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?

Knight News Challenge Proposal: Crowdsourcing Data to Bring OpenBlock to Rural America

At the top of my To Do List this week is the completion of one of the proposals I’ve submitted to the Knight News Challenge this year. I’m posting it here in the hope that you’ll have some feedback on whether/how a service like this would be technically feasible. editorially useful and financially viable. I’m especially interested in hearing from editors of small papers, public records experts, civic/community organizers and anyone who’s worked on the OpenBlock code.

Under what conditions would you volunteer to help a project like this in your community? News organization — how much would you pay for a service like this? What characteristics would it need to have to make it worth your money? What else do you see here that needs further clarification?

(And a big hat-tip here to Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Digital Media Economics here at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She got this project kicked off with a grant from the McCormick Foundation and who is my co-pilot on this application.)

Here’s our draft pitch:

Crowdsourcing Data to Bring OpenBlock to Rural America

This project would create a co-op to develop and deploy public records databases at news organizations, especially those serving communities of fewer than 75,000 people, preparing those records for presentation and integration in an OpenBlock format.

These rural news organizations are struggling to move to the digital age in part because their staffs are so small they don’t have the capacity to identify, digitize, re-aggregate and map all the various public records available at the state and local level into databases that can be accessed intelligently by both reporters and the reading public.

The project would tackle the lack of capacity at rural papers from two directions. It would create a centralized repository of state, county and city schemas and datafeeds that could be easily used in OpenBlock. This a job well-suited for a small group of experts. In addition, the project will create a statewide corps of amateur data-checkers and records requesters. Data quality assurance and data gathering are jobs well-suited for a crowd of many people, each working on a small piece of the puzzle.

These volunteer citizen-journalists would actually be member-owners of a co-op business. Each task they perform would earn them additional shares in the company’s annual profits. We would generate revenue by charging rural newspapers a fee. The more records and the better their accuracy, the more news organizations would sign on for the service.

In some cases, volunteers would pick up CDs of data from county offices. In others volunteers would scan and upload PDFs of hand-written police incident reports. In still other cases, people would key into a database the information on those PDFs. This job is so big that no single small news organization could do it. But with a corps of member-owners working together, we could create a model for gathering valuable public records from rural America. To individual communities, these records are necessary to foster an informed civic dialog and healthy economy. But in aggregate, these records may also be able to shed light on trends in rural America that would otherwise go unreported.

Improving Delivery of News and Information to Geographic Communities

In small towns and rural America, the local newspaper is more than just a source of information and an engine of commerce.  More importantly, it fosters and builds geographic community and sets the agenda for public policy debate.  This project will foster civic and community engagement — first, by forming a network of knowledgeable volunteer citizen-journalists, and also, by making public records readily available and organized to support decision-making and accountability at all levels of government.

Unmet Needs

In many cases, data that is readily available in GeoRSS or at least CSV format from big cities (such as this example from San Francisco) is simply not available even in print from rural governments. For example, journalism students at the University of North Carolina working last semester to gather and organize public records in two rural counties for an OpenBlock application met with a number of obstacles (which they describe in their blogs) – ranging from significant photocopying fees to inappropriate redactions and denial of access to public information.

Even when acquisition of public datasets is relatively simple – for example, public health restaurant inspections — someone must request that data from a specific county be exported in fielded data format. It is inefficient for each rural news organization to make separate requests for this data in each of North Carolina’s 100  counties. In these cases, our public records coop would outline an initial request for the data for each county.

What’s New?

Currently there is no tool or service that can efficiently gather, format and publish public records on rural news organizations’ sites. In part, this is a technology problem that may soon be overcome with the alpha rollout of OpenBlock later in 2011. But a much bigger piece of the problem is the data itself – neither OpenBlock nor any other technology has the ability to obtain public records as fielded digital data and create a newsworthy user interface for all the various types of records a news organization might need.

Without a project like this there is no indication that OpenBlock will be a viable option for papers in rural communities.

What Will Change?

By the end of the project, we will have

•          at least one member-owner in each county in North Carolina

•          at least 12 news organizations subscribing to the service

•          at least one type of schema for which we’ve collected data from each county

Most importantly, we will have raised public awareness of open government and we will start seeing rural counties and towns publish public data in standardized, machine-readable formats on the Web.

What tasks/benchmarks need to be accomplished to develop your project and by when will you complete them?

How will you measure progress?

Do you see any risk in the development of your project?

How will people learn about what you are doing?

Is this a one-time experiment or do you think it will continue after the grant?

