If you’re like me, you know more about economics now than you ever thought you’d want to know. I can describe a Credit Default Swap (CDS), a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO), a Mortgage Backed Security (MBS), mark-to-market accounting, and the LIBOR index, not to mention the Toxic Asset Relief Program (TARP), U3 and U6, and the difference between a liquidity problem and a solvency problem. Paul Krugman haunts my dreams.

Much of this economic knowledge has come from a burgeoning online industry in economic news. I first got hooked on NPR’s Planet Money podcast through This American Life (pay particular attention to The Giant Pool of Money), then followed the links to Calculated Risk blog and others who followed the economy. As always, the New York Times’ interactive graphics team has been working overtime (see here, here, and here, for instance). But there have been many others who’ve been doing a good job chronicling the recession. Check out the Crisis of Credit Visualized, or this layoff map from the Roanoke Times, or Scenes from the recession from the Boston Globe.

But while much of the professional media has mobilized to cover the crisis, the response by college media hasn’t been as encouraging. Despite the wealth of new media tools that could help them to find and tell innovative stories, most college media have relied on a decidedly old-fashioned approach to their story-telling.

College Media on the meltdown

Over the past week, I’ve surfed a ton of college media websites looking for innovative ways these journalists were telling the biggest story of their generation. And I’ve mostly come up empty.

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Probably the best example I have seen comes from the Amherst Wire, not a traditional college media outlet by any means. They covered the economic collapse in October with Market Meltdown 101. In March, they returned with an explanation of the economic stimulus package — Economic Stimulus 101, which was tied to a FAQ about the stimulus package.

The Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill did a nice interactive graphic in October called Making Sense of the Economic Crisis, but there’s been little recent activity to update that information.

The Nevada Sagebrush has a section about cuts to the state budget which includes a timeline (using Dipity), videos, and a salary database. A group of journalism students at UN-R are also covering the budget crisis.

Beyond that, things are a little sparse. Sure, lots of words have been written about students not getting jobs, or having job offers pulled, or enrollment in graduate programs spiking as students decide to stay in school (or go back to school) instead of facing a dicey job market.

But words don’t really paint an adequate picture of economic downturns. Video and audio add to the picture (as in this InsideVandy piece), but there seem to be few attempts to really grasp the global crisis at hand, especially through data visualization.

Here are a couple of suggestions for college media to bring the topic of the economy home in ways other than the inevitable “jobs are tough to come by” story.

Many Eyes

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The other day, I caught the Online News Association/Poynter Institute’s ONAvation webinar on data visualization, which showcased Many Eyes, the IBM collaborative data visualization site. It’s free for ONA members, and worth the cost for those who are not. After watching the webinar and spending a few moments with a spreadsheet, I came up with this visualization of U.S. bank failures by state.

You can embed the visualizations on any social network site or blog, and the data is viewable by others who are interested in the topic.

How can student news orgs use this tool? Is your university budget being cut? By how much? Perhaps that can be graphed over time. Perhaps you can partner with someone in the economics department to come up with some similar statistics that illustrate how the economy is impacting campus.

Questions to ask

The most frustrating thing in my tour of college websites is the “sameness” of much of the coverage of the economic situation. We get it, students are having a problem getting jobs. Really, we get it. With over 5 million people unemployed, we get it. So dig deeper. There are ways to show your fellow students how this economic downturn is affecting them in other ways than employment. Really. Think about these questions:

  • How much is the TARP bailout going to cost me personally?
  • How are my tax rates going to be affected by the stimulus package?
  • What impact will delinquent credit card holders have on my credit card interest rates?
  • How is the stimulus package going to impact my state specifically?
  • What parts of the stimulus package are specifically geared toward college students?
  • Why should I care about a “credit crisis?”

There are a lot of ways to present this information. My hope is that more college media outlets will explore those different ways to engage students in understanding the economic crisis.

Who do you know?

Earlier in the semester, I sent students in my multimedia journalism class out to do man-on-the-street interviews. Their assignment was to ask a simple series of question: Who do you know who has been impacted by the economic downturn? How were they impacted? How does that make you feel?

The fact is that at this point, we all know someone who’s been affected by the economy. It may not be showing up on campus so much, but it’s on the periphery. And student journalists can tap into that periphery to create compelling stories that hit home with fellow students.

I hope to explore this topic more in the coming months, and I hope student journalists will take more time to digest this important topic.

Disclaimer: I visited a lot of websites over the last week looking for innovative storytelling. Maybe I missed some. If so, please drop them in the comments. I’ll update the post as needed.

Bryan Murley is assistant professor of new and emerging media at Eastern Illinois University, where he advises DENnews.com, the Pacemaker-winning online site for the student newspaper. He is also the director for innovation at the Center for Innovation in College Media, where he leads the weblog Innovation in College Media. He is the college media correspondent for MediaShift.

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