Press Play: David Carr’s Boston U. Class Uses Medium as Its Medium
The following is a note New York Times’ media columnist David Carr posted on Medium for his incoming students at Boston University, where Carr is the College of Communication’s first Andrew R. Lack professor. It is cross-posted here with permission, and edited for length.
This course, Press Play, aspires to be a place where you make things. Good things. Smart things. Cool things. And then share those things with other people. The idea of Press Play is that after we make things we are happy with, that we push a button and unleash it on the world. Much of it will be text, but if you want to make magic with a camera, your phone, or with a digital recorder, knock yourself out. But it will all be displayed and edited on Medium because there will be a strong emphasis on working with others in this course, and Medium is collaborative.
While writing, shooting, and editing are often solitary activities, great work emerges in the spaces between people. We will be working in groups with peer and teacher edits. There will be a number of smaller assignments, but the goal is that you will leave here with a single piece of work that reflects your capabilities as a maker of media. But remember, evaluations will be based not just on your efforts, but on your ability to bring excellence out of the people around you.
Medium has a remarkable “notes” function where the reader/editor can highlight a specific word, phrase or paragraph and comment, suggest a tweak or give an attaboy. This is counter-intuitive, but you will be judged as much by what you put in the margins of others work as you are for your own. (You should sign on to Medium as soon as you can. You can log in with Facebook or Twitter credentials. Pithy instructions on writing and collaborating on Medium: here, here, here, and, yes, here.)
To begin with, we will look at the current media ecosystem: how content is conceived, made, made better, distributed, and paid for. We will discuss finding a story, research and reporting, content management systems, voice, multimedia packaging, along with distribution and marketing of work. If that sounds ambitious, keep in mind that in addition to picking this professor and grad assistant, we picked you. We already know you are smart, and we just want you to demonstrate that on the (web) page.
What we‘ll create
Together, we will make a collection of stories on Medium around a specific organizing principle — it could be a genre, topic, reading time, or event — which we’ll decide on in collaboration as well. And once we get stories up and running, we will work on ways of getting them out there into the bloodstream of the web.
In order to have a chance of making great work, you have to consume remarkable work. Fair warning: There will be a lot of weekly reading assignments. I’m not sliming you with a bunch of textbooks, so please know I am dead serious about these readings. Skip or skim at your peril.
I will be bringing in a number of guest speakers. They will be talented, accomplished people giving their own time. Please respond with your fullest attention.
So, to summarize: We will make things — in class, in groups, by our lonely selves — we will work to make those things better, and, if we are lucky, we will figure out how to beckon the lightning of excellence along the way.
30% final project
30% collaboration, based on assessment of your notes on others’ work
20% class participation and demonstrated familiarity with the assigned reading
20% smaller assignments
I grade based on where you start and where you end. Don’t work on me for a better grade—work on your work and making the work of those around you better. Show industriousness and seriousness and produce surpassing work if you want an exceptional grade.
Don’t raise your hand in class. This isn’t Montessori, I expect people to speak up when they like, but don’t speak over anyone. Respect the opinions of others.
This is an intense, once-a-week immersion on the waterfront of modern media-making. If you don’t show up for class, you will flounder. If you show up late or unprepared, you will stick out in unpleasant ways. If you aren’t putting effort into your work, I will suggest that you might be more comfortable elsewhere.
If you text or email during class, I will ignore you as you ignore me. It won’t go well.
I expect you to behave as an adult and will treat you like one. I don’t want to parent you—I want to teach you.
Excuses: Don’t make them — they won’t work. Stories are supposed to be on the page, and while a spoken-word performance might explain everything, it will excuse nothing. The assignments for each week are due by start of class without exception unless specific arrangements have made based on an exceptional circumstance.
If you truly have a personal or family emergency, your welfare comes first. But nothing short of that will have any traction with me.
If you are having trouble understanding expectations or assignments or instruction, please speak up. I care a lot about not leaving anybody behind.
This is a web-based course. We will transparently link to all sources. Failure to appropriately cite the work of others is a serious matter. Work done for Press Play may not be submitted for another class, and the reverse is also true. Do not use friends or Wikipedia as sources. All other BU academic standards and the University Code of Conduct will be observed and enforced.
A Course Outline
1. State of Play (Sept. 8)
Overview of the state of narrative and content. A foreshadowing of what is to come in class and in the media environment. A discussion of the production and distribution of content, with a focus on both editorial and business dynamics. Short introduction and tutorial about Medium. (You can do yourself a world of good by signing in early to Medium before class, so you won’t be trying to figure out the content management system instead of actually writing init.)
2. Choosing Targets (Sept. 15)
Where do great stories come from? A discussion about how to chose persons, places, or things that lead to remarkable stories. Class will discuss and settle on an organizational principle for story collection on Medium.
3. You Are What You Type On (Sept. 22)
We look at various content management systems and platforms for making and distributing content on the Web. A discussion of how, more and more, the medium is becoming the message.
4. Collaboration (Sept. 29)
How new and different eyes make things better. We look at how to provide constructive feedback without crushing the soul of the writer. A visit from an esteemed editor will be part of this class. There will also be some real-time edits in class.
5. New Business Models for Storytelling (Oct. 6)
Historically, publications have created things people want to watch and read, and then extracted circulation revenues from the audience and advertising revenues from companies that wanted to reach that audience. Both those models have come under heavy pressure and pushed some media outlets —along with the people who work there.—off the tableAre there other ways of supporting storytelling? A look at referral sales, branded content, and the vanity press.
6. Storytelling Innovations (Oct. 14)
What good is the fact that we now have the tools do almost anything on the Web if we don’t do anything with them? A look at the new forms of storytelling, using data, video, sound, and scrolling to tell sticky, remarkable stories. I will be traveling, so you will have a surprise guest lecturer.
7. The Holy Music of the Self (Oct. 20)
Personal essays can be dreary or magical — how do you pull yours out of the mundane? How to find the universal in the specific and render it in a way that aims toward transcendence, not self-aggrandizement?
8. Voice Lessons (Oct. 27)
How to quit sounding like everyone else and begin sounding like … yourself. Who you are and what you have been through should give you a prism on life that belongs to you only. We will talk about the uses and abuses of a writer’s voice, how to express yourself in copy without using the “I” word, and why ending stories with a quote from someone else is often the coward’s way out.
9. Distribution Models (Nov. 3)
So you made something wonderful. Now, how do you get anyone besides your boyfriend/mother/professor to read it? A discussion of social media marketing, the Collections feature on Medium, wooing the trolls of Reddit, and submitting to relevant digital and print publications.
10. Beyond Clicks: A Look at Reader Engagement (Nov. 10)
If clicks are overrated and traffic is a game, what is a meaningful measure of what is making a dent in a cluttered universe? A look at the new economics of audience, advertising, and paid content. This class will include a guest lecture, if all goes as planned, by Tony Haile of Chartbeat.
David Carr is a columnist for the New York Times as well as first Andrew R. Lack professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. He writes the Media Equation column for the Monday Business section of the New York Times that focuses on media issues including print, digital, film, radio and television. He also works as a general assignment reporter in the Culture section of The Times covering all aspects of popular culture. For the past 25 years, Carr has been writing about media as it intersects with business, culture and government.