For a long time schools of journalism have looked for ways to work with the novices who arrive each September. Educators know the value of reporting experiences for students outside the classroom, but for perhaps two semesters, until lessons take hold, accuracy and libel hazards are real. Beyond internship and part-time job programs, various training tools have been developed, including in-house, neighborhood or even city-wide school publications, student news services and state house bureaus—all conducted under close faculty scrutiny. Many of these efforts have been costly, hard to administer, and disruptive to students’ academic work. New media technology offers a solution in the form of Weblogs.
At the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, we began using a Weblog as a teaching tool in 1999. It predates Weblog technology and the recent flourishing of Weblogs as unedited expressions of an immediate and personal nature. During our last semester, more than 75 students were involved as part-time writers and editors with our site, which we call OJC.
From the start, OJC had the Weblog characteristics of discrete, dated entries dealing with latest developments in a topic—in our case, online journal-ism—of interest to a niche audience. But we have not encouraged quirky, individualized voices. Our Weblog is more like a chorus with a distinctive sound. The multiple authors all work with their editors with the common goal of finding and publishing useful information on a focused topic.
Working on the Weblog
It is mostly freshman and sophomore journalism majors, working closely with editors, who write on the Weblog. They are expected to produce at least two news briefs a week as part of a lab requirement in the school’s introductory Core Curriculum. (We expose incoming students to print, broadcast and online writing, both as undergraduates and graduate students.) The editors are paid graduate students who have completed a course in copyediting. Core students can also work for the campus newspaper, The Daily Trojan, or at Annenberg Television News, which produces an evening news report distributed on cable TV. Many students decide to work for the OJC Weblog because of its numerous advantages, the greatest of which is wide, daily exposure. Students—the writers and editors—publish a respectable, if not professional, product every day on the World Wide Web. And this publication is used by journalists, newspaper and broadcast executives, as well as government officials involved in media policy issues. In June, the Web site got about 30,000 page views. The content also goes out in a daily e-mail newsletter to about 2,100 subscribers. One of the benefits of OJC might be that it is put together by younger people. A lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission e-mailed us that he liked OJC’s “quirky selection of relevant news items.”
Each news brief is between 60 to 200 words long with a headline of five to 10 words. It is linked to the original source for the story and to related Web content. The students prowl the Web at all hours of the day and night, and they can do this from computers at home or at school libraries or during the day from our Online Newsroom. As reporters, they look worldwide for stories related in some way to online publishing. Examples of such stories include: “TV execs use Internet to get new ad revenue,” “Asian publishers catch on the news SMS,” “Corbis hits Amazon with copyright suit,” and “Australian journalist plagiarizes via Internet.”
What Students Learn
The students are taught to paraphrase the original story, selecting key facts and good quotes. The original story is then prominently attributed, and the link that appears at the end of each news brief makes clear again where the content came from. Writers are encouraged to add style, personality and perspective to their pieces. But, in the words of supervising staff member Joshua Fouts, “We find, in general, that only the most experienced students will actually do so.”
Faculty members prod the editors and writers to do more original writing, but they also urge caution in doing so. “We don’t want them to just regurgitate the original text,” said Michelle Nicolosi, an instructor who works closely with the editors. “Where do you draw the line between a straight report and opinion? … If the items don’t directly state a relationship with journalism, the writers can give that context. If an item says ‘broadband access up in Japan,’ the student then explains that this is important to online journalism in Japan because it means there will be a bigger audience for online news. They do not add opinion, only context.”
There are many benefits for students who work on the Weblog. “Motivated students get much-needed writing experience,” Fouts said. “They also get clips, which the [computer] system gathers and assigns to a page dedicated exclusively to the writer.” This also offers them opportunities to gain exposure to potential employers. In the words of our managing editor this year, Melissa Milios: “I think the managing editor title is a good thing for the resumé and having my name in more than 2,000 people’s inbox every day doesn’t hurt, either.”
Milios and the five “shift editors” earn between eight and 10 dollars an hour for five to 10 hours of work per week. “I learned a lot in terms of managing a large team [of reporters] and balancing that with a very heavy academic load,” Milios says. “I learned how to work with writers of all ability levels to put out a professional publication. I ended up doing quite a lot of writer training and my editing skills definitely improved.” Another editor, Heather Somers, who got an editing internship at the Los Angeles Times this summer, said she found OJC to be “great practice.” As she observed, “Because of the inexperience of many of our undergrad writers … it was imperative for us to triple-check not only their grammar, but the names and facts in their briefs. We discovered—through checking—that they frequently got stuff wrong.” And, she said, “Let’s just say Jayson Blair is not alone. This is one reason why the editor position is so critical.”
We also indicate to students working on the Weblog that Internet searches are not a substitute for using shoe leather and digging into file cabinets. Some students, no doubt, will see the computer as a reporter’s shortcut. But subsequent reporting classes should make it clear to them what it takes to find facts.
The young writers gain not only from working in such a concise format, but they also like “learning the skill of hunting down good materials for the digest,” said Keiko Mori who, like many of our students, is multilingual. When possible, faculty members urge students to find and translate stories from other languages and cultures. “I have learned different perceptions of what journalism should be in the United States and Japan,” said Sayo Haruki, a communications graduate student who gravitated to OJC because of its global scope. “Understanding what would make a newsworthy story from different points of view has opened up new horizons for me as an international student.”
In my work as an instructor in the Core Curriculum, I’ve seen how it helps students to make their writing more concise and focused when they work for OJC. And we receive reports from the editors on the students’ performance, and we use those reports in determining a student’s final grade. “The Weblog reinforces the Core classes,” said Dana Chinn, a lecturer who coordinates the Core Curriculum. “They are exposed to work process issues they don’t get in class, like taking direction and meeting deadlines. They get the idea of how a news organization actually works.”
Larry Pryor is a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. He worked as a writer and editor at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and the Los Angeles Times. From 1982-1986, Pryor was the news editor of Times Mirror’s pioneering videotex project, Gateway, and in 1996 became the editor of the Los Angeles Times’s Web site, latimes.com, joining the journalism faculty at USC a year later. He is director of the school’s Online Program and is on a sabbatical in 2003 to do research on the use of “immersive” 3-D technology to tell news stories.