Remix is a recurring MediaShift feature about interesting and innovative journalism assignments, courses and curricula. Writers share ideas, lesson plans and links to encourage other instructors to adapt this material for their own classes. If you’re interested in sharing your approaches to be remixed at other schools, contact MediaShift’s education editor Aileen Gallagher.
Many entry-level journalism jobs, especially for digital news outlets, involve some kind of aggregation. There is not a digital news outlet today that does not aggregate, whether from social media or other outlets’ original reporting.
The late journalist and educator Steve Buttry defined aggregation and curation as “techniques of using content from other sources to provide content for your audience.” Some journalists-cum-educators who did not aggregate in their own careers may read “using” as “stealing,” but over the years aggregation has developed its own editorial standards and practices. In the classroom, aggregation is a way to combine several journalism skills and concepts – including news judgment, ethics, fact checking, understanding audience and deadline writing – into one assignment.
I do this assignment in a magazine editing class, but it’s also appropriate for a news editing class. In a short lecture, I define aggregation and show examples of aggregation done well. Briefly, good aggregation incorporates the following:
News Judgment: Selecting what information to aggregate is an exercise in news judgment. Is it a story that everyone’s talking about? Is it a story relevant to your local audience? Is it a story your audience needs to know in order to live their life, exercise their rights, make decisions, etc? For example, Medill’s decision to forgo accreditation prompted a debate among journalism educators and Northwestern alumni. I edit a website about journalism education and I knew this issue was important to our audience. One element of our coverage was pure aggregation: a Storify of social media reaction to the news.
Audience: Reframing a story to suit your audience is a big part of aggregation. Stories of national interest can be localized, but subject-specific or niche outlets can accentuate a small part of a big story. Last April, nearly every media outlet in the country covered the hunt for a man who livestreamed a murder on Facebook. Some eagle-eyed McDonald’s employees spotted the man, alerted police and tried to stall him in the drive-through. Food blogs aggregated the story with an emphasis on fast-food crime-fighters, the journalists teasing out the element they knew would be of most interest to their audience.
Add Value: Aggregation that simply summarizes someone else’s reporting accomplishes nothing. There’s no incentive for an audience to read a summary when they can just get the real thing from the original source. Good aggregation adds value. That value can be additional, original reporting, identifying a local connection or adding a new voice/perspective to the story.
Attribution: Copying and pasting isn’t aggregation. Original sources should not just be linked, but credited in the text. Embed social media, audio or video content when possible.
After the lecture, students break into small groups. I assign each group a subject area, such as politics, entertainment, food, or fashion. Each group looks at least two websites that fall within those verticals and compare aggregation. Groups must consider:
- What kinds of content does each site aggregate?
- How do the different sites approach similar stories?
- What original sources are sites drawing from?
- What is the value-add to each story, and how it is that achieved?
Each group reports their findings to the rest of the class and we discuss. When the class is over, I tell students to expect an in-class aggregation assignment the next time we meet and that it will be easier if they are following the news.
Aggregating on Deadline
Journalists whose primary responsibility is aggregating must turn out a number of items a day, quickly. Editors don’t assign these pieces but instead expect writers to be monitoring social media and a lengthy roster of other sites to identify what to aggregate. It is a pressure-filled job, especially to inexperienced journalists. It’s difficult to emulate the pace of the digital world in a classroom setting, but this assignment comes close.
At the beginning of class, I assign students the following:
You are an assistant editor at [website of your choice]. Create a piece of aggregated content based on what’s going on in the world / on the Internet right now. Use all the digital tools at your disposal, and post your content to our class Tumblr. You must post by the end of class. You will be evaluated on your:
- Story selection / news judgment
- Writing style / voice appropriate for your publication
(I use Tumblr for this assignment because it requires no maintenance on my part, it’s a user-friendly CMS, I can make it invisible to search, and it is easy to embed content from elsewhere.)
Students, after asking questions, have a little over an hour to complete the assignment.
Sometimes, a big news story makes things easier. One semester, Aggregation Day coincided with the death of Prince. One quick-thinking student, writing for Rolling Stone, looked up the date and location of Prince’s last show, and then scoured social media for video clips. She also used Twitter advanced search to find tweets posted during Prince’s set and embedded those in her post.
This semester, one student rounded up social media responses to Colin Kaepernick’s appearance on the Time 100 list for a sports website. Another, writing for a fashion site, contextualized an Instagram post by a plus-sized model fat-shamed by her Uber driver.
Once students have posted their content, they e-mail me a link to the story and the name of and a link to their intended publication. I send them written feedback based on the criteria above.
In debrief discussions and in course evaluations, students are enthusiastic about this assignment. They value the opportunity to write on deadline and the challenge of emulating the sites and content they read every day.
Aileen Gallagher is an associate professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and MediaShift’s education editor.