At the end of the spring 2010 semester, the chair of our journalism department at Florida International University in Miami asked me if I would teach the Introduction to Journalism course in summer. I was reluctant as I had inaugurated and been teaching the department’s online journalism capstone course – our most advanced journalism skills class – since spring 2002.
For eight years I had challenged students (20 to a class) to produce theme-based online journalism projects, i.e. Miami’s soaring HIV/AIDS rates or the local impact of hurricanes Wilma and Katrina. Students had to build and develop a site, write articles and integrate digital photos, graphics and videos into seamless multimedia packages—all in a three-month semester. (See: “Zero to Launch in Three Months,” OJR, May, 2006.)
The idea of teaching the intro class, I thought, wouldn’t make the best use of my skills as I was the school’s senior-most multimedia journalism professor. It had also been a long time since I had taught a core course. I had never taught Intro to Journalism, and there was little time to put together a condensed six-week summer version. So I initially declined.
But as associate dean I am responsible for overseeing the school’s curriculum, and the more I thought about it the more I started to think that this would give me a chance to review and assess what incoming students were being taught and whether that part of our program had evolved with the changes in the media.
Our Intro to Journalism course has traditionally been taught as a lecture course, with a cap of 90 students, built around a textbook that focused on the historical analysis of journalism and its impact on American society, a course that professors generally graded through quizzes, a mid-term and final. While that might have been appropriate 10 years ago, it seemed outdated. Today’s Introduction to Journalism had to go far beyond a discussion of the historical evolution of our free press and the principles and values of journalism. The course had to include the digital age.
But more, I wondered, should an introductory course to journalism simply be a lecture course? As anyone who has taught online journalism knows, each semester’s class potentially could be different from the last because of new software and emerging media. I had spent nearly a decade frenetically experimenting, merging digital advances with journalistic principles like a wild alchemist so that the distillate of each class would help keep journalism education current, and would prepare students for the evolving media.
The more I mulled this over, the more I saw this as a timely opportunity. It seemed to me that if citizen journalists, who are frequently untrained writers, are now contributing content to newspaper websites such as The Miami Herald and The Seattle Times, that journalism students’ training and participation in journalism should begin sooner not later–and in an intro course. When television emerged, a student couldn’t have a do-it-yourself approach and produce a journalistic product within minutes. But students’ familiarity with technology and social media and photo-sharing sites, on which they already message, and upload videos they’ve shot seemed to make this the perfect time for a new experiment. The object would now be to embed some components from my senior online reporting course into the intro course so that students could begin their digital training before they entered the skills segment of our program.
If this were successful, the students then would have two more years to develop journalism fundamentals and multimedia skills and would emerge from the program as more sophisticated digital reporters.
But this wasn’t just about developing technical know-how. I also wanted students to start writing even before they got into the program. This is Miami—-our university is a minority public institution of 42,000 students. Our School of Journalism and Mass Communication has roughly 2,000, with 69 percent Hispanic and 11 percent African-American. In response to the large influx of Latinos and serious ESL issues, we had developed a rigorous grammar testing and writing program. The sooner I could read their writing, the sooner I could start addressing the quality of their work.
More, our journalism department had partnered with The Miami Herald, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post in a complex student-based content-sharing project called the South Florida News Service. Started in January 2009, at the height of the recession and in response to the massive cutbacks in newsrooms, our students were contributing articles and multimedia packages for all three newspapers. The news service had been working out of my online reporting class as an independent operation. By summer 2010, the students-—mostly seniors with a handful of newly graduated students–had been producing over 50 stories a semester for the newspapers. But we faced the same challenges that every news service or project-oriented class faces: classes only last three months and students move on.
