My 2014 resolution: try something new so my students can too

As we start this year, many of my friends (and probably yours too) have taken to social media to ask others to help hold them accountable when it comes to their New Year’s resolutions.

Of course journalists are all about accountability and holding people to their word. But can we cut a quick deal and ignore all the New Year’s resolutions I’ve made in the past? No really, I’ve got a solid one this year. And seriously, did you honestly expect me to give up chocolate for more than 12 hours? And color code my file folders? Yeah right.

Here, then is my 2014 resolution, so you can all ask me about it this time next year, or preferably before.

My goal is to propose at least one new class a semester in the Communication and Journalism Department at the University of New Mexico, where I currently teach as an adjunct instructor.

(While I’ve had this thought for a while, I started thinking more about it after a Facebook request by University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Professor Katy Culver, who asked what educators are resolving to do this year. Her request turned into a post with a fun infographic on Mediashift.org.)

So during this first week in January, I’ve already taken one step and finished my first grant proposal. It’s a key part of what I have resolved to do, because we need new equipment to start up a mobile reporting class I’m scheduled to teach this fall. In the scheme of things, it’s a small request, some $6,000 for 10 iPad minis and the lights, lenses and mics that go with them. (Bags, too.)

Please note that I may be cheating a tiny bit on this resolution, because I did get approval for the class in the fall of 2013, but all resolutions have a bit of fudging involved, right? That said, this is the year I hope to complete this task, so let’s just put it in the 2014 category.

Although the amount is small, it’s a big step for me, in part because it is my first grant, and in part because it would be my first time teaching mobile reporting.

It’s also a big step for the department. This will be the first mobile reporting class offered at UNM. I’m thrilled I have the green light. I hope to bring other digital skills classes to the department this year as well.

Entwined in my goal is my hope to give my students the most current and relevant digital skills. I want them to be able to go out and produce a story that’s ready for the web, all on their own, and with accessible and simple equipment. I want them to understand social media, multimedia and the ethical implications of both. I want them to feel confident using new equipment and new apps. In short, I want them to succeed at newspapers and other news organizations once they graduate. (If not before.)

I acknowledge my goal here is neither unique nor new. After reading parts of Searchlights and Sunglasses by Eric Newton during winter break, I know I’m not alone in this and I’m inspired by others across the country proposing similar classes (and projects within classes) that aim to improve journalism education and truly prepare our students. Much has been said about the direction journalism education needs to go, and I’m thrilled to play just a tiny part of helping student journalists keep up with the technological innovations.

I’d love to hear from you throughout the year about your goals and your classes as well.

Happy 2014,

Kate

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Another cool curation tool for students

Over the weekend, I had students in my Newspaper Practice class attend and report on the local Day of the Dead parade. The parade has evolved into a pretty large event, and I spent a good deal of time waiting around to meet up with the students and check in on their reporting progress. As I people watched and took a few photos, I couldn’t help but notice how everyone — including the elaborately dressed grandmas in the crowd — had a smart phone. That meant lots of photos would be posted on social media.

With sure to be powerful images of people dressed in blacks, rich blues and red to honor the dead, I thought the event was just the kind of thing to be curated. As it turns out, about a week ago I had heard about a new tool called Brickflow and I was thinking of trying it out.

As background, I’ve already covered how to use another curation tool, Storify, in this class, and I was pleased when one of my students set out last night to curate the event, which has huge cultural significance here. Now that I have them thinking about and doing curations, it was time to see what other programs I can teach them. I tried Brickflow this morning and I like it. The biggest difference between the two is that Storify seems much more text- and tweet-oriented while Brickflow is all about the photos and videos. Brickflow displays social media content in a playable slideshow while Storify presents the information in a more linear, story like format.

The approach to curation in Brickflow is similar to Storify, though, and is all hashtag-search based. (On that point, I make absolutely sure all beginning social media users understand the hashtag concept before moving on to tools, because it is so crucial for curation and other tools.)

Overall, Brickflow is easy to use and might appeal to student photographers a bit more than writers. After only using it once, I can envision a class assignment where I ask students to use it to curate a local news event, much like I would do with Storify. Of course, a part of the lesson would focus on the ethics of curation and a discussion of how curating a story relates to and differs from traditional reporting of a story.

Overall, I like both programs and intend to experiment more with Brickflow as I show it to students. Here’s a look at my first piece, known as a “flow.”

Videolicious as a potential journalism platform

In part because of a multimedia reporting class I’m taking this fall as part of my master’s program, I’ve been exploring various multimedia publishing platforms. Videolicious moved up on my list after I saw that Poynter this week will host a webinar on using it for journalism. In a class I teach at the University of New Mexico, I mentioned the app to my students, who said they had just learned about it at the Associated Collegiate Press conference in New Orleans. They were willing to be my guinea pigs for the snapshots I took around the student newsroom today.

