What future journalists can learn from #boston, #west and #chicago

A few days ago, I wrote about what this week’s stream of breaking news means for journalism educators. I want to touch on what it means for journalism students.

Not to discourage you, my hardworking students, but your job — before you even start it — is getting harder. And more competitive, and way more intense. Because believe it or not, millions of Americans with a cell phone can be and will be “journalists” just like you. They don’t have the training you are undergoing, and they don’t have the press badge you’ll be getting. But they have the equipment. In many ways, practicing journalism has come down to having a cell phone.

The first (and most reposted) video of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion this week came from an ordinary dad with a cell phone. Some of the first scenes of devastation in the town were posted by everyday Janes who at some point plunked down $100 or so for a phone. In Chicago, too, residents posted photos of flooding on a scale that reporters at even one of the country’s largest papers would never have been able to keep up with.

In Boston, and Watertown, it was witnesses, residents and neighbors who provided the world with the bulk of the earliest information and photos about the bombings, the manhunt, the capture. Professional journalists already were on the scene on Boston because of the marathon, but their DSLRs and video cameras were simply outnumbered by cell phones that send images within seconds.

(The debate about whether what untrained citizens do is news or journalism or photojournalism fits in here. But I’m going to save questions about whether a Twitter user is a reporter for another post.)

Regardless, the increase of reporting done by citizen journalists has been happening for a while, as has the consumption of non-professionally produced information. This phenomenon has its merits, such as the free flow of information no longer edited by editors. It also has its detractions, for much of the same reason.

While the trend since Twitter was launched has been for more and more news to be produced by fewer and fewer journalists, never has it been so pronounced. Millions now consume news produced by non-reporters. Along with the non-stop stream of updates from the scenes of the big events, citizens suddenly were listening to police scanners online by the hundreds of thousands. That’s a job that was done exclusively by professional journalists in the past.

So what can you do to get that first job and set yourself apart not only from those who have spend good money to get a degree but from anyone with a cell phone?

Here’s a start:

Get yourself a smartphone. You can’t begin to compete without one. I know they aren’t cheap, but they are as important, if not more so, than most of the other equipment you need for school.  Learn how to use it so that when news happens in front of you, you’re on it. Do you know how to use Twitter? To post photos? To record audio? Practice.

Think about apps that give you access to police scanners. Then, we’ll talk another day about whether you should post scanner info in real time, as many did during the Boston manhunt.

Once you’ve mastered the cell phone camera, learn some basic photography and video skills. There is a difference between a cell phone picture and a professional’s picture. The content might be the same, but quality matters. Cell phones have come a long way, but their limited focal lengths and lack of other options still set professionals apart. The same goes for recording good quality audio.

Start a blog. Get yourself a free WordPress site. Start with clips you may have from your student newspaper. Or articles you’ve freelanced. Or things you’ve written for class. But have a place set up to publish something in a hurry. When you’re done tweeting about whatever event you just witnessed, you’ll have a space to write something longer, which you’ll link to with social media.

Speaking of social media, get on it. Twitter, Vine, Storify, Rebelmouse, you choose. But have a professional presence on and get to know a couple of platforms where you can find sources of information and where people can get to know your work. Oh, and don’t forget your password(s).

Learn some code. Remember the people you made fun of in high school? That’s where the industry is headed. To stand apart, it’s not enough to write stories. Many of the country’s best journalists write apps or programs that present their news and information in a novel way.

Can you do data or interactive stuff?  I’m talking about being able to create a map that pinpoints the street in Boston where people tweeted from. Or an interactive timeline. Big papers have experts who do this, but in a small town, it could be you.

Get to know your community. When you’ve met the fire chief in passing at a coffee house or you know the superintendent because he used to be your middle school teacher, you’re a step ahead when it comes to the time you’ll need to call them for comment as everyone else does the same thing. Low tech, old fashioned networking pays off.

Once you’ve got those things in place and you’ve been hired — or are freelancing — you’ll need to set yourself apart from others on staff and others on the street.

My advice includes but isn’t limited to the following:

Make sure your work is accurate, lively and fair. Act ethically. For professional journalism, those standards will never go away.

Think of what you can contribute beyond 140 character updates. What context can you provide for readers, especially readers who don’t use Twitter? What new angle can you cover? What background information can you uncover?

Get your questions answered. Twitter users can throw hypotheticals to the wind about why something happened, or how. But as journalists, you can find out why.

And most of all, be prepared. Buy an extra cell phone charger for your car. Have a backup memory card or two. Buy batteries in bulk. Be ready to report, and to stay informed.

