Teaching Examples

Making online journalism — Part 3
November 11, 2006, 1:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Skill sets for online journalists — start talking about these, and you’ll soon be in the middle of an argument. Well, I’m brave enough to risk the slings and arrows.

What skills should we be teaching? Of course the journalist must be a journalist first. We start with reporting, writing, accuracy, news judgment, etc., etc. But let’s not forget that journalism is a team effort. Not everyone can be a great photographer, right? Well, not everyone can be a great writer either. And some damn fine journalists are not great writers.

1. HTML and CSS
Let’s start with HTML and CSS. If you’re going to do anything related to production and/or design, today you need to know both HTML and CSS. That said, I do not teach any HTML or CSS in my online reporting course, because I’m not teaching those students to be producers or designers. There is a decent chapter in their textbook about HTML and CSS, and I tell them that knowing it might be the little extra that gets them a job one day. Without knowing HTML and CSS, there are a lot of jobs you won’t get.

2. What can you trust?
You need to hone your skills in assessing whether online information is reliable. Today’s young journalists will be using Wikipedia and Google (or the next evolutions thereof) for their entire lives. Journalism educators must teach them how to fact-check their sources. Even in a design course, I would do this by making them find and read design blogs — then discuss how you decide whether a blogger knows what s/he is talking about! What constitutes authority? Who earns your trust, and why?

I see a dangerous trend among journalism students — they think they can’t trust any blogs, or anything that does not have a “big media” logo on it. I don’t know where they’re getting that, but it is dangerous! Some of their best sources will be in blogs, on privately produced stand-alone Web sites, in discussion forums, and at NGOs’ sites. They’ve got to start assessing those sources and learning how to separate wheat from chaff.

3. CMS
Using a content management system: At the very least, you should be able to set up and use a Blogger blog. You will get some CMS experience just by doing that. (Make sure you modify the sidebar to customize it.) If possible, get some experience writing in and posting to a more publication-like CMS. Our grad student Dave Stanton built one in TextPattern, which is free and open source. (Our college’s Web back-end experts decided TextPattern is better for this purpose that WordPress and other potential competitors.)

4. Learn to gather both audio and video
If students want to be reporters, they should do this. I don’t care what kind of reporter they think they want to be — they should do some audio and video no matter what. I’m including all photojournalism students in this. But if students are in a production or design course, consider: Do you want them to do reporting too? Maybe not all in one course.

5. Edit audio
Everyone should do this, because it is so ridiculously easy to learn.

6. Make Soundslides
Everyone should do this, because it is so ridiculously easy to learn.

7. Edit video
This is more work than almost anything else besides animation and database design. It’s also time-consuming. But give it a try, either with iMovie or Windows Movie Maker. I don’t think most reporters need to learn to edit video, but they could at least try it out so they understand how it’s done.

8. Make stuff in Flash
Learning Flash is very time-consuming. I would not introduce it in an intro Web course of any kind. It’s more likely to frustrate the students than to enlighten them. I want my students to feel like they can master things, can learn on their own. Thus I resist loading on too much information. Consider learning/teaching Flash, but it is not necessary for everyone, and not everyone has the patience to learn it. That said, there is a demand in the job market today for journalists who know Flash.

If you want to create multimedia packages, you need Flash. You will also need good HTML and CSS — don’t neglect those! Flash is suitable for certain things, but by no means all things, online.

9. Multimedia package planning and production
This is hard work and time-consuming. However, I think students can learn a lot through analysis. If the instructor critiques a multimedia package well in a lecture, and then requires the students to go out and find one and critique that one, in writing, they will learn some good stuff. If they do this more than once, it could be very valuable. See an example critique from one of my students (who asked to remain anonymous).

It’s also important to discuss how teamwork gets these packages done. Only a small percentage of journalists will go on to plan and produce full multimedia packages — but many, many more will take part in reporting and producing assets for these packages. If you appreciate how your role fits into the larger whole, you’ll be doing a better job at every stage of the process.

10. Software
Yeah, you have to know software. And software is always changing, so you’re always going to be learning something new. Get used to it.