Journalism at Universities: Research Should Lead, a Journ.D. Would Raise the Ante

(This blog post is a belated act — an encore shall we say — in the Carnival of Journalism, organized by David Cohn. It’s a rushed draft. Please send me corrections in grammar, fact or logic.)

Leadership Will Come From Research

Fewer Journalists, Better Journalists, Higher Pay

Journalism Schools and We the Media

Why Have Journalism at Universities Anyway?

At least once a week I get an e-mail with an amazing offer for students – “write for my fledgling entertainment/product-review/sports/music/opinion Web site and be rewarded with fame, a clip and a variety of other compensation that don’t pay the rent.”

If you’ve sent me one of those emails recently, there’s a pretty good chance you’re still waiting for me to take advantage of the opportunity.

Maybe I’m missing out on the chance to make UNC the “hub of journalistic” activity in a changing news environment. After all, this recommendation from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of the Community is really an economic one – its goal is to reduce the cost of providing news and information. And one of the ways that news organizations have always reduced the cost of production is to rely on an apprenticeship system of unpaid college students. The benefit for the student has always been that “clip” – currency that can be later traded for a paying gig.

But with those paying gigs becoming fewer and farther between, this relationship between the classroom and newsroom is going to change. The only students left taking unpaid writing opportunities are those who do it for their own psychic gratification or who don’t get the changing economics of journalism.

If universities are going to be “a hub for journalistic activity” in a world where Demand Media and Associated Content have turned low-quality “news” writing into hourly shift work, we’re going to have to be part of this economic shift in a way that benefits our students, our faculty and the communities that those of us at public universities are paid to serve.

Leadership Will Come From Research

Universities can lead change not my managing it, but by informing it – by providing the road map of answers to complex questions.

Innovation is the buzzword that we all toss around when we talk about the risks that many media companies are unwilling to take. The theory goes something like this: universities can innovate because they don’t have to show a return on their investment. They don’t have to spend resources on product maintenance.

But innovation without a problem and a hypothesis is aimless. Universities don’t need to create new stories or better stories for a market in which there’s insufficient demand. They need to formulate precise questions with answers that will impact the free exchange of ideas and support communities’ information needs.

It’s not that universities aren’t conducting research in the fields of psychology, economics, management, political science, sociology, biology that are relevant to the information needs of communities. But it seems as if there’s a failure to connect that research to environments where it can be applied.

The failures come both from the newsroom and the classroom side. Newsroom leaders, as a broad generalization, are too myopic in the questions they think are significant to the futures. Driven by incredibly demanding and increasingly frequent editorial and financial deadlines, the requests they make of universities are narrow in scope and short in term. On the other hand, academic research tends to further theory rather than change newsroom behavior. The standards of academic research FAR exceed the standards of industry research. The statistical rigor, the theoretical grounding, the editorial process of academic journals and conferences favor slow, careful dialog. We need to find a way to get “half-baked” research into the hands of industry where it’s more important to take an educated guess today than to make air-tight reviews of missed opportunities.

If I had the time, I’d love to go through the last five years of published academic research on all fields of mediated communication and create a “So What?” guide that would identify places where the direction of research can lead newsroom decisions about story choice, story presentation, audience development and information efficacy. Maybe someone’s already done this, but I’m going to bet that fewer than 5 percent of all working journalists in the U.S. today could name a single academic journal related to their field. If I’m even close to being right, then this is a foundational disconnect for which both the newsroom and classroom bear responsibility and for which the price is a an industry and a public discourse that is less healthy than it could be.

And maybe industry – and government —  is already paying for academics’ time. But my guess is that the information industry invests far less in research and new product development than they spend on research in the health sciences. If universities are going to be the hub of journalistic activity then they are going to need to make research a spending priority and they are going to have to find businesses, governments and foundations willing to provide long-term financial commitments to it.

Universities aren’t going to lead the journalism industry by providing undergrads with new skills. They will only lead if they are providing a new roadmap founded in research. This is primarily the job of faculty in journalism, but also faculty in a broad range of fields with which academic journalists need to continue to seek collaboration. We can and should expose our undergrads – and certainly our grad students – to research. If we do that, then we’ll be churning out leaders who can get into newsrooms with an appreciation of research and understand how to manage its application.

Fewer Journalists, Better Journalists, Higher Pay

My UNC colleague Phil Meyer was right when he said back in 1991 we are “raising the ante on what it takes to be a journalist.”