Earlier in the year, Nicholas Lemann, Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, visited our campus with media scholar Michael Schudson. Schudson had mentioned our news service in “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” the article he co-authored with Len Downie, and he wanted to see how it operated. Lemann aptly described project-oriented classes as “an orchid that blossoms and soon dies.” Chris Delboni, the South Florida News Service’s director and former Washington correspondent for the Brazilian press, and I had been trying to fend off that dilemma by allowing newly graduated reporters to continue to report for the news service as they looked for work in the very tight job market. But by summer 2010, we decided the news service should be devoted to only students in our journalism program.
We thought we could solve our “dying orchid” problem by having Delboni recruit students from my intro class and see which ones blossomed early.
“We needed to develop a reliable and steady reporting staff, which we realized would not be possible if we worked only with seniors,” Delboni said.
“We thought this could be an innovative path to grow mature journalists, who would have clear and solid traditional values combined with new media–visual skills necessary for the modern newsroom and the competitive job market. We anticipated this might be journalism in the rawest form, because we would be working with sophomores and juniors, but I was willing to work with them and groom them.”
Updating the course to include the digital components and recruiting students for our news service gave me two powerful reasons to try to reconstruct Intro to Journalism into a more action-oriented class.
My plan was to challenge the 63 students in my summer course to develop their own WordPress site, including posting and laying out their written assignments with photos, graphics and widgets or polls as they saw fit (skills many already had acquired through Facebook)-—all on a deadline.
Each site was meant to be the student’s individual journalism workbook. All students were given the option of doing the workbook as an open or closed site, with a full explanation of what that meant in terms of exposure to the public. Even though the students would not report and write articles but were commenting on class discussions and reading assignments, their work on their sites, I thought, would make them active participants in the digital age.
A three-tier system
In order to facilitate the reading and grading of their sites, I conceived a three-tier system in which I would create six groups of roughly 10 students. Each group would have a group leader who would gather the other students’ URLs and post them on their site. The group leaders would then create a master site, which would include their six links. I could then login to the master site, choose one of the group leader’s sites, and then link to the students within their group (See: jouatfiu.wordpress.com). Because the site logs the date of a posting, I could tell whether a student met his or her deadline. This made it possible for me to review their entries over a couple of days instead of all at once.
On Day One of the summer class I asked three questions: How many had received some technical training or guidance in high school, in developing a website or using Final Cut Pro for editing video? How many had already developed their own sites? How many felt journalism was dying?
Five students had worked on their own sites using Blogger or WordPress and two had experience using Final Cut Pro. My question about the state of journalism received a mixed response. The recession and the turmoil in the newsrooms dominated their thinking; less than half were hopeful about journalism as a future profession.
No one had been bitten by the entrepreneurial spirit of the digital age or had attempted to generate a blog of his or her own. I knew I would have to cover a lot of ground about journalism in the digital age if I were going to ignite or strengthen their interest.
The 63 students had the same apprehension about developing their sites as had all my senior students in my online reporting journalism classes. After a number of semesters using the approach, I knew two truths: it usually takes students between a half hour to an hour to overcome their fear, produce a beginner’s site and feel as though they had crossed the threshold into the digital world; it is also symptomatic of a novice site developer to embellish their work with floral elements, small, faint white fonts on hard–to-read black backgrounds and, though cautioned that this was not a social media site for friends, to post a few too many photos as if it were.
All of that was easily remedied after projecting some of their sites on a screen and discussing color, font and layout elements and comparing them to more professional media sites, like The Guardian. It also helped to remind them of their own surfing habits and that the mouse hand is twitchy, and a reader will not rest his eyes for long on a poorly designed, chaotic site. The magic is in the visual simplicity and clarity and the strength of the headlines and digital images. Their sites went through fast revisions and edits after the first session and continued to evolve and improve through the semester.
Defining a journalist in the digital age
Now that they had their own sites, the digital exercise led to the question: Were they journalists because they could write, edit, post, publish? If everyone had the ability to do so, what differentiates new information gatherers or accidental “journalists” who just happen to capture an incident with a digital camera, cell video camera or a message on Twitter–and the professional who has developed a craft, founded on principles and ethics, and not random cause and effect? Did they read bloggers and how did they know which bloggers to trust? This last question led us straight into the heart of the journalism principles of accuracy, accountability, credibility, news judgment and the idea of doing no harm.
