Time for entrepreneurial student journalism

As with their commercial and professional counterparts, student media staffs must look ahead and plan with entrepreneurship in mind. The 20th century model was that staffs were producers of a product — a yearbook, broadcast, magazine or newspaper — funded by advertising or through institutional support. That model is not sustainable. A 21st century model is one where staffs consider themselves as information brokers and use the raw components they have — information in the form of facts, images, video and audio — plus various delivery platforms to sustain the operation.

Be the information experts. The student media operation should be the first source people think of when it comes to facts and data about your school community. For some topics like clubs or non-varsity sports, your media are the only ones documenting and covering the events or history. You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to do a good job. Having quality information and thorough coverage develops your organization as the top news source. These also build an audience.

Develop multiple platforms. When deciding how to cover a topic or a story, every staff needs to have an array of options for presenting them to the audience or readers and viewers. Aside from the print or broadcast, a Web presence is almost mandatory. Beyond at least a bare-bones website, consider social media as well. How can people engage with the stories? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest — all of these are opportunities to connect, share and develop the story. Today, the conversation occurs in both directions with the audience providing key aspects of the story and discussion.

Monetize in new ways — no more candy sales or after-game dances. Information plus distribution equals opportunity. How can the student media staff wean itself from advertising? If the traditional ad money is dwindling, find a new revenue stream. Sell photos through a site like SmugMug.com, allowing parents, students, alumni and friends to purchase the photo prints or other items. Create new special editions/sections with advertising or sponsorship opportunities. Special editions such as a back-to-school guide, graduation special or music issue can provide themed coverage and ways for new advertisers to connect.

None of these suggestions should happen in isolation. They rely on each other and will combine for success. They keys are training the staff to think in a native 21st century way rather than modifying old thinking while attempting to keep up today. You don’t want to keep up; you want to get ahead. Discover the free or inexpensive tools that will help the students and adviser to do that. Then, go out and use them to do great work.

The value of an outside perspective

Each spring brings another set of passages to high schools: end-of-year testing, the Prom and graduation. The journalism program is no different with its year-in-review newspaper, yearbook distribution, selection of new editors and staff and maybe a farewell banquet. The adviser likely gives a final exam or asks students to turn in a portfolio of their cumulative work. Along with those important events and activities, each publication or media staff should take advantage of the annual spring renewal to seek an outside perspective for maximum benefit.

Unlike students in other scholastic activities, journalism students have an opportunity to gain a greater understanding about the work they do by participating in an annual evaluation. Producing a newspaper, yearbook, website or magazine is a specialized activity. Getting better at it requires a broader perspective than just the students and adults in the newsroom.

Fortunately, staffs have numerous options for just this kind of advice through one of the critique services at the national or state levels. NSPA has a longstanding program, as do the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and the Quill and Scroll Society. Many state associations also offer evaluation services. These programs provide two important aspects to success: recognition for the hard work and achievement of the publication over the past year and suggestions for how to improve the endeavor.

The critique can’t be done in isolation, though. It must be put to work. Improvement is a process. Because the staff composition changes each year, a critique evaluates the publication at that time. That’s why the rating or score must be secondary to the suggestions for improvement. Through evaluation, reflection and action, a critique will provide a path to build on the foundation.

Evaluation. The evaluation comes in two stages. First, the staff must evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. Some critique programs will demand more evaluation from the editors and staff, while others request only a letter of explanation. However, identifying the publication’s areas of strength and deficiency will help the evaluating judge provide targeted feedback. Second, the judge will apply the association’s criteria to the publication. The judge will write about what is working and what isn’t. He or she should provide a blend of praise and suggestions — ideally with specific tips for how to make the improvements — and a rating according to the criteria.

Reflection. Once the evaluation has been returned to the adviser and staff, it’s time to review the comments and reflect on the suggestions from the judge. This evaluation from an outsider may raise some important issues on which the staff can reflect. Some of the points might be reminders of more rigid rules of scholastic journalism, while others might be more in line with preference or taste. Regardless, the editors and staff ought to consider each point carefully and determine whether it should be accepted. If a suggestion is to be disregarded, the rationale should be clearly stated. Simply disagreeing or taking a defensive attitude does not help improve the publication. From there, the editors can work with the adviser to determine the best course of action for implementing the suggestions and making the most of the critique.

