Examples of UNC’s Online Student Journalism

January 8th, 2010; 2:25 pm by Ryan Thornburg

With a new semester about to begin on Monday, I wanted to share some of the work done by some of the students in UNC-Chapel Hill’s JOMC 463: Newsdesk (PDF) class last semester. The assignment was this: Do an online profile of a person or organization using interactivity and multiple media. They were limited by producing the story in a somewhat wonky version of a Drupal-based CMS that I had set up for the class.

The bottom line is this: most of this student work was very good, and it’s important to show industry and other journalism students how we’re preparing the next generation to lead change in newsrooms. Students are young and therefore their work is not perfect, but it can be awfully good. Here are three examples, and the reason that each gives me hope for the future of journalism.
Splash! makes waves in school language programs
By Anika Anand and Kellen Moore

Update: Anand’s blog post on her final project experience, from Dec. 24

  • The article was well written and free of grammar, style and structural errors. It demonstrated good news judgment. It was full of details that are best suited for text. It placed a story in a statewide context and clearly showed a substantial research effort to discover facts beyond the surface. It wasn’t investigative journalism by any means, but a good and full explanation of the subject.
  • The content of the videos were appropriate for that medium. Anand and Moore used personal anecdotes that complimented the hard facts in the text. The subjects for the video were central to the story.
  • The execution of the videos was very good, but probably had the most noticeable flaws of the project. I liked very much the consistency of visual style — the lower-thirds and the angle from which the videos were shot. Whether intentional or accidental, the effect of shooting up at the subjects and having the subjects look farther up still (and off the angle of the camera) made their comments seems “loftier.” Of course, you have to be careful of unintentional editorializing, but I found the message that was communicated visually here consistent with the content of the subjects’ words. The videos could have been shot tighter, I think. Especially in the one video where there are some distracting cords in the lower right corner of the frame. The audio on the video seemed hollow, which may have been a result of microphone equipment, placement or compression.
  • The story included two videos that the students posted to YouTube. Using that method of getting video on site has weaknesses, but it also has two strengths. First, it’s easy. Second,  it serves as an additional distribution outlet for your journalism and a way to tease people back to the full story. A few things to remember when using YouTube to drive people to your site — be sure to include on the YouTube video a description of the story and and link back to your site. Also, consider grouping all other related videos together. The file names appear both on YouTube and on the site into which the videos are embedded, so be sure that the file names are descriptive. In this case, the titles were not descriptive enough to be helpful to searchers and scanners.
  • All the videos were embedded in appropriate places in the story. Working with a designer would have improved the look of the package. But Anand and Moore did an excellent job with the tools they were given, and no editor or audience member could ask for more than that. By intent or accident, the alternating placement of the video subjects on the left and right provided a pleasant visual effect.
  • Excellent work breaking up the story and anchor linking.
  • The students on this project really demonstrated their ability to look for the “next-best” solutio — and that’s an underrated skill in deadline-driven journalism. When they weren’t able to embed their Google Map because of a problem inside the CMS, they solved the problem on their own by using  a screen grab. They had to do their own research to figure out how to grab a good still frame from the video to illustrate the piece. (The only improvement I’d make would be to make a link out of the map image as well as the map caption text. I wanted to click on that durn map.)
  • Excellent and appropriate use of Google Maps to convey the *where* element of the story. Anand and Moore wisely used different colored markers to convey information. (Although I almost missed the key. Remember that when presenting tools like this, many people — especially people who are very comfortable with computers — will simply start clicking before they read. If they start clicking and don’t quickly “get it” then they will humph loudly and be on their way. The best tools rely on as little CHA (”Click here asshole!”) as possible.

Out-of-state students receive support from campus group
by Rachel Scall, Jeff Woodall and Tristan Long

Each piece of this project was executed well and the package as a whole made sense.

  • The choice to do a photo gallery in video format was wise. The video editing application was the tool that these students knew the best and with which they felt the most comfortable. The content did not suffer at all because of their tool choice. The audio was well-matched to the images. They had multiple sources. The title on YouTube looked good, too.
  • The map on this project was a knockout. It was nicely embedded into the story and it wisely provided two navigational techniques. The details were excellent and required a lot of reporting. I enjoyed spending a lot of time with it just clicking around, and that is the hallmark of a good online news package.
  • The story was nicely done. It could have stood alone well, but it was appropriately enhanced by the other elements. Its links were appropriately placed and sent readers to appropriate destinations.
  • I really like the smart way that Scall, Woodall and Long linked between each of the three elements of the story, allowing people to navigate horizontally. Each element stood on its own and had its own editorial reason for being.

Feeding hungry children one backpack at a time
By Elizabeth Lilly & Heather Mandelkehr

Overall, this is a good project. It went beyond the minimum requirements in terms of text length and presentation of the Google Map. The gallery was nicely organized from start to finish. There were a few things that kept it from being an excellent project, but it was overall well done.

  • The choice to use a photo slide show instead of video was a smart one because they students were confident in their photo reporting and editing skills than their video production skills. To me, knowing your strengths and weaknesses shows a lot of maturity. Also, the subject didn’t need video. The order of the photos had a clear narrative arc that took us through the distribution process and it had a nice mix of faces and things.
  • The audio of the slides sounded a little hollow, but that’s a technical problem that improves with experience. The bigger issue for me was an editorial one — the story of the audio I don’t think fit the photos as well as it could have. A better — and more difficult — audio would have been done with multiple voices of the volunteers talking about the program and walking the audience through the weekly process. Finally, I would have hid the captions as the default. I kept wanting to read them while looking at the photos and listening to the audio. Since I couldn’t do all three at once, I found myself getting distracted from the audio and stopping and restarting. If there’s good info in both the audio and the text, you don’t want your audience to miss either.
  • The text was probably the weakest component of this project. There were some grammar and style issues, some passive sentences and imprecise wordings.  Also, I would have liked to read more about money, volume of food and quantitative descriptions of the program or its impact — and less about changes in procedure.
  • The map was very well done and appropriately used for the information in the story. Good caption on the map and on each item’s window.
  • Lilly and Mandelkehr  also showed an excellent ability to find the “best available” solution to problems. They were smart to insert a JPG of the map and also very smart to link the JPG as well as the text caption. And they demonstrated resourcefulness in your ability to embed the Soundslides. More than any technical proficiency, these problem-solving skills are important in all forms of journalism.
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