Examples: university news sites

Most university journalism degrees include newsdays or production workshops where students work individually and in teams to produce a media output of a professional standard. This series of posts aims to discuss the value of newsdays based on my experience running a unit that offers a similar workplace simulation.

I took a long trawl through the journalism undergraduate degrees listed in the Guardian University league tables looking for public-facing journalism course news site – the kind of thing that the BJTC seeks to encourage. Obviously, not all courses are BJTC accredited and many courses are doing very interesting things online but hide it from Google. In short, there may be many sites missing.

In case you are wondering, Kent’s BA (Hons) journalism and the news industry degree is top of the Guardian League Table ‘pops’. Along with being heavily involved in local TV (good luck with that one!), it is also an advocate of Drupal CMS. However, I couldn’t find a public-facing news website.

Although I have taught Joomla! in the past and still believe its ‘article manager’ is much better than WordPress in handling a large number of student contributors, it is clear that WordPress is by far the most used CMS for uni sites. WordPress is free, easier to learn than both Joomla! and Drupal, and is used for small to medium sized wesbsites in industry.

For larger sites, Drupal and the commercial Escenic dominates multimedia production in industry.  Possibly, UCLAN has invested in Escenic.

There are some great uni sites listed above. The majority are set up as local newspaper style websites and the sites from Liverpool John Moores, and Goldsmiths, the latter which sometimes takes a campaigning stance on local issues, are particularly strong in this area.

However, Leeds Trinity with its Tour De France coverage, UCA Farnham with its Hog’s Back TV and UCLAN show how websites that go for ‘verticals’ can often work well.  I have a preference for journalism news sites that are doing more advanced experimental things, even if the execution isn’t always perfect (students are still learning after all).

Bournemouth is also doing very interesting things online, although I had a few problems trying to work out which sites were run by journalism students and which were run by their student union.

The vast majority of sites were doing ‘text and image’ stories with some embedded audio and YouTube video (less commonly Vimeo). Obviously, YouTube always trumps Vimeo in terms of numbers of users. Student journalists need and want exposure.

Winchester was particularly strong on video inclusion, making it the centrepiece of the site rather than text-based stories. Sites were quite weak on evidence of mobile and interaction on social media, however I am only basing this view on the sites that I could access. In many cases courses will no doubt keep some of their more experimental sites hidden.

Running a journalism newsday (part 4)

Most university journalism degrees include newsdays or production workshops where students work individually and in teams to produce a media output of a professional standard. This series of posts aims to discuss the value of newsdays based on my experience running a unit that offers a similar workplace simulation.

Assessment

Assessment plays more than a small part in motivation for some students. However, it is important to consider how many newsdays you assess (if any). Whatever the case, it is more important that feedback to students is constant throughout the day. This demands proper staffing.

Ideally, you want academics that are specialists in the individual elements of copy, video, audio, and online in the room at the same time providing ‘over the shoulder’ feedback to students before publishing to a live site.

When assessing group work it  essential to monitor a student’s individual input. Content management systems are not particularly good at identifying which student has written the copy, who edited it and preventing it from being changed before it is assessed.

Individual reflective logs or, even better an individual viva (as identified in the LJMU study) can be great ways in finding out who did what and measuring individual contributions.

Other points:

A)    TV on the web. The clue is that the web is non-linear. I am not entirely sure that all broadcast people understand the difference between TV news and web video.

B)    What are you doing? Are these newsdays just TV or radio units with online tagged on? Getting students to upload video to YouTube and then embed into a WordPress page really doesn’t tick the multimedia output box.

C)    Where is the innovation? Currently, a key growth area is in mobile journalism – both output and for production. Do the newsdays reflect this?

D)   News as a conversation: How are students engaging with their audience users on social media and how is this being assessed?

Conclusion – it is just one form of journalism.

While newsdays tick many journalism educational boxes, they are weak in some areas. It is important they don’t solely focus on ‘now’ skills or just reflect a ‘big media’ model of working which is appropriate for those seeking jobs at the BBC, Sky etc (i.e. the organisations that the BJTC represents).

Entrepreneurial skills and freelance working practices need to be represented elsewhere.

The concern is that these are traditional broadcast modules with a bit of web tagged on just to appear ‘modern’. All a bit old-fashioned linear TV and lacking in interactivity…

Running a journalism newsday (part 3)

Most university journalism degrees include newsdays or production workshops where students work individually and in teams to produce a media output of a professional standard. This series of posts aims to discuss the value of newsdays based on my experience running a unit that offers a similar workplace simulation.

More Research Required 

A study by John Mathews and Kate Heathman of Liverpool John Moores University involved a survey of students working on a journalism news website at LJMU. It described a mostly positive experience and provides many useful tips for those looking to run similar newsgathering operations.

The report highlights what I feel is one of the most important lessons on running a newssday –

‘At the outset of the academic year students were encouraged to abandon preconceived notions of the university experience thus far and to adopt a new mindset towards their studies; treating [the unit] as ‘going to work’ rather than simply attending a scheduled class.’

This is of course is easier said than done. Students tend to view newsdays as just ‘another scheduled class’ if they are being assessed. The decision to assess or not is important. Assessment is a form of motivation to many students.

Mathews and Heathman describes the importance of setting up a student ‘website team’, following ‘interviews conducted with academic staff’.

One of the trickiest issues is how you involve weaker students. I have found from personal experience that a ‘democratic model’ where students do a bit of everything rarely works. It usually better to have some system in place to identify the best students who will be able to lead the group.

AT LJMU all of the stories submitted to the site by students were ‘checked for factual/legal/grammatical errors and sub-edited before being published by academic staff’ the report states.

