Generating Online Content: The Prospector Now staff shares their system

Jason Block, adviser of the Prospector Now staff at Prospect High School, has shared how his staff generates content for the web. Jason gives some great detail here and even shares a sample assignment email.

Here’s what he shared:

Generating Online Content Without a Large Web-Only Staff

Without enough students in the journalism program to have an entire web-only staff, an alternative is to have a three- or four-person full-time web staff that is supplemented by contributions from staffers who typically spend most of their time working on the print publication.

The students who are full-time members of the print staff must be a big part of the website or you simply won’t have enough content to keep the site fresh.  A total staff of 25 (21 print, four online) works just fine, though it can be adapted for smaller or larger numbers.  These print journalists all are responsible for one online contribution during each three-week issue cycle.  They have options when it comes to these “regular” contributions.  The web-only staff can create a sort of shopping list of choices, such as a movie/concert review, a club brief, an Athlete-of-the-Week profile, a blog entry, or a staffer can propose an individual idea.  The Online Managing Editor then sets up a spreadsheet in googledocs that includes due dates and post dates for all of these assignments, spreading them out over the three-week issue cycle so there is new content going up virtually every day.  Print staffers then sign up for whatever they want to contribute during that “issue”.

That is the extent of the requirements for the print staff’s contributions to the website each issue, but then there is the “Breaking News Team” that really carries the site through an issue cycle.  This consists of four or five students who are typically part of the print staff but take one turn each semester working full-time for the website.  For the issue they are a member of the “BNT”, they are not writing for the print publication; their only responsibility for print is to edit others’ stories and design pages as needed.  They will serve one tour of duty each semester on the BNT, meaning they will still get plenty of opportunities to write and create pages for print, which at many schools is still the “preferred” medium.

During their turn on BNT, they will be writing anywhere from three to six “breaking” stories, consisting of previewing, live-covering or back-covering events going on in the school and community.  The executive online editor creates a list of possible events to cover before the issue cycle begins (see below), which gives members of the BNT an opportunity to claim stories that seem interesting to them.  But obviously by its nature, BNT is not that predictable, as breaking news can pop up at any time.  That is when the executive online editor assigns these stories to the BNT member who is “next on the list”, or who has not yet covered as many events as the other members.

Here is an actual email sent out by an executive online editor to new members of the BNT at the start of an issue:

Welcome to BNT Issue 7. I have talked to 3/4 of you (I emailed Andriana so check there for the details). I think from what I’ve talked to you about what’s up and you know the expectations for you for this issue: two previews/back covers and a live cover, at the least.

Here is the list of the things that I KNOW are happening in our issue cycle. I would like you to send me the top 5 you are interested in covering (I’ll give you at least one of your top choices). If everything you want is in the same week, though that’s not going to happen because I’m trying to spread out your three stories over the three weeks that you are on the team. Keep this in mind but choose what you want. We’ll work through the timing later.

Not all of the dates are in order and more stuff may come up so please try and stay flexible. Ignore that live/back cover/ preview stuff to the side, it’s more for me than you.

Here’s the stuff 

    • Show Choir competition -2/25- live cover or back cover
    • Dr. Seuss’ B-day party? -3/1- live cover or preview (never heard of this before)
    • District Photography Show- 3/2- preview
    • Winter Sports Awards- 3/6- live cover
    • Honors Music Festival @ Forest View- 3/8- live cover
    • Show Choir@ Chicagoland Competition- 3/3- back cover/ preview/ (live, depending on location)   
    • TPC hosts trivia night- 3/2- live cover/ preview
    • Show Choir @ Wheaton Warrenville- 3/10- preview/ back cover
    • HMC returns- 2/27- back cover
    • Student of the month- 3/7- live cover
    • Orchesis District Show- 3/13- preview
    • Arts Unlimited Visual Arts Day -3/9- preview/ back cover       

Keep in mind that some of these may not work out. Don’t distress if one of your stories isn’t working out. So much goes on at this school that we’ll find something for you to do. If you know about anything that’s not on the spreadsheet tell me about it and I’ll probably let you do it.

So email me back your top 5 and I’ll send out the spreadsheet in the next few days! 

This list was created simply using a school calendar, and then breaking stories from there are gathered daily by the entire staff just keeping their collective ear to the ground and letting the BNT know if there is anything newsworthy going on.  For instance, despite having signed up for stories ahead of time, you might have a new rule change announced at school and that obviously needs to be covered.  That is the fluidity that comes with the BNT.

Beyond regular contributions and the BNT, here are the requirements of the full-time web-only staff:

    • All three (or four) of these staffers not only fulfill the duties listed below, but they also contribute a “major” online “story”, such as a broadcast piece, a podcast – something unique to the web medium.  This should be comparable in depth of reporting and revision to a full feature story that runs in print, meaning it should take about two or three weeks of time and effort.
    • Starting at the top, an Online Managing Editor is responsible for creating the spreadsheet with the regular online features described above (reviews, blogs, etc.).  The Online Managing Editor assigns, edits, and posts all of these contributions.
    • Working alongside the Online Managing Editor is the Executive Online Editor, who runs the Breaking News Team.  This editor is the one responsible for sending out the email copied above, assigning, editing, and posting all BNT stories.
    • Finally, there is the Online Copy Editor, who proofreads and comments on all of the online contributions, both regular features and BNT.

Larger staffs can simply expand on this basic format to get even more material posted to the website regularly, but this outline should suffice as a starting point.

Aaron Manfull

Aaron is in his 26th year of advising student media. He is currently the Director of Student Media at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, Missouri. He is the Journalism Education Association Digital Media Chair and co-Director of Media Now. He is the 2023 JEA Teacher Inspiration Award Winner and is a former Dow Jones News Fund National Journalism Teacher of the Year. He is one of the authors of the textbook "Student Journalism and Media Literacy." You can find him on X and Instagram @manfull. He's a proud father. A transplanted Iowan. And an avid Hawkeye Fan.

Aaron Manfull has 868 posts and counting. See all posts by Aaron Manfull

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