How’d it go? Evaluating the move to digital first student media

It’s been one semester since we implemented a digital first approach with student media at TCU’s Schieffer School of Journalism, where I am a professor and a student media advisor.

I detailed our approach here in May. Now it’s time to assess our efforts (and no, I’m not going to assign a letter grade).

“I feel that we are just on top of everything on campus,” said Lexy Cruz, who served as the first executive editor for student media, overseeing all content across platforms. “It’s almost like we’re just watching the TCU ‘trending topics’ and reporting for students that like up-to-the-minute information and details. I like giving the audience everything we have when we have it.”

Before the move to digital first, Cruz was the editor of the converged website, TCU 360, which hosted content from the TCU Daily Skiff newspaper, “TCU News Now” television broadcast and Image magazine. The site also produced some original content. Each outlet had its own staff and was focused on its own goals.

“The transition to digital first was somewhat difficult at first, regarding the separation from the traditional print style of the Skiff and the habit we’d all been in within student media,” said Taylor Prater, the visuals editor, which was one of four senior leadership positions that oversaw operations under Cruz’s direction. “I believe it was a vital transition.”

Now, aside from Image and our program’s community news website,, all of the content is produced through what has been dubbed “one big news team” with about 70 student journalists and is focused on content and delivering news digitally – and not based on legacy media needs.

Each content area was organized into a team with a team leader who worked as both an editor and senior reporter.

As part of the evolution the senior leadership positions of news director, sports director, visuals editor and operations manager positions have been consolidated. Prater will be one of three managing editors in the spring, reporting to a new executive editor, Olivia Caridi, who was a team leader in the fall.

“We still have some way to go and some things to smooth out, but we are no longer in our old ways,” Prater said.

The transition to digital first was rapid, organic, surprising and exciting, according to News Director Emily Atteberry.

“In May, hearing that our news organization was considering switching to digital first seemed like an absurd joke – there was no way we could make the switch by August, it was too confusing, too risky, too bizarre,” she said. “It was a lot like the Wild West – there are not quite rules, best practices and standards enacted. The first time we had a big breaking news story or two reporters accidentally assigned the same story, it was a bit of a snag. But we found ways to work through things. Flexibility was key.”

Notably, the University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald and The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s independent newspaper, have gone digital first the past couple years, among others.

At TCU, the consistently best work, according to the students, has come in coverage of breaking news.

“The biggest success is getting breaking news out quickly, while the story still remains factual and well rounded,” Prater said. “Digital first has given the campus an easier means of getting news quickly, which is essential in the growing digital age.”

Just since August, the students have covered the arrest of the football team’s starting quarterback for driving while intoxicated (student reporters previously used open records to reveal he had failed a drug test and admitted to using cocaine) and impeachment proceedings for the student government president.

“We were able to break stories faster and more comprehensively than we had ever been able to before,” Atteberry said, “and we followed stories for days, updating content over and over and adding elements as they became available.”

Cruz said the same standards for accuracy and the other best traditions of journalism still apply, but that they simply have to work faster, comparing what her team has done to a hot meal.

“We have a very hungry beast that doesn’t understand why the food has to sit on the counter ready and become cold when he can eat it fresh out of the oven,” Cruz said.

Digital first allows for more up-to-date, more engaging news coverage, but the move did require a change in mindset.

“We were now being given deadlines within a few hours after an event or news break,” said Luis Ortiz, the “New Now” news director. “It took some getting used to, but I feel like it was worth it and we acquired some new skills.”

Maybe the biggest challenge was figuring out how to impose those deadlines in a digital first environment. The traditional broadcast and print, in particular, deadlines were no longer a focus, but that meant some stories either got lost in the shuffle or were not pushed through because there was no hard deadline like before.

“It was hard figuring out deadlines,” Cruz said. “I always questioned how long it would take to write and copy edit a story and even then I would consider how late the event ended.”

Advisors and professors have discussed what the deadline for event-based stories should be. Thirty minutes? An hour? Two hours? Longer? Shorter? When it’s ready? What about if there’s a live blog?

“I would like to see changes in the turnaround of event stories,” Prater said. “They should be posted within a few hours after the end of the events.”

It’s likely students will be encouraged (perhaps as part of the grade for stories done as part of classes) to file within an hour or two at the latest. Sports game stories already have the expectation of an initial story when the game ends with updates after post-game player and coach interviews.

Prater said she’d like to see more accountability for reporters on deadline and more reporters taking their own photos.

There was also the challenge of putting out a paper four days a week, as well as a weekly broadcast.

“Because we were dependent on 360’s editors to approve content, we had to be very flexible with our budget and had to always have a back-up plan,” said Skiff editor Sarah Greufe.

