Home

My “Quest” and the Future of Journalism Education

3 Comments

I’m on a quest.

It’s a quest to bring responsible journalism to live-tweeting.

It’s a good quest, a quest to change the work ethos of journalists when it comes to tweeting during breaking news events. I’ve written and spoken about this topic at a number of different conferences and I’ve adopted a new tactic in my quest:  Calling out poorly reported information passed along by journalists during a breaking news event.

My quest has lead me to a few Twitter discussions with journalists during breaking  news events. Some have not received my questions well. In the rush to be first, journalists and their news organizations continue to publish false information. Joe Paterno, Gabby Giffords, Sandy Hook, Boston Marathon Bombings, Navy Yard shooting, LAX shooting, New Jersey mall shooting. The list of news events where “spaghetti-against-the-wall journalism” occurs just keeps growing.

It’s a vicious circle. Amateur journalists feed social media, social media feeds broadcast outlets, who feed Twitter….round and round we go.

But there’s hope.  Some of my former students who were working and covering the Boston Marathon bombings story were tweeting out questions about why speculation and rumor was being tweeted out by amateur and professional journalists. And, in the end, they were acting a lot more responsibly as they reported during a crisis situation.

Why were rookie reporters acting more responsibly than seasoned veterans?

Which brings me to the return of the Carnival of Journalism. David Cohn’s idea to have a group of writers blog/comment about a different topic every month is back after a bit of a hiatus and tackling a topic which is getting a lot of ink these days: Journalism Education. Specifically, the question reads:

Student news organizations have traditionally existed to give students experience before entering the workforce. The kinds of journalism jobs and journalism companies have changed considerably in the past 10 years, and most student news organizations are set up to mimic traditional print or broadcast news outlets. How would you set up a student news organization in 2013 or how could an existing college news organization modernize itself?
Issues to consider:
  • Ideally experience at a college media organization would help a student learn relevant skills for the workforce and help students land a job.
  • If you work at a news organization, what kinds of skills do you and your organization look for in new hires?
  • What kind of “clips” should college students have by graduation?
  • You can approach this as your advice to college media organizations or as if you were a theoretical adviser or manager of a student news organization. Or as a theoretical employer imagining the ideal experience a just-graduated student should have gotten.

I try to follow most of my students after they graduate, seeing where they land in the profession and watching their progress over time. Some of them have had experience working at a student-run publication, some of them have had internships and some of them have taken my Investigative Journalism class. That class partners up with a news organization each semester — and is where they get their stories published. In the past we’ve partnered with The Boston Globe and MassLive and we’re currently partnering with The Huffington Post.

There’s a lot being written these days about the future of Journalism Education. Ideas range from teaching students code, data visualization, computer programming — they all jockey for the trending subjects of the day. Which is all fine. I support all of that.

But none of it means a damn if news organizations continue to get it wrong. At times I wonder whether spaghetti-against-the-wall journalism is the wave of the future. Some think so. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram wrote last year that:

“The way that inaccurate news reports about a mass shooting in Connecticut filtered out through social media has brought up many of the same criticisms as Hurricane Sandy — that social media isn’t an appropriate forum for journalism. But this is simply the way news works now.”

I refuse to buy that. I’m not going to throw up my hands and surrender to inaccuracies being the norm.

What I like about this current generation of students/alums, is that they really seem to get it. They understand technology. They’ve grown up with it. They understand the amplification effect provided by social media.

UMass Journalism graduate S.P. Sullivan was at the scene of the recent New Jersey mall shooting, live-tweeting for NJ.com. His first-hand reports were balanced and authoritative and a BBC producer told him that at one point they were reading his tweets on air. The importance of the moment was not lost on S.P.:

“There were hundreds of RT and mentions….kind of drives home the responsibility you have, as someone attached to a news organization and on the ground, to not tweet bullshit.”

I’m all for student news organizations training students but students really begin to realize how serious our profession is when they work together with professionals in another news organizations. That’s really where the focus needs to be. Those classes that provide partnerships also allows for training that really seems to drive home the point that speed means nothing if you get it wrong and “tweet bullshit.”

We need more of that.

UMass Journalism Graduate Finds Himself in the Eye of Storm Coverage

2 Comments

An onlooker is shown here taking photos of the flooding of a parking lot at the edge of the Hudson River in Edgewater, N.J. — Courtesy of S.P. Sullivan.

S.P. Sullivan, a 2010 graduate of the UMass Journalism program,  has been reporting on Hurricane Sandy for NJ.com since the storm hit.  He took time from his busy schedule to do a Q&A via e-mail:

Question:  Tell me about your weekend.  You were in Sunderland this past weekend and had to return to New Jersey.  At what point did you realize you had to head back?

Sullivan:  I was trying to have a relaxing weekend in Western Massachusetts, but I had been in on a conference call between government officials in the county I cover, their Office of Emergency Management staff and municipal officials, so even on the drive up Friday night I was already anxious about the storm. Sunday rolled around and I asked the weather guy at our sister paper, The Star-Ledger, when I should come back. He said things were going to get pretty bad pretty early Monday, and he was right.


