Search Results for: allan Richards

Zero to launch in just three months

[Editor’s note: Two weeks ago I introduced a collection of news sites published this semester by my online journalism students at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism. Today, the student spotlight turns on to Allan Richards’ Online News Reporting class at Florida International University, in North Miami.]

Our Online News Reporting class is the capstone course in our print journalism track. (The School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University has approx. 2000 students, equally divided between the journalism dept. and PR/advertising dept. The journalism dept. breaks down into print, broadcast, TV production and management.)

I have taught our Online News Reporting class since 2002 and have charged each class to develop its own newsmagazine and/or blog sites. Increasingly, because of the accessibility to free software — and because of tech-savvy students in the class — I have been able to assign the class a project and advise and guide more than teach.

I ran this class as a start-up magazine. Because I teach other writing courses in our track, I knew that this particular class had some of the finest writers I had seen pass through the school. (Our journalism department has a unique internship program with The Miami Herald — these are paid internships and 15-20 students write on a regular basis for local sections. About half the class wrote for The Herald.)

First day of class I gave them the project: produce a newsmagazine before the end of the semester — in three months. There was mild panic. These kids could write, and a few were excellent photographers, but they really didn’t have much tech experience. They thought I’d run a tech course.

I had them set up a message board, told them they had 15 minutes to create blog sites, and that the word Google was a verb as well as a noun. Apart from teaching the online class, I am the lead instructor in our language skills/grammar course (our journalism department embedded grammar into all the skills courses) — about half the class had been in my grammar section and understood what I meant.

Once they created their blogs — several students, especially two from South America who are interested in politics, already had blog sites — they developed a bit of confidence. We then created the newsmagazine staff — editors, writers, techies, photographers, etc. — and developed an editorial policy.

We used the message board all semester to augment class time, and the students communicated with each other as the project evolved. The message board also gave them the feel of working on a 24/7 cycle.

Reviewing their messages I see that their first instinct was to name the newsmagazine. They put that on ice when they couldn’t and then did what was familiar to them: developed story ideas. They pretty much worked as print journalists until I brought in an article from New York Magazine about The Blog Establishment — about how young bloggers were making money. They got pretty aggressive after that. I also invited in a webmaster who had developed a newsmagazine for one of my earlier classes — he offered to help… at a price.

The following message by Angie Hargot on the student message board really tells the rest of the story:

“Now that we have the domain name I was starting to think about hosting and bandwidth and such. I talked to a couple of the editors already, I really can’t see the need for paying a professional web development team. I think we were all pretty gung ho about a clean look so why not do it ourselves? So here’s what I’m thinking…

“The editors should get together soon and first look into our flash and bandwidth needs. We’ll create a mockup front page on actual paper. We can print out the photos and lay them out on graph paper with file sizes written down (flashback to high school newspaper design!) and then use a formula like the one below to determine what level of hosting we will need.

“Just for reference purposes, Yahoo Business is offering 500GB for $40 per year. (

“The fact that our site will have audio, video, and will be image heavy will factor in, but still doesn’t even seem like a problem. We all have site building software on our hard drives right now (if you have MS Office, you have Frontpage, so do the labs). SQL is just a standard programming language that anyone can use. So why not? I just think if we’re willing to put the time into developing the site ourselves, we shouldn’t have to pay someone to do those things for us. Maybe I’m wrong. What’s everyone’s thoughts?”

The final project:

Journalism educators: Do you have a student project or research you’d like to see featured on OJR? E-mail OJR editor Robert Niles at rniles(at)

The Digital Rap Sessions, or how die-hard traditionalists and emerging media yahoos became One

I had seen it happen before. When I was a kid, acoustic instruments went electric, outraging traditional musicians. When I became a musician, electric went electronic and the traditionalists who objected to electrifying instruments now denounced synthesized sounds as not even being music. But music, organized tones, has always remained the thing—not the amplification through wattage or the digitizing of instruments.

Many traditional journalists reacted much in the same way to digital and social media, and, in journalism and mass communication schools across the country, professors often railed against and slowed the development of digital media programs, even as the rest of the world moved rapidly on.
A year ago, in this journal, I wrote about an experiment in which I added digital elements to my Intro to Journalism class. As the associate dean and lead multimedia professor where I teach at Florida International University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) in Miami, I thought it was time to include Web development and the use of social media in classes before students were admitted fully to our program, instead of in the capstone journalism course when they were exiting the school.

Intro to Journalism is traditionally offered as a lecture class, not a skills class, with periodic quizzes based on a textbook, a mid-term and final. Some of my students were taken aback when, on the first day of class, I asked them to develop a WordPress site and post a written assignment. Those students who had a sense of the digital now, whose reach was beyond personal posts on Facebook or Twitter, were enthusiastic about the opportunity. There were 112 students in the lecture class; in hindsight, a couple of teacher assistants to help read the postings and comment on design elements would have made this a more efficient experiment.

Still, a year after the experiment, those students who were in my Intro class and were now in my capstone multimedia class were more advanced in developing and writing for the Web than the students who had been in more traditional such classes. These students had an extra year to meld journalistic values and reporting skills in a digital environment.