The Skiff editor and “News Now” news director positions changed dramatically this semester. In the past, both led newsgathering efforts for their respective outlets and had the autonomy to cover what they wished and assign stories based on their production schedules.

“The things that were reported through (the paper and broadcast) were ‘old,’” Ortiz said. “It was very hard to do the newspaper and even the broadcast aspects because much of the content that would come through there was ‘old’ news because it had already been online for a day or two.”

Greufe said the digital first transition had a big impact on how she had to produce the paper.

“We went in with the expectation that stories would be published in a more timely means than they had formerly been in the paper,” Greufe said. “What ended up happening was content would get stuck at some part of the editing process or back at the reporters making it too old for even the paper to publish.”

For Atteberry, who was originally hired as the Skiff editor before taking the news director job and who has written about the transition for USA Today, student media will not truly be digital first until the print scheduled is reduced form four days a week to bi-weekly or weekly.

“Because our paper is still a daily publication, there are still pressures to fill the pages, avoid wire and meet their 9 p.m. print deadline,” Atteberry said. “When we’re breaking a story or covering late events, we still feel traditional print pressure to get it into the paper, which is not necessarily digital-first.”

The efforts of these students are similar to the transition occurring in many professional newsrooms.

“I don’t think we have as many challenges as professionals because students are generally at the edge of technology and social media,” Ortiz said. “The only challenge I feel student news organizations could encounter would be the same as that of professionals, and that’s getting used to producing work quickly and accurately.”

Atteberry, counterintuitively, said there is a disconnect between what she has been taught in school and what has been her experience as an intern.

“I had been taught that I needed to take my laptop to event coverage, live-tweet it, write the story during the event, and have it ready to go 15 minutes after it commenced,” Atteberry said. “When I worked at a daily community paper this past summer, they actually worried that I wrote too quickly even if I took 2 hours to write something up. Digital-first is not yet a strongly developed concept or priority at most community papers.

“If student journalists are passionate about digital first, they will be faced with the challenge of coaxing their employers into the shift or finding a news organization that has embraced the new model.”

Of course, for now, students also have to juggle another challenge: classes that can get in the way of producing journalism.

“Being truly ‘digital-first’ is a struggle for student media because our reporters and editors are also taking a full load of classes and are still learning their positions,” Greufe said.

“Our only issue is that students can’t devote 100 percent of their time to their stories, because of things like classes and grades, which is understandable as a student,” Prater said. “Sometimes that means the turnaround takes a little longer, whereas I’m sure professionals are able to get it all done at once.”

There is, after all, a lot to do – and do quickly.

How a youth Reporter Corps could help reinvigorate local journalism

Emma asked if I would write her a recommendation for AmeriCorps. Usually, I would have said yes without hesitation, but this request struck a nerve. The recent college graduate was among a dozen or so young adults who wrote about their predominantly immigrant community for the news site I edit, Alhambra Source. She told me that she wanted to join AmeriCorps to serve a city across the country that the federal government determined was in need. My instinct was that this was not the best use of her skills: She could probably make a more meaningful contribution reporting on her own Los Angeles community.

That conversation started me thinking about the need for a program in the style of AmeriCorps — or Teach for America or Peace Corps — for journalism in under-reported and diverse communities. Call it Reporter Corps. The service-learning model would train young adults in journalism and teach them how their government works, pair them with a local publication in need of reporters, get them some quality mentors, provide a stipend, and set them loose for six months or a year reporting on their own community.

Just about a year after my conversation with Emma, I am very pleased that the first class of six Reporter Corps members started this month at Alhambra Source, with support from USC Annenberg and the McCormick Foundation.

Broadly speaking, the Reporter Corps goals are not that different from AmeriCorps, the national service-learning umbrella program that supports 80,000 people annually:

  • Get things done
  • Strengthen communities
  • Encourage responsibility
  • Expand opportunity

But unlike AmeriCorps, which addresses education, environment, health, and public-safety needs, Reporter Corps focuses on news and information needs. If journalism is a public service crucial to democracy, the demand for such a program is clear: Local news coverage — despite a recent flourishing of online community sites — has been in decline for years.

Reporter Corps members tour the Alhambra Police Department. From left, Captain Cliff Mar, Albert Lu, Esmee Xavier, Alfred Dicioco, Irma Uc, Jane Fernandez, Javier Cabral.

In many immigrant communities and less affluent areas, the result has been that mainstream reporting has all but disappeared or been reduced to sensationalism. Alhambra, an independent city of about 85,000, lost its local newspaper decades ago. More recently, the Los Angeles Times and other regional papers have slashed their coverage of the area. Local television rolls into town when there is a murder or the mayor’s massage-parlor-owning girlfriend flings dumplings at him in a late-night squabble (yes, that happened). The Chinese-language press is active, but very few decision-makers can read it. All of this, in turn, has contributed to a population with low levels of civic engagement.

