Archive for the ‘Online Elsewhere’ Category


Correlation≠ causation

January 16, 2020

My wife shared this photo with me today. It is part of an opinion story that appears in the Orange County Register and presents a good lesson for editors about correlation vs. causation.

What’s wrong with it? Well, note the sentence in the cutline:

The county says that people who receive county services are most likely to become homeless.”

It is probably an accurate statement in that someone from the county –though I would like to know who or which office– said. But it certainly is misleading. The average reader would look at this and say that maybe the county should not be offering services or that the county is somehow culpable in creating homelessness. The fact is not that those who receive services become homeless, but that those on the road to homelessness often end up seeking services from the county. Good editors would catch the correlation vs. causation error. Weak editors would not pay attention to what the words REALLY say.

Oh, and by the way, the opinion story does not even make a direct connection with the cutline, but it does support the misconception.


Citing sources, especially online

December 10, 2019

Including sources in stories was a priority teaching tenet when I was teaching community college students to be journalists. I made it part of the grading process for the student newspaper and hammered attribution in my news writing instruction –after focusing on leads, of course.

To earn full credit for an article written for the student newspaper there had to be a MINIMUM of two sources. When I marked issues of the paper for critiques I marked the first use of a source in a story with a special colored marking pen to make it easier to count sources. (When I switched to PDF-marked critiques and had fewer color options I started including a “stamp” option of a person’s head to make them stand out.)

Along with the PDF critiques I included a “By the Numbers” page associated with each issue; acclimating students to numbers and news was another priority. A major part of the effort was not only to count up numbers of sources used each week, but overall average sources used per story. Opinion stories, for instance, often did not contain sources, so non-opinion stories needed to make up the difference if we were to meet the goal of an average of MINIMUM of two sources per story for the issue.

In short, forcing students out of their comfort shells and out talking to people was important in their development as journalists. But some students tried to skate anyway by quoting not from sources they talked to, but written sources from other publications, such as The New York Times and the Centers for Disease Control website.

For a while I referred to these as bogus sources, an inaccurate moniker, for sure, as these secondary sources often added credibility to the story. A student got me to change my terminology to indirect sources. I also made a distinction in critiques between direct sources and indirect sources with an aim to limiting the latter to more than 10 percent of all sources per publication.

As I monitor student publications around the state for my Online Elsewhere initiative I continue to look for sources. Are students being taught to emerge from the comfort zone of aggregating indirect sources? Mostly yes, but often no; to be blunt, some of the publications are terrible at it. Most work direct sources well into their news stories, sports stories and personality profiles. In some features and in most opinion stories, though, they don’t.

I understand it for opinion stories, though if students focused more on campus/community issues and less on national and cultural issues, they could definitely turn some opinion columns into nice reader-related features. For instance, I recently saw a Saddleback Lariat feature on vaping that included student sources commenting on vaping. Most other publications talking about vaping only quoted statistics using indirect sources.

And when indirect sources are used in stories citations are vague: The New York Times or the Centers for Disease Control. Such vagueness would never be allowed in the academic writing talk in college composition courses. Papers written for those courses would require much more bibliographic detail in footnotes/endnotes or with in-text citations. Writing for journalistic publications are not as academic in presentation than papers for composition, though, and rightly so. There are space and readability considerations. Long URLs –and usually we are talking about web sources– would interfere with the readability of text in narrow columns and short paragraphs. Footnotes/endnotes also are not the norm for newspaper publications, though they COULD be included.

Student reporters need to understand the purpose of bibliographic detail –not the least of which is that online sources can change, so dating the access point is important. They need to understand that “The New York Times” is a big complication of material. In fact, it is likely that somewhere else in the archives of the New York Times might be an article that includes conflicting information. To be fair to the reader you need to be more precise. Even “according to a Dec. 10 article in the New York Times” or “according to a Dec. 10 article by Rich Cameron in the New York Times” is doable an much closer to linking the reader to the source, should the reader need to confirm the quote or want to know more. Speaking of links, a shortened weblink from a site like could even be used as an in-text citation without creating problems.

But what I find truly a failure in teaching students journalists is when I see stories added to the publication’s website. Almost universally it is clear that students are merely archiving their stories onto the website without paying attention to the unique properties of web pages over print pages. On websites you have another option for citations: You can link your “The New York Times” to the specific article. A recent good example is a story I noticed on the CSU Long Beach Daily 49er website. If you look at this story you will find the kinds of links I am talking about.