While teaching Intro, I thought it was a good time to gather a few faculty I knew who also were infusing digital and social media components into their classes. Our school has two departments—journalism and public relations/advertising—and though we newly had added a multimedia course to our core undergraduate curriculum, in which students are taught Final Cut, Soundslides and Audacity, and had updated our graduate programs (a Spanish Language Journalism master’s program and Global Strategic Communications program) with Web and social media work, we had not yet developed a formal digital major or graduate program. I thought this would be a good opportunity for us to compare notes and maybe find a path to a more cohesive way of teaching new media in our school.

I didn’t want to call a formal meeting, or ask faculty to serve on yet another committee to evaluate our digital relevance. As the ongoing change in media lends itself to improvisation, I sent out a vague email saying that I was holding a Digital Rap Session in the dean’s conference room. My idea was to gather a small, free-wheeling circle of professors, sort of like a musical jam session, where we could basically riff about our in-class digital experiences.

As nobody RSVPed, I thought I’d be having a meeting of one. I was surprised, actually thrilled, when eight faculty from journalism, public relations and advertising, some technology-oriented and some more traditionally-based, wandered into the conference room. Issues relevant to the seismic shifts in the media were usually discussed in separate departmental meetings.

Some of the faculty came to this Session out of interest, some out of curiosity—”What’s a Digital Rap Session?” But there were no accidental tourists here. Of the eight who showed up, all had either been infusing their courses with either theoretical discussions about digital media or hands-on work.

Several professors had been teaching our new multimedia production course, so there was discussion as to whether we were being realistic expecting students to learn Final Cut, Audacity, Soundslides and Web design in one semester. A mild debate also broke out about WordPress—as most of us were using it for Web work, did we need to purchase a dedicated WordPress server?

We found common ground—and were surprised—when we discussed student competency in digital skills. Several of us had made informal surveys and discovered that only about 20 percent of our students felt comfortable working on the Web or in video. Was this a national trend, or was it because our school is a minority-serving school—71 percent Hispanic, 10 percent African-American, 3 percent Asian—and weren’t exposed to the opportunities in their high schools?

The hour Rap Session ended without a commitment to meet again or to pursue any kind of action plan to develop new curriculum. But I felt the meeting was successful, if only for the easy-going atmosphere and collegial gathering of faculty from the three different disciplines.

Unstated, but apparent, was that, in spite of individual efforts to teach students digital media, the school needed a more cohesive pedagogical approach.

I let the Rap Sessions sit for the rest of the fall semester, then put out another call for a Session immediately after the spring semester started.

The number of faculty in attendance grew to ten. The need to create a digital program had fermented—we universally agreed that we had to produce an organized program that addressed the concepts and theories of digital communication, in addition to our digitally-infused courses.

Initially, we thought that the group that most needed these skills were recent graduates and people already out in industry who wanted to retrain, so we first went about developing a generic 16-credit Certificate in Digital Communication that could appeal to journalists, public relations reps, advertisers and interested lay people. Faculty from both of our departments contributed ideas for hands-on Web work and more theoretical courses in digital communication.

Over the next few meetings, as more faculty joined the discussions—the Sessions now had more than 50 percent of our full-time professors—we thought of expanding the certificate into a master’s program, as many schools are doing. But ongoing conversations with industry partners indicated that they wanted newly graduated Bachelor of Science students with the skills and understanding of the digital age. A formal survey of undergrads indicated that they were enthusiastic about enrolling in a digital media program.

Our group finally decided that it was critical for us to teach the fundamentals of the digital era in a uniform undergraduate program. As we developed the curriculum, we felt it was necessary to make it possible for students to overlap some of the digital media courses with journalism, public relations and advertising courses, so that they could benefit from the merging of majors.

Our new major—the Digital Media Studies—requires students to take the same core courses in writing and grammar, law and ethics, visual literacy and global mass media as our journalism, public relations and advertising students. Courses more specifically dedicated to digital media, including Introduction to Digital Media, a study of metrics and the impact of social media on social movements, follow the core. Students then have the choice of continuing in one of two directions: media management and entrepreneurship, or advanced production project-based courses that integrate Web, video and writing.

The major flew through school and university curriculum committees and was unanimously approved by the university’s faculty senate. It begins in fall 2012.

Throughout the Rap Sessions, I kept waiting for faculty objections that could slow or possibly derail the process. But there were none. Only surprisingly good-natured collegial discussions. The Sessions seemed to capitalize on a rare moment, when the timing and growth of the digital movement obviated the need for the school to produce a program to maintain its relevancy.

Although I spearheaded the Sessions, there was no one leader. Faculty from both departments came and went, felt the freedom to join or not, and contributed ideas.

In the end, the Rap Sessions broke down more than the walls between departments and disciplines, traditionalists and new media types, researchers and practicing professionals, SJMC veterans and the newly arrived. The free-wheeling forum of riffing professionals stepped outside the formal academic setting of assigned committees, and produced a collaborative effort by faculty connected in common purpose. In so doing, it reflected what the Digital Era seems to be increasingly about.