During distance learning, revisit goals and roles of student media

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has made an impact on and changed everything about schools. Most schools are starting the 2020-21 school year in full or partial distance learning, and everyone has at least a plan to consider this possibility. The changes forced by distance learning can also be an opportunity to revisit the goals and roles of student media.

These nine concepts provide a foundation for you and your staff to think about, to which you can aspire, to measure how well you are doing in your school and community, and ways to improve.

This narrated a video (12:57), which I prepared for a summer workshop, explains the nine concepts. A slightly older version of the slideshow is available (without narration).

I have updated these from when I first encountered them several years ago from my friend and mentor, Bob Greenman, who by then had retired from a successful career as a journalism teacher and newspaper adviser in New York City public schools but who remained active through conventions, workshops and active networking with students and advisers around the nation. These and other concepts are presented on posters available for download from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.

Advisers: Help students cover the world honestly, truthfully, transparently

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Communication: Journalism Education Today from the Journalism Education Association.

“Is it really OK to be gay?” In the 2003-04 school year, that was the headline for my students’ newspaper cover story and double-truck package on their peers’ attitudes toward the increasing presence of LGBTQ people in media at the same time as LGBTQ issues were front and center in politics. I was teaching and advising at Wenatchee High School in central Washington state. It’s a couple hours’ drive through the Cascade Mountains from the progressive city of Seattle, but at that time, when it came to differences in culture and politics, it might as well have been in another country.

On TV, gay and lesbian people were moving from sidekick to center stage — “Will and Grace” had been around since 1998, but the summer of 2003 brought the debut of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” followed a couple months later by “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” State legislators debated same-sex civil unions and marriages, and Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in May 2004.

The convergence of LGBTQ people in mainstream entertainment and in political news was an important news peg for my students to turn the lens on their school and examine the atmosphere their peers created and experienced. At my current school, 15 years later, editors found a perfect news peg for coverage: Results of the school’s comprehensive wellness survey included data about sexuality and identity.

It’s an adviser’s job to help students cover the world around them honestly, truthfully and transparently. We must help them to tap in to current sentiments and ask how national or regional stories affect them. So it made sense in 2018-19 to explore the role of the school’s LGBTQ+ student alliance in a more accepting school climate, where many LGBTQ students said they didn’t feel the need to join that club. Another story explored why relatively few male students were openly gay at school — fewer were “out” than the data showed — while female students were more likely to be comfortable openly expressing their sexual orientation (about half of the girls said they did not identify as exclusively heterosexual).

Advisers must hold students accountable for their coverage by asking editors and staff what motivates that coverage. Members of this community should be covered authentically, not just in June for Pride celebrations or milestones, or LGBT History Month, which is typically in October to coincide with National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11. And to be effective, advisers must also learn history and use accurate terminology to be able to coach and question students.

Whether in a print newspaper or yearbook, online or broadcast, journalistic work also documents these attitudes and experiences for history. Student journalists can help the audience understand and make sense of the world around them, and the audience needs stories that explain or show people’s lives and perspectives. If done thoughtfully and not with tokenism, sources will feel well-represented, and the audience will be enlightened.

Print versus online doesn’t have to be either/or.

With budgets tightened and not likely to recover soon, dozens of scholastic journalism programs have scrapped the printed newspaper in favor of a digital presence. Many reasons exist why developing a robust news website is a good idea, but the price should not rank high.

A post to the Journalism Education Association email discussion list in November 2013 discussed the possibility of eliminating most print editions and replacing with a news website and a few print publications. The teacher wrote that she struggled with what those issues might include — should they be oriented toward news or features? Maybe they should be a separate magazine?

It’s easy to scrap the printed edition and cook up a flashy website with a carousel of rotating stories — video and audio, too. But doing so does not maintain the best options for storytelling.

The key is finding the right balance among all platforms. The printed page is unmatched for large displays, especially of visual storytelling through photography, illustration and graphics. It also provides the serendipity of discovering stories simply by leafing through the pages.

If I were starting a scholastic news journalism program today, I would build it with three components in mind: a comprehensive news website with an online-first philosophy, a well-curated printed magazine for special coverage and a social media presence that encourages building community.

Start with news online. Focus there.
Develop and maintain an online-first mentality. Doing this means changing the paradigm from publishing that is restricted by quantity, dimension and frequency of the print edition. When news happens, be ready to cover it. When a story is ready to publish, publish it.

The website should be the source of daily news and information for the campus community. Frequent posts encourage return visits, which reinforce the position of the website as a news source. They also create opportunities for community engagement and increase traffic for revenue potential.

Though the website is a primary news delivery vehicle, it will evolve into a storehouse of information — sports scores archive, past coverage of long-term stories, and even a place to watch live coverage of events like sports games and graduation.

