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Teaching Online Journalism: How to Build the First College-Level Course

Educators confront tough decisions on how much scarce time in a semester should be spent on teaching software tools vs. teaching reporting and writing. But first, one has to define what online journalism is -- and what makes it unique.
You may feel excitement or dread -- or a combination of the two -- if you have been charged with creating a new course about online journalism. It's a tall order, and as you try to decide what to include in the course, you're likely to wish you had at least three semesters in which to cover everything.

This article assumes that you must fit it all into one semester (possibly even a 10-week quarter) and that this course will offer students in your program their sole opportunity to learn about online journalism. Yikes! Where should you begin?

First, ask some basic questions:

• Will the students produce an online publication as part of the course?

• Will the course include some lab time, no lab time, or will it be taught entirely in a computer lab?

• Are there journalism prerequisites, such as a reporting course?

• Are there computer science prerequisites, such as a basic Internet course?

The answers will help you figure out how much of the course can or should be devoted to skills, such as basic HTML, Dreamweaver and Photoshop. If the course will be a large lecture with only one hour a week in breakout lab sessions taught by grad students, you probably cannot produce an online magazine. If the primary goal of the course is to produce an online journalism site, you might spend the first half of the semester teaching skills and the second half on reporting and writing.

After you have determined how much of the course, or how much of each class meeting, will be devoted to instruction in producing online journalism, you will know how much time is available for lecture and assignments about practicing online journalism.

The Debate About Software Skills

You could spend an entire semester listening to conflicting advice from journalism educators about how much time should be devoted to teaching software tools. The opinions run the gamut from "Just tell the students to read the Help files; don't teach software explicitly" to "Teach them to do all the tasks they might do in an online journalism job, including writing JavaScript and editing video."

Your decision is made more difficult by working online journalists who say, "Just teach them how to write and get the facts straight. We can teach them the software after we hire them." Before you heed that advice, however, take a look at some ads for online positions at news organizations:

From TCPalm.com (portal for several southeast Florida Scripps newspapers): "The position requires a self-motivated, skilled journalist with an understanding of Web design and coding, as well as copy editing skills and news judgment. Programming abilities would be a plus."

From TheUnion.com (daily newspaper, circ. 17,000): "The Web Editor will keep the site updated as news unfolds throughout the day and work with staff to create Web-exclusive content. Creativity, technical innovation, sound editing skills and writing talent all will be vital for this position."

Requirements for a photo production intern at Washingtonpost.com: "Knowledge in and proficiency with Adobe PhotoShop, Adobe Illustrator, DeBabelizer and/or Macromedia Freehand; working ability with both Macintosh and PC platforms; ability to work as part of a team; working knowledge of graphics file formats and production tools; multimedia or photography experience."

Skills do matter, and they can give the aspiring young journalist a leg up in getting a good internship -- or a good first job. If students can come out of an online journalism course with at least a rudimentary understanding of HTML and enough knowledge of Dreamweaver and Photoshop to build a basic Web page with links and images, it may be enough to open some doors that would otherwise be closed to them.

Find descriptions of online journalism jobs at:

• JournalismJobs.com (search menu for Web designer, Webmaster)
• MediaBistro.com (search keywords for Web or online)
• Monster.com (search keywords for Web editor)
• Washingtonpost.com (listing of internal jobs and internships; on the Washingtonpost.com home page, find the link at the bottom of the page in the very small type that says "Work at washingtonpost.com" and click it.)

What Is Online Journalism?

We'll get back to skills later on, but first consider other key information about online journalism that you need to include in this course.

Students often have no clear idea about online journalism as a form that differs from print or broadcast journalism. After all, they've seen newspaper stories and TV news segments on Web sites, and there is very little difference between the Web versions and the originals. Your first challenge will be to show students that there is something called online journalism that can be distinguished from other forms of journalism.

Fortunately, it's easy to find examples of good online journalism by using sites such as:

• Andrew DeVigal's Interactive Narratives
• The Society for News Design's SND.ies
• J-Lab
• NetMedia
• Online Journalism Awards

Once you have established what online journalism is, you can focus on some of the elements that clearly distinguish it from print and broadcast journalism. Three areas are worthy of at least one full class period apiece:

• Ethics of linking; choosing what to link as an editorial decision.

