dated definition of print journalists — those who simply wrote a story for the printed edition and went home — has been updated to mean reporters who write a story for the web, do some tweeting and then write a story for print. In the past five years, however, reporters’ workloads have increased again, with the expectation by top news outlets (print and broadcast) that students will report, produce, edit and publish from the field, and not with the help of a satellite truck or a even a laptop. Instead, many professionals use nothing bigger than an iPad (and often times smaller) to post complete video packages or live text updates to the web. That means students need to work independently to use, maintain and troubleshoot mobile equipment, apps, file storage and publication. And journalism students should learn about those in the setting of a journalism class, where context, privacy and accuracy are discussed in detail. This helps set trained reporters apart from everyone else in the world who can upload a photo, video or tweet to the web with a mobile phone or tablet. Along with mobile reporting, mobile design is a huge consideration for the world’s next journalists and those who work with them.

To wrap up, we must teach students more design and data. Along with that should come coding, and not just for web sites. Students who can design or build news apps are a step ahead of those with knowledge of HTML, CSS, Javascript and server-side languages. This strong need for technical know-how and computer science prowess as part of journalism education has become clear to me in recent years as not only increasingly important, but necessary for both students looking for work and for journalism departments looking for more students. Countless others, too, have advocated for adjustments to journalism programs, while others have conducted studies of what skills educators think are most important. Implementing such changes, of course, isn’t easy, but we need to continue the discussion about how we can best prepare journalism students not just for the jobs of the future, but for work that many of our students could do now.

P.S. Many of you have asked about my own plans now that I am done with grad school. Along with teaching news writing at UNM, I’ve got one big project lined up for this fall and next spring that I can’t wait to reveal. Check out my next blog post for details as soon as I can announce it.

Tips and tools from the Journalism Interactive 2014 conference

I’m just back from Journalism Interactive, a two-day conference at the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. In short: it rocked. In long: if you care about the intersection of journalism and technology, you have to go next year. Picture the country’s best journalists, technologists and educators all in one place. Add some caffeine and a good measure of geeky excitement about technology and that pretty much sums up the event.

There were so many high-caliber speakers with great tips and thoughts, I left with my brain stuffed with new ideas about what I can and should be teaching my students. These are my ten takeaways. (I could have written 100, but Dan Reimold already has that covered at College Media Matters.)

ONE: We need to teach students to create journalism that’s interactive. Not too long ago, creating interactive graphics was the domain of those who know code. Not anymore. Thinglink is a cool (free) little tool that allows students to place text and video over a still image to make them interactive. The possibilities are pretty much endless with this simple software.

TWO: Why Google it when you can Wolfram Alpha it? Amy Webb of Webbmedia gave a wonderful presentation on six tech trends and showed us the Wolfram Alpha search engine. I’ve seen it before, but never used it much. A few weeks ago, I watched a presentation from Stephen Wolfram, and now that I know Webb uses it, the site is high on my list to show students as not only a great search engine example, but what can be done some clever coding and math.

Webb’s whole presentation, which has many other goodies and is worth your time:

THREE: Speaking of coders, they are the most sharing people you’ll meet. Journalists need to get to know more of them. I had already gotten great advice from Michelle Minkoff’s blog before I got to meet her at a session on web scraping. She made the point several times that coders are more than willing to share what they know with others. If you are not the most techy journalist, coders are good people to know when you want to do that cool thing that’s going to take more than a Google spreadsheet to do.

Michelle Minkoff, an interactive producer for the Associated Press, helps Serena Carpenter with a question about web scraping during Journalism Interactive 2014.

Michelle Minkoff, an interactive producer for the Associated Press, helps Serena Carpenter with a question about web scraping during Journalism Interactive 2014.

FOUR: Wearables are here to stay, and students need to know about tools like Google Glass. Professor Jeremy Littau gave a presentation on teaching with Glass at the conference and his links are worth checking out, as is his presentation.

FIVE: Another interactive tool that students can easily use is Students can create info graphics or charts without much hassle. It’s a low-tech way to build high-tech looking visuals. Another speaker, Richard Koci Hernandez of UC Berkeley, mentioned a bunch of other great storytelling tools and techniques. His presentations is worth watching here.

SIX: Robots are here to help journalists, says NPR data journalist Jeremy Bowers. They can automate the most tedious tasks that reporters have to do, like checking local seismic activity data or quickly editing stories for the web. When they notice changes in data, they can send you alerts or even write short stories. If you teach sports writers, remind them that much of what they write relates to data, and then show them the New York Time’s Fourth Down Bot. Check out the panel on data-driven journalism here.


SEVEN: Computer science is inseparable from journalism. So get your kids (and by that I mean any preschooler you know and/or your college students) all the computer science exposure you can. Specific recommendations at the conference included Code Academy, School of Data and Coursera MOOCs. While many tools are out there like help students produce visuals without coding knowledge, students with coding skills will be the best prepared to create custom work that sets them apart. One way to help expose students to computer science is to team teach with other departments or have CS professors speak in your classes. Apart from code, students need to know about topics like anticipatory computing and algorithmic accountability.

EIGHT: Stay connected with likeminded others. Sounds more than obvious, right? But I can’t say enough about the virtual networking and groups that are a part of the journalism and tech community. There are hashtags to use throughout the year (#edshift, #wjchat, #jiconf, etc) and groups to join (Online News Association, NICAR, data journalism groups on, etc.) Apart from tip sharing and camaraderie, some of the groups, like ONA, have grants. Yes, money, for journalism! I’m part of a group at the University of New Mexico that won an ONA Challenge Fund grant, announced at the conference. (Follow @nmnewsport for more details on our project.)

Along with staying connected comes staying charged. And by that I mean your electronics. I learned two pro tips related to powering your smart phone. First, from someone in the back of the room whose name I didn’t catch: putting your iPhone on airplane mode charges it faster. Second, a nifty USB charger called Photive allows you to recharge without having to plug in to a wall.

NINE: Mobile reporting skills are key. Carl Corry of Newsday gave a presentation on mobile reporting technology. In short, reporting with phones and tablets is a key skill students are expected to have to work at any type of news organization. He mentioned the site of WTOP reporter Neal Augenstein, which has some great how-tos and insights on using the iPhone.

TEN: Keep learning. It’s up to us to keep our students on the cutting edge. That means attending conferences like this, but it also means homework when we can’t travel. Consider Amy Webb’s summer course for journalism instructors.

Here are more takes on the conference from others who attended.

American Journalism Review’s take.

Post by professor Katy Culver on PBS Education Shift.

Professor Tiffini Theisen’s blog

14 takeaways by teacher Aaron Manfull.

Storify curation by Professor Jeremy Littau

I pitched a new journalism class, and it starts this fall

A set up similar to what students in my mobile reporting class will use this fall.

Students in my mobile reporting class will use a setup similar to this in the fall.

Even though we’re just past Spring Break at UNM, I’ve got my eye set on what I’ll be teaching this fall. One of the classes I’m most excited about is mobile reporting. We’ll be using smart phones and tablets to record, edit and publish news stories. This is the first time UNM will offer the class, and I’m way excited to be a pioneer.

Here’s a piece I wrote for PBS Media Shift about the process I went through to set up the class and hopefully get funding. I find out in April if my grant proposal is approved, so think good thoughts.