Overall, it was super simple to use. In less than five minutes, using an iPad, I had a basic, one minute piece published and on Twitter. I chose ten photos from my iPhoto app, and recorded audio over them as I swiped through. You also can record video if you’d like.

While it was simple to produce, the piece is not superb. The photos are nothing more than snapshots and the audio is just audio, but it’s not terrible. With more time, and by paying for more than the scaled down free version, I think the app has some potential for storytelling, especially because of the ability to quickly post on social media.

But I don’t want to sound like an ad here either. I’m not a fan of the automatic Ken Burns effect. And as I scrolled, the mic seemed to sometimes pick up the sound of my fingers moving on the iPad. But overall, it’s a decent choice, especially for students who might be looking for a simple way to publish multimedia components with a story.

In the end, I’d rather teach students how to use more professional video recording and editing equipment, but I know that’s not realistic for many of them. Videolicious helps fill a gap for students who want to learn multimedia, but who don’t have time/access to/patience for more pro tools.

UPDATE, Nov. 15
I had my students try out the app during a class last week. In a really short amount of time, both groups who tried it produced a short video. Nothing too stellar, but decent given the classroom setting I confined them to, and the fact that it was the first time they had seen the app. (Because the app is iOS only, I ended up lending them my iPad and my iPhone, so keep that in mind if you want to try this in your class.)

Here’s a link to the better of the two videos. I gave them no instructions beyond a demonstration and then let them follow the guided information on the app. You can see potential for creating short pieces with the free version.

Bonus instructor tip: remember that you lent your equipment to students so you aren’t wondering how all those really bad pictures of you ended up on your iPhone.

How I used Breaking Bad to engage students on Twitter

First, my confession: I’ve never watched Breaking Bad. And I live in Albuquerque, where the show was shot and where everyone except me has seen every minute of every episode of every show. Don’t tell my neighbors. Or my students.

But I have watched enough being written about Breaking Bad to know it had a grip on our city like nothing else. I wondered how I could harness that interest for my own journalism education purposes.

For a few years, I’ve used Twitter with moderate success to engage students on the finer points of journalism. I will admit here to the occasional tweet about National Punctuation Day, because I heard somewhere that embracing your inner nerdiness is coming back in style. I am here to say that’s not true.

What I needed was something that captured my journalism students’ attention just like the show. I needed something they were interested in enough to have a conversation about. Something they couldn’t stop talking about. But it had to be about journalism, or at least kind of related to journalism. Turns out the answer was the show.

I got lucky with Breaking Bad. Yes, pop culture and journalism education intersected one day when a local teacher (and if you watch the show you know there’s a teacher as a key protagonist) paid to place an ad in the Albuquerque Journal. The ad was an obit for Walter White, a key character in the show as everyone but me knows. The “obit” did not appear in the obits section, but rather in the news section, along with other ads you expect to see in any local newspaper. It was not marked as a paid ad, but it was in the paper the same day a local reporter wrote a story about the teacher taking out the ad.

That caught my attention. How many other “obits” have run in newspapers about television characters? (I ask that in all seriousness, please email me if you’ve seen one.)

Curious as to what had happened behind the scenes, I tweeted a question to see if anyone at the paper would explain. I got linked back to the story the reporter had written, but not much insight on whether there had been a debate on the issue. I then tweeted this question: #lobocamp students: what do you think of an obit for a tv character in a newspaper? Raises interesting, new questions. #breakingbad #BrBaABQ. (#lobocamp is a hashtag I use with my students; the #breakingbad and #BrBaABQ are used by fans of the show.)

Pretty soon, students engaged. Some would have run it, some wouldn’t have. Others would have labeled it as an ad. I heard from students who don’t speak much in class, and who typically tweet about other topics. Bingo. We even talked about the topic in class later that week.

So for my colleagues who sometimes ask how they can use Twitter as a classroom tool, the lesson I took away from this was to simply find something students care about and relate it back to your topic, even if that link is a bit tangential. I can see now that most students weren’t going to retweet or respond to my thoughts on bad headlines or grammar or newspaper correction policies, try as I may. But a crazy show that has propped up the local economy with blue donuts and meth “candy”? Absolutely.

I say all this with some heartburn, as I want my students to care more about compound modifiers and multimedia projects than t.v. drama. But I’ll take the successes where I can.

Why I have more summer homework than my students

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While it’s true I am a graduate student this summer, these days I mostly think of myself as a journalism instructor, which is how I wound up at Poynter’s Teachapalooza 2013 and how I came home with more homework than I know what to do with.