• Types of media used online (e.g., audio, video, still photos, infographics, maps, animation, text); choosing appropriate media to tell a given story.

• Interactivity: discussion forums, newsgroups, chat, e-mail, Listservs.

You'll also want to cover:

Copyright: Where did the online news site get its graphics, photos, audio and video? Can anyone use an AP photo? Can you rip a song from a music CD and use it as a soundtrack for your photo slide show? Many students mistakenly believe that it's legal to use copyrighted work if they include a credit line. Because it's so easy to copy material from any Web page and use it on their own pages, students need to hear the facts about copyright.

Verifying information: Online editors often enhance a news story by adding relevant links to online resources. How do you know when a source is reliable? Students can be taught various methods for verifying the accuracy of information they link to, as well as efficient ways to search for background information and to double-check facts and figures. When providing a link to outside information, use the title of the resource as the linked text, and also identify the source of the linked information. Example: Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists

Types of online journalism jobs: Students with no artistic talent or low confidence in their software skills can be put off by elaborate multimedia packages. They may be too quick to say, "I could never do that!" What they need to understand is that the most complex packages are produced by teams of writers, editors, designers, photographers and others -- and some of the team members may not officially be part of the "online staff" of the news organization. Chances are good that today's journalism students will collaborate on an online project sometime in their careers, even if they take a traditional print or broadcast job.

Common assigned activities for students include:

• Scavenger hunts (find certain kinds of content or features at online news sites).
• Web site analysis (who built it? Is it reliable? How do you know?).
• Enhance a specific print story with relevant links.
• Create a resource links page for a specific subject or beat area.
• Sign onto a Listserv and report on the topics discussed there.
• Interview an online editor, producer or designer about his or her job duties.

See the resources list for reference materials about these topics.

Creating an Online Publication

If you intend to produce an online publication as part of this course, any time you have left over (after covering the topics discussed above) probably will be spent writing, editing and getting the site online. Rather than ask students who barely know anything about Web design to wrestle with multi-column page layouts, it might be better to remove site design from their plate.

For example, the design and production may be the responsibility of a graduate student who already has some Web design experience. Aim to reduce the technical aspects of producing the site to the smallest part of the course, allowing the students to focus on reporting, writing, editing and linking.

The drawback to this approach is that students might not learn much that is specific to online journalism.

Once they focus on reporting a story, they may fall back into patterns they have already practiced in earlier courses, and their links and other online enhancements may be no more than an afterthought. It's quite challenging to get students with no prior experience in photography, audio, video or animation to produce good online work in a single semester.

Mary McGuire teaches the course at Carleton University, in Ottawa, that produces the Capital News site. "We make it a priority to teach and evaluate (students') journalism skills -- pitching good story ideas, gathering information, producing focused stories using a variety of elements (such as) tightly written text, photos, interactive features, audio and even video elements," she wrote in an e-mail. "We don’t even try to teach them the technical skills needed to design or produce our magazine."

Students working on the main news section learn "just enough Photoshop" to edit photos taken with the school's digital cameras, and "just enough Dreamweaver" to add stories and other elements into an HTML template. Students working on the special "Connections" section choose a topic, gather material and present it "in creative Web-friendly ways" without the standard templates used on the rest of the site, McGuire wrote.

The key to this process is "a talented technical support person, who knows Web design and how to use Flash," who works with the students to put their concepts online. For the first few years, that person was a grad student.

Recently the School of Journalism and Communication created a position for a technical support person assigned to work with the students in McGuire's course for three days out of each two-week publication cycle. The rest of the time, his job is computer support. He also leads a one-day workshop on Photoshop and Dreamweaver for students.

Another approach to producing a publication is to put students into teams that encompass several different skill sets, then encourage team members to brainstorm and discover the best way to tell each story.

