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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

I recently had an opportunity that is rarely handed to a journalism school professor: The chance to be a member of the inaugural class of the Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellows in the 2008-09 school year.

I already have a unique job. As an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, I am also a new media director at the university-owned NBC-affiliate, KOMU-TV. I teach new media and I manage its production in a professional newsroom that is staffed with students. (We have a professional promotions, production and sales department just like any other television news station.)

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I had a big idea back in 2007. I wanted to find a way to bring multiple newsrooms together to make it easier for news consumers to learn about their candidates leading up to election day. I wanted to partner with the other newsrooms owned by the University of Missouri: KBIA-FM (the local NPR station) and the Columbia Missourian (the daily morning paper in town). I wanted to plan for the big election in November 2008 and had already tried a similar project during the mid-term 2006 November election season.

Smart Decision ’08

In 2006, we put a lot of content into one place but it was all hand-coded. I won’t go into the nit-picky details. What I will tell you is it was time consuming and almost impossible to keep up to date as three newsrooms populated the site. I wanted automation and simple collaboration so the site could make it easier for news consumers to learn about information without worrying about where it came from. Information first, newsroom second. In the end, news consumers would end up using all of the newsrooms’ information instead of just one or none.

I launched the Smart Decision ’08 site and went into my RJI fellowship with a plan to complete my goal. I had already started building a new website that would collect RSS feeds of each newsroom’s politically branded content. I had a small group of web managers tag each story that arrived into our site and categorize it under the race and candidate names mentioned in the news piece. It was a relatively simple process.

Unfortunately, our site was not simple. It was not clean and it was hand built by students with my oversight. It did not have a welcoming user experience. It did not encourage participation. I had a vision, but I lacked the technical ability to create a user-friendly site. I figured the content would rule and people would come to it. Not a great assumption.

Back in 2008, I still had old-school thoughts in my head. I thought media could lead the masses by informing voters who were hungry for details about candidates. I thought a project’s content was more important than user experience. I thought I knew what I was talking about.

We did find a way to gather up some participation on the night of the big November 2008 election. We invited the general public to a viewing party where they could watch multiple national broadcasts, eat free food and participate in a live town forum during a four-hour live webcast we produced in the Reynolds Journalism Institute building.

We brought four newsrooms together in a separate environment where we produced web-only content while each newsroom produced its own content for air or print. We had a Twitter watch desk, a blog watch desk and insights from all kinds of people in the area. You can see a very quick video that captures some of the experience of that night:

Assumptions About the Audience

But in the end, my project was a failure.

Still, without that failure, I would not have learned so much.

You see, I came into this project with the idea that I was progressive. I was thinking about the future of journalism. I was going to change it all. But it all started out with a very old view of journalism: I made assumptions about my audience.

  • I assumed people wanted the information I was collecting.
  • I assumed the online audience wanted to take the time to dig into the information I was collecting for them.
  • I assumed the audience wanted to participate in a new space I created for them.
  • I assumed the newsrooms that were partners in the project would promote the site without any prompting.

My assumptions killed my project. I had invested so much time into the project that I had to finish it. I arrived into the fellowship with a work in progress and I wasn’t going to stop — even though I could see we were not getting the public participation. I created the content and hoped participation would follow.

The truth is that things work the other way around.

But I would not have learned that without my fellowship.

I worked with an amazing team of people. Jane Stevens and Matt Thompson led me into a new perspective in community building and content collection. I watched as we talked about community building. My biggest “a-ha moment” was when we discussed how community builders need a personal relationship with its first 1,000 members on a website. I realized that my Smart Decision project was doomed to fail from the start because I did not start with my community first. I expected the community to come to me. I needed to go to them.

I also learned a major project needs two managers: One to keep up with the content and one to make sure it gets promoted. That promotion needed to happen in each individual newsroom and in the public.

Being More Agile

During my fellowship, I also learned to be more agile. These days, when I start a project, I’m ready to move on to the next idea a lot faster. I launch multiple ideas at the same time and see what floats. I also cherish the relationships I form with members of the community. Instead of creating many different sites, I’m bringing the information to where they are. I’m focused on delivering information to Twitter and Facebook. I have news employees working on blogs, but most people go to those posts through Facebook. They do not go directly to the sites or from our main news web page.

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I’m constantly learning as a news manager. But I will always cherish the time I had as a fellow because I was allowed to fail. The Smart Decision project was not something I could have managed while I was also in charge of a newsroom. It was an experiment that taught me how not to launch a new website.

I learned Drupal sites can be awesome if you know what you are doing. (I did not know what I was doing until it was too late). I also learned that my job in my newsroom does not make it easy to launch major multiple-newsroom projects. I am not sure if I will do it again in 2012. I would like to, but I’ll need to consult my community first.

Jennifer Reeves worked in television news for the majority of her career. In the last six years, she has moved from traditional journalist to non-traditional thinker about journalism and education. Jen is currently the New Media Director at KOMU-TV and komu.com. At the same time, she is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and was a part of the inaugural class of Reynolds Journalism Institute fellows (2008-09).


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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.