Mobile Reporting exercise using Soundcloud, smartphones and Storify

Digital Journalism is fun in the sunshine!

Digital Journalism is fun in the sunshine!

This is a class project I worked on with first year Journalism undergraduates at Salford University, MediaCityUK. It was part of their Digital Journalism module. There are four groups each with about 15-20 students. My aim was to get them to explore audio recording on their smartphones/iPads and to create digital stories using curation techniques.

Choosing a storyBEhgHIXCEAAhATP.jpg-large

Every week, students complain about the bus service which goes from the main university campus to our MediaCityUK building. It’s free to students on the stretch between the two campuses but it’s unreliable, they tell me. It’s a frequent reason they give me for being late to class! So let’s turn a negative into a positive and use this as the basis for our mobile reporting class.

The Tools

Most students in the class have smartphones or iPads – certainly enough to make this exercise work. Not many have done any serious audio work with them though so there are plenty of learning opportunities here. I’m indebted to Mark Settle at the BBC College of Journalism who specialises in smartphone reporting. His video tutorial on recording audio came out the day after this exercise so it was pretty timely! But my favourite tip came from Nick Garnett, a BBC 5Live reporter. He’s a bit of a pioneer when it comes to iPhone reporting and has pretty much ditched other recording equipment. His blog about his experiments and discoveries is incredibly useful. I’ve always been worried about using the internal mic on the iPhone for serious audio recording because it’s so prone to wind noise but I’m yet to find the perfect external mic solution. His tip is simple –  an ordinary windshield on the microphone end of the iPhone!

Windshield on iPhoneSee my twitter conversation with him about this. So I bought one the day before my first session with the students so I could get them to experiment for me. £4.49 in Maplins!

Most students already use Soundcloud for sharing and searching music so this seemed like a good place to start. I set up an account for all our students to use and gave them a quick demo in class, including the simple “top and tail” editing facility. I told them to save their audio as private. Not everybody had devices or 3G but so long as 5 or 6 in the class had it, we were OK. I also showed them Voddio in case some of them were feeling ambitious and wanted to do some proper editing and mixing on the go. Nobody did but that’s probably because you need to pay £6.99 to get the sharing/sending facility on Voddio.

The final element was Storify. I love Storify and was really keen to introduce it to my students! Again, I set up an account for the class to use and gave a quick demo. Storify is not perfect and sometimes it doesn’t hook up to Twitter as it should. We had some issues with it in the first two sessions but found a workaround. It was fine the following day with the other two groups. I know some people have given up with Storify completely because of its problems. I’m sticking with it because, when it does all work, it opens up so many creative opportunities for storytelling and engaging. Great teaching tool too.

The Task

I asked three students in each group to volunteer to man our digital newsroom (an ordinary classroom with PCs). There was no shortage of volunteers, I’m pleased to report! Everybody else teamed up into reporting teams – mostly pairs but some slightly bigger groups. We decided which aspects of the story we were interested in and what kind of audio material we wanted.

The newsroom team then took charge of deploying their reporters with additional instructions to take photos and tweet information.

Once the reporters were despatched, I briefed the newsroom team in more detail. I gave more instruction on Storify but, to be honest, they didn’t really need it. We talked about what makes good curation. Again, credit here to Mu Lin at Georgian Court University, New Jersey for putting together some guidelines. Basically, don’t drag and dump; provide context and background; have a structure; be selective.

One student specifically looked after the Soundcloud material once that started coming through. They listened through to all the material and made public the ones which were good enough for our story. They then alerted the Storify editor to the availability of the material.

I also wanted the newsroom team to use social media to engage the broader student community which also relies on this bus service. Could they get people outside this exercise to contribute to the debate? They came up with the hashtag #50busprobs.

Once the exercise was over and everybody was back in the classroom, the newsroom team briefed the reporters on what they’d been doing. we published the stories and explained the “notify” option on Storify.

I encouraged students to embed/export the Storify to their personal blogs and add a paragraph about their own contribution and analysis of the task. This was not assessed.

The Outcome

You can see an example of the stories created by students here just to give you a flavour of what they were able to do in the limited time (about 75 minutes).

The newsroom team worked really hard to engage with the broader community with some success. Maybe we should have started doing this in the week before the exercise to build momentum.

Working with Storify was great. It’s a really intuitive tool for building digital stories quickly. The students picked up the concept of curation v drag ‘n’ dump really well. They worked together to find relevant background context and structure whilst they waited for the audio material to come in from the field.BEhd7oUCcAAha7E.jpg-large

The students assigned to editing the Soundcloud material quickly worked out what kind of material would work best in a digital story. They also made sure to add titles and, in most cases, relevant photos to each Soundcloud to maximise their visual impact on the final story.

The reporters in the field all managed to find interesting audio material and get it back to the newsroom. We also got lots of really useful photographic evidence of buses standing idle round the corner rather then en route! All students reported finding Soundcloud easy and fun to use.