Q: When did you start reporting?  What were conditions like?

Sullivan:  Friday, I guess. We knew something was coming, and I had written a story about a major investment a Boys & Girls Club that sits right on the Saddle River made in flood infrastructure for our Hurricane Irene anniversary package, so on Friday I followed up with them to see how they were prepping for the storm. Then I took part in that conference call with the county and wrote a story about country-wide preparations, recording it off my iPhone and embedding an MP3 for anyone interested in hearing how their elected officials were handling things.

I oversee two other reporters in the county, and they each work a weekend shift, so they covered Saturday and early Sunday. I even went on a hike Sunday afternoon.

By Sunday evening, my girlfriend Rosie and I were making a mad dash back to Jersey, and the county was holding another conference call, so I came up with an elaborate scheme where I piped my iPhone into my audio recorder using one stereo cable (the kind you use to listen to your iPod in the car), and then piping the recorder into the car’s audio system using another. That way, I was able to listen to the call through my car stereo as I drove, and then was able to again embed the call in the story I wrote Sunday night after we got back.


Q: Were you filing text/video and images?
Sullivan: We were filing text fast and furious. Each county had its own live blog starting early Monday morning, and I was in charge of the blog for Bergen County, though each of us in the county took shifts maintaining it. That page served as a clearing house for all storm-related coverage in the county, providing time-stamped links to our stories as we filed them, as well as mini-updates from various agencies and photos and stories we were getting from our users via e-mail and social media.

I did manage to get out on Monday afternoon to capture the swelling of the Hudson River (I live in the Palisade Cliffs, overlooking the Hudson), and did a quick story from there. Things were moving so fast that the focus was more on photo than video, so I actually didn’t shoot any video during the storm. It was lots of quick updates and lots of photos.


Q: What role did social media play in your reporting?

Sullivan: Major events like this storm or the tornado in Springfield in 2011 really bring out the value in social media as a tool for journalism. I was able to post quick updates and photos from the field on my Twitter account, which the other staff could then cull for use in our live blog, and on Tuesday, when everybody, myself included, lost power, one of my reporters went to one of the hardest-hit areas and was able to get photos up on Twitter. Internet service was almost non-existent, so he was phoning in dictation to me and I was pulling photos from his Twitter feed for use in his stories.

Then of course there was the instant feedback from people in our communities: We got information on school closures, photos and updates on power outages in parts of the county we weren’t able to get to , all from our Facebook and Twitter accounts, which we maintained throughout the storm. Our live blog became a mini social network of its own, too, with a lot of useful information from readers posted in the comments or emailed to the address we posted on the page.


Q: What’s the experience been like overall?

Sullivan: Taxing. The three of us cover the most densely-populated county in the state, with almost a million residents, so keeping up with the live blog and getting out into the field as much as possible is daunting. Monday night into Tuesday morning was tough, because the majority of our staff lost power, so we were running on battery life and mifi cards. We escaped the worst of it in North Jersey, and many of our reporters in South Jersey couldn’t get online Tuesday morning, so I was even helping out with coverage of the devastation in Atlantic City from my outpost up north.

It was also a lot more challenging to physically cover the storm than it was to cover the Springfield tornado, because the tornado came and was gone in a matter of minutes, whereas the storm was stretched over days. Springfield is also a lot more compact, so getting around Bergen, which has a lot of major highways which were closed or washed-out, was difficult. So it’s been frustrating not getting out into the thick of it as much, but staying glued to a computer trying to get people the most recent updates and important information is a service in of itself. Live storm and election coverage have kind of become specialties of mine, so it’s gonna be a busy week.

Q&A With S.P. Sullivan

1 Comment

The devastation in Springfield after Wednesday's tornado was surpising to many covering the aftermath. (Courtesy of S.P. Sullivan)

S.P. Sullivan is a 2010 graduate of the UMass journalism program.  Upon graduation, he took a job as a producer for MassLive, the online operation of The Springfield Republican.  I was chatting with him online prior to Wednesday’s tornado and caught up with him to see what the past several days have been like.

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?

When the first tornado hit I was in the office. I stuck around because I have a little car and I didn’t want it to blow away during the NWS’ tornado watch.

We saw the tornado pass a few blocks from our building, tearing debris off the tops of buildings, but honestly I wasn’t that impressed. Even when our general manager came back from a meeting with photos of a few uprooted trees downtown, I didn’t think it was anything more than the microbursts that sometimes happen around here, destroying a random barn and leaving everything else untouched.

So I left! I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that. I went grocery shopping. But there was no way to know the extent of the damage at that point, and I couldn’t get downtown because of gridlock traffic in that direction. It wasn’t until I got home that I heard about the level of damage. So, jaw ajar, I went back to work from my dining room table.

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?

I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw.