Despite, or perhaps due to, the lack of quality news coverage, I found a ready supply of young Alhambra residents interested in reporting opportunities. Students navigating a depleted community college system or recent college grads un- or underemployed and facing the lowest employment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in 60 years came to the Alhambra Source eager to contribute. Although they had limited journalism experience, in many ways they have proven to be natural reporters for a multiethnic community. They are all immigrants or children of immigrants, speaking Arabic, Cantonese, Spanish, Tagalog and more. As a result, they can cross ethnic and linguistic lines better than many reporters. They also often have a deeper understanding of what stories matter to fellow residents, from the challenges of not being able to communicate with your parents because you’re not fluent in the same language to the need for a local dog park.

For the first class of Reporter Corps, we selected six high school graduates — four in local community colleges, and two recent college graduates — based on their connection to the area, growth potential, and passion to improve their community. In the spring we plan on expanding the project to work with another USC community news site, Intersections South LA.

The approach appears to fall into a larger trend in youth media initiatives to work increasingly with high school graduates rather than solely younger students.

“Within the youth media groups we’re hearing more and more a thirst that involves the grads. The job market in many of the neighborhoods these groups are active in is really abysmal. Some go to community college, some don’t,” said Mark Hallett, the senior program officer for the journalism program at the McCormick Foundation. “Neighborhoods aren’t finding coverage.”

Across the country, local news sites are working in diverse ways to put this population to work. Many have small internship programs. In an example similar in spirit to Reporter Corps, New American Media has teamed up with the California Endowment to work with 16- to 24-year-olds in California communities such as Fresno, Coachella, and Long Beach for youth-led media efforts.

The Endowment also funds some successful high school journalism programs, such as Boyle Heights Beat in East L.A. (which is also affiliated with USC Annenberg), but Senior Program Manager Mary Lou Fulton notes, “it requires a greater investment in teaching, mentoring and support.”

Unlike high school students, who tend to be busy and sometimes lack maturity or real-life experience, grads often have an excess of time and more advanced critical-thinking skills. “For these youth, this work is a part or full-time job, meaning they are able to spend more sustained time on reporting and develop deeper community relationships to inform their reporting,” Fulton told me via e-mail, noting that all of the students in their programs also receive either an hourly wage or stipend. “All of this increases the chances that the content they create will be more timely and have greater depth.”

What if we united efforts like this on an even larger scale — with the vision that Teach for America applied to failing schools in the 1990s — and adapt it to local journalism? Would the nation see a boost in engaged citizens, more young people at work, new jobs, and — we can dream — even new models for how local news outlets can make money? We see Reporter Corps as a step in that direction, with a focus less on taking smart, highly achieving young people and placing them in at-need communities, and more on training young people to report on their own communities. Whether or not participants go on to become professionals, they will be exposed to new opportunities in the government, legal, education, and social service sectors. In the process, local news, often considered a dying art form, might just be reinvented and reinvigorated by their energy.

Alhambra Source and Intersections South LA are cornerstone projects of the new Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC Annenberg, which aims to link communication research and journalism to engage diverse, under-served Los Angeles communities. USC Annenberg professors Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Michael Parks spearhead the Alhambra Project, and Professor Willa Seidenberg directs Intersections South LA. Daniela Gerson heads the initiative and edits Alhambra Source.

What's missing from the debate on "rebooting journalism schools"

“Rebooting journalism schools” has been a hot topic this spring and summer, culminating at the recent convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in Chicago.

A key figure in the discussion is the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton, who headed a group of foundation leaders calling on America’s university presidents to put “top professionals in residence” and to focus on applied research. Newton had previously challenged journalism schools to consider a new degree structure to “put professionals on par with scholars and give the highest credentials to people who are both.” This Newton post offers a good sampling of the discussion to date.

Another leading voice is the Poynter Institute’s Howard Finberg, whose speech in Europe in June helped launch the debate. Finberg followed with a good summation.

It’s a lively discussion. Lots of truths have been spoken, lots of silly things said, and many topics worthy of debate have been raised. Here are a few points I think need adding (or stressing more than they have been to date):

It’s about the PUBLIC. This is after all the POINT of journalism. These are the people for whom it all exists. Remembering this can help us focus on the most critical questions: How do we work most effectively with the folks who are now creating the journalism with us? How do we best engage citizens? At the heart of this debate, we must place their needs and wants -– indeed, the ways in which they are actively reinventing journalism even as we discourse about it. The current discussion seems to harbor the notion that the debate is primarily between the academy and the “industry” –- an idea that is sorely out of date.

