Adviser shares tipping point: how to help your students take charge of on-line news

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It feels so good to finally be here, to have a journalism program that includes both print and on-line news.  Looking back (and forward), here are a few areas in which I struggled and prolonged success.

1.  Have a student-created website OR provide students a website

My staff’s first website six years ago was created by a student from our tech center who happened to be in my English class.  He was great, but he graduated.  I then took professional development workshops that included content management and even web development expertise, but it diverted my attention from actual journalism.  I finally discovered, and it was a solution that worked for me.  Instead of managing the construction and maintenance of the website itself (and trying to partner with students on it for their benefit as well), I began focusing on content only.  When this happened for me, it also happened for the staff.  Everything for the online news site began evolving much more organically and expediently.

2.  Combine online staff with print staff OR have two separate staffs

Each year, my print newspaper staff and I made adjustments and plans to push more readers to the website.  For two consecutive years, we reduced our print schedule from 7 to 6, and spent the first part of the school year focusing on on-line content and assignment schedules.  It worked great when isolated, but once we layered in the print duties, the on-line edition became a virtual shoveling pile for our print edition, despite our best intentions.  This year, after seeing the same pattern, I dubbed my beginning journalism class the web staff.  They have taken ownership, and are thrilled.  It’s still a work in progress, but it is definitely a tipping point.

3.  Teach traditional journalism OR digital skills

The short answer is teach both, but I believe I need to teach journalistic writing and standards first, and then add digital journalism skills second.  For example, our school runs on a four-quarter (two semester) schedule.  After teaching basic news values and journalistic writing skills the first nine weeks, I announced to the beginning journalism class that they were now in charge of the news site.  Over the next nine weeks (the second quarter), they began writing story assignments, which is when the students discovered how to discern among news categories and other journalistic areas such as opinion, review, sports, and features.  They began to fan out and ask  what the website needed to attract more viewers.  To help them answer this, I provided them copies of the National Scholastic Press Association’s critique of the website.  It helped my students delineate areas in which a high school news site is judged.  I also invited into class a guest speaker who is in charge of internet sales and product development for the a local television stations’ news website.   Once we had some understanding of what makes a news site “successful,” we brainstormed what we could do to make our site better.   Once we had a list of ideas, students chose areas of interest to learn about and teach the class.  We held our first teaching session to each other last week.  My students are developing and teaching the class how to blog, use Twitter, use Storify, market the site to the student body, podcast about music diversity at the school, update polls, collaborate with the video announcement teacher/students, and develop a weekly weather video.  This is a class of 15 students.

Even though it isn’t as easy as “build it and they will come,” it is essentially my message.  Focus on journalism, but provide an infrastructure so your students can practice it without being distracted by construction and maintenance.

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