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Moving forward by changing course

June 24, 2012

students working at computer laptopA time honored way of teaching the student media course at a college is to let the students run the show and have the teacher come along after the fact and provide critique.

Students learn responsibility for their own product and also learn how to learn from their own successes and failures. I am a strong advocate of this type of teaching and maintain a helping, but hands-off approach to the production process. My role is to teach, not do the work for the students or edit their work.

But I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my own performance as an instructor in the critique process. The problem stems from the fact that that while I preach a digital first approach to the news process, my critiques are steeped in the old process of critiquing the weekly print edition.

How are students to take seriously my protestations of a weekly print mindset in story assignments, coverage and deadlines when my own example engenders it?

Over the past couple of years I have stepped up my critiques of the online product, but no one would confuse the priority I give in the process to the print product.

That’s why this summer my excellent adjunct partner Walter Hammerwold and I set out to create a plan to reverse the process. I/we hope to implement it in the fall semester.

We want to transform the critique first from being an after-the-fact look at a just-completed print edition into a forward thinking story-based approach. Rather than designating one of the class periods each week as critique day we want to address stories each class period.

Our plan will be to pull together a student panel each class period to discuss one or two stories in depth.

  • The reporter will be key, and will be asked to discuss who was interviewed, what was learned, and more. We already put a lot of emphasis on collecting audio and creating an audio version of the story, so that will be a part of the discussion. Did the audio story materialize? One source or more? Identical to the print version or unique? When did the online version materialize? Identical to the print edition or unique?
  • If a photographer was assigned the photographer will be a part of this panel and will discuss similar issues, including whether an online photo gallery materialized. Why or why not?
  • The content editor will talk about expectations and problems, including presentation in both print and online.
  • The content and copy editors will talk about what they had to do to make the story publishable.
  • And the rest of the class will be encouraged to brainstorm about what else could have been done to tell the story, including what follow-ups are possible or necessary.

There are two obvious flaws to what we’re planning:

  1. Not every assignment will be evaluated this way, so we need to be strategic in how we choose stories to critique and make sure all students on the staff participate and learn over time. This will have to include provide key indicators as to how thought processes discussed of a particular story can apply to coverage of additional stories.
  2. We’re still talking about past stories, rather than planning ahead.

We’ll deal with the latter as we have mapped out a calendar for the semester that starts with the familiar format, transforms into the new format, and evolves to discussing stories and their various presentations –from online and social media, to multimedia, to print—by mid-semester.

Among our identified goals are to make sure that students plan coverage and presentation rather than simply letting it happen and recognize that stories evolve and branch out to deeper stories. We also hope that the print production process will blossom into a more organized, but creative process. (It is hard to be creative in print design when you try to edit everything at the last minute and then realize that it sure would have been great to have a photo or a sidebar to go with the story, if only you had thought of it earlier.)

And, of course, the biggest goal is to reverse the process where assignments are made with the print edition in mind and online presentation is only a mirror or an afterthought.

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