Emergent Journalism

Reports from the front line of journalism instruction

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A look back at the year in tech

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is when journalists traditionally trot out year-end reviews, and I’ve seen a couple already rating and ranking the biggest news stories of the year. Tomorrow’s Sunday papers should have more.

And many of the technology-oriented sites I follow have been doing the same. Here are some of the common threads and my thoughts about them, drawing notably on posts about 2015 tech trends by Walt Mossberg on The Verge, Matthew Hussey at The Net Web, and Catalina Albaneau on Journalism.co.uk.

(I have started reading, but am only part of the way through, the list of more than 100 prognostications by noteworthy observers in Nieman Lab’s annual compilation. Ideally, some thoughts from that list should be reported here but the three I am drawing on are more retrospectives.)

Life Beyond the Screen

Although their opinions about these tools vary, both Mossberg and Hussey cite developments in wearable tech (smart watches, especially the Apple Watch, and the end of Google Glass [mentioned by Hussey though not Mossberg]) as well as emergence of the Internet of Things as top tech trends for 2015.

Mossberg also mentions driverless cars and drones as things that bear watching for the future. Clearly, networked interactivity is going to become increasingly important in the realm of “hard goods” that go beyond mere consumption of words, images, sound and video.

Journalistic impacts

Implications of technology developments on journalism appear in a few places on the observers’ lists. Hussey brings up the greater attention to news by organizations such as Apple (incorporating a news feed into iOS9), Facebook (Instant Articles) and Twitter (Moments), as well as the significance of social media reaction to news events such as the Paris attacks as some of the signature moments for tech in 2015.

Similarly, Albaneau notes the growth of 360-degree video, live streaming video (especially Periscope) and use of chat apps such as Whats App as newsgathering tools as signature 2015 trends likely to affect the future. Both she and Mossberg say that the toes-in-the-water use of virtual reality for journalism in 2015 could be a harbinger of more to come.

Routinization of mobile

But for me, perhaps the most significant trend for technology and journalism in 2015 is something that doesn’t stand out in bright colors like the introduction of some new products, tools or services sometimes do.

The overall theme of Mossberg’s piece is that 2015 didn’t bring us the next big thing, but rather more routine developments. His thoughts about mobile smartphones offer an interesting perspective that while the phone is “the most important computer in our lives now,” none of the major manufacturers had anything in the way of blockbuster changes to what have now become ubiquitous devices.

But in their very ubiquity, smart phones have essentially evolved into a whole new genre according to Albaneau (who quotes a good friend of mine on the topic, City University of London professor Jane Singer). Mobile, according to Singer, is significant “not just as an extension of the web but as a whole different beast.” News organizations are seeing it as a genre of its own for production and distribution of content.

Together, their comments reminded me of a talk by Clay Shirky at a conference a few years ago, in which he made the point that technology becomes socially interesting when it becomes technologically boring. In other words, when tech loses the “gee-whiz” factor and is no longer used only by the leading-edge adopters but by everyone in the routine course of their lives is when it can start to have real social impacts.

I think Mossberg’s observations coupled with Singer’s (via Albaneau) and Hussey’s (about journalism becoming relevant to tech companies) indicate that we have reached the point with mobile technology where it has become both simple and commonplace for journalists and their audiences. This could mean that content creation and sharing via mobile devices can start to take on some really interesting developments for how journalism operates in service of society. The developments along these line in 2015 will bear watching as the next year unfolds.




Getting students involved in community journalism

What does it take to help students develop a greater understanding of the needs in their communities, and create journalism that helps address those needs? Those two questions have taken a lot of my time and attention this semester, both in a research project I am helping to direct and in an advanced journalism class focused on community coverage.

Teaching that course has helped clarify those questions by seeing what types of stories students can tackle successfully when challenged to do so.

Partnering with a local news organization

In the class, each student was required to complete three enterprise news stories that involved reporting on community activities. Before the semester started, we worked out a cooperative agreement with the local public broadcasting organization, WXXI, to consider the students’ work for publication on its website. Student work that wasn’t picked up by WXXI was published on a class website.

In the process of creating these stories, students interviewed community members, traveling into the neighborhoods where community-building work is going on and documenting various projects that seek to make the Rochester community better and stronger. The stories they have developed are impressive, and include:

  • How one local community agency works to provide after-school activities, and why those activities are so important.
  • How a local program helps develop community leadership among executives from area businesses and non-profit agencies.
  • How a community art project is enhancing a run-down city neighborhood, and how a community exercise program centered on bicycling is improving the health of another neighborhood. (Both of those were done by the same student).
  • How a mentoring program  — Big Brothers/Big Sisters — can stabilize the lives of young people who have older matches.