Some students has borrowed my windshield to experiment with. Apart from one group which had put it on the wrong end (!! my fault. I should have showed them), they reported good results

Evaluation

The students loved Storify and several of them went away and experimented with it on their own. Really pleased about this!

One student said she’d have liked longer for the exercise so that we could have rotated roles. I agree but on the plus side, she said she’d go and experiment with Storify on her own which is a good outcome!

Overall, the audio quality needed some work. That was mainly down to lack of editing. They needed to be ruthless with their material! This is largely my fault for not emphasising enough the need to edit BEFORE uploading the material. But on the plus side there was a great range of material and creative use of the medium. They definitely used audio to enhance our appreciation of the story.

Interestingly, the students doubted they’d be taken seriously with an iPhone as opposed to a “professional” recording device. That’s at odds with the professionals’ view. I suspect it will change as iPhones become a more acceptable part of the broadcast industry. Watch this space!

Conclusion

This was a fun exercise and I would definitely do it again. There is so much learning and thinking involved. The tools worked well. They’re free and easy to learn and use straightaway so everyone benefits.

We were lucky with the weather on both days – bright and sunny with minimal wind. I’m not sure how much we would have got done in more typical MediacityUK weather (howling wind, rain, cold)

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How much multimedia and digital journalism content is there on University student news websites?

I came across a blog post last week by Mu Lin who writes about how journalism schools in the US are teaching multimedia journalism.  He compared the multimedia and digital journalism content of twelve news sites which are affiliated to or sponsored by universities or J-schools “in an effort to tell how their affiliated journalism schools and programs are embracing the ongoing digital revolution in the journalism profession.”

It was an interesting exercise so I decided to copy develop the idea by looking at some equivalent UK sites.  I’ve broadly followed Mu Lin’s method although I’ve tweaked it a little, as I’ll explain.

How I selected the 7 news sites

I started with the Guardian’s Student Media Awards 2011 shortlist for Website of the Year. I dropped SUSU.TV because that’s specifically video content and more entertainment than news (it’s worth a look!).  I also dropped the Oxonian Globalist because it consists of Economist-style, long-form analytical articles with no multimedia content (on the day of my analysis, at least).  So that left me with Redbrick (University of Birmingham) which was the 2011 winner, The Student Journals (University of Warwick) which was the runner-up and LSMedia (University of Liverpool)

I then added Quays News which is the University of Salford’s website.  (I had to include that, didn’t I!)

I included EastLondonLines which is run by the media department of Goldsmiths.  I like this website, set up in 2009, because of the community it covers.  The East London Line is a new-ish train line which runs from Dalston in East London down to Croydon so the website is an experiment in creating a community out of a transport link.  Nice idea, eh?

I included my old alma mater, the University of Sheffield’s, website, Forge Today.

Finally, I added Gair Rhydd (“Free Word” in Welsh) which is run by students at Cardiff University which has a prominent journalism school.

Method

I’m using the same categories that Mu Lin used for his analysis and, like him, I’m not including text and photos as multimedia content.  Instead, the focus was on video, audio, audio photo slideshow, photo gallery, data visualization, infographics, web-specific writing technique, social media use, etc. (MuLin)

I just looked at the front page of these websites and the content which was linked on there.

Unlike MuLin, I do look at interactivity and engagement e.g. share buttons, comments sections, polls.

Caveats/excuses

I analysed the websites on Tuesday 19th June.  This is not the best time of year to look at student websites since most universities are like ghost towns at the moment.  Some websites I discounted from the analysis for this reason;  they hadn’t been updated in months.

I’m not analysing the quality of the journalism in this exercise.  I’m simply looking at how much multimedia content there is on the front page.

I know I’ve omitted some excellent websites.  If you’d like to suggest some others I should have included, I’ll see if I can carry out this analysis again using some other examples.

I’m not always comparing like with like.  Some of these websites are more closely tied to journalism departments than others (Quays News, for example)

Aims  

I think it’s important to see whether the next generation of journalists is already embracing the digital era, innovating, pushing boundaries, multiskilling.  It’s one thing to learn this in the classroom but are they then applying it to their own journalism practice outside?  Not all the contributors to these websites are journalism students which is refreshing and it’s good to see students from a variety of backgrounds embracing multimedia.

THE ANALYSIS

DATA VISUALISATION (interactive maps, graphic, timeline)

The only example on the day I looked was Gair Rhydd’s very simple pie chart representing the way Guild fee money was spent.  (It’s spoilt by the fact that they couldn’t write £3000.00 accurately!)

I should mention though that the reason Redbrick won the Website of the Year was for its excellent live coverage of the August riots in Birmingham.  It looks like they made good use of interactive maps and time lines (plus CoveritLive and social media) so there are definitely good examples out there of students willing and able to grasp this new-ish area of journalism.

But I thought I’d find more examples of students experimenting with data and visualisation. It would be a great USP for fresh-out-of-college students who need something that makes them stand out from the crowd.  Most newsrooms are full of people (like me) who know very little about data journalism and might well be very keen to take on somebody who can show them a portfolio of work in this field.

