Archive for October, 2010

A trio of photos providing just a glimpse of my convention and Kentucky experience.

Stacks of student newspapers and magazines published on campuses across North America overwhelm tables in the "alley" on the second floor of Galt House Hotel where convention foot traffic was highest.

Murray State News features editor Charlotte Kyle shows off her handmade newspaper dress at Saturday's Midnight Cereal Critique. According to her fellow staffers, at one juncture during the critique, she was turned around so editors could point out a particular story they were discussing. Notice the masthead hairband.

On Halloween's eve, Louisville's Fourth Street Live featured an array of costumed locals, tourists, and convention-goers. The Avatars posing with me are Louisville residents.

 

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This morning, at midnight, I munched on Frosted Flakes and pored over student journalism.  I was a participant in a witching hour tête-à-tête with college newspaper staffers that for me was the highlight of convention programming.

The midnight cereal critique involved a bevy of advisers offering instant analyses of student newspapers to their staffers, completed in schizophrenic round-robin style. (The advisers stayed put and the students sat and popped some issues in front of them when a table became free.)  Some students wore costumes, including a young woman from Murray State University who wore a dress made entirely of newspapers- creative ink-stained couture whose only drawback seemed to be that the student could not actually negotiate a way to sit down.

While discussing the pubs with students, I found myself returning to three main focus areas:

List-lessness: I flipped through lots of papers filled with calendars of events, police blotters, and world news round-ups laid out with all the energy of a heroin addict, after a fix.  The dates or geographic locations served as the headers.  There were few, if any, graphics or photos breaking up the eye-gouge-inducing blocks of text.

Lists deserve some art and some creative (even snarky) headlines.  Give people a reason to read.  And with events calendars especially, exhibit some news judgment. Students can peruse every campus happening via the school website or SGA mass e-mails.  The newspaper should not be a repository of everything, but a spotlight for some things.  Certain event previews should be highlighted more than others.  And some potentially do not deserve a mention at all.

– News vs. Features: A number of smaller campus newspapers that were plopped onto my table sported a mix of sections that included both news and features.  The problem: The features looked like news to me, and I never received a satisfactory answer as to what the features section specifically represented or why it deserved a distinct separation from news.

The general gist for many papers seemed to be: The features section includes more pieces focused mainly on students or longer-form journalism.  They also tended to have more alluring photography and snazzier layouts.  But they were still news, at least in the classic sense of what we separate from A&E, commentary, and sports.

My bet is that if the student staffers could not really define the section to me, neither can their student readers on campus.  Two ways to solve that problem: Come up with a rock-solid coverage scope and stick to it.  Or mesh it in seamlessly with news, making that whole section as snazzy as features is now.

– Packaging Problems: The front pages of every paper I critiqued displayed the most design and newshound chutzpah.  The problem was in the follow-up.  Typically, the lead story getting all the graphic, layout, and header attention on page one was whimpering to a close on page two with nothing but a smidgeon of jump text.

It is a sad ending for an article that deserves more- especially because, as staffers candidly shared with me, the front page piece tended to be the only big story in the entire issue.  The solution: story packaging!

Think info graphics- a breakout Q&A with a central source quoted in the piece, a timeline of events or by the numbers breakdown.  An entire sider might be warranted.  A prominent teaser for online extras such as a photo slideshow might be the way to go.

The bottom line: Diversity of content in a newspaper is fantastic, but an issue’s lone big story should get the full RPT (reporting and presentation treatment).

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Nighttime in downtown Louisville.  It has segued from crisp to cold- at least for a guy who’s spent the past few years in Singapore and Florida.

The nickname for Louisville, at least according to slogans I see everywhere, is “Possibility City.”  It is a nice backdrop for two other memorable sessions I attended today- one also on collegiate news design and one on feature writing.

A few of the basic lessons I scribbled down during the design session, led by Rick Brooks, a soft-spoken, impassioned “yearbook pro” from Jostens:

A quality news design should grab attention and communicate something in three seconds or less.  First impressions are everything.

Go with your gut on design.  If you feel like something’s off, missing or just bad, dive back in or scratch and redo.

According to a trusted survey, Myriad is the most popular font among designers for news headlines and Garamond is most popular for body copy.

Seek design inspiration from unlikely sources, including movie and campaign posters.  He specifically cited game-changers such as the Obama “Hope” poster and posters for the films “Juno”  and “Seven” (apparently it jumpstarted the mass use of fun “grunge font”).