Part of my emphasis during my four years on the faculty at UNC has been to find a way to “infuse online journalism” into courses that already exist in the curriculum. Lord knows I’ve tried and continue to do so. <plug>The most tangible evidence of my efforts is my new textbook Producing Online News.</plug>. But my problem has been this: the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication requires that at least 80 hours (out of a typical 120-hour four-year undergraduate career) be taken “outside of the unit.” Infusing new skills and concepts into journalism education is a zero-sum game. I can’t add new lessons without removing something. Or I have to find a VERY creative way of teaching the old and the new both at once.

I actually strongly support the goal of the ACEJMC requirement. Journalism students MUST have a broad understanding of the world. A broad liberal arts education ensures that a journalism degree doesn’t just mean that students have learned the trade of laying out pages in CSS or operating a camera or applying AP style. I tell my intro news writing students that a good definition of news is when the world doesn’t behave as you’d expect. And that means you have to be familiar with the natural, social and economic rules that determine how the world usually behaves. You don’t learn those rules in the J-school.

So rather than narrow the breadth of a journalism degree or reduce the importance of spelling and grammar, I’d like to see the ACEJMC introduce a new professional journalism degree that is neither an undergraduate nor a graduate degree program. The model for this would be the Pharm.D program that the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy created in 1990 for pharmacy students.

(For those of you heard me mention this idea at the ONA conference in October, I hope this further explanation helps with your well-founded suspicions that I might have finally gone off the deep end.)

Here’s how a “doctor of journalism”, or Journ.D., program would work. Students would take the standard 80 hours of “General College” requirements, half of which would need to be in communication-intensive courses (selections in departments such as communications, psychology, politics, literature, sociology, computer science, and – yes – even journalism). Introductory course from the journalism school – such as news writing, media law & ethics, design, photography, media history, and media criticism — might even be required

This requirement would be similar to requirements at the Pharm.D. program at UNC — 40 hours of general education and 45 hours of math and science course at the undergraduate level.

After completion of the general education requirements, students would take a test and be selectively admitted to the Journ.D. program. This program, again modeled on the Pharm.D. program, would require another 80-100 hours of classroom instruction in communication skills and subject-specific reporting techniques. It would also require nine to 12 months of supervised field work. From freshman year to graduation, the degree would take six years to complete.

The supervised field work supports the Knight Commission goal of creating a hub of journalistic activity and it has a model in the Pharm.D. program. Pharmacy students at UNC are sent to work with one of 500 “preceptors” – or professional mentors – at one of 275 sites around the state. Some students also choose – at greater expense to themselves – of working at national or international sites. While many of the students want, understandably, to work near Chapel Hill, the field work is done all over the state including urban and rural environments that desperately need health care professionals beyond those that the private market alone can support. Can these communities need any less the civic capital and personal decision making tools that high-quality journalism supplies? Are a community’s information needs any less important to just public policy and rural economic development? I know from working with small and medium sized newspapers, non-profits, public radio stations, and hyperlocal bloggers that there ain’t a one of them that couldn’t use more journalistic firepower. They do, after all, come seeking free undergraduate labor…

Precpts, for their part, may or may not get some salary from universities. But they certainly all get free labor and access to the university’s faculty expertise and research. In exchange, they develop a curriculum with learning goals and give the students a pass/fail grade. And that to me seems like a fair trade.

In some cases, universities provide pharmacy students with subsidized housing at their fieldwork sites. But in other cases, the students foot the bill.

And discussions about footing the bill is perhaps where the Pharm.D. model begins to show some flaws. From my cursory research as well as from anecdotes provided by friends in both fields, starting pharmacists in any market and at any level of experience make about twice what journalists make. Pharm.D. students are willing to invest in six years of tuition payments because their return is much better.

I think Phil Meyer was right – being a great journalist today takes a lot more than being a great journalist 15 years ago. The need for advanced training is clear. But the justification for students to invest in it is pretty weak. Until the demand for high quality journalism increases and/or the supply of high quality journalists decreases, we have a pretty weak argument for requiring students to spend more time and money breaking into the field.

Universities, through research, should play a role in increasing demand. If advertising, social pressure and public policy changes can get people to exercise, quit smoking, seek counseling, stop bullying, recycle, and eat local then those same tools can certainly be used to increase demand for public policy news and information – maybe not among everyone equally, but some.

Universities can also help throttle back the supply of journalists who are anything less than excellent. The market is doing a pretty good job on its own of reducing the ranks of experienced, expensive journalists. But we owe it to our young students that they are not just cheap production inputs that the industry needs today. Every journalist student must be equipped for long-term success and inoculated as best as we can against the next generation of young, cheap, inexperienced labor.

