In Part One, I described the evolution of the New Mexico News Port as an innovation-collaboration-publication lab seated in the Communications & Journalism Department at the University of New Mexico. We explored how it started, how it now operates, its successes and challenges, and what the lab could become.
In this part, I flip the telescope around and describe this teaching-hospital-model from the vantage point of the classroom instructor.
This series is my contribution to the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism’s “Disruptive Educator” program, for which I was named a 2017 Fellow. I welcome your questions and comments.
In the Classroom: Where the Heavy Lifting Happens
Busy is the journalism instructor who succeeds in publishing every student in his reporting course. It’s not enough to impart best practices, set a deadline and then give a grade on a paper or test. Rather, you have to guide every story through the complete story making process – the story idea, pitch approval, research, field reporting, writing, multimedia elements, and the editing, re-editing and final web buildout. When it’s done, it feels like a minor miracle but the learning is tremendous and student confidence leaps significantly. Moreover, if you nail this, you’ve enlightened a reader.
Repeat the process for all 20 students in your course… and multiply by four if, like me, that’s how many stories you require over the semester.
As with most endeavors, the more you put into it, the more you get out.
The New Mexico News Port lab in the journalism program at UNM was built to actualize this learn-by-doing concept. It gives the curriculum control of the publishing outlet. It’s up to individual instructors, though, to take advantage of it.
At the end of the day, most students succeed. They get stories through the gauntlet of edits and see their work published.
At UNM, our overall journalism curriculum hews to a convergence model, offering a multimedia news major in which students progress through a sequence of required courses plus electives. News Port is there to support any class that wants to harness it, but in practice so far News Port serves three required courses: CJ278 News Writing, CJ375 Intermediate Reporting and CJ475 Advanced Reporting. It’s no coincidence that these participating sections are taught by me and Kate Cunningham, the faculty members who have invested most in the lab’s success.
(I should say, my CJ475 has been a steady contributor to News Port whereas Kate’s CJ278 is more of an occasional contributor, because most sophomores are not quite ready for the rigors of publishing. CJ375 can be hit and miss, depending on various factors. Last semester, my 375 section filed to News Port while Kate’s 375 section chose to work more directly with the Daily Lobo, the campus independent student newspaper whose new editor wants to collaborate more.)
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll describe how I’ve settled into a fairly manageable 16-week routine with my 475 students.
A Reasonable Student Workload: 2 Spot Reports, 2 Depth Reports
If you want to dive deep on this, you have my permission to read and borrow from my most recent course syllabus:
The CJ475 Syllabus (from Fall 2017) (Link to shared Google Doc)
I have arrived at my student productivity goals though trial and error. I believe the four stories per semester is quite realistic. Two of the stories are shorter turnaround spot reports. Two are longer depth reports. I also lace in requirements for data sources, photos, audio and video, social media, etc. A spot and depth piece are due in the first half, and a spot and depth piece come in the second half. I figure students should invest some 70-80 hours outside of class on this… and, when graded, the work counts toward two-thirds of their final grade.
Basically, the productivity juggling act is one of quantity versus quality versus manageability.
Basically, the productivity juggling act is one of quantity versus quality versus manageability. I would like to press for more quantity (so students grow comfortable with recurring deadline pressure and get more overall news experience) but I worry the publishing quality will suffer and I worry whether I can handle more edits. We don’t have a graduate program in journalism so I don’t have access to a TA or GA.
Pro-Tip: Allow more students to work in teams if you want to cut down on the number of stories and story edits you have to manage. Teams, of course, bring some advantages in terms of more hands and skills in the mix, but they can be notorious for obscuring individual weaknesses and permitting unbalanced workloads. In general, I allow teams to form but don’t insist on them.
While the News Port team brings editing capacity, I tend not to draw on that capacity until I’ve approved all stories for News Port submission. In other words, I edit everything up to the point where I’m comfortable the story is well in hand, then I hand the student and the story off to the News Port lab for final review, fact-checking, style conformity and the final upload to the web.
I’m not able to stagger deadlines widely (I’ve tried, but it gets too crazy to stay within the classroom calendar), so the News Port team experiences crunch times when stories start pouring in at the given deadlines. In the beginning of the semester, as the class gets off the ground, things are slow in the News Port lab but that gives the team time to do housekeeping, refresh the site, tool up on training, and do some creative work of their own. Needless to say, keeping the class on deadline is key to preventing the editing and publishing phase from dragging on and on.
The Arc of a Semester
Well before the semester begins, Kate and I compare thoughts on what the News Port topic focus shall be. In 2017, this was largely settled because of our partnership with AAJA and IRE to spotlight criminal justice projects. See Part One for more detail on our choice of topics.
To give the News Port its focus and thus give the classes their content focus, I’ll issue an editorial planning document to lay out the topic and some characteristics of our desired coverage. In the past, this shared planner also became a repository for brainstorming story ideas, likely sources, calendared-events and other information for the good of the enterprise.