Though several students had written for the school newspaper and one had sold a few freelance stories to The Miami Herald, no one considered himself anything more than a journalist-in-training. The students who wrote for the school newspaper had a better knowledge of the First Amendment, but the act of developing their sites while they were studying the evolution of American journalism since Colonial days had put digital journalism into context: They understood that American journalism has been an evolving craft, advanced through historical tensions between the press and government, the press and industry and the common needs of community life—and technology. And the digital age was the latest, perhaps most extreme such period.
They felt empowered, bold like everyone else who breaks through their fears of technology. They understood that they no longer needed to own a printing press to become a publisher—-30 minutes and a free WordPress site had potentially leveled the playing field, had given them the opportunity to produce their own sites about their own passions and interests: sports, music, politics and health and nutrition, whatever. They were now not only thinking critically and analytically, but also entrepreneurially.
Still, for all the excitement, confidence and pride in having developed their sites, they knew that driving traffic to their site and making it into a paid possibility was not a clear or easy path.
Innovating an innovation
Inviting Chris Delboni for a discussion about the South Florida News Service helped explain how they could combine traditional journalism in the new media environment and how innovations in journalism education were helping students find work as reporters.
“Apart from having students develop stories for the three newspapers through the news service, we had started embedding the more seasoned students in the papers’ newsrooms so that they worked directly with editors,” Delboni explained.
Delboni had planted one South Florida News Service reporter in a slot at The Palm Beach Post newsroom. Zaimarie De Guzman spent two months writing local and metro stories and that position acted as a springboard to the Scripps Treasure Coast paper, another of our media partners, where she first had a paid summer internship and was then hired as a full-time reporter. Christin Erazo, De Guzman’s replacement at The Palm Beach Post, followed a similar route. Erazo’s work at The Post helped her land a year’s fellowship as a reporter at The Treasure Coast paper. Another recent graduate from the program who was working at The Miami Herald as a South Florida News Service reporter was also given a Scripps Fellowship to that paper.
When Delboni asked my Intro to Journalism class if anyone was interested in working for the news service, 10 students immediately signed up. Given their less-than-enthusiastic belief in journalism’s future, this was surprising. It was also dramatically different from the response we usually get from senior recruits who often feel overwhelmed by the prospect of graduating and who have often needed some encouraging. These sophomores and juniors now joined the news service’s weekly meetings, generated story ideas and wrote budgets. Within two months, two students from the class, had their stories published through the South Florida News Service, and another student, who was determined to help revivify our SPJ chapter, became its president.
One Last Summer Experiment
Toward the end of the semester, I asked the students to invite their parents for a discussion of the First Amendment. As so many students in Miami come from different countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where there is no First Amendment, I thought I would do some community outreach for parents who hailed from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and other countries. I wanted to talk about the correlation between the First Amendment and the role of journalism in our society. Hopefully they would also get a better grasp of the role their children will play as future journalists. The students had mixed feelings about my idea.
Diana Galban wrote: “In the past weeks, we’ve moved past simply studying the history of journalism and learned to put it into perspective through our own lives and basic knowledge of the media. We’ve explored self-publishing through blogs, shared personal stories, and wondered what’s to expect next. The idea of bringing parents to our last class propelled this course to a different level of unconventional.”
Marla Garcia blogged: “When the idea of bringing our parents to class came up, I was not too comfortable about it because I felt that we were being treated like children. I felt like this assignment was a kind of college show and tell.”
Close to half of the students brought family members. Marla Garcia had a different opinion at the end of class:
“I learned a lot about others and it let me know how completely wrong I was when judging the outcome of this assignment. I also misjudged the level of awareness that the parents were going to demonstrate on the topics discussed during class. In reality, all the parents that spoke were very aware and knowledgeable about journalism and the meaning of freedom.”