I don’t know if the Santa Barbara City College Channels has or enforces the same policy it had several years ago when it transitioned to online only, but the policy required each story to contain a minimum of two live links. That meant that reporters often had to go an extra mile in citing sources. Not only were links added, but sometimes those links led to campus documents the students also had to digitize and/or store online. Keeping the reader in mind and offering more than vague summaries is such a wonderful next step for student journalists to learn!

Make the publication website a learning tool rather than just an archive. You will be preparing students better for the journalism world they are about to enter.

The unique properties of an online site extend to use of use of unordered lists for bullet lists, perhaps reformatting stories to use numbered lists instead of first, second, etc., and more. How about recording interviews and extracting/attaching relevant audio snippets linked to quotations to allow the interested reader to assess context? (See the NPR websites to see the value of that.) And most, if not all, online versions of articles will attract more readers if images are attached; there are not the space limitations faced with print.

First teach students to be better journalists by talking to people rather than hiding behind indirect sources, then teach them to respect their readers with more thoughtful online presentation.


The other half of sports reporting

November 8, 2019

Sports pageCommunity college has long been the oft-ignored child when it comes to sports coverage. Caught between rabid high school fan bases and national alumni bases for four-year college and university sports teams, “professional” newspapers often ignore most community college sports.

Community college teams even seem to get short shrift from their local campus publications. As I review California community college student publications for my Online Elsewhere initiative I see a lot of half coverage of even the most popular sports –football, basketball, and baseball– much less coverage of other campus sports. And when it comes to sports columns, college journalists are more likely to comment on professional sports than programs that they should give a damn about more than those elsewhere.

Shrinking space in print publications and staff shortages make it difficult to cover campus sports in the detail sports reporters should be cutting their teeth on. But even with major sports I see far too much past game coverage than perspective coverage.

I get it. I started my journalism career off as a sports reporter, both for my high school newspaper and for the local weekly paper. I was hired by the weekly Reedley Exponent while I was in high school to write “as much sports as I wanted for $10 a week.” One story, $10. Two stories, $10. Three stories, …. I was thrilled. But even then most of my efforts were to cover sports as if all that mattered was what happened last week.

(One excellent piece of advice the local editor game me, though, was to read stories elsewhere on sports other than football, basketball, and baseball so that I learned more about them. I mean, what are you going to do when you are suddenly asked to cover a field hockey game and you have no understanding of the sport. As a newspaper adviser one of the most-often heard complaints I got from campus coaches was that the reporter assigned to cover his or her team was that the reporter had no understanding of the sport.)

There certainly is a role for game coverage for beginning reporters. You develop the ability to take notes, evaluate game statistics, interview coaches (and players), and create a running narrative. Defining pivotal moments in a contest in any sport is important to critical thinking development.

But even back in my early days of sports reporting my reporting was always past tense.

When I teach mass media survey courses, one of my lectures talks about the roles of the media. Ask someone, for instance, what is the role of a newspaper and the answer in invariably is “to report the news.” Ask the respondent to then define “news” and most often you will get a definition of reporting on something that has already happened. I call that the Record Keeping role.

But my lecture points out that the role of the news media goes beyond simply reporting what has happened. I talk, for instance, about the Watchdog role, where media serve as a watchdog over government, and the Marketplace and Opinion Leader roles, where the media serve as conduit for community discussion. (Other important roles include an Economic role, a Social role, and an Entertainment role.)

Similar to the Watchdog role is the Sentry role, where the media serve to tell us what is happening or likely to happen BEFORE it happens. Community college sports reporters do little to inform their readers on what is coming up. If they do, it is likely a paragraph tossed in at the end of a game story or in the form of a sports calendar; there is little detail beyond time and place.

This was a problem I fought unsuccessfully for most of my four-decade student publication advising career. I could not get sports reporters to seriously cover pre-game stories.

Rabid high school sports fans will gladly read a game story for several days after the game as they re-live the experience. And they will show up for the upcoming game as readily as they will watch their favorite show on TV. And they already know when they are facing a perennial rival.

University-level fans will read a game story the next day, but by mid-week, when most weekly print publications are printed, they are ready to know more about this week’s opponent. How good is the team? What is its record? What should we expect about the team and how does our team stack up? Are there any common opponents results that should give us a clue? How are we doing in our conference and what is the importance of this game?

Community college readers will read last week’s game story mid-week because that’s usually all they get. And because they likely were not at that week’s game or match.

Game stories have a place in community college publications, but that should be just the beginning. Since most community college publications have an online presence now, that coverage should come within one or two days online. If the publication has a mid-week print publication, then in addition to recording history it should start to play sentry and emphasize the upcoming opponents both in print and online.

