i-72eebff1c3030133d3a7ca1bd7d13b7f-Clyde Bentley.jpg
Clyde Bentley

Mark Glaser is away on vacation this week, but we’re happy to have Clyde Bentley filling in as a special guest blogger. Bentley is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri. Bentley helped start the MyMissourian grassroots journalism hub, and teaches students how to incorporate interactivity into their journalism. His research team hosts its own blog, The Cyberbrains. Glaser will return to the blog next Monday.

I have a unique place in the citizen journalism world — I teach one of the very few practical courses in this growing area of our profession.

The unusual structure of the The Missouri School of Journalism makes it an ideal laboratory for integrating traditional journalism education and user-generated content. We operate no “student” publications. The daily newspaper, the NBC TV station, our various magazines and radio station are staffed by students, managed by professional journalists but aimed at the general public of Columbia, MO.

So when we launched MyMissourian.com in 2004, we had ready access to working moms, retired carpenters, stressed-out business owners and all the other normal people who make up a community in the middle of America. So getting my journalism students to understand the appeal of citizen journalism should have been easy, right?

Very wrong. One of the hardest lessons that I have learned from the MyMissourian project is that traditionally trained journalists often have close to the least sense of “community” in the community itself. And it’s even worse for student journalists.

Given the school’s reputation, it is no surprise that journalism students flock to Missouri from around the world filled with enthusiasm, incredible talent and sharp wits. But like all students, they come to a place like Columbia for the school, not the town. Most will someday return as proud alumni, but few long for that three-bedroom split-level on the edge of town.

So the first strike in citizen journalism for almost all students is that they really don’t give a damn about community. That’s not really a problem for traditional journalism, where we teach you how to “cover.” In a nutshell, that means the journalist does a bit of research, talks to a few contacts, writes a good report and goes on to the next subject. You can parachute a well-trained journalist into any town and get a reasonably good story.

Citizen journalists, however, “share” their stories. The research for the story is in their souls and they live the subject about which they write. Community is everything to them.

If we could just get non-professionals to contribute to our publications without prodding, citizen journalism would be easy. But anyone who has tried it knows there is no Field of Dreams: If you create a website, they won’t necessarily come.

I chatted about this over coffee last week with Lew Friedland of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lew also directs Madison Commons, a project similar to MyMissourian.

‘It’s just hard work. Very hard work,” Lew said of our mutual efforts to develop citizen journalism within a traditional organization. “And it’s not cheap.”

Delivering the Story with a Soft Touch

For journalism professors and their students, that’s good news. It means we will need talented journalists to ensure the flow of content from the users. But it also means we need to develop a journalism curriculum that focuses on delivering the story with the soft touch of a symphony conductor rather than the loud improvisation of a soloist.

That’s an unnatural state of being for both my professional colleagues and the students I teach. The former are generally too young to remember when newspapers eliminated their “community notes” society pages and stringers in the mid-1970s to cope with the great newsprint shortage. And the latter will freely tell you their major motivation for a journalism career is to write (well, and to avoid math).

So what to do? Ours is a work in progress, but the curriculum we have developed is making headway. All instruction at Mizzou is based on what we have called the Missouri Method for 99 years. That simply means that classroom instruction is tightly coupled with real-world experience — which is why we operate all those competitive media products. And here is how it works for citizen journalism:

> All students in our citizen journalism course start with a 50-stop community orientation tour. At each stop they must take a photo, which they post on a Flickr or Photobucket site. This not only gets them beyond the bar district in Columbia, but teaches them to use photo-sharing software.

> Students are assigned to beats, but in roles more akin to city editors than reporters. They are charged with developing their own string of contributors — both helping them input to the system and editing their copy.

> They are thoroughly drilled on the gentle touch of citizen journalism editing — readability rather than AP style, passion rather than just facts, personality rather than objectivity. This may be their toughest lesson, as it counters what they have learned in every other class for four years.

> They participate in a “snapshot” program that puts staff in the field to take those grip-and-grin event photos that newspapers traditionally spurn. As Morris found with its Spotted feature, these silly pictures of grinning community folk are immensely popular — even if they irritate the heck out of our photojournalism people.

> They find and develop a blogger. This introduces them to the blogosphere as a story source. Each student is to find a local blogger whose site can be listed on MyMissourian and who will give us permission to run individual posts on our site. That means the students also have to read the blogs with an eye for their reader value.

> They blog themselves. Over the term this has ranged from low-readership Blogger sites styled on newspaper staff blogs to the current free-for-all on Fox2-STL’s 15,000-strong blog site. Dealing with comments is a big eye-opener — but more on that another time.

> They dig through all the research, discussion lists, websites and visiting speakers I can throw at them.

And for the first six weeks of the term, they hate it.

Eventually, though, almost every student in the class comes to realize that this is very good preparation for traditional journalism. They learn their audience inside and out. They learn to neither dismiss the Little League story nor to overrate the city council story. They learn patience. And they learn that readers are real people.

Citizen journalism classes in J-schools arguably prep students for jobs that seldom yet exist. But the real lesson may be to the professor and the industry alike as we poke holes in our traditional curriculum.

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