Thom Lieb, who teaches at Towson University, recalls a story about a tattoo artist in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, Md. To produce a Web site about local neighborhoods, students from each of four classes were sent out as a team:

• Broadcast Journalism
• Documentary Film and Video
• Photojournalism
• Writing for New Media

The broadcast student who reported about the tattoo artist came back with audio -- and nothing else. Lieb wrote in an e-mail: "It never crossed his mind that the story might benefit from visual elements, even though he was teamed with two visual media students. We all talked about it, and eventually the photo student covered the same story. But even then, it was two separate perspectives as opposed to a multimedia piece."

If you're not wedded to the idea of producing a publication site, you might focus instead on producing one or more story packages, built around a specific theme or topic. With only one or two technically skilled students, a class can produce a good piece of journalism that has real online appeal. An example is "A Chilling Effect" (low-bandwidth HTML/high-bandwidth Flash), a package from journalism students at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, that won an Online Journalism Award for Creative Use of the Medium in 2003.

The single-story package approach may end up teaching students more new concepts than producing a full publication.

Basic Production Skills

After you have figured out how much Web production work will be part of the course, and whether the students will produce any group projects or a publication site, you must estimate when they will be ready to start doing that work. Most journalism students will have to start learning at Square One, unless your school requires a basic Internet course (taught by the computer science faculty, for example).

A little HTML at the beginning usually pays off later in a better understanding of the code underlying every Web page, but there's no reason to require students to spend more than one or two lab periods on HTML. After that, concentrate on the basic use of Dreamweaver and Photoshop, as these are the two programs most commonly used in professional Web site production.

Here's what you might expect in hours of lab instruction:

1. Basic HTML, including links and images: 1-2 hours
2. Basic Dreamweaver, including links and images: 1-2 hours
3. File management and uploading to the Web server: 30 minutes
4. Dreamweaver tables for page layout/principles of page design: 2 hours
5. Basic CSS (fonts and colors only): 1 hour
6. Basic photo editing in Photoshop: 2 hours
7. Creating display type and buttons in Photoshop: 2 hours

Knowledge of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is becoming more and more important as most news organizations adopt large-scale content management systems for handling daily articles and other online materials. It may seem easier to forgo CSS and teach the old, outmoded ways of controlling colors and fonts on Web pages, but in the long run you would be doing the students a disservice.

As part of this instruction, courses typically cover (or review):

• Color theory and Web-safe colors
• Typography
• Design principles
• Writing useful links
• Writing page headings and page titles

Common activities include building:

• A bio page
• A rιsumι page
• A photo gallery
• A 5-10 page feature story or research report, including images and relevant links

In Ball State's new curriculum, the first "convergence" course includes broadcast, online and print journalism. (The two journalism prerequisites are Information Gathering and Journalism Writing Skills.) Students must attend five 50-minute skills workshops scheduled outside regular class time. Three required projects are based on the workshops, which cover:

• Digital audio recording and editing
• Digital camera and Photoshop
• Online I
• Online II
• Final project

Bob Papper, who team-teaches the course, wrote in an e-mail: "One of the best moves we made was hiring a full-time workshop coordinator. Technically, she answers to both departments, and she teaches almost all of the journalism-related (both print and broadcast) technical stuff -- all of which we have moved out of the regular class periods."

The final project is a small-group-produced package that examines a community issue in depth, including a 1,000-word print story and a Web site for which students write separate stories, produce 90-second audio stories, and shoot and edit photos.

Topics in Online Journalism

In addition to the essentials discussed above (linking, media types, interactivity, copyright, verifying information, and online journalism job types), several other topics are worth discussing if you have the time to fit them in. Of course, you can mix and match from this list.

• Convergence:
1. Corporate ownership, partnerships, content sharing;
2. Overlapping job duties, multiple skills sets, working as part of a team;
3. Entertainment as journalism and journalism as entertainment.

• Writing for the Web: Terse style, use of bullets, chunking; special considerations for writing link text.

• Weblogs, both as a form of journalism and as sources.

• Is the Web changing journalism as it is practiced in other media? For example, is the 24-7 news cycle encouraging sloppy sourcing?