A number of projects took on educational themes, including:

Other students examined community economic development impacts including :

Also addressed were health concerns and transportation issues.

Through this course and the reporting projects that the students have engaged in, all of them have unquestionably developed a greater sense of what Rochester is doing at the grassroots level to build a stronger community.

Through producing content for a community partner they have experienced professional editing from someone other than their teacher, and learned about creating professional-grade work in ways that exercises limited to the classroom or even just the campus could not have taught.

Student reactions

Here were some of the students said about the experience in a wrap-up reflection assignment:

My favorite thing about this class was learning so much about the city of Rochester. I have lived in Rochester my entire life and this class made me realize how little I really knew about it. In a way, this class pushed me to get into the city, which I think was really eye-opening. It definitely helped me to get outside my comfort zone and see the ups and downs of a city that I have lived in my whole life.


I feel like I was able to gain a better sense of what Rochester is like as a community through many aspects that my story brought me to. … I was able to expose myself to small businesses in Rochester and then also to the struggles that some families in the communities go through and the organizations that strive to alleviate some of those struggles. I feel that through all of this, I was able to gain a much better knowledge and appreciation for the Rochester area.


Everyone I interviewed … seemed to have pride in what they do and in Rochester in general and how they were helping the community as a whole. Most of my articles were about how places in Rochester were working on or helping the community in one form or another, so it was a good insight for me to see how many resources there are in Rochester for those who are in need of them.


For my second article, I had to go to a part of Rochester that has been historically dangerous and witness a community effort to improve a neighborhood.  It gave me way more insight of the different issues going on in Rochester and the types of solutions that are taking place.

I hope some of these students have an opportunity to work as community journalists, or in other community-building capacities. I think their work in this course leaves them better prepared for that, and that any who end up in those roles will do a brilliant job at it.

Note: Updated Dec. 28, 2015 to add links to some stories that had not been published when the post was first made.

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How colleges can support local journalism

Author’s note: This is a cross-post from a blog that is part of a class I teach.


With many local news organizations struggling, the quality and quantity of news they are producing has dipped over the past several years.

But in many places, local colleges and universities are stepping up to fill the gaps, according to a report on the MediaShift blog by John Clark and Josh Stearns.

The article highlights places where this is happening, such as the University of North Carolina and City University of New York. (It’s also happening, although on a smaller scale, here at Fisher in an advanced journalism course this semester)

Clark and Stearns especially emphasize the role that educational institutions can play in developing and testing innovative ways to present news. As they put it, “Universities have the opportunity to pursue solutions in ways that local media organizations, due to lack of resources and time, can’t.”

The authors are correct in arguing that the changing landscape of local news presents an incredible opportunity for colleges to help reshape what journalism will become, and in the process help today’s students learn the skills it will take to operate in that world. This is something journalism, media and communication schools everywhere should be paying attention to and figuring out ways they can help move the process forward.

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Crossing the threshold to online instruction (sorta)

The smart folks at MediaShift from time to time assemble a special series of posts of interest to journalism instructors on a themed topic such as data journalism. Often, such a series goes up around the time we’re all gearing up for going back for a new school year.

I’ve taken a keen interest in the current selection, which addresses online instruction. That’s because I’m going to be teaching a largely online course this fall, my first such foray into this field.

Unusual offering for our school

Unlike some institutions, our school has not gone very deeply into online courses. Only a small fraction of courses across the school are taught online, although a couple of areas of the college (the schools of business and nursing) have been more active in this area than other parts of the college. In the School of Arts and Sciences, where the Department of Media and Communication is housed, the offerings have been practically nonexistent during the regular school year. (A&S does have a good number of online offerings in summer, for the convenience of students who live on campus during the school year but live at home some distance away during the summer.)

So I am approaching the task of offering a mostly online course during the fall semester with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excited to be doing something new and different and potentially valuable for the department and the college, yet fearful of the unknown because it will be entirely new for me, and likely for most if not all of the students.

Infrastructure to build upon

I feel as well-prepared as possible under the circumstances. It’s a course in multimedia content presentation that I developed and have taught in traditional mode every semester since we introduced it 3 1/2 years ago, so the content is very familiar. I have taken the Fundamentals of Online Instruction seminar offered by our college’s educational technologist, which covered best practices — many of which I’ve seen mentioned in the MediaShift posts.

The nature of the course means that even in the traditional setting all of the deliverables are done online, via blog posts, social media, Google Docs and other formats.  Plus, for the face-to-face sections I already use a “flipped classroom” model with first contact for most of the material in the students’ hands via readings and required reading-response papers for nearly every class session. Then, classroom time is devoted to reviewing the pre-reading assignments and doing exercises that put them into practice. So I have an infrastructure of online assignments to draw from, rather than create from scratch.

