Journalistic Brainstorming: What Don’t We Know

Written by Ryan Thornburg August 25, 2010 3:07 pm EDT 1 comment

We kicked off the fall semester of Public Affairs Reporting for New Media at UNC yesterday by brainstorming in 10 minutes at least 50 questions that we were going to need to answer in order to create a new “Everyblock”-style community information database for small newspapers.

It’s a great example of how the design thinking school of innovation intersects well with the world of journalism. Good reporters should always be asking themselves “What don’t I know about this?” And great reporters take that question to a diverse group of collaborators and ask “What don’t we know about this?”

Here’s what my students and I don’t know:

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Welcome to JOMC 491: Public Affairs Reporting for New Media

Written by Ryan Thornburg August 6, 2010 12:53 pm EDT No comments

With only a few weeks left before the start of the fall semester, I wanted to quickly give registered and prospective students a little bit of an idea about what we’ll be doing in Public Affairs Reporting for New Media this semester. Seats are still available, so act now!

The goal of the class will be to develop a new online editorial product for the newspapers in Whiteville and Washington, N.C., that will help them provide be a comprehensive and highly engaging source of news and information for their communities. (Perhaps something like Everyblock.com)

So, the first thing to know about the class is that you will be expected to go to those cities — both about 2.5 hours from Chapel Hill — at least once and probably more during the semester. I’ll pick up the tab for your trips, but you will need to arrange your own transportation and schedule.

The reason we’ll be working with these two towns is that they are part of a larger effort being led by Knight journalism professor Penny Abernathy and funded by The McCormick Foundation (founding family of The Chicago Tribune) aimed at helping small newspapers make a financially sound transition to a digital economy.

So do you need to know anything about computer programming, or media economics or news reporting and editing? Not really, but you’ll probably be much better off if you’ve had exposure to at least one of those topics. If you haven’t then you’ll need to rely on your own curiosity, self-motivation and time commitment to ensure your success and happiness in the course.

The class is going to be structure probably unlike any other class you’ve taken at Carolina. First, it has the experiential service-learning component. That means less reading and note-taking from lectures. It means more class discussion and hands-on group projects. My goal is for this class to teach you — as much as anything else — how to clearly articulate and creatively solve messy, complex real-world problems. To do that, we’ll be using the context of improving public affairs reporting for the people of North Carolina by using new digital news tools and concepts.

What will you do in the class?
The first half of the class will be an introduction to the problem with the second half focused on trying out different solutions. In class, we’ll be discussing articles, brainstorming and prototyping (making models that can give us a better idea of how people might use our website). Outside of class, you’ll be keeping a 2x/week blog of reflections, reading articles, and working in groups to figure out what barriers stand in our way of building a great site and then figuring out for yourself how you will overcome those barriers. I promise to be your guide.

How will you be graded?
30% – You’ll launch your own blog and update it twice a week. Some weeks I will give you specific assignments (write a descriptive report about Whiteville, discuss the readings, etc.) but most of the time you’ll simply write about your experiences.

30% – Prototyping. In many classes, you may have been asked to write or create one big final project that demonstrates your knowledge of what you learned. But in this class, you’ll practice the art of “fertile failure” — trying a lot of ideas, making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. You will be rewarded for failing fast and failing smart. We will use everything from toothpicks to MySQL to build our prototypes. You’ll start by using the materials with which you’re comfortable and end the semester by using tools that terrified you just three months earlier. These will be different tools for each student.

30% – Participation. Come to every class with a lot of questions, fulfill your service obligation, participate in online discussions outside of class.

10% – Data management and public records assignments. A big part of our prototyping and brainstorming will be around how to obtain public records and make them useable in an online database. You’ll have a few projects to get you familiar with the basics of the technology and issues surrounding this topic.

I hope that gives you a rough idea of the class. I’ll be posting a full syllabus and calendar soon. But in the meanwhile, enjoy the rest of your summer and let me know if you have any questions.

Best,
Ryan

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What’s the Demand for Downballot News?

Written by Ryan Thornburg May 5, 2010 1:33 pm EDT No comments

One of the partners for my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class this semester was the N.C. Center for Voter Education, long known for its efforts to change the way judges are elected in North Carolina as well as the voting guide it creates in partnership with UNC-TV. That voting guide was the first place I turned for information on candidates in yesterday’s statewide primary for seats on the Court of Appeals. I just presumed that no newspaper had covered the race.

But you know what happens to you and me when you assume things, so I checked it out. Turns out I was mostly right. I’m going to put together a summary of information that got reported about this race, but it got me wondering about this question: How much information – and what kind – of information do North Carolinians need about downballot statewide primary races? Are they getting? From where? Or why not?

After all, if journalism’s worth saving it’s only because of the impact it has on public life. I’ve long been curious about the connection between information and citizen participation. The presumption – not always right, as Samuel Popkin and Michael Schudson might tell you – is that the more information voters have the “better decisions” they will make.

A little more than 700,000 people voted in those races. Some of them might have wanted more information than others? How many had enough? How many would have changed their votes if they had had different information?

And, if we can figure out who needs this information – and what information they need – is there any business model that gets it to them? Do we need independent reporting on downballot races like this or is informing voters the job of the State Board of Elections and the candidates themselves?

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Fertile Failure: Live Blogging Class Discussion

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 14, 2010 9:47 am EST No comments

Updated: 2:51 p.m. ET

Fail fast, fail cheap. Isn’t that what they say? Well, today I did it. My first attempt to live blog a class discussion didn’t work out. But neither did my first attempt to … well, do just about anything…

No matter. Here’s what I learned…

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A Lab for ‘The Reconstruction of American Journalism’

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 13, 2010 3:07 pm EST No comments

This week is the first of a new semester in my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class — a journalism class in which the students must work 30 hours with a community partner over the course of the semester. Our goal this semester — expose the students to all of the journalism models that Len Downie and Michael Schudson outline as potential replacements for a decline in public affairs reporting at newspapers.

This semester, the 18 students in the class will be divided among four partners:

  • the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, a non-profit funded largely by foundation money and private donations;
  • OrangePolitics.org, a liberal blog about local politics run part-time by a single “citizen jouranlist”;
  • N.C. DataNet, a newsletter of from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program on Public Life, edited by a former News & Observer reporter and opinion editor;
  • a public broadcast outlet here in North Carolina.

If any of these sources will be part of the reconstruction of American journalism, the students in the class will help determine how it’s reconstructed. At the very least, the students will be able to report back to the rest of us more details about what they find in these laboratories of post-newspaper news.

Stay tuned… and add your suggested reading for the class via the Delicious bookmark tag JOMC491-examples-s10.

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What I'm reading

  • Writing from Video Exercise 2 hours ago
    These video writing and editing exercises are from the 4th Edition of the Broadcast News Handbook by Charlie Tuggle, Forrest Carr and Suzanne Hoffman.
  • News Corp. Donation Clouds Fox Coverage of Prop. 24 - NYTimes.com 2010/11/02
  • How to Count Items in a Filtered List in Excel 2010/10/25
  • Relational Databases - Example - Martin Baker 2010/10/16
  • MySQL :: MySQL 5.0 Reference Manual :: 10 Data Types 2010/10/16

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