Many of our journalism students are incredibly idealistic and would work for not much more than food. But how are we rewarding and supporting their engagement in public life by chucking as many of them as possible as quickly as possible into a market that doesn’t value them?

Looking at the success of trade publications, Congressional Quarterly and Bloomberg lead me to believe that high quality reporting that has a direct impact on its audience will always have a market.

We need to raise the ante on what it takes to be a journalism student.

Journalism Schools and We the Media

For at least 100 years, one of the biggest criticisms of journalism programs at universities is that they are anti-democratic. Who are you, pointed-headed professor, to tell us who is and who is not qualified to participate in public debate, to watchdog the government and to tell our own stories of the world the way we experience it?

And with the decreased barriers to publishing journalism, this criticism only gains traction. The distance between a non-partisan professional journalist, a professional advocacy journalist and an amateur journalist – once the audience – is smaller than ever.

More and more people are banging down the door of the MSM and the institutions that develop it. While raising the ante on what it takes to become a professional journalist, J-schools can also throw open their doors and take advantage of amateur interest to develop more and better journalistic activity and capacity in the communities we serve.

Journalism schools – perhaps staffed by some of those new Journ.D. students in their fifth or sixth years – should be running programs that teach technical – and that includes writing – skills as well as programs that advance the journalistic values of verification, precision, brevity, relevancy.

Amateur journalists, engaged in narrow and personally satisfying swaths of public life, are an important tool in filling the information needs of a community. These amateurs will report small datapoints that aren’t economically rational for a professional journalist to ferret out. Those datapoints, in the hands of professionals, can help illustrate trends and structures that might otherwise remain obscured or misunderstood.

Amateur journalists who appreciate journalistic values will also have a greater appreciation for professional journalism.

Journalism schools should be places that train and – hang with me on this one – accredit amateur journalists. I would never – NEVER – support any legal privilege that would make the First Amendment work better for one person than another. Accreditation of amateur – or professional — journalists is merely a way that can help the marketplace of ideas function more efficiently. The more accrediting bodies the better (up to, I suppose, a point of diminishing return). The market of individual choices can determine what the different accreditations actually mean. But at least give that blogger who completed nine continuing education credits in reporting, community management and communication law put a little JPG on her site. Degrees have value, and they differ from accreditation badges only in scope and scale.

Why Have Journalism at Universities Anyway?

I don’t know whether the Knight Commission intended this, but it seems to emphasize the role of community colleges as hubs of journalistic activity. Maybe I have my own insecurities about this, but I wonder if that’s not part of a broader trend in academia that historically, and I suspect increasingly, doesn’t value journalism schools, classes, departments as much as it values history, biology and mathematics. I think that many professors at research universities might see journalism as a trade more apropos for a community college.

Perhaps that’s because we in J-schools talk – a lot – about job placement of our undergrads. The students and faculty measure our own success in these terms probably as much as any other. But journalism belongs at universities not because we teach students how to be journalists, but because we teach students how to think journalistically.

Journalistic thinking approaches the world in a certain way. As I mentioned earlier, it values verification, curiosity, precision and brevity. And those values – perhaps sparing brevity – are the values of the academy. But journalistic thinking also values immediacy and proximity. A shorter way of saying it might be that it values impact. Curiosity leads to verification. That leads to answer that help people make personal and public decisions here and now.

Journalists, as the Knight Commission said, connect the university to the world. Journalists democratize intellectualism. Universities and higher education aren’t just a tool for economic development. Curiosity and verification and precise communication are tools for civic engagement – for social change as well as social stability.

For all our emphasis on changing communication technologies and changing economics of media, universities are a hub of journalistic activity when they yield curiosity, rigorous verification of fact and wisdom that has immediate impact.

Journalism is essentially applied or clinical social science. Universities should just be hubs of journalistic activity. Journalism programs should be hubs of universities.

Correction, 2/15/11: An earlier version of this article misnamed the professional mentors in a pharmacy program. They are called preceptors.

Breaking News Emails: An Under-Appreciated Art

I have a tumultuous relationship with breaking news e-mails. One day we have a strong relationship that I value. And the next thing I know they get all high-maintenance on me. Sheesh.