There is no end-point. No matter how effectively we debate this, no matter how well we “solve” the questions confronting us, there’ll be no stasis. These conversations have been going on for a good while (here’s a summation of one from two years ago at AEJMC) and they’ll go on for a long time more. Change is our new reality, and it isn’t going away. As Google’s Richard Gingras said at AEJMC, “How can we create work cultures of constant innovation?” (His questions at the end of the speech are terrific thought-provokers.)

Indeed, Gingras had a great closer — especially for an audience that hasn’t exactly been marked over the years by revolutionary zeal: “The success of journalism’s future … can only be assured to the extent that each and every person in this room and beyond helps generate the excitement, the passion, and the creativity to make it so.”

Research must be tuned up to match the urgent need for informed change. Insults are always traded on this question between academics and practitioners, but the truth is the best stuff often comes from a union of the two. Giving pros a chance to be part of the academy produces all kinds of wonderful work. Last year we brought veteran editor Melanie Sill to Annenberg, steeped her in academic life for one semester, and she turned out a terrific “Case for Open Journalism Now: A New Framework for Informing Communities.” Same thing happened with David Westphal a couple of years earlier, who turned out richly helpful (OK, he’s my husband; it’s still true), reports on foundation funding and the role of government.

Similarly, Columbia put Len Downie and Michael Schudson together on “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” and followed that with a fine “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of digital journalism.”

Lots of good work is happening in the more traditional academic ways, as well. Here are two examples, thanks to Carrie Brown-Smith. AEJMC president Linda Steiner’s contribution to the debate correctly points us to AEJMC’s “Research you can use,” a project I was involved in many years ago when I first came over to the academy from the practice, but which has never quite caught on.

That’s in part because of the pace at which academics embrace (or don’t embrace) change. Carrie Brown-Smith of the University of Memphis comments wryly, following the Finberg posting, on the posturing and “hand-ringing by mostly well-established senior faculty.” She adds: “We just need to get off our duff and make an effort to use the unprecedented array of tools at our disposal to connect with professionals, such as blogs and social media.”

Still, it remains true that key questions cry out for thoughtful research while too many scholars toil endlessly over arcana. What might we do to encourage web media to fill more reporting gaps? How can we better understand how people use online information? Are we seeing any impact from our student’s greatly increased understanding of the “business” side of journalism? How might we assess empirically the decline of the quality of journalism and its impact –- if indeed we can establish with certainty that there is one?

We must redefine our “market.” We know that the quality of journalism depends on the quality of the demand for it. How might we play a greater role in media literacy? We know that the academy seems to be experiencing some of the disruption that has hit so many media institutions. What if we put these two facts together and started serving more and more of the public in smaller chunks of time (and money)?. Finberg cites a great example: UC Davis is experimenting with “digital badge” programs that can “measure core competences rather than the standard three-credit course.”

We can build on the far richer connection that now exists between the academy and journalism professionals. Oddly, the current debate has several references to an increase in the long-lamented distance between the academy and the practice. Finberg did a survey and found that 95 percent of academics thought a journalism degree was vital to “understanding the value of journalism,” while only 56 percent of professionals agreed. That sounds remarkably promising to me. Given the history of this relationship, I’d be amazed if more than a quarter of practitioners would have agreed with the academics on their positive assessment (of their own work, mind you) a decade ago. We are seeing evidence every day that media professionals want to work with journalism schools. In fact they are doing so in ever-increasing numbers of partnerships and collaborations. Good things can come of this.

We need to be the labs that experiment and test new techniques and share lessons about best practices. We at USC Annenberg are lucky enough to be one of three testbeds (along with CUNY and UNC) for Geanne Rosenberg’s terrific project on best legal practices. Like many other schools, we are creating new apps and new methods of journalism in our Annenberg Innovation Lab and our Mobile News Incubator. It’s not easy or neat. I got a call as I was writing this post about yet another intellectual property question we don’t seem to have given proper attention to. But that’s exactly the kind of challenge we ought to be confronting — and helping the practice deal with.

Diversity! My final point brings us back to the beginning. This is about the public. And the entire public is not old, white and male (I can say that, since I’m two of those). We can’t serve, be partners with, or even begin to understand a diverse population –- if we’re not one. And we mostly are not. A remarkable number of discussions on the future of journalism –- the FUTURE of journalism –- are conducted by groups that look like the Kiwanis club of Peoria in 1950. This won’t do. When we hire and put into place people who look like the future and are excited about its promise — that is when rebooting ceases to be a conversation and becomes reality. The biggest change we need in journalism schools is an ever-changing cast of characters.