How can we better teach journalism students to manage reader-driven content communities?

When I was teaching online journalism, the most difficult aspect of the craft for me to teach was its most unique: online journalism’s ability to harness the collective reporting power of its audience.

Sure, I could lecture all semester about moderating discussion forums, eliciting thoughtful reader comments, recruiting guest bloggers and structuring a crowdsourced reporting project. But instruction provides just a small part of the learning experience. Learning demands exercise, repetition and feedback, as well.

Journalism educators traditionally have done well to introduce their students to a professional working environment. Students initially turn in their work, on deadline, to an instructor who serves in the role of an editor. Later, students move into actual newsroom environments, working for student newspapers and broadcasts, under the director of more experienced students, and sometimes, faculty advisors. They practice their craft, interviewing sources, reviewing documents, working with editors and producing work for public consumption. Feedback from editors and instructors completes the loop, preparing students for professional life in a newsroom.

The academic calendar, unfortunately, frustrates efforts to extend that model to online publishing. We can publish newsroom-produced reports just as easily as we could in print and on air, but one semester (or worse, one quarter) rarely provides enough time to build an audience large enough to create a significant amount of user-generated content [UGC].

So we cheat, and ask our students to “be the audience” for our online UGC work. Or we ask them to recruit their friends. While better than nothing, I’ve found a fatal flaw in this approach – the students too often talk offline with their classmates and friends about these projects, leaving the “UGC” to be little more than online recreations of this offline communication.

Online journalism educators shortchange their students when they fail to provide realistic practice in creating and managing online communities. We’ve got to find a way for students to engage with an audience that they will not meet with, nor communicate with, offline.

How can we do that, in the limited time of a single academic term?

If we can’t turn to students on our own campus, then the next option ought to be… students on other campuses.

Here’s my pitch to the online journalism educators among us: Hook up with instructors at two other schools and team-teach your classes together. This way, each class will have a larger pool of student participants to draw from when eliciting and managing “user” generated content. And with the majority of available participants from other campuses, the bulk of the communication among participants really will be online.

This wouldn’t be necessary for all online classes. I can imagine several courses, from basic online production skills to developing online news databases and applications, that would not need a strong UGC component, and therefore, would not need the distance learning elements I’m describing today.

But effective management of UGC is one of the distinguishing characteristics of many successful online publishing efforts, and must be part of any comprehensive online journalism curriculum.

Here are my goals for “Introduction to User Generated Content Management:”

  • Students should have a basic understanding of the scope and history of user participation in news media before the Internet.
  • Students should be able to describe, compare and contrast the various forms of online UGC, including blogs, discussion forums, commenting, polling, wikis and crowdsourcing.
  • Students should demonstrate the ability to question an online audience in ways that will elicit responses revealing the audience’s collective areas of experience and knowledge.
  • Students should be able to determine how that audience knowledge can best be applied to the reporting of relevant news stories.
  • Students should create an online community environment that encourages reader participation in the reporting of the news. This requires the selection of the most appropriate form or forms of UGC, installation and maintenance of those publishing tools and the development of rules of engagement for the community.
  • Students should demonstrate how to encourage and reward useful contributions from their online communities.
  • Students should demonstrate how to discourage, deter and delete illegal, misleading and distracting contributions from their online communities.
  • Students should show how to grow an online community through the recruitment of additional, useful voices to the community.

That’s quite a bit to do in a single academic term. But it can be done, if students are thrown into an online community, and shown by an instructor how their previous engagement in social media has prepared them to understand and lead a community of their own.

Let me also say that I define “news” broadly, as any nonfiction information in the public interest – not just simply the government-driven reporting work typically found on a newspaper metro desk. Much of the financial promise of online publishing lies in niches, from consumer news to lifestyle reporting to the work of the trade press.

Instructors would need to work with colleagues on the same academic calendar. Instructors at schools such as Columbia would need to work with other online journalists teaching at schools on the semester system, and folks at a place like Northwestern would need to find colleagues whose schools teach on quarters.

After taking a couple lectures to lay out the history of the UGC and some relevant examples to provide context for the course, I would work with the other instructors to set up a Ning network for the students, and instruct the students to start their work there. They will need to introduce themselves, and describe the areas of their expertise and interest.

From there, each student will need to decide on what topic and in which form they will pursue their UGC project. They can choose to work in pairs or teams, so long as no more than one student from each campus is involved. But they will need to choose a topic and forum in which a large number of students will participate. (And I leave the specific definition of “large” to the instructors.)

Individual projects will be developed outside the Ning network, through students may choose to develop their own Ning networks if they choose that the most appropriate medium for their projects.

Students should be graded on both the quality of information that they elicit from their communities and the tone of that conversation, as well as the quality and content of information that they provide to other communities within the classes. Instructors should provide feedback to their students, one-on-one and in person, on these points every couple of weeks throughout the project.

Students deliverables would include:

  • A UGC-driven news website, populated with a mix of original UGC and student-reported content
  • A final version of the participation policy for UGC on the site
  • A written analysis by the student explaining why methods used on the site were selected, as well as what other UGC forms were available and why they were not selected for this specific project. This analysis should include the student’s evaluation of the effectiveness of the UGC in advancing the project’s reporting.

I would leave the students to determine the structure of their projects independently. They shouldn’t need specific drills on posting to discussion forums, commenting on blogs, etc. Almost all of today’s journalism students have worked with the majority of current forms of online social media and UGC. What they need is prodding to think explicitly about that experience, and an instructor’s help to make an intellectual connection between that experience and its potential service to journalism. If an instructor needs to jump in with working lab sections on how to set up and manage UGC publishing systems, those can be scheduled at convenient class times.

Long term, this approach can provide only an introduction to UGC in journalism. More substantial experience must come through internships or employment with larger-scale UGC-friendly news websites, and journalism schools must remain vigilant in seeking such opportunities for their students.

I don’t have a teaching gig anymore, otherwise I would test this concept myself, and report the results for you. So I’m offering instead the idea as an “open source” concept, available to anyone who would like to give it a go. (And if you’d interested and would like additional thoughts and assistance from me, give me a shout. I’d love to help create a better online journalism curriculum.) If you’ve tried this approach in the past, please share your experience in the comments.

Journalism students face a brutal job market and will need skills currently lacking in that market to have any reasonable chance at landing a job (or creating one) in today’s journalism field. Recent j-school grads rarely can compete with the traditional reporting and writing skills offered by award-winning industry veterans who have been laid off and are looking for any work. But very few individuals in our field have the skills and experience to rally a large, thoughtful UGC community. If we can train our graduates to offer that skill, many of them might find a professional home in journalism, after all.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. robert, i like your proposal. i’m not teaching at the moment either, but i’ve faced the same issue. it is particularly interesting because many students actually have good skills in dealing with communities and community content, they just don’t realize it. they are, to a student, all active on facebook, myspace, and any number of other social networking web sites. i’ve tried, whenever possible, to use those spaces as teaching tools for these issues, thought that obviously has limits.


  2. says:

    Would it be a good idea to set up a campus blog, giving each student, or a selection of students a sub-domain on that blog where they can write in? These blogs can be used in classes as examples and students can learn from them. I also like the idea of two schools working together to share content.