You never know when you’ll need to.


Telling the same story in different ways

As a full time graduate student this semester in the University of South Florida’s Digital Journalism and Design program, (@USF_DJD) I’m suddenly thinking about stories in a whole new and, in particular, more visual way.

One of my classes is about design and the instructor asks us to think visually. Another asks us to be critical of stories we read. These aren’t new concepts to me, of course, after 14 years as a print reporter.

Here’s what I mean, and the ideas I now want to try in my classes.

In looking just at today’s coverage of the current number of flu cases in the United States (notice I didn’t say flu “outbreak” or “epidemic”) I found a variety of ways that the story is being covered. While I might have noticed these different approaches in the past, I might not have thought about the distinction, or about how I can teach my students to consider different approaches to the same news.

For example, here’s the traditional AP report on the number of cases. It’s solid, straightforward stuff that you would teach beginning and even advanced reporters to aim for.

By MIKE STOBBE, AP Medical Writer

NEW YORK — Flu is now widespread in all but three states as the nation grapples with an earlier-than-normal season. But there was one bit of good news Friday: The number of hard-hit areas declined.

The flu season in the U.S. got under way a month early, in December, driven by a strain that tends to make people sicker. That led to worries that it might be a bad season, following one of the mildest flu seasons in recent memory.

Then there’s what I’m going to call the visual or #vizdata story that Google put together on its flu trends page. I think the visual nature of the presentation of the flu data this year compared to years past lead to increased coverage in both the mainstream and social media, but perhaps that’s a topic for another day.

At the same time, my increased focus on critical thinking as part of the classes I’m taking made me think more about the data. As I looked for the Google methodology, I found this disclaimer about flu map:

We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together. We compared our query counts with traditional flu surveillance systems and found that many search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in different countries and regions around the world. Our results have been published in the journal Nature.

For the record, I don’t doubt the super-smart folks at Google. But I do wonder how close the number of people who search for flu information really is to the number who actually are in bed staring at the ceiling in misery. What about those sick people without internet access? What about health reporters who aren’t ill but just looking for some current info? Those are things to think about and to have your students consider.

(A side topic for class discussion or assignment might look at the use of the words epidemic, outbreak, etc and their true definitions.)

Another approach to the flu story I found today was the historical photographic coverage of the flu. I enjoyed the coverage from thedailybeast.com, which tells the story relying on pictures.


Click here for the whole gallery.

These are all different, but all valid approaches to the same story. And they all use different skills modern journalism students need to know.

(Speaking of new skills, I curated this Storify page as I looked at what social media had to say about the flu.) Of course, Storify is another tool I love for students to learn, because I think it has some great applications.

To summarize, I’m now thinking that one exercise I might try this semester is having students first look for different ways the same story has been covered online and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each. They could even do their own Storify pages on the topic. Then, I might ask them each to outline the different ways they would cover the same story such as a city council meeting, perhaps.) Later, I would have them present and compare their ideas to see all the different ideas on approaching story telling. I’ll let you know if I try this.

Tools for new journalism educators

I woke up New Year’s Day feeling pretty excited about the year ahead. After 14 years as a print reporter in New Mexico, I resigned in December to have time to complete my master’s in digital journalism and design at the University of South Florida. It’s a big change after so many years as a reporter, but I felt it was time. I will also have the chance to continue teaching journalism at the University of New Mexico, which I have done part time for about two years.

My new roles also mean I’ll have more time to focus on learning and teaching the newest tools journalists and journalism students use to report, analyze and publish the news.

While I believe basic journalism skills are as important as ever, there is an increasing focus on the tools that reporters need to know to break news, engage readers and produce quality reporting.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen journalism become as much about tools as it is about reporting and writing and editing. Journalism is about software, hardware and online presence as much as it is about shoe leather, traditional paper notebooks and physical newsrooms.

I started this blog to talk about the tools and techniques I used recently in my reporting and how I can teach those same skills — and more — in my classes. The tools I write about this week might soon be as obsolete as typewriters, but I’m going to list, in no particular order, the things I’ve found most helpful so far. I hope you will share yours as well, and I hope to write new posts about what I learn as the year goes on.

Twitter for journalism students

Twitter is great for catching up on all the latest fashion. And football. And food. But forget all that. Twitter is incredibly powerful for news. Reporters use it to find sources, get story ideas, educate themselves and see what other writers are doing. Newspapers use it to promote upcoming stories, to cover breaking news and to interact with readers. But why should journalism students use it? What can they learn from putting 140 characters out into the world?