This is a controversial area in my view. In an ideal world you want students to take responsibility for the editing and uploading to the site even if  some mistakes and errors get published on the public-facing site (as they certainly will).  I would even like students to start the site, manage the theme and play with the code as this provides students with more involvement and far more potential learning opportunities.

Also the huge amount of content being produced by students means that academic staff may not have the time to edit it all. Ideally, a team of student sub-editors should be doing this.

What news do you cover?

The BJTC is clear when it states that it doesn’t want what it deems ‘student stories’. I presume it views student stories as being easier to produce compared to following the local or national news agenda.

On a unit I used to run students covered university sport in the BUCs league, indeed the class was specifically banned from covering national sports stories.

Some students told me that they felt the focus on student sport was a little parochial – they would much rather be covering Saints or Pompey matches rather than covering the Solent Redhawks American Football playing UWE away. However, the unit succeeded as it meant that students had to be very resourceful when covering stories and build close contacts among the teams.

They also had go out get original quotes, images, audio and video as none of it could be copied off the net (a potential problem when students follow the national news agenda). The site built a small, but loyal following and students got to analyse the metrics. When it comes to web publishing is is all about the verticals, hence why university sites that cover national news are doomed to fail.

One student site at another university live blogged the response to the shooting down of MH17, although it is hard to see what students could offer in the way of original output. They have no hope of getting original images, so most were pulled off the net and there was nothing in the way of new material.

Running a journalism newsday (part 2)

Most university journalism degrees include newsdays or production workshops where students work individually and in teams to produce a media output of a professional standard. This series of posts aims to discuss the value of newsdays based on my experience running a unit that offers a similar workplace simulation.

Do as I say

A possible negative of newsdays is the tendency to focus on ‘now’ skills, rather than looking to the future. There is a long tradition of journalism skills being taught by an experienced professional. The cub reporters are sent out to practice and essentially duplicate what they have just been told. Repetition is obviously important – it is one of the key ways we learn. Repeat for 15 hours each year!  Job done.

But if an industry is to progress, then clearly we need to encourage rule breaking and the exploration of different types of journalism. So we need to ensure that more experimental forms of learning appear elsewhere in the curriculum. Some have questioned whether the focus of a newsday should be on a single student news website. What about mobile output and social media?

Are newsdays the best way of encouraging those all important mindset skills that allow students to cope with constant and rapid change in industry practice?

Shiny new newsroom

The emphasis on newsdays comes at a time when university journalism departments are often investing heavily in shiny new, fully converged and digital new newsrooms. Those universities that don’t have the dosh (did they forget to charge £9K a year!?) will suffer if they can’t take the converged approach demanded by the BJTC. In ideal world you need students working in the same room on the various media outputs.

Some journo departments even have ambitions to run professional newsgathering operations to take on national or local media. While perhaps not quite as crazy as getting involved with local TV, it is coming close. This area was debated on Andy Dickinson’s blog.

He asked:

Should we as a public funded body (unless the government really get the claws out) plonk ourselves in to that landscape and risk flattening or at the very least skewing the local media economy? Even a relatively small journalism school represents an effective staff far in excess of most local newsrooms.

Student feedback

Five years  ago the unit Web Production For Sports Journalists was run at Solent. Students contributed to a live public-facing students sports site built in Joomla! (we later moved to WordPress).

An anonymous unit evaluation survey included the following comments:

“Great idea that allowed us to simulate working for a real sports website.”

“It has a strong relevance to what I hope I will do as a career. It incorporates everything that we have learnt and the way the industry is going.”

“I believe that if I were to work for an Internet publication I would have a ‘heads-up’ on others who haven’t had the first hand experience of it that this unit offers”

There was of course some negative feedback. Some students said that the sessions were rather repetitive (I had some sympathy with this). It may sound like a minor point, but students without cars or their own transport complained that they were unable to cover stories for practical reasons.

Running a journalism newsday (part 1)

Most university journalism degrees include newsdays or news production workshops where students work individually and in teams to produce a media output of a professional standard. This series of posts aims to discuss the value of newsdays based on my experience running a unit that offers a similar workplace simulation.

Introduction

Newsdays are a workplace simulation where the aim is to replicate the ‘real journalism’ that goes on in newsrooms of places like the BBC, Sky and ITN. In the last few years they have become an important and core component of BJTC accredited journalism courses.

Content (copy, audio, video, images) is typically uploaded to a news website, although other outputs are possible including news-based TV programmes.

The BJTC, a broadcast accrediting body, is rather keen on newsdays and insists on no less than 15 days of news production at both level 5 and level 6 (2nd/3rd years).

BJTC guidelines state:

‘Each student must be given the opportunity to acquire and enhance his/her technical skills, both in an individual capacity and as a member of a team, in the context of practical workshops.’

And:

‘In addition to workshops there must be editorial, reporting and presentation contributions to the team production of news production days over a minimum of two consecutive days. These should produce a daily output consistent with industry practice in the particular medium or media.’

Needless to say this is causing more than a few timetabling and logistical headaches. Units, particularly in the second year, often have had to be modified to include newsday where there was none before.

Learning by doing

There are a number of ways newsdays can be run, a constant feature is that students will hold a morning news meeting (usually chaired by a student editor) where students working as reporters will be allocated stories to cover during the day. It is common for deadlines to be set throughout the day and students  will be expected to return to the newsroom with material to broadcast or uploaded to a website.

Journalism is a diverse profession / trade (delete as appropriate), but newsdays reflect a particular working practice most commonly associated with mainstream media where students work in a centralised newsroom. From personal experience I have found that newdays develop a range of important employability skills including team working, group communication and project planning.

There has been little research done into the effectiveness of workplace simulations in the UK, Carmichael et al (2007) study of a three-day simulation at the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield being a rare exception. It looked at students covering a general election as part of a newsgathering operation.