Month: October 2013

Curiosity and some code experience essential for journalists

Tonight I was trying to think of ideas for this blog, which led me to two articles which consider the value of journalists being able to code. At that point I could have very easily written a blog based off the thought provoking articles, but instead I spend an hour on Codecademy. I earned this HTML Basics badge:


The time spent on Codecademy brought me back to some reflection on the articles I read earlier. The first article called, “Should journalism schools require reporters to ‘learn code’? No” by Olga Khazan at the Atlantic is a personal reflection from the writer, who learned to code thinking it would give her a leg up in the journalism job market. When the skill failed to do so, she came to the conclusion that learning to code was a waste of time. The second article called “Those required courses in journalism school are there for a reason” was written by journalism professor Robert Hernandez in response to the first article. Hernandez discloses that he was once Khazan’s journalism professor, which made comparing the articles especially interesting.

The two articles present two vastly different perspectives about code. Khazan writes about her very negative personal experience with learning code. She writes of her experience, “If you want to be a reporter, learning code will not help. It will only waste time that you should have been using to write freelance articles or do internships—the real factors that lead to these increasingly scarce positions.” Hernandez, in contrast, writes that though a journalist may not use code on a regular basis in a career, digital literacy and knowledge of some basics like HTML and web development are important. Learning code beyond HTML and CSS, however, are not necessarily essential for every journalist he writes. “A modern journalist needs to know how the web works, needs to be exposed to and respect all journalistic crafts (including code), and needs to know their role in working with others. And that role is an active role, not a passive one. They need to use these digital tools to produce relevant, quality journalism.”

I absolutely side with Hernandez after reading both articles. Journalism schools tend to allow students to pick specific areas of emphasis or areas of journalism specialization. For instance, I am pursuing an emphasis in Entrepreneurial Journalism. This means that I am required to take a few core convergence classes, in addition to 10 elective journalism hours and three basic journalism courses all journalism students take at Mizzou: Principles of Journalism, News and Multimedia. Mizzou’s j-school recognizes that having an area of expertise is important, but it also allows students to add relevant skills along the way. In today’s competitive journalism world, there’s no such thing as begin too digitally literate.

Earning the HTML Basics badge on Codecademy tonight was probably the highlight of my night. My work for Silicon Prairie News over the last few months has made me particularly interested in learning code. This weekend I finished up my article about Jim McKelvey’s new initiative, LaunchCode, which helps aspiring programmers get jobs with awesome companies. Not every journalist will be as interested in code, but it shouldn’t matter. The take away point for me reading these two articles is that the best journalists are the curious ones. Good writers compile the necessary amount of research article to article. The best writers are constantly striving to learn about anything and everything because they love to learn and want to teach readers something valuable. As Hernandez writes, code is tool that can help a journalist “produce relevant, quality journalism.” If learning code can help a journalist deliver content in a more meaningful way, why not learn as much of it as possible? This is the kind of question, a curious journalist – the best kind of journalist – asks.


Becoming comfortable with multimedia journalism

On Thursday, I had the unique experience of interviewing a source at the same time as three other journalists (including my co-writer).  It’s actually surprising that I had never had this experience given that I have been a reporter at various publications for the last five years. Press from more than five local news organizations were invited to interview Square co-founder Jim McKelvey about a new program called LaunchCode which pairs aspiring coders with experienced programmers at one of 100 partner companies such as MasterCard and Monsanto. McKelvey visited Columbia’s newest programming co-working space, Hackton, to speak to an audience of more than 50 about LaunchCode. I was invited to interview McKelvey for Silicon Prairie News.

Throughout his visit, McKelvey was interviewed for at least three different types of news stories: print, radio and video. KOMU reporters talked to the speaker before I interviewed him at Hackton. At Hackton, a professional reporter from KBIA, a student reporter from Missouri Business Alert, my cowriter and I took turns asking McKelvey questions over 45 minutes. I kept thinking about multimedia during the interview. I noticed, for instance, that the KBIA reporter was using the same type of Zoom audio recorder we used to produce audio pieces in my J2150 class. I caught myself saying “mhmm” and “OK” in response to McKelvey’s answers at first, but I quickly stopped myself from making any verbal responses when I remembered what I learned in class – any background verbal cues will ruin an audio clip. While the KBIA reporter captured the interview on a recorder, the Missouri Business Alert reporter and me and my cowriter mainly wrote down pieces of information. It was interesting to think about just how different the same interview could be for each reporter.

Next semester, I plan on taking a convergence reporting class which will require me to produce professional-level video, audio, photo and print pieces. Soon I will need to feel comfortable in all kinds of interview settings. I always assumed journalism was similar across the board, and that reporters would all generally ask the same questions. My experience Thursday showed me just how different mediums of journalism can be. The KBIA reporter, for instance, seemed to ask more general questions about McKelvey’s other endeavors to capture information about him in a soundbite. In contrast, I only expect to make brief reference to McKelvey’s background in my story because my audience at Silicon Prairie News is already familiar with McKelvey. I’m sure the videographer in the earlier interview considered what soundbites and B-roll footage he needed in addition to the kind of interviews he needed.

