How the ‘Social-First’ Student Newsroom Evolved in Australia

    by Shawn Burns
    March 10, 2016
    UOWTV Multimedia is focused on innovation and accessible technology to help shape its social-first newsroom. Photo by Shawn Burns.

    I read many EducationShift posts, most with enthusiasm, some with my fingers slightly fanned across the eyes – scared I’ll discover what our journalism program isn’t doing. While I know “discovery” and “learning” are what we, as journalism educators and journalists, do, and EducationShift is about sharing knowledge and practice, there is a fine line between “Oh, that’s great – I’ll do that” and “Oh, that’s great – how could we ever do that?”

    I’m part of a team that looks after a relatively small, but growing, journalism degree at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Like so many degrees our size, we are confronted by what I’ll call the Desire-Capacity Conundrum (DCC). We know what we want to do but are constrained by our time, resources and ability to get it done. We offer a practice-based degree that works to fit a lot into a little. Among the challenges: How do we provide our students with a curriculum-based newsroom experience when we face the DCC?

    “Seemed a bit like we were using it for the sake of it.” – Student feedback on using social media
    UOWTV interview

    Video – UOWTV Multimedia reporters shoot, script and edit their own video content. Photo by Shawn Burns.


    Five years ago, we changed our approach to our final-year newsroom subject. Up until then, it had been a core subject of the degree that required students to pitch and deliver stories within one five-hour workshop. It was, essentially, the culmination of a series of newsroom subjects across the years that had seen students develop skills and build knowledge in news. It worked, but it wasn’t representative of the degree.

    Our degree structure was all about convergent/multimedia journalism, but this was not reflected in our crucial final-year newsroom subject. The audio, video, design, social media and management knowledge and skills honed across the years were, essentially, being sidelined for text-based content. The main problem: The “newsroom” wasn’t a newsroom. Students all started and finished the weekly workshop at the same time. Students all had the same task to complete each week. Students were working as individuals.

    Times are changing

    In 2011, we committed to change the final-year newsroom subject. At the time, our online student presence was The Current (now UOWTV Multimedia). The website was maintained but, let’s say, not loved. It was to be the hook on which the new multimedia newsroom would hang. To make it work, and conscious of the DCC, things had to change. Firstly, what were formally multiple workshops were combined into one. This provided a critical mass of students to work in the newsroom across a variety of roles according to the newsroom roster. The students were asked to block out the entire day each week in their calendar (this applied to other subjects and work commitments).

    RadioU - The social-first newsroom includes webcast audio news and features.

    RadioU – The social-first newsroom includes webcast audio news and features. Photo by Shawn Burns.

    While, technically, it was still a five-hour workshop, the request enabled us to timetable students to particular roles with specific start and finish times, without fear of university timetable or other commitment clashes. For example, the newsroom editorial content managers started at 8:30 a.m. and finished at 2:30 p.m. (allowing for an hour lunch break), and the topic editors started at 10:30 a.m. and finished their day at 4:30 p.m.

    In 2012, the newsroom roles were editorial coordinator (lecturer), editorial content managers (ECMs), chief topic editor, topic editors and report teams. We needed to give the final-year students as much notice of the requirement as possible. So we told as many of the students who we knew were going to take the final-year newsroom subject about the need to block out an entire day before they left the university at the end of second year, and well before they needed to enroll for other subjects.

    The report team members were the multimedia field reporters. Each team had three members. We were working toward the creation of multimedia stories for a multimedia website. The team members had to produce written, photo, and either video or audio pieces on the same subject that complemented but did not repeat each other. For example, a story about the local floods could have a straight news story in text (with embedded links), the audio could feature community endeavors to support those affected by the floods, and the photo essay might focus on an individual’s plight. The report team would work with a topic editor to produce an accurate, tight and timely final post.


    University of Wollongong Convergent News Operation from Kurt Lancaster on Vimeo.

    As we prepare for our sixth year, the third under the banner UOWTV Multimedia and as a “social-first” newsroom, it is impressive to see how our little newsroom has evolved and stared down the DCC. The social-first newsroom is a significant step in the evolution. All newsroom members, but specifically the report teams, must go social first. Content must be shared from location – big or small – and include #hashtags and directed shares (e.g. @UOWTV). Students post under their profiles, but our newsroom social media managers then harvest the content and, if suitable, share and republish under our banner. While Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were compulsory, experimentation remains the order of the day with services like Snapchat.

    “Seemed a bit like we were using it for the sake of it.” – Student feedback on using social media in 2011

    More to come

    In 2015, we incorporated web-streamed audio (two live, half-hour shows on news day using Mixlr), moved data visualization from an option to an assessable portfolio piece (using Piktochart), used Persicope to cover live events and to fast-track interviews, developed the social media manager roles, dabbled in promotions, and continued to experiment with mobile content creation, broadcast and publishing apps – including ScribbleLive.

    We have been able to embed senior students into the newsroom as deputy editorial coordinators. These students have completed the subject in earlier sessions, and either volunteer for the senior roles or choose it as a major project option from another subject. This provides greater experience to the senior students, but also the voice of experience for students just starting in the newsroom.

    In 2016, innovation and sustainability will play a more concrete role. The senior students will have oversight of a small group each week to develop and showcase alternative news and storytelling methods, and they will explore the future of newsrooms in the digital space.

    The DCC still exists, but it can be tamed.

    Shawn Burns is a journalism lecturer at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Burns researches media representation of people with disability, journalism pedagogy and newsroom practice. He is a PhD Candidate.

    Tagged: australia education journalism newsroom social-first university uowtv multimedia wollongong

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