The class and semester closed out with a lively discussion that doubled as an advertisement for free speech: Cuban and Chilean parents railed against the U.S. government and local press: Why was Fidel Castro referred to as a president and not a dictator like other leaders? Natalie Alvarez had final words about what seemed to be an inconsistency in the local media:
“As a journalist, is it ethical and biased to address Castro as a dictator? Are we implementing a negative connotation, or is it merely a fact? However, if it is in fact a negative connotation, then I agree with one of the parents who argues that other former leaders such as Pinochet should also be called presidents and not dictators.”
I now had more than twice as many students as the summer class and twice as many sites to read (actual student count was 112). But if the expanded class experiment worked as well as it seemed to work in the summer, we could potentially have over 170 students entering our skills courses with more digital know-how than ever before.
This class had a different spirit than the summer class. Though they exhibited the same tentativeness as the summer class about producing sites, and some objected to my eliminating the lecture and quiz-at-the-end-of-each chapter approach, their response to my question as to whether journalism was dying was surprising, and inspiring. “No, it is just going through a transformation!” they shouted back. The students’ enthusiasm for journalism helped forge a bond between us that made it seem like less of a course and more like an experience of people riding an unpredictable wave—the wave being journalism in the digital age.
Their positive attitude and understanding that we were in a new era helped me pursue a free-wheeling style of lecturing, allowing, for example, to blend journalism history and modern jargon–Was Samuel Adams a journalist, or a politically-motivated blogger? When assigning them to research specific periods in journalism, I pushed them to not only report, say, on the penny press, but to explore its impact on aspects of culture, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. And in questioning whether bloggers and YouTube videos could have been as effective in countering McCarthyism as Edward R. Murrow’s televised commentaries, they were able to see that advocacy journalism was not a Web phenomenon.
Database reporting sites like the hyperlocal Everyblock.com and new media partnerships between news organizations and journalism schools, like The Local East Village—-a hyperlocal student-based site developed by New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and The New York Times–made for good examples of new trends in reporting and journalism education.
New media-related stories, such as Paul Chambers’ arrest for his Twitter tirade about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in England, brought up discussions between traditional law and freedom of speech on the Web. And we, like everyone else, kicked around the idea about whether Julian Assange was really a journalist.
Several weeks into the course, I gave the students a 35-question multiple-choice grammar test. Eighty percent of the class failed. The failure rate was a shock to students and professor alike, so I quickly restructured the class and held discussions twice a week and individual conferences once a week mentoring and encouraging the students, many of whom studied English in different Latin American countries, to review their language skills and writing.
Having learned to create a site and post, a number of students exercised their entrepreneurial skills by starting their own niche sites focusing on personal passions–Caribbean lifestyle, politics, photojournalism, fashion and sports.
Non-journalism students who took the course as an elective, including several law and sociology students, remarked that they felt they not only had acquired useful media skills which they would use in their future careers, but had a deeper appreciation of the many legal and social issues being raised by the Web. The handful of advertising majors produced some of the most imaginative visual designs and photo galleries in the class, and found they were able to integrate visual concepts with storytelling.
And Chris Delboni’s appearance in this class brought her more eager recruits, including one student who published two stories with the South Florida News Service before the semester was out. Deconstructing Intro to Journalism could, in fact, be the path to reconstructing journalism education and strengthening future journalists.
There’s no doubt the class would be easier to manage if it were cut back to 35-50. And yet, I wonder—-and have no answer to this—-if the electricity and the behavior of the students, who seemed to play off of each other and their growing realization that they were students at a powerful transformative moment in journalism, would be duplicated in a smaller room. I will have a better sense of the lasting impact of these experiments when I meet the students down the line in the capstone Online News Reporting class. Will they have built upon their initial introduction to digital reporting and grown through the rest of the curriculum? While I wait for them, I’ll be teaching another Intro class this summer, with as many students as want to take the next wave out.