The main body of work required to shift the course online is to turn the discussion and exercise elements that are done in the classroom into online versions of themselves, along with creating elements that help build a sense of classroom community. What stands out to me most from the seminar in online instruction is the importance of that to a successful online experience for the students and the teacher. The face-to-face version of the course doesn’t have extensive lecture anyway, so while I may put a few video lecture pieces together, they aren’t going to comprise much of the instructional time in any case.

Ace in the hole: hybrid rather than fully online

One final thing I have going for me is that the course will not be fully online. Rather, it is a hybrid that will have a few mandatory meetings during the semester — four of them, to be precise — and some optional sessions as well. That will help me get to know the students, and them to know me, as well as provide a safety valve opportunity for assistance for anyone who is really struggling.

Overall I am more excited than fearful and am looking forward to what I hope will be a good experience for the students and for me.


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How crucial IS social media coverage to news distribution?

All of the journalism educators, researchers and working journalists whom I know are active — some very active — on social media. (Disclosure: that includes me, of course.)

But I sometimes wonder whether being steeped in that world creates a kind of filter bubble that leads us to attach outsized importance to the nexus of social media and news coverage. I want to parse this carefully: I am not making an argument that this connection is unimportant. Clearly, it is, and I’ll concede that the importance is growing.

But, on the other hand, many of those active on social media — especially many journalists whom I know — seem to think that social media attention is the sine qua non of news coverage, when it may not be.

A new Pew report this week is headlined with the statement that “The share of Americans for whom Twitter and Facebook serve as a source of news is continuing to rise” and that “clear majorities of Twitter (63%) and Facebook users (63%) now say each platform serves as a source for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family.” (The report is based on a survey of about 2,000 U.S. adults done in March.) The report goes on to explore topics such as amount and types of news accessed, most popular topics of news-seeking, user demographics and more in great detail.

But what I found most interesting was two charts that put all of the “more … more … more” message into perspective.

And that perspective takes into account that not everyone is active on social media, which dramatically attenuates the real impact that social-media sharing has on news distribution. In other words, the proportions that are reported are a fraction of a fraction. Fairly high fractions, in some cases, but fractions nonetheless. And the bottom line reveals that only a minority of U.S. adults actively use either Twitter or Facebook to access news: 10 percent for Twitter and 41 percent for Facebook.

Even adding the two together and accounting for the overlap, fully 55 percent of those surveyed don’t turn to social media for news:

It’s not that the good folks at Pew who did the research summarized on the website are trying to hide these facts. The charts were as prominent in their report as they are here. But at the same time, a different emphasis or framing applies to these facts when three of the top-five takeaways are presented in the language of ever-upward-ness:

  • More users are getting news on both sites than in the past.
  • The percentage of Twitter users who follow breaking news there is nearly twice as high as that of Facebook users.
  • The increase in the share of users getting news on each platform cuts across nearly every demographic measured.

The fact that this doesn’t apply to 90 percent of the population who don’t access news via Twitter and 60 percent who don’t use Facebook for that purpose is kind of swept under the rug.

The other thing I wondered in reading Pew’s report on the report, but couldn’t find, was the degree to which the news that is found is actually shares of stories generated by legacy and emerging news organizations. (Think local and national newspapers and TV for the former, and sources such as Mashable, HuffPo and Vox for the latter.)

The survey defined “news” as “information about events and issues beyond just friends and family.” Clearly, shared material produced by professional journalists qualifies there. But information received through a Twitter account or Facebook “fan page” for a celebrity, sports team, and the like also counts as news, using the survey’s definition. It would be interesting to see some statistics reporting what share of the news obtained from social media is from professional news organizations vs. these alternative sources, and what the balance is among people who use both.

Bottom line: if only 10 percent of news consumers overall are getting news from Twitter, and if some share of what they consider news is tweets from the accounts of their favorite athletes and actresses, it lends a different perspective to all the time and energy newspaper and TV reporters and their organizations are putting into their tweets.

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Experimenting with Fold and Shorthand Social

As noted in an earlier post, two of the interesting new storytelling platforms I’ve taken notice of are Fold and Shorthand Social.

To get some practice with them, I took that post, and re-purposed it as a Fold presentation and a Shorthand Social story. The results are below:

Shorthand example

Screenshot 2015-06-09 17.31.00

Fold example

Screenshot 2015-06-09 17.37.18

Feedback is welcome. Among the story’s three versions — Fold, Shorthand Social and original WordPress post — is one better than the others? What qualities in the platform make it better? Comments below about this are appreciated!