I think students can learn so much that I’m going to argue Twitter is one of the most important tools for student reporters to learn. Here’s why.

Twitter, especially when used to cover an event as it is happening, teaches students how to write on deadline. And that skill is one of the top things editors look for in a reporter. Updating readers quickly with information is critical in situations like wildfires, political debates and all kinds of breaking news.

Beyond that, though, Twitter (and live tweeting exercises you can teach in your class) teaches students how to think on deadline, and to focus on the most important parts of a story first. For students who are just learning how to outline a lede, a nut graf and some transitions, this can prove tough, but I believe that skill is as important as writing for print.

Indeed, when using Twitter for breaking news, reporters immediately must sift through and report the most important information. Who is being evacuated? Where can they find shelter? How many homes have burned, and which ones? (And where is the interactive map of those homes?) Students who can pick out the most newsworthy events, quickly summarize them and publish them will set themselves apart.

Using Twitter to cover an event live can help students in another way, and I think it’s one that’s often overlooked.

When an event is over and reporters then start to look through their notes, a glance at what they’ve tweeted should give them a good start, if they were on track in tweeting about the most interesting and important parts of what they covered. I think having that outline of key information helps student reporters as they head back to this newsroom with a ream of notes from the regent’s meeting.

Twitter, and live tweeting in particular, is also a lesson in keeping up. In having charged batteries. And snacks. Those of us who have live blogged an all-night legislative debate, for example, can appreciate the work that goes into following along and making sense of a slew of complicated amendments at 2 a.m.

More on how you can teach your students to live tweet here, and a shout out to @herbertlowe, a Marquette University professor who has mastered Twitter in education.

As an educator, you can also use hashtags for your class as a way of highlighting stories and information you think your students should see. I’ve used it to promote student work, and I’ve seen others hand out assignments on Twitter as well.

Screen Cast O Matic (http://screencast-o-matic.com/)

I was lucky to attend Poynter’s Teachapalooza 2012. In short, it was a world of geeky goodies for journalism nerds. (I think that was even the name of one of the panel names.) One of the tools I’ve used the most since learning about it at the conference is Screen Cast O Matic. It’s a program that allows you to make a video of whatever is on your screen. You can add just your voice, or you can include your tired teacher face as well. I found this extremely helpful for short instructions that I wanted students to view outside of class. I know other instructors have used it for tutorials to which students can refer after a lecture on how to use Photoshop, for example. I plan to try to use it this year to send oral feedback to students on their writing.

I haven’t seen students use it yet, but I think it’s got a lot of potential uses in the newsroom, including for tutorials for new reporters on how to use complicated programs or software. Here is one early example I did, on how students can generate follow up story ideas.


Storify (@storify)

Storify is an easy story curation tool and teaches students to identify and cull information from social media. Large newspapers often use Storify as a digest of reaction to a big event, or of continuing coverage of a big topic.

I haven’t used Storify as much as I could as I sometimes found it running slow and buggy, especially during busy news times. The day the Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act, I scurried to create a Storify for the newspaper I was with. I gave up in frustration about how slow it was, but I will say that once I tweeted my gripe, the company tweeted back to see if I was still on deadline and asked what it could do to help.

But it’s got great potential and some of my students really like it. I also like to read the Storifies that big papers do of big events, to see what information they pulled in — and what they left out.

Here is one example of how I used Storify to show students how to think critically about news coverage.

[View the story “Lessons in ethics + critical thinking from #sandy” on Storify]

IAnnotate App

In my work as a writing coach, I critique five student newspapers a week. At first I did this by hand. As in, I used a red ink pen, the way my mentors and editors did back in the day.

I now use IAnnotate, a nifty PDF reader and editor app for the Ipad. (Yes, it has a “red pen.”) Once I download a PDF of the newspaper, I can “write” on the document as I please, and that includes the (sort of) old fashioned copy editing symbols students should get to know. I then use an Ipad to project the papers each week during my critiques.  I also can save my marked versions to Dropbox if students want to access them after class.

I haven’t seen students use this much in journalism, but it would be great for marking up large PDF documents to be used in reporting.

As I get to know those tools, there are so many more I plan to check out in 2013. I’ve been wanting to participate in the #satchat events, a live Twitter chat with other educators, and #wjchat, a chat for web journalists. I also need to focus more on Google Apps for Education. And the list goes on. I’m not into New Year’s resolutions, but learning more tools is high on my list.

In the meantime, I’m planning a two-day journalism bootcamp for local students in January. I hope to be able to post feedback and thoughts on what worked and what didn’t for anyone else planning something similar next year. Send me your tips!

See you in 2013.