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I'm an assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, where I teach and research how news sites can better reach their audiences. I received my Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri where I was one of the founding editors of MyMissourian.com, a citizen journalism site for Columbia, Mo. Before graduate school, I worked as a community newspaper editor in Southern Utah and Southern California.

Carnival of Journalism: J Schools should test, model what editors wish they could do

When I first arrived in Barstow, Calif. I couldn’t have told you the difference between a gymkhana and gymkata. But I quickly learned as the editor of the Desert Dispatch because those who ran the amateur rodeos in town were great providers of community news. They were so good, in fact, they made me question if we needed to alter our policy of shoehorning their results, tips and photos into our community section on Mondays. I took this question to graduate school with me because I realized as the editor of a small, and eternally short-staffed daily, I’d never have time to address it.

Within weeks of my first classes at the University of Missouri, I started realizing a solution. I joined the staff of MyMissourian.com, one of the first citizen journalism news sites in the United States, modeled closely after the Northwest Voice, and understood my audience in Barstow deserved a chance to tell their own stories. I needed to do more as an editor to provide that. Giving a voice to the voiceless is one of the hallmarks of journalism.

But I never would have realized this outside of the university setting. I would never have had the guts to try something this while staring at budget spreadsheets with rapidly decreasing EBITDA numbers. Whenever I think about the role of universities in the future of journalism, I remember the lessons from MyMissourian and Dr. Clyde Bentley: Universities need to push the journalism envelope when the industry cannot.

They need to test the innovations because they can afford to fail. Failure is often a good lesson for students. To make it all worthwhile, however, universities must do a better job reaching out to the industry and providing more than an ample supply of interns. Journalism researchers and professors must overcome our fear to step back into the newsroom. We must realize the industry is hungry for what we have to offer.

I learned this firsthand over the winter break. I provided one day of social media and writing-for-the-Web workshops for the Evansville Courier & Press. The editor Mizell Stewart asked me to share tips with the newsroom and the findings of my dissertation, which suggested that providing a platform for citizen journalism can enhance the credibility of the news organization, with the senior editorial staff. Before the presentation, I was nervous. I remember how I dreaded the corporate trainers Freedom Communications would send because they had no way of understanding what I went through each day. I peppered my presentation with as many war stories from my journalism career as possible, even including photos of my hot dog eating content loss.

What I found, however, was a newsroom hungry for guidance. I gave the Courier & Press credit for what they’ve tried already on their Twitter accounts and Facebook page. The staff members and editors loved hearing it. I heard from them and from other friends I have in the industry that so much of what they do online is guesswork, and they appreciate it when someone validates it. They appreciate even more simple ways they can tweak. This is what I can offer, and I tried to steer them to as many other information sources as possible. I’m surprised how few reporters and editors follow Mashable.com, for instance, or know what organizations such as Spot.Us or The Center for Public Integrity or even TPM: Muckraker are trying to do.

As I approach my second year on the faculty at Ohio University, I’m more committed to encouraging my students to innovate. I’m lucky to work with a couple teams who are pushing the boundaries of how organizations can deliver the news online. Jamie Ratermann and Jordan Valinsky created their own online publication, Thread magazine, using Virtual Paper, and this quarter we are trying to find ways to include more interactivity in the publication, while expanding its reach through other digital publishing outlets, such as applications like Zinio. Ian Bowman-Henderson and Nick Salontay are using QR codes to deliver location specific news to anyone with a camera-enabled smartphone.

In addition, I’m committed to reaching out to journalists more, and that’s something that I think universities aren’t doing well. The distrust academia and the industry have for one another is largely in our heads. We are both hungry for what the other has to say. We just have to step outside our comfort zones to do it. For me, that meant analyzing the reasons I went into academia in the first place. I wanted to have time to find the solutions for people like the dedicated gymkhana organizers in Barstow. I’m failing them and myself if I don’t.

PhotoCredit: Yes, that’s the embarrassing hot dog eating contest picture I mentioned early, shot by my good friend John Galayda.

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4 Responses to “Carnival of Journalism: J Schools should test, model what editors wish they could do”

  1. I think you touched on (at least!) two really crucial concepts here— ways university students can create using university resources, and ways universities can bring the community together through journalism (and, again, educational resources). But one point that really stood out to me- and seems like a really good discussion point and call to action- is this:

    “The distrust academia and the industry have for one another is largely in our heads. We are both hungry for what the other has to say. We just have to step outside our comfort zones to do it.”

    Both in journalism and academia, significant value centers around the gathering, verifying, clarifying, synthesizing and distribution of high-quality information— always with an ultimate goal of effecting positive change without (for the most part) interfering directly in public affairs. In so many ways, our goals are the same- so if we can improve relations and innovate ways to pool resources and produce work together without harmful conflicts of interests, there’s a lot of really amazing work that can be done in university communities (and beyond). Just thinking about all of the different departments that conduct research, perform studies + surveys, etc… it’s kind of surprising to think that there ISN’T more direct collaboration between journalism departments/news outlets and academic divisions.

    Good to read, Hans- and as a fellow Mizzou alum (albeit undergard!), loved the MyMissourian/Bentley shoutout!

    -Erica Zucco

    January 20, 2011 at 10:38 pm

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