So today I unsubscribed from breaking news e-mail alerts from CNN and NPR. I kept the alert from the New York Times for two reasons:

  • because it does a better job than CNN of bothering me when I want to be bothered and leaving me alone when I want to be left alone. The Times’ news judgment is closer to my own than CNN’s news judgment.
  • because it is meatier than either the CNN or NPR alerts. All three tell me what happened. But only the NYTimes also tells me “So What?” without a click to its site. That’s especially great when I’m reading on my iPod touch and away from WiFi.
  • I perceived no difference in speed among the three providers. OK, so maybe one will beat the others sometimes by a few minutes. And unless it’s about an asteroid falling on my head, I just don’t care.
  • After thinning the herd on the national news, I planned to dump my alerts from either the News & Observer or WRAL. But when I went to do it, I just couldn’t choose. Looking over the past six months of alerts, their news judgment seems to be radically different. It’s almost as if one news organization will not send an alert if the other organization already has. So in order to get a complete range of local news alerts, I need both. But the downside to that arrangement is that probably 50 percent of the local alerts from either provider do I consider important enough to merit an interruption in my inbox.

    So now what strikes me is how little time I spend talking with students about “good” news judgment and writing style for e-mail alerts. And how difficult it is to teach a technique that seems to have no consistent application among professionals. This is the perfect example where we in the classroom need to document the editorial processes around writing and distributing breaking news alerts in various newsrooms. In each newsroom, what do the journalists say are the goals of the alerts? Is there internal or external agreement on those goals? And then we in the classroom need to develop quantitative research that can help the professionals know which news judgment and writing styles best meet those goals. And then we in the classroom need to develop experimental editorial products that do a better job meeting the goals — maybe change the way news judgment and style could be tailored to the needs of individual users based on their demographics, location or behavior.

    In the end, the common email alert seems to be a great example of a place where academics and industry could work together to build a better product and foster a more information society.

    Copyediting and Computer Code

    Every now and again I’ll find myself in a conversation with copyeditors about the future of their craft. One point I often bring up is that a big part of the job in online newsrooms needs to be overall QA of the site. And one of the most challenging workflows to support that is the copyediting of computer code. The example I always use to illustrate the point is the AP style on state abbreviations. If the Web developers define the abbreviation for California as “CA” instead of “Calif.” … well that’s something that should stick in the craw of every copyeditor until the code gets changed.

    And now I have an actual piece of code to illustrate the example. (This comes from the code that runs OpenBlock — the much awaited open-source version of Adrian Holovaty’s EveryBlock. This isn’t meant to pick on that community. They’re doing difficult and needed work. And this could happen anywhere… which makes it a good anecdote.)

    What’s the workflow in your newsroom for making sure that this gets changed to “Reporting Officers’ Names” before launch? Should the designers give editors a mock-up of all the static text elements (including words-as-graphics) on the page? Should the developers give editors printouts of all the tables that contain datafields that might get on the live site? Or do you just publish and come up with some sort of sampling scenario?

    How does it work in your newsroom? How should it?

    Ryan Thornburg is the author of the new online journalism textbook and newsroom manual, Producing Online News, available from

    Lessons From ONA ’10: What It Takes, Part 1

    At least three national news organizations approached me at last weekend’s Online News Association conference to see whether I could recommend any students with great news judgment and programming skills. That’s what news organizations are desperate to hire today. Why? Well, as former president George W. Bush will tell you some things — like learning how to program — are just hard work.

    Lunch with a friend last week helped me put some numbers on just how hard it is. I was meeting with him so that he could show me the server he set up and the computational journalism he had been doing since we last had a chance to catch up. At heart, he is a writer and a reporter, yearning during our conversation for the chance to do more long-form narrative text stories. But in his newsroom, he is the resident programmer/journalist and has asked by his editors to hire more people like him.

    Here’s what it took for him to become “tech savvy.”
    * In high school, he took one computer programming class. He didn’t study or use computer programming at all in college. He wrote and edited stories at the campus paper. After graduation, he was hired in jobs as a researcher or blogger.
    * During the last two years, he taught himself how to code. He set up his own Ubuntu server, with PHP and MySQL. He learned some ActionScript, JavaScript and XML. He uses Excel, Visual Basic and to report stories and build interactive editorial Web applications.
    * He works 60 to 75 hours per week.
    * He spends 90 percent of his time working with and learning about computer coding.
    * It took him two years to get to this point of technical proficiency.
    * That is a total of 5,500 hours.

    He was not born with the IT chromosome. He did not wish himself to state of savvy. He has clearly been blessed with an incredible brain that was nurtured in an environment that valued education and intellectual curiosity. But that didn’t get him his job. He got his job because. He. Worked. Hard.