I don’t believe in teaching software in front of the room. I do believe in requiring students to use software.

Photoshop is vital. Students need to understand that even though they might be using some other program to edit their personal photos, they MUST use the real Photoshop whenever they have the chance, because they WILL be expected to know it for ANY online journalism job. (I resist efforts to introduce open source and free photo editing tools to my students.)

Dreamweaver may not be what they get to use on the job, but I emphasize that it is many light-years beyond all other Web authoring packages — on every level — and if they spend even one second learning a Web authoring package, it should be Dreamweaver. Why? Because it doesn’t wreck your CSS — and you must use CSS!

Other packages? I don’t care which audio editor you use, as long as you can produce a clean MP3 at 22kHZ, 16 bits, mono. Adobe Audition totally rocks for multitrack editing — but I’m not a very skilled audio editor, so I don’t use multitrack very often.

For video, I don’t care what you use. Plenty of folks out there are doing online video in iMovie. When they’re ready to move on, they will.

For any and all SWF files, and all animation, I would urge anyone to learn Flash. Why? Well, because the cheaper, faster tools are going to take you time to learn too, and you’d be better off spending all that time in Flash, the Swiss Army Knife of multimedia-making. In the end, you’ll be glad you did.

If you can draw, then learn to use Illustrator. If you want to do 3-D graphics, learn whatever program you can get your hands on. If you get to choose, choose Maya. If you can’t afford Maya, then take Lightwave.

Bottom line
In the end, all these skill sets rest on tools. Every TV photographer learns to use a set of tools, but are all video shooters equally good? Of course not. The tools alone are not what gets the story told.

However, you’ve got to know how to use the tools, or you will not be able to tell a story online.

Tomorrow: Storytelling.

Yesterday: User interaction.

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4 Comments so far
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I see a dangerous trend among journalism students — they think they can’t trust any blogs, or anything that does not have a “big media” logo on it. I don’t know where they’re getting that, but it is dangerous!

Unfortunately (speaking as someone who’s been involved in blogging since 2002), they’re likely getting this attitude from intransigent “old school” professors and journalists. About every six months, I read another column or statement from someone who regards all user-generated content as the equivalent of the “pajama-clad guy sitting in his basement.”

Thankfully, that attitude is waning in the professional world (at least it seems to me). Let’s hope our students don’t get it too bad.

(and I’m still not sure that I agree with your back-end guy about Textpattern) 😉

Comment by Murley

Yet how many garbage blogs are out there? While there are many reliable blogs out there, I would argue there are far more pundits, ideologues and p.r. hacks. Worst, many of these blogs are anonymous, which intrinsically means a lack of accountability. Lonelygirl15 ended up being a film student. The anonymous person who posted the Foley memo on the anti-sex offender blog could not have been held accountable had the documents been false.

If a blogger commits an unethical act, he may get some flak from his readers and perhaps lose a few. If a journalist commits an unethical act, he will likely be fired and forever marked as a professional. That’s a key difference between a “big media” logo and a blogger on his own.

It’s not to say that there aren’t many blogs that are superior in quality to mainstream media sources of information. However, the bar for scrutinizing blogs, at this point, should be justifiably higher.

Comment by Danny Sanchez

I’m not saying “trust blogs” — I’m saying “don’t dismiss all blogs.” It’s very important that you double-source anything you find on a blog — but of course you would do that with ANY anonymous tip.

What worries me is that the students will ignore all kinds of experts just because they aren’t anointed with a title like Chief of Police. Well, the police chief might lie to you too. Or feed you partial or misleading information.

So I would like journalists to broaden their field of sources and also fact-check ALL of their sources with the greatest care.

As for accountability — I say, thank God if we can still have some anonymity to speak our views without prosecution. (I’m not sure we do have that anymore.)

Comment by Mindy McAdams

if you are reading this series of articles and are presently looking for a job — contact us at roanoke.com — we have an opening —

we do much of what Mindy mentions and our proven record shows for it.



seth gitner
multimedia editor

Comment by seth gitner

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