The website would also be a place to showcase the best multimedia work — slideshows, audio and video clips and comprehensive stories with contextual linking and related content. Take advantage of the unique aspects of the digital platform. Because of the new coverage opportunities, students will be engaged constantly — no more ebb-and-flow cycle where some reporters have no work because the editors are designing the pages.

Add companion special-interest printed publications.
With most routine news items pulled to the website for publication, the print edition’s role must be redefined. Topics with greater depth can be explored in print.

Develop a publication where each edition carries a single theme — music and other arts, sports, health and fitness, food, family, faith and spirituality, the environment. Take a broad topic and find ways to approach it that go beyond providing encyclopedic reports. Use the topic as a trunk from which individual stories sprout and branch. For example, one topic could be competition. Stories could come from sports, of course, but also from video games, sibling rivalries and the pageant world. Build in a community engagement piece with a contest before the edition, and publish the results — or post them online.

Keepsake editions are another great example of a niche print product. Repurpose older stories and photos into a new package with some additional context. Championship season? Best of the decade? School or community anniversaries? All of these provide opportunities for keepsake editions.

These print editions also allow for new advertising opportunities. A businesses or organization that might be new or an infrequent advertiser could be persuaded to participate in a special edition, especially if it relates to their mission or specialty. These themed print editions should be viewed equally as content production and revenue opportunity, though the advertising should never drive the content itself.

Build community with social media.
Social utilities — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit and others — are useful not just for promotion but also to foster a community. Each platform has its own audience, so develop a strategy. Think about why the news staff is using a specific social utility and who the target audience is. If the students use Instagram, get on there, too. If you want to reach parents and families, Facebook is a better choice. Some special topics are great posts for Reddit, a social community whose users are highly engaged.

Engagement should be the goal, not simply followers, clicks, likes, retweets or upvotes. Engagement also means a back-and-forth conversation with members of that social community. When the community is established, the promotion will be authentic and easy. Since people tend to place trust in peer recommendations, social sharing and referrals are valuable to bring a new audience to your work and to grow the community.

You don’t have to start from scratch to get a great multi-platform journalism program going. However, restructuring might be challenge. It’s a challenge that’s worth the effort. Calibrate each platform to ensure that multiple coverage opportunities are available for students to tell the story of the school, and find the right mix that works.

14 in ’14 — Online Edition

Fourteen things today’s online news staff should think about and do for 2014.

Want to have success online? Here are some basic tips to think about:

Work constantly to improve. What you do, and how you do it, should be in flux.

Experiment. There are not a lot of well-tested best practices online. Figure out the best for your community.

Improve and engage. Better content yields an engaged audience. You want both.

Start with these in mind as you consider the following 14 things and determine how you can use them to improve your online news operation in 2014 — and beyond. You don’t have to try them all at once, but you can get started right away.

1. Stop thinking in issues. Think online first. The website is live. Update it frequently. Don’t just dump your print content online. Post when stories are ready.

2. Don’t assume people are coming to you. Attract them through social media promotions and referrals, commenting and contextual linking. Share more. Make it easy. Referrals matter.

3. Cover the things your audience likes. Include coverage of recreational and leisure pursuits: horseback riding, boating, hiking, etc.  Video games are hugely popular but get little coverage. Don’t be locked into a template of sections just because other news sites do. Suggestions: Health, finance, consumer news. When you commit to a category, you’ll create content for it.

4. Do more lists.
Listicle: A simple, arbitrary grouping
Example: “28 duck-face selfies”
Definitive list: All-encompassing inventory
Example: “The 63 best moments from Homecoming 2013”
Framework list: Only exists to structure a narrative; number is arbitrary — whatever it takes to organize/tell the story
Example: “36 reasons you should volunteer for the Red Cross”
More info here, here and here.

5. Let print and Web work together. Don’t assume the audience is reading both.  If coverage spans both platforms, make sure a reader can catch up through a printed summary or a digital sidebar. Use website for updates between printed editions. It’s not just about a story page. Social media posts contribute to communicating to the audience. Consider using Storify.

6. Provide context. Tag or categorize related stories. Use contextual linking, which aids the reader who might be coming late to a story. Use short links, which are based on the database, not the initial URL. (Nerd alert: Kill the “http://yourdomain.com” for internal links.) Use mug shots and pull quotes. A sidebar can also add a list of facts or summarize past coverage.

7. Develop and publish a comments policy. You need one.  Facebook or Disqus plugins are an option, but you can’t truly moderate as a result. Instead, require a verifiable email address and spot-check occasionally. Three insightful comments with names are better than 300 worthless rants from anonymous trolls.

8. Show your background. Put your policies, awards, practices and interesting trivia in the “About” section where people can find them. On the header, provide the name of school and physical address. Make it easy for visitors to contact you. Even a generic “contact” email is helpful. If you use a form, make sure it sends a confirmation after the form is submitted.