• Is the Web changing journalism as it is practiced in various countries around the world? For example, is access to news sources from outside national boundaries affecting the stories that are covered in-country?

• Legal issues, including Web site privacy policies and terms of use.

• Business models, including ethics of advertising online and uses of sponsored content.

• Web specials, including photo galleries and narrated slide shows.

• Uses of animated infographics and maps.

• Comparison of audio and video on the Web and their counterparts in radio and TV.

Three more advanced topics that might require more than one class to cover thoroughly:

• Communities online, both as sources of information and as communities worth covering in their own right.

• Nonprofit organizations' Web sites, both as sources and as competition for journalism.

• Web database applications, such as TBO.com's CrimeTracker, which could be combined with a brief introduction to computer-assisted reporting techniques.

Intermediate Production Skills

If you've conceived this course as primarily a skills course (or you have a generous allotment of lab time), you'll want to add some more content related to producing online media:

• CSS (padding, margins, positioning)
• Screen/page layouts and design
• Navigation and site structure
• Usability issues
• Audio
• Image maps
• Animated GIFs
• Some JavaScript (rollovers, pop-up windows)
• HTML forms

Students should be able to create a Web site with multiple pages that have a consistent appearance and a clear navigation system. Keep in mind that these topics are demanding (of both the instructor and the students) and should only be tackled if the course is intended to be a more comprehensive Web production course, or if the students have already had some Web production experience in an earlier course.

Advanced Production Skills

It's probably unreasonable to try to teach advanced online production skills in the first course, simply because these require a lot of hands-on time from the students. Any one of these could easily take 6-10 hours of lab time, or three weeks.

• Flash animation and interaction
• Video editing and compression
• Web databases

Rosental Alves, who teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, made Flash a major part of his course this year. For the previous six years that he taught the course, titled Multimedia Journalism, it was focused on creating complete Web zines. Students were divided into groups of five or six; in each group, usually one or two students took on the role of Webmaster.

"It's a writing class -- my focus is on journalism," Alves said in a phone interview. "This year I turned the class into a news provider for the student newspaper, the Daily Texan. We will provide individual stories or packages to them."

The students this year are in two groups, one covering the music scene in Austin, the other covering the local film industry. "We don't have to force them to learn Flash programming, but we should encourage those who are interested in this, and let the others know the potential of this software," Alves said.

So while some students in the class are interested in learning Flash (and Alves' teaching assistant knows Flash and can help them learn it), other students will not be required to learn much beyond the basics of Flash.

"We have been doing Flash packages in the industry since 1996," Alves said. "With the significant increase in broadband for consumers today, it's very important that we show the kids this. Even if they don't learn the technical parts, they will learn how to use these resources."

Story Planning

When a team puts together a multimedia story package, a significant amount of planning usually takes place before the assets (e.g., photos, audio, video) are collected. A designer may sketch out a framework, or full storyboards, for the package (including the navigation), on a large whiteboard where everyone on the team can see and discuss it. The assets needed will be discussed and assigned to various journalists, who will then go out and gather them.

This process can be studied by deconstructing an existing online story package to determine what assets were used and what skills the journalists, designers and producers brought to bear. Students can be assigned to "reverse engineer" a multimedia package and try to figure out how all the pieces came together. Students can extrapolate from what they have already learned in other courses about gathering information for stories and, in doing so, learn about how to apply skills they may not have yet.

The final step in this exercise is for the students to estimate how long each step would take and to gauge the total production time for the package.

Conclusion

This article has not provided a simple blueprint for constructing a course about online journalism, because any simplified design would leave out elements that might be perfect for your program.

Consider the resources available to you and determine what will work best for you and your students. It would be possible to create a course that was all online skills training, or a course that included no online skills training -- and yet, most courses examined for this article contained some skills training and hands-on production work, in combination with lectures and assignments about the practice of online journalism today.

You should be able to use this article as a guide to select "one from Column A, one from Column B" and build the course best suited to your background and experience and to your program. Make sure to consult the resources page and the example syllabi that accompany this article.