I can’t say I am completely confident in my ability to use video, audio and photos to capture a story. I know that I can write a story on McKelvey that will bring some value to readers. I can’t say I would be sure of that if I were creating an audio story for KBIA. I don’t have all the skills I would like yet, but I am really enjoying and looking forward to learning.

Below is a TV style video I created for my multimedia course last week. It could be better – I didn’t have enough B-roll of my main source, there’s wind in the background and my camera shakes at times – but I am still proud of how far I have come. I will always feel most comfortable writing. Even when I first started writing, I didn’t find it difficult or scary. Writing is a skill that has seemed to come naturally to me. I can’t say the same for other types of journalism yet, but in the coming semesters I hope my multimedia abilities will improve. I hope I will learn how to tell great video, audio and photo stories at a professional level, and maybe next time I am in a group interview setting, I will be there shooting video or recording audio.

A career for social good

In any beginning journalism class, young journalism students learn a basic list of newsworthy elements. The list I learned included proximity, timeliness, prominence, conflict, impact, human interest and at least one other category that I can’t seem to remember. Every high school and college journalism student across the country is likely to learn the same list. I loved this list, was married to this list, in fact, until I took a Principles of Journalism class for the second time as a college freshman (I took a similar class in high school). Memorizing the list for a second time made me realize how many gaps there are in the journalism education schools are providing to students. What about fixing problems? What about community building? What about education? What about solution journalism?

At first I didn’t fully understand solution journalism because many media organizations also don’t quite understand solution journalism. Dowser, a news organization at the forefront of solutions journalism, addresses its concerns about the lack of solution journalism in media in an article called “Defining Solution Journalism: It’s About Real News, Not Feel-Good Stories.”  The site points out that CNN has a segment called “Heroes” and ABC News likewise has a “Person of the Week” feature. This is not solution journalism. Pointing out something that seems good with little thoughtfulness and critical thinking only further drives the problem in mainstream media today. For every five stories of conflict, war and generally discouraging stories, it is difficult to find five news pieces that offer answers or forward perspective, the site points out in its about page.  The goals of Dowser are highlighted in this short mission statement video:

Sites like Dowser are effectively bringing solutions to journalism, but the world also needs solutions and journalism to merge in areas of non-traditional communication. Take the non-profit sector, for instance. Last winter break, I volunteered at a non-profit in my hometown. I used my communication and journalism skills to design flyers and postcards, and devise and implement a ramped up social media strategy. The organizers I worked with at the non-profit were incredible people. They were at the organization for the right reasons and had invaluable planning and business skills. The non-profit was well known in the area, but I recognized that the non-profit’s outdated website and promotion strategies were holding it back.

This week I came across an organization called The Girl Effect, that is using multimedia strategies to promote education, health, safety, economic security and citizenship for girls around the world. The organization has an enormous network of supporters including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Nike Foundation. Not every non-profit has the resources or communication talent to use multimedia for effective social good, as the organization does, but using organizations such as The Girl Effect as a model is a good start for melding solutions and journalism. Below is a video promoting the organization’s The Girl Declaration:

When people ask me what I am majoring in at Mizzou, they say I have an interesting combination of passions. This mostly just means they have never heard of any viable careers that combine all of my pursuits. I am currently a journalism and international studies major with a minor in entrepreneurship. My interest area in journalism is called Entrepreneurial Journalism, which means I am taking primarily convergence and multimedia courses and will eventually take classes on app development and 21st century news models. My focus in international studies is peace studies, which is the most interdisciplinary focus area. I am taking Spanish courses for the degree and hope to take a variety of classes exploring world cultures, religion and gender issues. The entrepreneurship minor requires me to take business and entrepreneurship classes.

To many, these three areas seem to pull my life in three vastly different directions, however, I finally feel like I’ve found this incredible trio of interests that capture everything I want to do with my life. For instance, I see myself working in communications for an international charity, looking for solutions to problems that give those in poverty long term financial, career and education solutions that will be self-sustaining after I leave. Journalism alone wouldn’t be enough because I would be recognizing problems without offering solution. International Studies alone would leave me without the tangible communication and convergence skills necessary to tell a compelling story about an organization I am passionate about. Entrepreneurship alone would leave me too focused on business solutions alone, without a larger perspective on the world that journalism and international studies could offer me.

My goals may change. I may focus on one over another. I may find 10 more passions I didn’t know I had. No matter where my life leads me though, I hope I am part of a solution.

Exploring the intersection of art and journalism

Can journalism be art? Where is the line between journalism and art? At what point does the creator lose control of the story, letting it become a creation of its own?

This week I have been considering the distinction (or lack thereof) between news and art, authentic and designed and unplanned and calculated. Journalism sometimes can and should capture a story as it actually happened. Other times, stories require different untraditional techniques to tell the story accurately.

In my multimedia lecture this week, my professor showed us a short film by Tyler Stableford called “Shattered.”  The film combines beautiful video of a mountain climber in Telluride, Colo. with a rhythmic, poem like narration of the inner thoughts of the climber. As aesthetically pleasing as the video was, I was confused by why we were shown the video: The short film wasn’t journalism after all. It was scripted, created and devised. As I considered the video more, however, I realized the short film captured the feelings of a climber better than any traditional journalistic video could. Sometimes “based on a true story” is better than the complete true story, even in journalism.