Link to the News Port Editorial Planner for 2017
With this basic plan in place, the individual course instructors can begin building their syllabus and story assignment plans.
As mentioned, I’ve settled on an assignment plan of 4 stories for the 16-week semester. This typically calls for delivery to News Port the first spot by Week 4, the first depth piece by Week 8, the second spot by Week 11, and the final depth piece by Week 15.
As you can see in the syllabus, each story assignment is preceded by the student developing a story pitch. We use a standardized story planning worksheet to help the student articulate the needed elements to make the story focused and properly scoped. The pitches are first delivered orally in class, a simulated news meeting for group discussion and vetting, then revised and submitted to the instructor for final approval. I can't emphasize enough the importance of getting these stories well planned at the beginning to spare agony and confusion in the end!
Link to Story Pitch Template
I use Google Drive to organize not just my classroom materials but also all work by my students. (See Google Portfolio assignment on syllabus.) Each student creates a master portfolio folder with a series of story subfolders and shares the master with me. I open the link, add the folder to my drive, and move it to my student work folder for the semester.)
When it comes time to edit, I go to the draft story in the folder. All photos and source sheets should be there. And, after the story is done and the student is ready for a grade, they submit on UNM Learn (Blackboard) two links – one to the published story and one to their work folder. I review both and file a standard feedback rubric (with grade) to their folder (while also filing the grade to the Blackboard site.
I’ll admit using both Google Drive and Blackboard is a bit of a hassle… but one platform is great for shared editing and storage (especially sharing with News Port too), and the other is helpful for course management and individual scorekeeping.
A note about editing: My first edit on each story is almost always a live, in-person edit in which we review the story in Google Docs by looking at the computer screen together. (I usually suspend class that day and schedule serial edits to be held in the News Port lab. I welcome News Port editors to sit in on the edits to learn my approach.) Thereafter, the follow-up edits are done remotely via Google Doc which is excellent for marking-up copy, making suggestions and posting comments in the margin linked to the copy. When I hand off to News Port, I use the share function and share the doc with News Port editors. Then I email all collaborators to make clear the hand off is official.
In case it isn’t obvious, I run a paper-free operation.
Video produced by Kate Cunningham to document NM News Port student experiences.
The Workflow System Works - But Needs Careful Tracking
With editing back and forth, there is always the risk of confusion: Who is waiting on whom? Is the editor waiting for the student, or is the student waiting for the editor? My system strives to make ultra-clear “who has the ball.” For example, after an edit I tell the student to get this doc back to me by emailing the link by x-deadline. Students email me when they have made edits and are ready for further review. I keep my inbox organized and handle follow up edits in the order they arrive. When I’m done reviewing the changes, I either hand back to the student for more fixes or I pass off to News Port with clear direction as to who is responsible for the next move.
News Port does not have access to my folder system but is given access to individual stories in Google Docs. So for News Port to keep track of the stories coming out of all the classrooms, we’ve developed a simple story tracking system that the News Port team maintains. It’s just a Google Sheet that keeps tab on stories from the various classes as they progress through edits and final shaping.
If all goes well, most of the writing and editing happens outside class time, but I’ll frequently reserve class time for story time – letting team members check in with each other, allowing students to approach me with story-specific questions, or use the time for research, writing or whatever. Occasional class periods are devoted entirely to story reporting or production (or, as mentioned above, the initial edits) – especially during the final stretch of the course.
Students seem to need constant reminders about where they should be in the story-making process. It’s not yet second-nature to them to progress through the phases and most aren’t particularly good at time-management either. To maintain some urgency even if the deadline seems a ways off, I call for in-class story “check-ins” to add accountability.
Having spent years running newsrooms, I stay cool during the inevitable problems that arise in the journalistic pursuit. People won’t call me back. My story focus is changing. I forgot to ask about that. The audio is muffled. The picture is blurry. These stumbles are learning moments. And because we are aimed at publishing this to the wide, wide, world, students have to be persistent. They have to fix the mistakes. They have to meet high standards.
The common refrain is, 'that was challenging. I had my doubts… but I did it and I’m glad I did!'
At the end of the day, most students succeed. They get stories through the gauntlet of edits and see their work published. The common refrain is – that was challenging. I had my doubts… but I did it and I’m glad I did!
Of course, some students give up and don’t get published. But, they can pass the course by getting graded for what they did do. Typically, publishing the story accounts for about 15% of the grade for that story.
Mike Marcotte is a public media news veteran and a 2011 Stanford Knight Fellow now serving as the first professor of practice in journalism at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He teaches advanced multimedia journalism, intermediate reporting and has created courses in media entrepreneurship and covering criminal justice. Mike also consults for Democracy Fund, PRNDI and various public media organizations. Mike was hired at UNM to help the Communication & Journalism department become more responsive to professional trends. In his 4 years there, he won an ONA Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education grant, launched the award-winning New Mexico News Port lab and has grown partnerships with public radio, TV and other media professionals. Last year, his program was host to an AAJA/IRE collaborative reporting project.