Consider converting a color image to black and white when you want to better freeze a moment in time.

Three web tools he plugged, the latter two new to me: Wordle (for word clouds), Yearbook Yourself (fun photo editing program), and Shape Collage (another creative photo editing program)

A few tips on news features shared in a separate early afternoon session led by Lori Brooks, the associate director of student media at Oklahoma University:

Search for the story behind the story.  For example, she cited not covering the football game each fall Saturday but the many people and routines surrounding it- the mascot, the stadium announcer, the third-string QB, the post-game stadium clean-up, etc.

Do a day-in-the-life report.  She suggested figures to follow such as the university president, famous faculty, campus security, a disabled student or a parking attendant.

Always think alternatives, either as siders or full reports: how-tos, Q&As, lists, by the numbers breakdowns, timelines, etc.

An easy way to contrast straight news and features: A news story is about a building that burned down. A feature is about Joe Schmo who lost the only photo of his mother in the fire.  In her words, a feature is “more personal, in-depth, and not as breaking.”

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The 89th annual ACP/CMA National College Media Convention is well under way in crisp, sunny Louisville.  A highlight of the morning sessions for me: a news design revival of sorts led by journalistic guru Michael Koretzky.

I’d heard stories from many others about his entertaining and unconventional convention presentations.   I can now say after seeing the man put on a show firsthand: I am a believer, a true Koretzky-ite.  The standing-room-only crowd in the mega-room in which he spoke confirmed I am far from alone.

He wore sunglasses, in a room with the lights shut off.  He threw gold coins at students who answered his questions correctly or wittily.  His PowerPoint slides were alive- bursting with colorful examples, musical interludes, occasional profanity, and even a dollop of full-body nudity.  His mantras on basic news design, photography, and headline writing principles were sound and wonderfully caked with sarcasm.

A few standout lessons he imparted to the current generation of student journalists, whom he chided for being “averse to taking any risk”:

Write headlines for students, not boring bureaucrats.

Don’t feature so many stories and photos focused on old people.  Student papers, first and foremost, are for students!

Clip art is for amateurs, losers, terrorists, and pedophiles.  Don’t use it.

“If a story has a bullsh*t paragraph in it, you cut it out.”  Why not crop a photo with the same BS filler?

If you can put your finger over a face in a photo and completely cover it, make the photo larger.

There is a law of diminishing returns in the news design game.  At some point, spending more time designing a page does not mean it will result in a better page.

The biggest photo on a page does not have to be the most important.

“When you have big news, make it look big.  Blow it up!”  It is better to be criticized later for playing up a story a bit too much than not enough.

“Embrace white space.  White space is your friend.  Too many students are afraid of it.”

If all photos and headlines on a page are the same size, start redesigning immediately.

“You have the next 50 years to be boring.  Be bold now.”

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A National Public Radio report recently reopened one of the most spirited debates within collegemediatopia.  The question at its core: “What’s the point of journalism school, anyway?”

The report presents the classic arguments: the skyrocketing cost of higher education vis-à-vis the decline in mainstream news media careers versus the still-powerful impact of quality journalism and the idealism of j-students and j-educators about their ability to change the world.  Descriptors such as dying, awful and unsettling appear close to others like innovation, renaissance, and re-creation.

The gist: J-school enrollment is up and it continues to have its supporters, but concerns also exist about its relevance in a do-it-yourself, free-information age.

So, circa 2010, what is the point of journalism school, anyway?  Here is my take:

1) Journalism schools are also now news providers.  Students gain practical experience and produce work with the potential to reach websurfers worldwide . . . while still in school. Of course, you do not need a j-school backing to make that impact, as I confirmed in my most recent PBS MediaShift piece.  But the new media resources, faculty mentoring, general connections, and peer support available within a solid j-school can help a ton.  Not everyone has an innate Zuckerberg-esque entrepreneurial or media instinct.  Most students need some direction and feed off collaboration.

2) The aura and reality of the journalist-as-superhero remains strong.  Last year, a Baltimore Sun piece cited a University of Maryland j-student saying, “All of the kids in journalism school still have idealized visions of journalism. We’ve all seen All the President’s Men and that’s the journalism we fell in love with.”

Fortunately, that journalism still exists.  Amid the incessant gobbledygook of information floating online nowadays, actual truth-seekers and hold-their-feet-to-the-fire-starters are still in great demand.  We still need individuals trained in info. gathering, cultural interpreting, and ethical reporting.  Journalists still possess the power to be the information overload’s smoking gun.  And these journalists need training.