See, part of teaching is always learning. That was the key point of several speakers at the three-day conference in St. Petersburg. And part of that learning is studying and reading about new technologies for teaching and for storytelling.

But lest you think I’m complaining, I’m excited to do this homework, because it involves experimenting with some pretty cool looking tools and websites, including Meograph, hackshackers.com and bump, among many others. Also, at the conference I won a copy of Roy Peter Clark’s new book, “How to Write Short.” (Coming out this fall.) That’s on my (going by quickly) summer list now, as is the new book by NPR’s Andy Carvin. I also really want to read “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr. After all, isn’t reading what summer is for? I also will be reviewing some texts for a journalism ethics class I’m scheduled to teach in the spring, so let me know if you’ve read something really dynamic in that arena lately.

I’ll probably post in a week or two about what apps/programs/books I liked and which ones I think will work for teaching.

In the meantime, you can read more about the conference in this Storify curation I just posted.

[View the story “Amid new tools, journalism instructors must focus on basics” on Storify]

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.

What journalism students know — and want to know — about the role of social media in news coverage

In an introduction to media writing class I teach at the University of New Mexico, we had the chance to talk Tuesday morning about the role of social media in the coverage of the Boston bombings.

Following up on a lecture I gave two weeks ago about how journalists use social media, I touched on how Twitter, Facebook and Storify played major roles in how people learned about Monday’s tragedy. 

I asked students if any of them had waited to read about the bombings in this morning’s paper. No hands went up.

Had anyone waited until the 5, 6 or 10 o’clock news to learn of the events? A few hands.

Did anyone hear about it on social media? Many more hands. Students mentioned Facebook and Twitter as their sources of information.

I showed examples of Storify curations about the explosions done by papers small and large, and I displayed my Tweetdeck column with the updates to the Boston Marathon hashtag flying by.

I pulled up a Vine video of the moment of one of the bombings that had gone viral, so students could see how anybody with a cell phone could become a “journalist” in a moment’s notice. I pointed out a Youtube channel of videos of all kinds — from all kinds of people — from the event.

As a grad student in the Digital Journalism and Design program at the University of South Florida, I find all of this very interesting, on so many levels. That’s a whole other blog post.

But what I found even more interesting were the questions my students had about all of this. These mostly freshman journalism students just starting their study of reporting asked questions about digital tools that journalism education leaders need to know.

(I think I answered all of them, but I mentioned that a few of the topics didn’t always have clear answers and could be the subject of whole semesters of study.)

Some of the questions were about the proper or ethical use of social media information posted by others. 
One student wanted to know if the media or just anyone can take a social media post — whether it be text, photo or video — and reuse it?

Another wanted to know if retweeting something libelous could get the individual passing on the bad info in legal trouble.

A few questions had to do with the mechanics of using social media. Who creates or chooses a hashtag for a big event? Can just anyone do that?

Another asked about who manages curations like those on Storify. Does anyone edit that work?

A tangential topic had to do with how television news was presented, and a student asked why an NBC reporter mentioned the nationality of a person of interest in the case. A discussion ensued about needing to fill up air time in a 24-hour news cycle — a topic for another day.

The bombings also made me think about what skills journalism and media students need to know to get a job and stay employed these days. Yes, it’s (deadline) writing and reporting and critical thinking. Yes, it’s photography and videography and audio. And it’s how to make graphs, maps and charts.

But the role of digital tools and social media can’t be overlooked.

Students need to know the basics of social media hashtags to be able to join in a conversation about an event, or at least read and learn from it. They need to understand how to sort through social media posts for true information and leads for other information.

Students need to know how to shoot decent photos and videos with a smart phone. They must be able to edit and upload them  from the scene. Knowledge of other equipment such as DSLRs, video and audio equipment is even better, but many students these days will only ever use a cell phone as a reporting tool.

Students need to understand other technology used in a major event like this, such as the Google people finder that was set up to connect runners with family members, or alternative blog sites that were set up when the Boston Globe site went down.

It also might help students who are interested in the developer side of news to understand the advantages and the limitations of mobile information. During our discussion on how students got the news, one asked about designing a mobile news website vs a native phone app — a key distinction to think about for big stories that have large photo galleries or video files.

As they learn information gathering skills, students need to figure out what to do with all the reporting they gather on their mobile phones in case cell phone service slows to a crawl or is cut off. That’s where the old fashioned approaches to journalism come in as handy as ever.

I could add more skills to this list, such as creating heat maps with Twitter data of the locations of most of the tweets about the marathon. Other data visualization and informational graphics abilities are also a plus.

Along with other lessons from the event, I hope the Boston bombings help journalism professors rethink how we teach journalism students to prepare to be the reporters on the scene of the next big news event.