Action. The steps to be taken after an evaluation are best expressed in a set of goals. Some of the goals may be individual, such as an editor’s goal to have more of a certain type of coverage in each edition. Others may be staff goals, such as reducing the number of errors before submitting pages or teaching staff members how to improve their photography skills. The adviser and editor in chief should work with section editors to develop the individual goals and staff goals based on the suggestions from the evaluation. The action plan is up to the staff. For example, if the judge suggests including more stories about off-campus sports and recreation, how will the staff make this happen?

Evaluation, reflection and action can happen throughout the year, but the annual review is one way to create a benchmark. Periodically refer to the goals as a way to keep the staff on track throughout the year. The previous year’s critique can be referenced when setting goals and also when submitting for the next critique. It’s acceptable to miss a few goals. Make sure that staff identifies and reflects on the reasons for falling short.

So add a new rite of spring to the staff’s checklist: the annual critique. When the critique is returned a few months after submitting, the staff can set to work on implementing the suggestions for the publication or website. Celebrate the rating, but use the evaluation as a launch pad for improvement.

Balancing the public’s right to know with its safety

A post to the JEA email discussion list this month asked for response to the actions of a community paper, which published the names and addresses of gun permit holders. This was in the wake of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., which claimed two dozen lives.

The paper’s story. The Poynter Institute’s report about the publication. But should student news media cover this story, and if so how?

The two issues here would definitely make for some interesting class discussion as well as a news story or point-counterpoint opinion article. I hope some news staffs are inspired to cover the debate around public records.

The two issues are, of course, whether the data should be available to the public and then whether the newspaper was right to publish the database with a map.

For the debate on why records are public, I think Washington state has a wonderful explanation from its “sunshine law”: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.” That is the spirit behind most sunshine laws — the public can hold its servants and agencies accountable only by knowing what those people and offices are doing.

Minnesota law states that all government-collected data is public unless specifically excluded. Here’s a new wrinkle in the private-or-not debate: The Star Tribune reported in August that cameras mounted in Minneapolis police vehicles routinely photograph license plates and add the plate and location to a database — almost 5 million vehicles in the first eight months of 2012. Turns out that data is public, and people have varying feelings on whether it should be. The report used as example the various locations of the mayor’s city-owned vehicle.

Today, Minnesota Public Radio reported that among the 100 requests for the city’s database were several from academic researchers and business opportunists. The story made me realize there are many other uses to public data besides just curiosity and accountability. The data can lead to academic discoveries and new business. One example was the route of the police vehicle itself (a one-day example video is online) and another explored whether a vehicle reposession agent could improve his job with access to the data. Most people probably don’t want their car’s location tracked, let alone published, but this story helped me see different perspectives.

Imagine the benefit of having a discussion with students about the value of public records and how they serve the public’s interest in many ways. Journalists serve the public interest, too — they are the watchdogs of government on behalf of the public. Then, move the discussion to how journalists can best serve the public and whether publishing a complete database is helpful or causes more problems.

I’d love to see some thoughtful examples of this work by students.

Look for photos beyond the obvious

As part of its Lightbox feature online, the photo editors of Time magazine recently showcased the work of Pete Souza, chief official White House photographer. This article included Souza’s comments on his work photographing the Obama Administration and the Obama Family and the photos that he’s captured since 2009.

Souza said that as he assembled the 100 images for this Lightbox feature that he wanted to create a portrait of the president to help people understand him. Souza had known the president since Obama became a senator in 2005 when Souza was working for the Chicago Tribune. “I was looking for things that I knew that if he ever became President you would never see again,” Souza said in text accompanying the Time feature. “[Obama was] walking down a sidewalk in Moscow in 2005 and no one recognized him. I realized that if he ever became President, you would never, ever see a photo like that again. The odds of becoming President are obviously pretty slim, but I knew he had the potential. And you can’t say that about too many people.”