    Let’s point out how difficult it is to get 5,500 hours of computer time under your belt.
    * College students spend about 15 hours a week in class. Good ones will spend another 25 hours reading and working outside of class. That’s 480 hours a semester, 560 hours a year. At that rate, taking ONLY coding classes, you’ll get to 5,500 hours in just under 10 years. Which makes you this guy. Nobody wants to be that guy, so it’s time to accept that editorial programmers are committed to life-long learning.

    * Let’s say you knock out a few coding classes in school — 500 hours worth — enough to get hired by a big news organization as a developer. That leaves you with just 5,000 hours to go. Working a standard 40-hour week, you’ll burn through those in 125 weeks. That’s about 2.5 years, after various and sundry holidays, illnesses and vacations.

    * Or, maybe you were a good liberal arts student and didn’t blow any of your tuition on coding classes. But your smarts and broad-based knowledge land you a job at one of a very few news organizations that commit seriously to career development. Google spurs innovation with its famous “20 percent time,” which allows its developers to spend a day a week working on projects that are not part of their job descriptions. So, your boss lets you play with computers for one day a week. You’ve got 5,500 hours to make up. And by the time you’re celebrating your 35 birthday you’ll probably be at the point where you can start developing your own editorial applications.

    What the conversation with my friend made me realize is why it irks me so much when people come to me saying that they can’t perform some computing taks because they are “technically illiterate” or “not a computer person.” My friend isn’t a computer person. I’m not a computer person either. But we try. We hack our ways through incredibly frustrating failures by simply doing this. And so can you. If you want.

    Job Post: OpenBlock, Django and Community Newspapers

    Request for Proposals:
    Specifications for Community News Tool Using Python and Django.

    The School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with funding from the McCormick Foundation, is developing business models and editorial products to help community newspapers transition to the digital age.

    We are seeking someone who has experience with Python and the Django Web development framework to install a Django application called OpenBlock on a Web server and write a report that details the technical challenges, specifications and scope required for integrating OpenBlock into newspaper websites hosted by The report would also propose potential alternatives that would be more efficient than using OpenBlock.

    In order to write the report, the person we hire will need to perform these tasks:
    1. Install the OpenBlock application on a server, and become familiar with its codebase.

    2. Identify technical specifications for transforming data formats given to students by city and county government into geo-coded data formats optimized for use in OpenBlock. (See These technical specs might include the technical specs for building a site scraper (See to retrieve the data, a feed parser or a program to impute the latitude and longitude of data types that are vaguely described in their original format from the government.

    3. Identify high-level technical specifications for integrating an OpenBlock installation with the CSS styles, site navigation and URL structure of the news organizations so that users and search engines perceive the content and the OpenBlock content as a single site.

    4. Contribute findings back to the OpenBlock project developers wiki at
    We intend to select a candidate by December 1. The project would start immediately upon selection.

    Please e-mail your proposals – including a proposed timeline, cost bid, resume, cover-letter and three references — to Christine Shia at shia AT email DOT unc DOT edu. Please include “Proposal – OpenBlock RFP” in your subject line.

    Questions about this RFP can be addressed to Assistant Professor Ryan Thornburg at 919-962-4080 or ryan DOT thornburg AT unc DOT edu. Please include: “Query – OpenBlock RFP” in your subject line.

    Journalistic Brainstorming: What Don’t We Know

    We kicked off the fall semester of Public Affairs Reporting for New Media at UNC yesterday by brainstorming in 10 minutes at least 50 questions that we were going to need to answer in order to create a new “Everyblock”-style community information database for small newspapers.

    It’s a great example of how the design thinking school of innovation intersects well with the world of journalism. Good reporters should always be asking themselves “What don’t I know about this?” And great reporters take that question to a diverse group of collaborators and ask “What don’t we know about this?”

    Here’s what my students and I don’t know:
    Continue reading “Journalistic Brainstorming: What Don’t We Know”

    How to Teach ‘Multitasking’ to Journalism Students

    When Ying Du and I presented our paper at AEJMC last month, we noted that “multitasking” was a critical skill that is needed in online newsrooms, but not being taught in journalism schools. That brought up a challenging question: How exactly do you teach multitasking in an environment that is all about training students to focus on one subject at a time?

    I’ve haven’t tried these, but I wanted to suggest a couple of adaptations to the time-honored tradition of having students write a story from a fact sheet. These might simulate the experience of a “multitasking newsroom.”
    Continue reading “How to Teach ‘Multitasking’ to Journalism Students”