(And I still have not even addressed the importance of covering the non-major sports.)

The sooner community college sports reporters take that next-level step, the sooner they will evolve into the sports reporter they desire to be at a university or professionally. One day they will be covering professional sports with credibility. Note: They should even be developing their podcasting skills by covering local sports, where their opinions are likely to make more of a difference; there is already too much noise about professional sports for them to stand out at this level of their careers.

Developing upcoming stories requires a student reporter to reach out beyond the silo of his or her campus. It requires researching and understanding of other teams and talking to sources with whom you are unfamiliar. And out helps you better understand the game in front of you.

– – – – –

Now, should we talk about covering those minor sports? After all, if you add up all your school’s athletes, you’d probably find that the number of minor sports athletes nearly equals or exceeds the number of major sports athletes. They deserve coverage, too.


Linking pro/con articles online

October 23, 2019

As I routinely review California community college online student publications I have noticed that that those that those publications that like to include pro/con articles in their print editions make a serious mistake when they move those articles online.

pro/conWhen they pro-con articles are run in the print edition, they are run side by side, but there is no side by side when you move them online. They are separate articles and those readers who read one article do not necessarily read, or see, the other article. The effect of the pro/con is lost. It would be simple for those publications to add a link to each other, but publications most often do not. That is perhaps because online editors (or student reporters) are not thinking about their readers’ online experience, they are simply archiving their print stories.

It would be an easy step to take, but it requires developing an online mind-set.

In fact, many student publications miss out on helping their readers find related stories completely. If there is an on-going story the publication is covering each story over time is separate, but there is, or should be, a relationship.

And the linking should go both ways. When a new article is linked to an old article, the old article should get a link to the new one. With an online article you never know how the reader gets to the article. In fact, it is common for a Google search to drive a reader to an old article. The Cuesta College Cuestonian recently noted on its Facebook page that its most-read article (with nearly 1,200 views) is a five-year-old story about math requirements for graduation. Today’s newspaper staff may not know that the story even exists, other than because of analytics, but readers keep coming to it.

Now, it may be unrealistic to add links to all past stories where conditions have changed* –the reader has some responsibility is recognizing the publication date and employing some critical thinking– but if you have a current evolving story, it could be helpful to the reader to know what has happened before. Evolving stories should have a summary paragraph somewhere, but even summary paragraphs are weak on details.

One community college publication that does a good job with including links, either from its own publication or to other publications that perhaps serve as sources for the story, is the Santa Barbara City College Channels, which has been an online-only publication for years. At one time at least, the publication had a policy that all submitted stories should include a minimum of two links.

(The Channels also does one of the best jobs in the state in coving campus governance.)


*And we certainly don’t want to be be George Orwell’s Winston Smith, whose job is to rewrite old news stories so that they reflect today’s reality to have always been this way, in the book Nineteen Eighty Four, A Novel.


Monitoring college student publication sites

September 24, 2019

I am perhaps as my happiest in life when I am a man of ideas. As a teacher I had many ideas for livening up my teaching –such as CITYCOUNCIL and my as yet unfulfilled Newspaper Mystery game.

A lot of those ideas started off small, with the intent of meeting a need in my classroom. But I often then realized that if they worked for me, they might work for others. So I have been bold in putting my ideas out there for anyone who wants to benefit from them, or even copy them and adjust them for their own classroom circumstances.

I also felt as an instructor that I wanted to learn from others’ ideas as well. During my 40-plus years of teaching community college journalism I made it a point to visit other programs and breaking out of the silo of my own program. Of the 113 California community colleges, about 55-65 have active journalism programs at any give time. And of those, I think I managed to visit nearly 40 newsrooms at one time or another. Early on I tried to pick up at least one idea from something I saw there.

And I have often felt that my students could learn from other students. That is why I started about five years ago monitoring the online student publications from other California community college programs. And eventually I started looking at the Facebook sites and Twitter feeds of those publications and then Instagram sites. And then I started looking at online student publications of selected California universities.

I would have added SnapChat sites to the list, but there is a special problem with doing that that I will outline below.

I both wanted to learn what other staffs were doing so that I could give my own students ideas for stories and wanted to see how the output of my own students compared to that of other programs.

By collecting story ideas and numbers of posts I could add a new dimension to my teaching. For instance, if my students wrote a boring version of, say, a student government meeting I was able to point them to innovative versions from another school. And if they posted 10 stories a week to their publication website when other programs of similar size were posting twice that, I could motivate them to try harder. In my weekly publication critiques I shared those numbers with students. (And I am pleased to say, that my students often fared well when compared to others. Hint to other instructors: I often found a way to include good numbers in my regular program reviews, even though they weren’t asked for.)