What Souza recognized that day in 2005 — that something special was to come and Obama had the potential to be famous well into the future — made Souza begin to look for moments that would prove valuable in the course of history.

That’s exactly what student journalists need to do, too. Even as a photographer captures the action of a game or assembly or flirting in the halls, he or she can always look for the action that’s beyond the field and the obvious photos. Seek the behind-the-scenes moments that will help future readers to know what it was like on that day — at that moment at your school. Look for the stories around school that have the potential to tell us as readers and viewers not just what’s important today but what might be important in the future. These are the observations, the moments, the glimpses that will prove valuable in the course of history as our memories fade – our impressions of the school change.

And advisers need to help students see these moments. Advisers know that moments change unexpectedly. Whether in triumph or tragedy, teach students to anticipate many situations. Doing so will mean that unexpected won’t mean unprepared. Help students see beyond the obvious and to collect bits of observation, sideline images and off-hand comments before assembling a larger narrative.

Sometimes the narrative is not apparent even though students are in the middle of documenting it. That’s why going beyond the obvious is so important. Some photos, quotes or stories are obviously important, while others may prove valuable only later. The challenge as a journalist is recognizing the potential in everything.

Find Pete Souza’s collection of images:
http://lightbox.time.com/2012/10/08/pete-souza-portrait-of-a-presidency/#1

The legacy of one California newspaper adviser

From a post to the JEA email discussion list:
I did not have the good fortune to meet and know Ted Tajima, but it appears we have lost a giant in our field. The occasion of his death led me to revisit some of scholastic journalism’s history and learn more about this man and his school. Takima had been the adviser for many years to The Moor newspaper at Alhambra High School. Here’s his obituary from the Los Angeles Times.

Last week, I spoke with a reporter for the Los Angeles Times about The Moor and its adviser and accomplishments. The reporter’s beat was obituaries, though another reporter wrote this piece. The reporter I spoke with happened to be one of Takima’s former students and a member of The Moor staff that earned a NSPA Pacemaker in 1972. It should be noted there were only five or six newspaper National Pacemakers each year from 1961 through 1978. The Moor earned that honor twice for its weekly editions.

The reporter with I spoke shared with me an article, from the Los Angeles Times morgue, printed in 1983 when Tajima retired from teaching. The lengthy piece covers his personality and career but also changes in society and Alhambra High School, in education and in professional and scholastic journalism. This passage from the article demonstrates his teaching style and how some issues remain unresolved today:

And, he said, there have been changes in the type of reporting done in the school paper as students became more aware of the world around them.

“It used to be, back in the ’50s, that we’d report one week that the Spanish Club would meet, and then the next week report that the Spanish Club had met,” he said.

But in the ’50s and ’60s, Tajima said, his students seemed to become more aware of what was going on outside the school, and started to report on it, sometimes even in the colorful language that was then becoming acceptable.

“Our rule has been that a four-letter word may be used once in a while, but only if it is in context of the story, and not just for exploitation, just to attract attention,” he said.

“One of the principles I’ve always taught is that the newspaper is an educator as well as the schools, and that the newspaper must set standards for the community.

“I’ve told them: You know who your readers are, but it doesn’t mean you have to get down in the dirt with them.”

In the NSPA archives, I found a note Tajima submitted with the 1981-82 critique for The Moor: “Admittedly, THE MOOR in its makeup appears more traditional than the many biweekly and monthly publications we see in exchanges and in journalism conventions. It is our feeling, however, that we publish a weekly newspaper, 37 times a year, and we are able, because of a Monday deadline for a Wednesday publication day, to emphasize news more than features. So we stick more to a newspaper format instead of a magazine format. Yet, we are criticized for the fact that we prize frequency and news emphasis over less news-worthy magazine styles.”

Even 29 years later the debate about frequency continues, as does the evolving discussion about newspapers vs. newsmagazines.

Clearly Ted Tajima’s legacy includes the many former students who are now professionals in a variety of fields, including some notable journalists.