VIDEO (Only video originated by students rather than stuff they’d sourced from YouTube and embedded)

4 of the websites had links to video content on their front page.

Quays News – Monton residents campaign against pay-and-display car parking.  This was a new report that had been tweeted about the day before.  It contained interviews with key people and a script narrated by the reporter.

Food hygiene report.  Again, this was a video report with interviews, scripted narration and a piece-to-camera.

Both videos are embedded into the online article and to some extent enrich the story rather than simply reversion it on a different platform.

Latest TV news bulletin.  Quays TV is produced and presented by students and broadcasts every Wednesday afternoon from MediaCity.  It features a mix of live interviews and reports.

Article on plans to redevelop St Peter’s Square contains an originated video of a walkaround showing what the square looks like now.  There is no narration or interviews, just natural sound.  It sits well in the article and is a really good use of video to tell an important side of the story which can ONLY be told in video.  But it’s spoilt by the poor sound quality.

LSMedia – There was no video in their main news items but LSFilm and LSRadio (all under the umbrella of LSMedia) feature on the front page and have videos about their participation in Liverpool Soundcity.  LSFilm’s is just video on a music bed – very creative.  The second from LSRadio centres round a nicely informal discussion with participants.

ForgeToday – Videos are in a separate section on the right hand side rather than embedded in articles.  On the day of the analysis, these were exclusively sports matches with commentary.

Redbricks – has an article about the British tennis pro, Laura Robson.   A video of quick fire questions is embedded into the article.

PHOTO SLIDESHOWS

3 websites featured photo slideshows (without audio.)

Quays News – The article on the Chester Food Festival includes a photo slideshow.

Report on plans to redesign St Peter’s Square contains a photo slideshow.

Redbricks – The review of five different video games uses a Slideshow format which works really engagingly for this subject matter.

Forgetoday – used a standalone slideshow to capture the essence of Sheffield Pride 2012.

SOCIAL MEDIA REPORTING (Storify)

Only Quays News had a social media story on its front page but do see my notes on Redbrick’s Birmingham riots coverage above which used Coveritlive etc.

Quays News – The article on homelessness featured a Storify curation of the reporter’s live tweets about spending a night on the streets of Manchester.  Storify is embedded in the online article and really enriches the online experience.  It includes several YouTube video updates of him talking about his experience.

STANDALONE AUDIO

Quays News – Salford students produce various podcasts using Soundcloud.  “Added Time” is part of a regular series in which students discuss the latest football issues.

The article on the Chester Food festival contains Soundcloud interviews with one of the organisers and a chef.  The article itself had short quotes from the interviewees but the audio went much further and deeper so enriched the online offering.

EastLondonLines – There was a Soundcloud recording of a house sparrow embedded into the article on the decline of the Cockney Sparrow but I suspect it was not originated!

EastLondonLines – The online article about a local college head getting a CBE had a Soundcloud interview with a student at the college.  The interview certainly enriched the online experience but it wasn’t properly incorporated into the article.  It was just tagged on to the end with nothing to tell the reader what it might contain.

INTERACTIVITY (polls, comments)

Most of the websites gave readers a chance to leave a comment, the exception being Quays News.

Redbricks – had a comments option at the end of articles.

Redbricks – poll asking if Usain Bolt will break World Record.

StudentJournals – Quick poll – Was this the best Premier League Season you have ever watched?

Student Journals – had a comments option at the end of articles and a “Best Comments” column on the front page.

LSMedia –  had a comments option at the end of articles

LSMedia – poll – Should the UK follow the ECHR’s ruling on giving prisoners the vote?

East LondonLines –  Featured videos on home page shows creative side of students’ work.

ForgeToday – had a comments option at the end of articles

Gair Rhydd – had a comments option at the end of articles

Conclusion

It was good to see Salford doing so well in the use of multimedia on the day I observed!  Phew!  But the majority of websites were looking for ways to enrich and expand the delivery of their stories on a digital platform and that’s a really good thing to see.

There were some glaring missed opportunities.  Gair Rhydd’s article on the 30th anniversary of the university’s bellringing society surely cried out for a video/audio of the bell ringing?!

On the writing for the web side, some articles were still too long with no sub headings and few pictures to ease the reader through and keep them engaged.  Only Redbrick used a “fact box” for example to add a bite size extra bit of information and had links to related articles. Several websites made good use of hyperlinks.

Redbrick and LSMedia a ticker feed at the top of the website carrying the latest news.

I thought there would have been more interactivity on the front page in the shape of polling, for example.  I didn’t see any instances of websites reaching out to the audience to ask for their stories/experience on a particular subject.  It seems to me that the nature of a university community, especially a campus, lends itself to this kind of collaborative journalism project and could act as a springboard for all kinds of innovation.  For example, websites could ask students for their experiences – good and bad – about getting jobs to fund themselves through their studies.

I look forward to your comments and do please pass on any really good examples of innovative multimedia journalism on university websites.