Journalists’ Toolkit Class: My Assessment

Journalists’ Toolkit I class offered a variety of well-designed exercises through which I gradually built my ability to tell stories using multimedia platforms. The best thing about the class was this gradual move from completely controlled and scripted exercises to the real world experience of producing a multimedia package about an issue.

Useful not-for-grade exercises

The first controlled exercise which included a photo shoot of a certain subject at a fixed location was a great learning tool that helped me grasp what different shots mean. It also helped me to learn how a photographer should take photos of a subject from various angles and distances.

The first controlled audio exercise included interviewing a classmate and asking questions about a specific topic. The best thing about this exercise was that it taught me how to edit an audio and “slaughter” it to keep the best parts. For this exercise we were first assigned to record 4 to 5 minutes of audio, without knowing that we should later cut it short to 60-90 seconds. The painful process of giving up parts of the audio that you think are good, and the satisfaction about the final outcome helped me realize that I should be brutal in cutting out pieces of audio, and that brevity adds impact.

Our professor made a wise decision about these two controlled exercises and assigned them as none-graded work. Without the pressure of being anxious about grades, these exercises were great learning experiences that prepared me for more real work experiences.

The graded work

The graded work included assignments related to preparing three Soundslides and updating a blog through which we discussed our readings. The assignments were graded in details and the feedback our professor gave us about each of these details made me learn more about my shortcomings and use her recommendations to improve my work. I consider the feedback of our professor very constructive, because they helped me to improve step by step. I witnessed a gradual move from being a novice student to a journalist that can tell interesting stories using multimedia stories, all in one semester!

The Soundslides

I liked the topics that were chosen for each soundslide. The first one was about an aspect of life on campus. This topic was a comfort zone that helped me concentrate more on technicalities of the issue rather than challenges of reporting. Instead of spending time on doing background research or doing extensive interviews from several people, I could spend less time on reporting and more time on working on my photos and audio to get prepared for more advanced stages.

Since we had to interview only one person for this assignment, I was also challenged to struggle between avoiding to prepare a “profile” story and concentrating more on telling a larger story, which was an aspect of campus life.

The second soundslide was about a place and it was the time for us to use more than one audio source for our story. Since it was just about one place, it was also a challenge to take photos that could be both interesting and diverse.

I struggled with time issue a lot for this story. How could I put more than one person’s narration, and yet keep my Soundslide less than 2 minutes? Well, as much as I wished to have a 4-minute Soundslide, I was very happy about the end result. Knowing that the attention span of online audience is low and few people have patience to view long stories online, this exercise was helpful to teach me how to produce an entertaining, yet brief work for online audience.

The third soundslide was the most important part of this class that gave me a great sense of achievement. Working on an issue is a challenging task for journalists. But in the end I came to the conclusion that online media are great tools for story telling about an issue.

A great text story about an issue that has some strong quotes and have solid background research can help a lot to inform people and involve them with the issue. But in the end everything is limited to words. On the Web, however, you can enhance the impact of the issue. You can have voices, faces, and detailed pictures. In the nutshell, you can communicate feelings and experiences all in 2 minutes.

I was amazed to see that at the end of this class I could produce a story package about the issue of homelessness so well. In no way I could imagine at the beginning of this class that I would be so satisfied with my final project. Even if I had the linguistic ability to write a story about the issue of homelessness in Gainesville, I doubt that I could produce a work as effective as the present soundslide.

Considering that I was completely a novice online journalism student at the beginning of this class, I consider my last work as a success. I owe this success, so many things that I learned this semester, and my huge improvement, to the well designed assignments of the class.

The blog

Writing a blog for this class was an interesting personal experience for me. I’ve been blogging for more than six years now, but I had never maintained a professional blog concentrating on a specific area.

For this class we had to maintain a professional blog that had posts about our readings. It was a challenge for me to distance myself from the unprofessional tone of my personal blogs on one hand, and the professional yet boring tone of my academic papers on the other.

I’m not sure if I succeeded in overcoming this challenge. Most of my posts are very long, something that is not appreciated very much in blogoshpere. But at least, I practiced maintaining journalistic credibility in writing this blog, which with a bit more practice, might help me to have a professional blog on online journalism that can be presentable to my potential future employers.

I also got to know more about professional journalistic blogs, and now I’m benefiting from so many great posts some of these j-bloggers write. I have also realized that blogging can be a good asset for journalists to discuss – in a larger community – the issues today’s journalism is dealing with. Moreover, blogs help journalists to add more context and real time information about the stories they cover in other media outlets.

Was it just a reporting class?

So far I’ve mostly highlighted the ways this class helped me to be a better story teller. But this class was not just about story telling. It was also about the platforms through which you can tell the stories online. I think it was also an ice-breaker for some of the students who were feeling they are novice about online journalism.

The final project of the class included a 3-page website where we had to present our final issue soundslide and some data/maps to add to the story. We had a ready template to use for putting our work on the web. The structure of this work was what many journalists need to know. Most often, you don’t need to know html or web design to work for an online news outlet. But what many journalists need to know is how their material will be integrated in the templates made by graphic designer and web developers of their news room. Even if they don’t upload the material themselves, they NEED to know how an online template works.

Knowing the structure of the work is important too. In the case of our final story package, we had to change those parts of the template that were related to presenting a story in an interesting way. This assignment, which was to some extent controlled, was a learning experience for me to see how I can present a small package in a well-organized and interesting manner.

Some suggestions

The only thing this class could have more in my idea was a discussion about online journalism. We had some discussions, but I guess we could have more. I was hoping that we could further the discussions that had to be cut short in the class (because of lack of time in our blogs) in our blogs, but that didn’t happen very much.

Comments are an essential part of a blog. At few occasions we had good discussions going on in our blogs, but generally I didn’t get the feeling of belonging to an interactive community, or a blogosphere. Perhaps our graded assignments should include more commenting required.

Also, I think it would be better if fewer time was spent in the class on instructions about how to use or set up some tools. As I have also mentioned in this post, journalists should learn how to learn using different online tools and tutorials. Many of these services have clear instructions, and we should get used to reading them when we need to set up something.

The future of online journalism, or why J-schools should offer more classes like Journalists’ Toolkit

I’m sure at this stage I don’t need to repeat that the future of journalism is entangled with online journalism. But what still needs to be insisted upon is the need for journalism schools to update their training approaches.

There is an increasing need among news rooms to set up online journalism training sessions for their staff. So, the question is, why don’t we have more of this type of training in our j-schools, while the majority of journalists learn their work at j-schools?

Our professor is constantly getting invited to all over the US, and even out of US, to do some online journalism training. Why shouldn’t she do more of this type of training in her own school? (This question is addressed at my journalism department, and not my professor. I am asking this question, because I’m surprised that this Journalists’ Toolkit class is not going to be offered every semester. Even worse, I’ve heard that this class was just a one-time event and will not be offered in the near future at all.)

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