3.    Describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

Because I was 40 minutes away in Amherst when I started working on tornado coverage, I did a lot of back-channel stuff Wednesday night. I’m a producer, not a reporter, so the paper had reporters all over the scene. I tried to flesh out details of what happened from the streams of media reports, the chatter online and communicating with other staff. I made sure the latest stuff was on the homepage as it was coming in and added all the necessary media.

Then, I started recording statements from the governor and other officials remotely using a complicated set-up involving my smartphone, a Zoom H2 recorder and a stereo cable. Because of that I was able to listen in on the governor’s press briefings and file stories on the site about the state response within minutes of them ending. I edited and embedded audio from those briefings.

Most of Wednesday night I was glued to Twitter on the back end, trying to vet information as it was coming in and post stuff as soon as it was confirmed by us or our media partners.

Thursday, I came in early and started out with my normal morning routine, which is manning the homepage. I built what we call a ‘defcon’ promo, which is a module that we roll out for large, breaking news events like this one. Then I worked with a reporter at the paper on a live blog, bringing together dispatches and photos from reporters in the field, user-submitted photos and video and updates on traffic, office closures and whatnot from state agencies.

In the afternoon, I was sent out in the field to capture images and on-the-ground perspectives of the recovery process. I visited the badly damaged South End and talk to a security guard from one of the towers, who had helped his tenants to the shelter at the MassMutual center. I got yelled at by cops and National Guardsmen for crossing police lines, and told by others that I was OK as long as I had my press badge. It was a confusing time, and I was struck by the number of people wandering the South End, taking pictures of the damage with their cell phones.

Between disaster areas, I found some women flagging down cars for a car wash to raise money for victims. A few of them had been impacted themselves. I thought it was a touching story and, for our readers’ sake and mine, I shot some video so we’d have a positive piece to balance out the desperation.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

I got on Twitter as soon as I knew it had happened because I have a decent base of followers in Western Mass. I knew they would be posting about the situation wherever they were at. It’s also useful as an aggregation tool, because it would take me 30 minutes to sift through all of the state’s news organizations that were covering this, but as everyone was sharing from their news site of choice, I was able to see headlines from all over in real-time.

Twitter was most useful in the hours right after the storm hit, and I keep checking it to this moment, but since Wednesday night I’ve mostly been using it to keep our 3,000+ followers up on what we’re doing, what other orgs are posting and what the various state agencies and aid groups are saying. I posted updates from the field, but that was somewhat difficult with spotty reception due to downed cell towers.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

It’s a friggin’ tornado in New England. Everything about the past 48 hours has been surprising. If I have to pick, I’d say the courage of the folks like the women I met at the car wash, who managed to remain positive amid all of the rubble.

UMass Journalism Alums Return With A Message: Go Do Journalism!

Leave a comment

Six UMass journalism graduates returned to campus to share their thoughts about how to succeed in the business.

Julie Robenhymer, a senior writer with Hockeybuzz.com, said it best at the end of last week’s “Back from The Front” alumni panel:  “If you’re not a self starter this is not the path for you.”

It’s advice that’s always been true for journalism students but perhaps is even more appropriate today.  Robenhymer, a 2004 Journalism graduate, is an avid hockey fan but was out of sportswriting for a few years before she was offered a job at the popular Web site.

Why?

Because she got the attention of the editors at Hockeybuzz.com with e-mail comments about the site.  For several years now, she has gained a following by using Twitter, blogs and video to deliver stories via a powerful personality.

“I always wanted to be the one who stood out,” said Robenhymer.  “For our industry in sports media, I see the future being dependent upon the personalities of who are in it.”

The ‘self-starter’ advice was echoed by several alums, including S.P. Sullivan (’10) and Eric Athas (’08) Thursday night — both of whom spent their “down-time” during their college years learning a variety of multimedia tools, including how to shoot and edit video.  Sullivan also weighed in on the ongoing debate in academia over whether journalism schools should be teaching specific tools, saying instead that professors should focus on storytelling rather than how to shoot photos on a specific camera.

Rather, Sullivan and Athas said it was incumbent upon student journalists to learn multimedia skills on their own.

“Journalists always have to be students and learning,” said Athas, now a producer for The Washington Post’s web site and the founder of AmherstWire.com.   “Learn as much as possible.”

Also returning to UMass for the panel were: Mike LaCrosse (’10, reporter & producer, ABC40), Michael Phillis (’10, staff writer, Lexington Minuteman) and Mary K. Alfieri (’10, advertising & PR, The Loomis Group.)  David Perkins acted as moderator during the 90-minute discussion.

“I couldn’t have been happier to see these six former students–or prouder of them,” said Karen List, director of the Journalism Program.  “They are such bright lights, and I so much appreciate their coming back to share their insights with all of us.”

“I thought I was pretty terrific,” said Perkins.

As for whether they were “doing more with less” in the current journalism environment, Sullivan, a producer with MassLive.com was blunt:  “This is what we all signed up for.”  He blogs, edits text and video, tweets and….writes.

His advice, and the advice from most on the panel:  Learn it all and be ready to do it all.