Numbers were a big part of my critiques. Numbers of stories, numbers of sources, percentage of news vs. opinion stories do not in and of themselves do not add up to quality, but as my colleague Walter Hammerwold once pointed out, high numbers add up to opportunities, and opportunities can lead to quality. My PDF critiques eventually included a By The Numbers breakdown for every issue. Besides, reporters need to learn to pay more attention to numbers — ever hear of data driven decisions?

Monitoring other sites also gave me a unique understanding of what is/was going on in student journalism across the state. For instance, as I write this post I know things like

  • The Santa Barbara and Peralta Community College districts are going through budget crises right now (other districts may be going through them, but few student publications are covering them);
  • IT: Chapter “ is the most reviewed movie currently and nobody seems to like it;
  • Few community college publications tweet stories, at least through their official sites, and when they do it is often to give blow-by-blow of football games and board of trustee meetings; and
  • El Camino College’s Union covers campus crime like no other publication in the state.

I monitor the sites daily because, like e-mail, the list of stories can back up quickly if you don’t stay on top of it. I see headlines for upwards of 100 stories a day from student publication sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and Instagram sites.

I wish I could explain how I choose student stories to share –I am asked from time to time. I haven’t figured it out yet. It is a more of a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing.

I can do this because of RSS feeds automatically developed by those sites. I have gone through several RSS readers over the years to do this and move on when something is updated or not updated that causes them to fail. I’m currently running all the feeds through LuckNews on my Mac Notebook. I am exploring different readers for my iPad as I do more and more work on it.

In addition to monitoring the sites, I choose a few stories every day to repost on my Online Elsewhere Facebook page that anyone interested is encourage to follow. (I know students are migrating away from Facebook, but they should stay for this page.) And this school year I have started an Online Elsewhere email newsletter where I share links to stories about journalism education, links to three-to-five student stories, and links to new additions of complete issues of the print publications on I currently share it mostly with other community college instructors, but will be glad to share it with others if you contact me.

I’ve also started monitoring some other sites, such as the California Community College Athletic Association for news about college sports that students might like to have access to, the Student Press Law Center website and the Journalists Resource website for stories that can help community college journalism programs.

Because of RSS, I can do all of that by checking in for five minutes or less three or four times a day. Other journalism education stories come to me through e-mail from Google search alerts. (And tips from other instructors.)

I no longer collect post numbers. It is a bit more tedious and requires a regular schedule for checking in. (That was particularly challenging when I spent a month cruising the Adriatic sea and was several time zones away.) I had to collect the numbers and pop them into an elaborate Excel spreadsheet that I created. Besides, I don’t know if having numbers actually mattered to anyone but me so I could include them in my critiques.

I don’t include the popular SnapChat sites mostly because I haven’t figured out how to RSS the sites and if stories disappear quickly my information would be out of date almost instantly.

I’d like to run more news about community college journalism programs if other instructors (or student editors) will stare what is going on with their programs. (Notice the theme of sharing?)

I wish I could explain how I choose student stories to share –I am asked from time to time. I haven’t figured it out yet. It is a more of a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing.

I know that:

  • Campus stories are more likely to be shared than off-campus stories where no one on the publication actually interviewed anyone (happens too often; I used to count sources in stories for my students — see the By the Numbers sheets).
  • Transportation stories of all kinds attract my attention.
  • …As do crime stories and campus governance stories.
  • …And new angles on student homelessness; everyone has a food bank by now and some schools have clothes closets.
  • Everyone has college fairs, transfer fairs, and job fairs these days and all the stories sound the same
  • Everyone is doing Guided Pathways, but I don’t see much unique in coverage.
  • I rarely run sports stories about games from any sport (they all sound the same after a while), but may choose unique features.
  • While I notice movie reviews, I rarely run them other than to point out trends.
  • Breaking news can be big, but when everyone is covering, say, the climate week strike, only the first few stories to get posted are likely to be chosen.
  • Opinion stories have to cover an interesting angle to get my attention.

Finding RSS feeds is relatively simple. Not all web services provide it to their clients, but if they do I can start with a simple URL and plug it into my reader to see if it can and a feed to capture. For services like Facebook I use the online program Fetch to find the feed. Facebook is funny; it depends on whether site was set up as a page or a group and if the name has been changed at some point. I just isn’t possible to get feeds from some sites.

It would be interesting to have access to reader engagement information for all of the sites I cover, but that would require individual permission from each site and would work only if the schools have set analytic collection. And then I would have to determine which analytics are most important.