Every year Columbia, Mo. hosts two wonderful film festivals. This weekend I was lucky enough to see the closing film of the CItizen Jane Film Festival with the group of freshmen I teach every week as part of my Peer Advisor position with MU Residential Life. The festival showcases a variety of films made by women.  I saw “The New Black” Sunday night, which is a documentary about LGBT issues in the black community. The film’s storyline focused on Maryland’s 2012 referendum that allowed voters to accept or reject a bill to legalize gay marriage. The film was really beautiful. It captured two very complex sides of the issue, and investigated the perspective of a community mainstream media doesn’t always cover. While the film contained more traditional journalism elements than “Shattered,” it still had a number of artistic elements to it. It wasn’t a 5-minute video on a news website, instead it was a full length film.

Last year as a warm-up to Columbia’s annual True/False Film Festival, MU held an event called “Based on a True Story: The Intersection of Documentary Film and Journalism.” I didn’t get a chance to go last year, but the event discussed issues of journalism and film in-depth. The event’s website mentions popular documentaries such as Michael Moore’s “Sicko” and discusses CNN’s addition of a documentary film unit.

This kind of work certainly dives into an unfamiliar realm of journalism. In my class this week, I am working to produce two videos. I hope I can capture the news of what I’m covering foremost, but I also hope I can add the kind of artistic flair that makes films like “Shattered” and “The New Black” so compelling.

Silicon Prairie News proves a model for strong niche coverage

Silicon Prairie News comes to mind when I think of thriving examples of new-age media. The Omaha-based online news publication covers technology, business and startup news in the Midwest, and has built a pretty remarkable niche audience. I started work as a contributor and student editor for the publication in Columbia, Mo., so I may be a bit biased, but I think SPN is a great example of what 21st century publications should be doing for a number of reasons:

1. Audience generated content increases readership and loyalty among audience.

Traditional newspapers cling to the idea that the Letters to the Editor section is the only suitable place for readers to express their thoughts. I’m not arguing that papers completely abandon this notion or this section of the paper by any means, but I do believe that comments in the Letters to the Editor section fit into very limited categories: Either a reader’s comment severely criticizes or overly praises a news story.

Silicon Prairie News highlights audience opinion by giving reader’s their own “Contributors and Guests” section. In one opinion piece last month, the cofounder and CEO of a company called Zapier contributed an article called, “Why we fly home to mentor at Startup Weekend every year.” SPN gives these experts a place to be “thought leaders,” or in other words it gives community members a place to give advice, build community and promote both themselves and the publication. Every expert contributor, in turn, becomes a regular reader of the website, and they spread the word about SPN wherever they go.

2. Community building is just as important as news.

Many news websites post a calendar of local events; however, most don’t plan a slew of their own events to fill that calendar. Every year SPN executes a number of community speaking and awards events in Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City. The speaking events function sort of like a locally-planned TED Talk would; The publication invites established entrepreneurs from across the country to speak about their success and businesses. Past speakers have included leadership from reddit and Marc Ecko. This year’s annual Silicon Prairie Awards event recognized notable figures and businesses in 12 categories such as Startup of the Year and Startup Executive of the Year. The publication also posts a weekly job board to list open technology job opportunities in the Midwest.

Readers of SPN don’t just come to the website for a story that interests them (although they will find that too). The website has become a resource for inspiration, jobs, connections and news. By becoming all of these things in one, SPN has become an essential part of the reader’s day.

3. Give the audience what they want.

Silicon Prairie News has a very strong definition of self. It isn’t going to give you news in a traditional, AP stylized, formulaic package. This is perhaps what I admire and (initially) feared most about SPN when I began my work for them this fall. For years I have been taught to follow a formula when writing news. There was even a structure in my head of how to write the most flexible stories of all: features. I quickly learned that SPN’s stories work because they have a voice in a way that isn’t calculated or predictable.

SPN readers aren’t looking for 5000 word stories with unnecessary detail. The startup community is creative, fast paced and exciting. The content on SPN is written exactly as this community functions. Most post are between 300-500 words. Some stories have one source. Some stories are only quotes or bullet points. Many of the first sentences of stories make me laugh out loud. Most of the pictures and videos paired with stories are from the interview sources (again a community-building technique). For example, this post on a Kansas City startup called CandyCam incorporates many of the techniques. The post summarizes the important information in an engaging way and includes a really great multimedia video piece to give the viewer more details. Overall, the posts feel conversational, and because of this, SPN feels like a world I am a part of, and not a news site I occasionally browse at a distance.

The year before I joined SPN’s team, I had been in a bit of a journalism slump. I tried reporting for various publications as an freshman journalism student at the University of Missouri. None of them felt right, and I was discouraged by how dispassionate I felt about writing. I was writing stories without the audience in mind, and I felt out of touch with the craft I had loved so much in high school. Now at SPN, I am more excited about journalism than I have ever been. I am not only writing about the startup community in Columbia, but I am quickly becoming a part of it.