Annotating the News

I’m working this fall’s common syllabus for “JOMC 153: News Writing,” the introductory class at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I’ve created a custom RSS feed for students in all 14 sections to use. But I’m also adding this paragraph:

If you are like most Americans, most of your news consumption comes from television. You may also get much of your news via Facebook or other online news sources. In this class you will learn to become a more critical consumer of news from all sources. As you begin to study journalism and mass communication, you may find it particularly useful to read the print edition of a national newspaper like USA Today or The Wall Street Journal as well as a local paper. If you read news critically, you will be circling words, writing notes and highlighting passages.

Is anyone out there using a tool for annotating digital content that you actually find useful? You don’t need to necessarily be able to share the notes but the notes preferably would be persistent from device to device.

Sohaib Athar wasn’t a journalism major, and neither are you

The story of Sohaib Athar is an especially important anecdote precisely because he was accidental journalist.The value of social media isn’t as much about giving a microphone to people who seek it, but about amplifying unheard voices.

In the great debate about the future of journalism and the relevance of journalism schools, the Athar anecdote supports my belief that *every* college student should take a course in journalism. Whether they practice the profession or not, many of them will be “brothers in the crowd” — to borrow a phrase and a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

At those moments, we don’t need journalists as much as we need people — like Athar — who practice journalistic thinking.

Social Media and News Judgment in the Classroom

When I walk into the classroom to teach my introductory news writing students at UNC, I remind myself that I’m giving a map to people who have always driven sports cars, but never out of their neighborhood.

Some of the students are younger than Mosaic, and throughout their lives, their access to information technology has outpaced their understanding of it.

The answer to the question of “What is news?” for many of them is “Whatever my friends share on Facebook.” And that means popularity — and for many of them it’s popularity among a narrow subset of people who look, act and see the world similarly — trumps all the traditional news values of impact, proximity, prominence, timeliness, emotional appeal, oddity and conflict.

But rather than try to replace one with the other, I’m trying a technique that I hope will use their familiarity with social media to get them to think more about their audience. Try the following and let me know how it works for you, too.

1. Have the students organize their Facebook friends into various lists, using traditional news values. So, for example, students might organize their friends by geography, share experiences, relationship status, number of friends they have, frequency of posting, or a combination of those. Instructions for Creating a Facebook List

2. Throughout the semester, your students are already required to read the news. But this technique also asks them to share the stories they read with their friends on Facebook. Instructions for Sharing a Link on Facebook

3. The key is that they can’t share a link with ALL their friends. They have to pick no more than two lists with which they share each story. This gets the students thinking about how different audience value different information. Or how different audiences value the same information, but for different reasons. Instructions for Sharing Links With Specific Lists

Sharing an article on Facebook4. Finally, with each link that a student posts she is required to “Say something about this link …” It doesn’t count if the annotation is merely a re-phrasing of the facts in the story. And it doesn’t count if the student merely writes about why she likes the story. The annotation must answer the question “So What?” for that particular list. The goal here is get students to change their belief that writing is about self-expression into a journalistic mindset in which writing is selfless expression.

Journalists have to give audiences what they want and need, and often must go to great lengths to explain to them why they need it. This isn’t paternalism. This is a service, and it’s the same one that attorneys and physicians and financial advisers provide. The choice remains in the customer’s hands. But we — as journalists — have a professional obligation to provide the best advice on the most relevant information possible.

Grading: You have two choices for grading this assignment. One option is to get a Facebook account and require that all of your students friend you and put you on every list they’ve created for the class. That way you’ll be able to see what they’re doing and use your own rubric to score their efforts. The other option is to have the students write a weekly reflection about their experiences sharing stories with their friends. What did they share with whom? How did they describe it? What didn’t they share? Why not? What responses did they get from their friends?

(For the sake of ease, you may consider creating a mock version of this assignment in which students simply write Word documents using imaginary friends, imaginary lists, imaginary stories or use an imaginary social network. But do not do that. It smacks of being phoney. And students — and journalists — hate phonies.

Journalistic Thinking and Intro Newswriting

The value of journalism programs today is not that we place students in reporting and editing jobs, but that we teach them how to think journalistically (as I’ve written about before here and here.)¬† One way we can expand journalistic thinking to the entire campus community as well to amateur journalists is to help our students form a peer-editing corps. Journalism students internalize their classroom learning as they explain it to others. The quality of amateur journalism increases and the curiosity and precision required by journalistic thinking becomes part of our campus culture.

Students studying news writing, reporting and editing would hold periodic peer-editing sessions with a small group. Perhaps three journalism facilitator-students to 10 participants. Journalism students would critique the writing and reporting of the participants. Is the writing precise and concise? Is the spelling and grammar accurate? What questions are left unanswered?

An “each-one, teach-one” approach such as this would cost next to nothing. A few thousand dollars a year to support the role of a faculty mentor and various community-building activities.

Assessing the effect of a program like this would be easy as well. Survey all participants. Analyze content of participants before and after. Compare participant’s blog posts with non-participants blog posts.

It incorporates research, teaching and community service.

Some questions:

* Would there be interest among journalism students?

* Would there be interest among non-journalism students?

* Would there be interest among amateur, volunteer journalists in the community?

* How would the program reach volunteer journalists in communities far from campus?

* If you’re an employer, how much do you think an applicants participation in a program like this — as a mentor — would¬† influence your hiring decision?

* Are there similar programs out there that already exist?

* Could you incorporate this as service-learning component of a basic news writing/editing/reporting class?

Examples of UNC’s Online Student Journalism

With a new semester about to begin on Monday, I wanted to share some of the work done by some of the students in UNC-Chapel Hill’s JOMC 463: Newsdesk (PDF) class last semester. The assignment was this: Do an online profile of a person or organization using interactivity and multiple media. They were limited by producing the story in a somewhat wonky version of a Drupal-based CMS that I had set up for the class.

The bottom line is this: most of this student work was very good, and it’s important to show industry and other journalism students how we’re preparing the next generation to lead change in newsrooms. Students are young and therefore their work is not perfect, but it can be awfully good. Here are three examples, and the reason that each gives me hope for the future of journalism. Continue reading “Examples of UNC’s Online Student Journalism”

Vote: Online Journalism Textbook Title

Alright, wise crowd. I need you to show me what you’re made of.

I’m writing for college students a book about online journalism. The book connects the traditional elements and values of journalism with new ways of telling stories and engaging audiences. It will start with a discussion of online news values and elements and the unique characteristics of the online news audience. Then it’ll take readers through the gamut of digital media skills and tools, and wrap up with a section that talks about how to make sensible use of the tools to create journalism that’s more engaging and relevant.

But… what should I call it? Please vote below and then leave any comments here.

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Notes From a Semester

The semester at UNC-Chapel Hill is done and the students in “Public Affairs Reporting for New Media” have put together a wonderful resource for learning about and engaging in efforts to curb the state’s high dropout rate.

You can read my notes about their work at
or visit the site’s homepage at

Among the pieces I’ve enjoyed the most are the online journalism tutorials that the students themselves created based on their own experiences hashing through their first efforts and multimedia, interactive, on-demand news story telling. You can see their tutorials here.

NCAA Basketball, the Tar Heel, and Citizen Media

The NCAA basketball game tonight in Detroit between the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Michigan State Spartans brings us a good illustration of the relative strengths of print and online news.

Continue reading “NCAA Basketball, the Tar Heel, and Citizen Media”