And now... Time for a brain dump

My head is spinning around with a thousand ideas while I attend sessions at South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. I can go from a session on aggregating information to a session on mom blogs and bump into someone you've always wanted to talk to but never had a chance. It's been a great experience. It's so interesting to be around so many people who understand technology... A conversation I've heard a lot is how these web and interactive-based ideas we are talking about are often not supported by higher management. It's the case in industries across the board. It's not just a problem for journalism. But watching another newspaper fall today (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) is more reason for me to feel the need to dump my ideas on how to change the way we teach journalism students of today. The P-I is doing things a little differently than the Rocky Mountain News closure. In Seattle's case the "paper" will live on in a web-format only. That means many traditional journalists will have to turn their thought process completely around and put web as the priority. Sure, many newsrooms are starting to put that priority out there. This is the first time in a long time where the change in priority is about to be come the only priority. Journalists need to think web first.

So how do these long-standing journalism schools do it?

I have an idea that I've been working with for a while and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

For years journalism students have been taught how to get dropped into a story (it can be breaking news, developing news or just feature stories) and be able to become "instant experts." A general assignment reporter for a broadcast station is sent from story to story with no over arching purpose beyond covering the community or city. A general assignment reporter for most newsrooms follows a large beat on a city or education or entertainment (you get the drift)... But no one is specifically focused on one topic and tasked with building a community and understanding the existing community surrounding that topic.

Jane Stevens is working on fixing that challenge as part of the Reynolds Journalism Institute. She's working on creating a web structure that will help journalists do good journalism even if they don't have a traditional newsroom to back them up. It would basically be an out-of-the-box tool for community building and focused research and journalistic work. She's leading a project to create what she calls a "health shell." It's a web structure were individual journalists can collect data about various aspects of the health issue and collaborate online with a website where you can share a community of people who care about that topic. It's exciting to watch some of my students get to really know an element of health that they find important. Some current topics are fitness, senior health literacy and mental health. The student journalists are learning what it takes to gather sources and get a solid understanding of a niche. But here's the trick: when the student wrap up this semester, some are going to graduate, others are going to run off for the summer. How can we keep this project sustainable within this higher education environment?

That got me thinking about journalism school curriculum.

Here's my idea. I kind of base it off of how we make the radio-television sequence work. In the first semester you learn the foundation of skills. In the second semester you refine those skills and get good enough to work in the newsroom. In the third semester you are a regular reporter each week. For a community-based website, you could do something similar. In the first semester you learn the foundation of skills it takes to be a multi-media journalist and how to gather data and collect information. In the second semester you are an assistant to the lead community journalists for a specific niche website. In the third semester you are a leader of the community. It requires something different. Instead of becoming a general assignment reporter, you learn how to be a niche reporter. You learn what it takes to grow a connection with your community and get to know it well enough to be a legitimate presence online. The challenge: students would have to pick a niche during the first semester and stick with it. If they hate the niche by the end of a year and a half, then at least they know what it takes to gather up enough sources to really get a niche website rolling. Then they know what it takes to find another niche and get a job doing it elsewhere. That research and community building can be taken into so many directions after graduation. I think it would be amazing. Plus, the niche websites at the Missouri School of Journalism would continue to rock.

Ahhh. It feels better to let that out.

I have attended all kinds of sessions and I'll try to write about some here and there as I go but I really felt like I needed to get this one out there as soon as possible!