 

3) All the chatter about bankruptcies, layoffs, and early retirement packages often hides one absolute truth: Many j-school graduates do still mesh the words journalism and career together.  And even more cognitively dissonant, those dead tree newspaper thingies still provide the most news jobs of any medium in j-world.

There is even hope that new media’s worldwide (web) domination will soon lead to an explosion of related journalism jobs. Columbia University’s dean of academic affairs said last year that he views the current journalistic slash-and-burn “as being like a forest fire. It damages a lot of trees, but once the smoke clears, you see the buds come out.” (Does he mean blogs?)

 

4) Journalism schools help students beyond the traditional journalism job-seeking.  It’s an audio-video-Flashified-bloggerific-podcastastic time in not only journalism but marketing, advertising, PR, corp. comm., etc.  I have a friend who developed and runs a daily-updated website full of multimedia extras and a New York Times-style seriousness.  Her field, and the site’s focus: real estate.  Her degree: journalism.

5) Yet, for all the practical assistance they can offer, journalism schools are not fish farms.  They do not simply breed future news media professionals.  For some students, journalism is the new philosophy.  It’s a sexier version of general studies or liberal arts.  It is a major awash in lessons about creativity, communication, marketing, ethics, the law, contemporary history, politics, culture, management, the Internet, and much more.  A related degree is a starting point for a career in a bevy of fields outside news and new media.  And for some, it is simply enjoyed on its own merits and for its ability to make students more informed, involved citizens of the world.

6) Journalism schools increasingly provide a service to those in transition– older folks, career-switchers, and print-and-ink journalists looking to get a new media leg-up in a tough economy.

7) There need to be leaders in every field- individuals and institutions who set standards, start conversations, and, as the NPR report notes, pose the tough questions.  The professors, classes, students, and publications in journalism schools today are those leaders.  Undergraduate and graduate enrollment in j-schools are growing.  More professional journalists are coming aboard to teach and collaborate.  Individual student start-ups and school-sponsored outlets are emerging in greater numbers than ever before.

As Geneva Overholser, the University of Southern California director of journalism, told NPR about the state of journalism: “It’s a renaissance, a re-creation. . . . [M]y favorite word for it- and I’ll carry this one all the way- is promising.  And these students know that they’re going to re-create it.”

What is missing from this list???

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Comedy is increasingly causing controversy within collegemediatopia. Since last spring, at least a half dozen high-profile student press firestorms have been hand-drawn- centered on campus papers’ editorial cartoons or original comics.

The latest: a debate dubbed “cartoon-gate” at the University of Connecticut focused on a pair of comics published last month in The Daily Campus. They were run one atop the other, featuring messages some considered sexist and downright offensive.

As one report described the comics, “The first [screenshot below] said: ‘Forget sugar and spice and everything nice. Try crabs, scabs and everything viral. That’s what girls are really made of.’  The second [a portion of it seen in lower screenshot] implied that a girl, who was not ready for sex, could be lured into the bedroom with a shiny diamond ring.”

The strips stirred outrage among some on campus and earned a public condemnation from the campus chapter of the Violence Against Women Prevention Project.

As one student wrote in a letter to the editor: “I am so disgusted by comics you ran . . . that frankly I was fully set to bypass even writing a letter to the editor but heading straight for the Board of Trustees to appeal for a refund of my student fees, which fund this newspaper.”  Another letter writer stated, “[Both comics are] INCREDIBLY offensive to females. The editor of this section should not have allowed either of them to be published in the paper. I ask that there be some sort of public apology made due to the degrading nature of the cartoons directed towards females.”

In a published statement, the Daily Campus editor in chief did not apologize, but admitted the strips “failed as satire” and confirmed that the editorial policy concerning comics will be strengthened.  The comic artists also issued responses.

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A new issue of College Media Review is now in print and online.  Its featured cover story: my report on the founding of The AUI-S Voice, the first independent college news media outlet in Iraq.

Other pieces explore the student press power struggle at private schools, navigating the “alphabet soup” of education records such as FERPA and HIPAA to gain access to relevant information, and the ins-and-outs of covering a national political convention in preparation for the biggies in 2012.  In respect to the latter, as CMR shares, “Yes, it’s two years away. But now’s the time to start eyeing the upcoming presidential election and laying the groundwork for your students to have their feet on the ground covering it.”

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