I told faculty of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in January that one of their most important jobs was to help students learn for themselves how to use new tools. That’s what I’ll be doing next semester: I’ll be teaching without teaching.
Dean Sarah Bartlett had asked me to speak at a faculty meeting about what journalism graduates needed to succeed in digital media. Back then, I was thinking I’d be working the next several years at Digital First Media. A key point of my presentation was that students needed to learn how to use digital tools — not that a school needed to teach any particular set of tools, but that students needed to learn how to learn new tools by themselves. Whatever tools a journalism school teaches students, some of them will become obsolete before long, and new tools will come out soon after any student graduates. So it’s important that journalists have some experience and comfort with the process of figuring out how a tool works and how to use it to do better journalism.
Well, that Digital First thing didn’t last as long as I thought, so I’m teaching now. And next semester, I will be teaching a class in interactive storytelling tools. Only I won’t be teaching the students how to use the tools (some of them I may not know myself). Instead, I’ll be guiding the students in exploring how to learn new tools themselves.
If you’re a Manship School of Mass Communication senior, scheduling for the spring semester starts Sunday:
Juniors can register soon, too. Come see me or email me if you want to discuss the class, but here’s what I’m planning:
You’ll work on stories
Whatever tools you use, interactive storytelling starts with great stories. So students in my class will work on actual stories. The class will be open to students from any major in the Manship School, so the type of stories will vary. Storytelling is important in all aspects of communication that we teach here: journalism, political communication, public relations, advertising. Whatever type of story you’re telling, the students will work on real stories intended for publication: possibly for student media, professional media or a client, but on a class blog or personal blog if you don’t have another outlet.
You’ll need to gather and verify facts, produce strong visuals and write well to succeed in this class. The first point I will make is that interactive tools don’t substitute for the basics of journalism, they showcase excellent journalism.
I’ll assume you have basic storytelling skills, so I won’t be teaching them. But I’ll give you feedback on your storytelling throughout the class.
Learning a new tool
I will show and tell students a process for learning a new interactive tool:
- Reading/viewing some stories produced using the tool.
- Actually reading instructions and watching demonstration videos produced for new users of the tool. (Yeah, I know, radical, but, hey, you’re gonna learn new things in my class.)
- Exploring/experimenting with the tool.
- Searching for tip sheets by other journalists who’ve used the tool.
- Networking with journalists with similar interests and asking them for help when you encounter problems and questions.
- Looking and watching for elementary, intermediate, advanced and specialized training opportunities using a particular tool or set of tools.
- Reaching out to the organization that developed the tool to ask for help.
- Revising and trying again.
Are there other steps I should include?
Applying the tool to the story
I will make the point that there is no journalism tool that’s like duct tape — the perfect tool for every job. As you learn new tools, you need to learn and remember what they do well and what they don’t.
And as you work on a story, you need to think about the content you’re gathering and the story you need to tell. If you need to tell a story in a linear fashion, with you controlling the order of the content, you need different tools (or at least to use them in a different way) than a story that works better if you set it up for the user to browse and control the order and the experience. If you have strong visual content, you will need different tools than if your story is mostly words (and different tools if those words are text or audio). If some or all of your content is structured data, that requires other tools.
I am going to collect excellent examples of interactive stories. I’ll show a lot of them early in the class, and might invite some of the journalists who produced them to join me as the class goes along, telling what they did and how. I’ll hope that Louisiana journalists can join us in person, but I expect to bring some others into the class with digital hookups.
I will reach out to some journalists who excel at interactive storytelling and ask them to send me examples of their work and work by others that they admire. But I also welcome you to email me — stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com — with examples of your best interactive work or of stories by others.
Jump in and learn
This will be most of the class. After I show a tool or two in demonstrating the process above, show some examples and discuss how to match the tools to the job, it will be time for the students to jump in and learn. Each student will need to use a variety of tools in the class. They will explain to their classmates what they did to learn the tool, what they tried that worked, what didn’t work and show the process they used to produce the story. Each will have to be the first student in the class to explain at least one tool.