9. Engage readers. Allow and encourage comments.  Develop a conversation with your audience via comments as well as social media. Interact. Ask followers for story ideas, tips, sources, submissions and feedback on how you are doing. It’s a two-way conversation. [Nerd alert: Use Akismet (free for nonprofits; flags spam). You’ll be glad you did.]

10. Explore a new social platform. Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit. Each has a distinct audience. Discover the journalistic use for things your peers are already using. Anticipate what’s next: Kik? Snapchat? Something else?

11. Use your analytics. See what people are searching for, how they got to the site, what they are spending time with. Use them as a classroom motivator. Can you get more visitors? Can you increase referrals from certain platforms?

12. Think about your audience. Is the site responsive for mobile and tablet readers? Focus on the content, and make it great. Have a well-designed UI. It’s about the UX, stupid.

Watch this and think.

13. Use the home page as a dashboard and menu. Kill the Twitter feed from your home page. The reader is already at the website. Keep Twitter feeds that aren’t referrals (sports scores, other interesting links). Nobody cares about your PDFs. Showcase the most important stories in the carousel, not just the most recent. Help the reader see what matters. Reconfigure based on the news of the day.

14. The story page is your landing page. Less hub-and-spoke navigation to/from home page.
More inter-category clicking. Make it easy for the reader to find information and understand the story with context and navigation.

Remember: Your role on campus is to inform your audience, not just to write stories or take photos.
You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to take that seriously and to do it well. Your audience needs you to tell the story in a truthful, authentic way. Doing a good job means thinking about what the reader needs and using tools to meet those needs, not just providing digital versions of printed newspapers.

Start a parent booster club. You’ll be glad you did.

I was in my 10th year of teaching when I finally moved forward on a thought I had for years. I needed some help managing the many tasks of being a publication adviser, and I wanted an organized parent group. If the athletic teams, the band — even the school’s sports medicine group and mariachi band — had boosters, so should the journalism programs.

Motivated by events at the National High School Journalism Convention, I gathered a group of parents in December 2006 to lay a foundation for a journalism booster blub. “J-Boosters” was born.

I was surprised by the enthusiasm and interest. The parents had been waiting to be asked. They wanted to be involved with the activities in which their children participated. In retrospect, I can’t believe I waited so long to launch the parent group. It remains one of the best things I was involved with at Wenatchee High School.

RATIONALE

Here’s what I wrote in a letter in January 2007 to parents of students on the yearbook or newspaper staffs:

A national survey sponsored by the Knight Foundation and released two years ago showed nearly three-fourths of high school students don’t know how they feel about the First Amendment or take it for granted. Support among teens for freedoms in the First Amendment is less than among adults. Students lack knowledge about basic freedom of expression, and some students even think the First Amendment goes too far in the freedoms it guarantees. But, students who participate in journalism classes are more likely to appreciate these freedoms, and a recent update to the initial survey shows some improvement in enrollment and in attitude. Clearly, now more than ever, we need to preserve opportunities for students to participate in scholastic journalism such as the newspaper and yearbook.

GOALS

When it launched, the group had four main goals:

  • to support journalism in the curriculum
  • to support journalism activities financially
  • to promote the journalism program and raise awareness
  • to recognize the effort and accomplishments of student journalists

WHAT HAPPENED

The parents agreed to the goals above and for their activities they determined to hold a kickoff fundraiser, a Quill and Scroll honorary society induction ceremony and an end-of-year banquet.

The kickoff event was Feb. 21, during the national Scholastic Journalism Week — a perfect time to launch a new endeavor. The parents wanted to raise awareness of the new organization and of the accomplishments and plans of the WHS journalism program.

They also wanted to raise money. By the end of the evening, through a silent and live auction as well as patron donations, several thousand dollars were raised, establishing the necessary seed money for first projects. The event has continued every year since.

One important aspect was to have a fiscal agent to collect funds. The parents worked with a local foundation to provide this service, so that donations could be eligible for an income tax deduction.

Two months later, the J-Boosters inducted the first students into the Quill and Scroll Society, and in May, the joint end-of-year banquet included students from both staffs and their parents.

In that initial letter, I closed with this paragraph:

The Apple Leaf newspaper and Wa Wa yearbook at Wenatchee High School have earned top state, regional and national award both as a staff and for individuals. J-Boosters is an opportunity to recognize excellence and to provide a foundation and support structure for new projects and even greater achievements. Becoming a J-Booster can help a student attend a conference to learn a new skill, provide new state-of-the-art equipment and recognize a job well done all while promoting the important role that student journalists have in the school community. As a J-Booster, you’ll help invest in youth who may grow up to be journalists or other related media professionals, and we all have a vested interest in developing citizens who support fundamental freedoms.

The J-Boosters are still active at that school several years later, and I could not be happier. The students deserve the support, and the parents want to help. The legacy includes not just a parent organization but also stronger and more vibrant journalism programs.