As the students use the tools, I will provide feedback (more helpful, obviously, when I know the tools myself, and I expect to learn a lot more during the class). I also will try to schedule journalists who are experienced in using the tools to provide feedback — sometimes by joining us (perhaps digitally) to hear the student’s presentation and provide immediate feedback and sometimes by critiquing stories and making suggestions.
In some cases, I will have the students use the tool again, either in another story or in revising the first one, so they will build upon their initial learning.
The point is that the students will learn new tools on multiple levels:
- They won’t use some tools, but will see examples of their use by classmates and professionals, and see and hear how classmates used them, so they will have some familiarity with the tools (and hopefully use them in the future).
- They will get their initial exposure to some tools, learning the basics and seeing how they will be helpful in stories, and getting some feedback that should help in the future.
- They will get deeper exposure in a few tools and gain some comfort and advanced skills in using them.
- They will gain confidence that they can assess new tools as they encounter them and figure out how to apply them in the right stories and use them to tell stories.
What you need to know
Students with basic writing, reporting and visual journalism skills should be able to succeed in this class. Your skill level beyond that may determine which tools you use.
I won’t be teaching computer coding in this class, but if you know computer coding, you could excel in the class by coding some stories yourself in a particular computer language without using proprietary tools. But if you don’t know computer coding, there are plenty of tools available for you to use and excel in this class (and you’ll at least get some exposure to the coding behind the tools you use).
Similarly, this isn’t a data journalism class, but if you have some data journalism skills, you might gravitate more toward stories using interactive databases and date visualization. If you don’t have any data skills, you can use other tools and succeed in the class (and might learn some data skills and get some help in using some databases).
I will grade students on four factors:
- The basics. Throughout the class, we’ll make the point that this is about telling excellent stories. A student who produces a lovely story with lots of bells and whistles is not going to get a strong grade if the writing is poor or the images are fuzzy or the content is shallow, etc. And you’re going to fail on an assignment if critical facts are wrong (and get graded down for smaller errors).
- Execution with the interactive tools. Again, it’s about the story. Students who use the tools well to make excellent interactive stories will excel in this class.
- Boldness of experimentation. It’s OK to start with some easier tools, but by the end of the semester, I want to see you taking on tougher tools and/or advanced work with the easier tools. Some students whose final stories have a few rough edges may get A’s based on boldness.
- Demonstrations in class. Your ability to tell classmates what you did and how will not only help them, but it will help you advance in using this tool and figure out how to use the next one.
Tools we’ll use
I may work on a blog post soon on the interactive tools we’ll be using in the class, though I hope that will be a constantly updating list, even during the semester. While I will concentrate on the finished interactive product, some of the things we discuss will shape or even dictate the news-gathering process. Some tools might work in both news-gathering and production. I welcome your suggestions now about tools I should include (email address is above). Students will be required to use a variety of these types of tools:
- Live coverage
- Mobile apps
- Multi-media (audio, video, still photos, text, graphics incorporated together)
- Data visualization
What are your favorite tools of each or any of these types? Am I missing any types of tools? Again, what are your favorite examples of stories using these types of tools? If you’re a journalist who uses any of these tools regularly, I’d like to talk. If you’re a professor who’s taught any of these types of tools, I’d like to talk. If you’re a developer of any of these types of tools, I’d like to talk. If you’re a vendor of any of these types of tools, I’d like to talk.
More soon on learning how to learn
In prep for that CUNY talk last year, I sought and received excellent advice from some journalists whose digital skills I admire. I asked them what professors in their universities (or perhaps some bosses) did to help them learn to learn. I used their advice in my CUNY presentation, but I intended to use it as some guest blog posts. But life got really busy really quickly after those journalists sent me that excellent advice, and I never published it. I’ll turn it into a new series of blog posts sometime before this class starts.