Working to create a meaningful community for journalism educators

Graphic created by Melissa DiPento using

Journalism educators have enough to worry about — from keeping up-to-date with the latest technologies and balancing those technology trends with teaching the fundamentals of journalism, to worrying about job security, tenure status and the future of journalism.

In addition to these immediate goals, there are larger issues at play in the journalism higher education community. From speaking and interacting with hundreds of journalism educators across the country, I’ve focused my listening efforts on two specific issues.

First, I’m looking to understand why the pipeline from high school to undergraduate journalism programs presents a myriad of barriers to entry for students from diverse communities.

I also want to understand if/why this is pervasive, and also what educators and stakeholders are doing to address this issue.

Recently, I shaped that hypothesis into a meaningful question, and posted it on Twitter and in the Disruptive Journalism Educators Network on Facebook.

Somewhat to my surprise, I received quite a bit of feedback. I though just a few people might be willing to share a thought, but as it turns out, lots of educators and students are interested in furthering this conversation. In fact, dozens of people connected to journalism higher education provided thoughtful insights and experiences.

Since the spring, I’ve hosted monthly #EdShift Twitter chats for MediaShift, which have served as a water cooler for educators to discuss important issues, share advice, ask for feedback and more.

On Sept. 27, I’m hosting an #EdShift chat on how to make more journalism schools more inclusive. I am looking forward to an engaging conversation that can inform my research and listening, and equip me to ask more meaningful questions on the topic moving forward.

The second issue I’m working to better understand is the impact of adjuncts in journalism higher education.

As an adjunct myself, I feel I have a leg up in understanding the challenges adjuncts face — low pay, career uncertainty, limited support, etc. Still, I felt there was more to learn.

By creating two Google Forms surveys (which I promoted on Twitter and via the ONA Educators group on Facebook) — and by speaking directly with adjuncts (both in person and via phone/Skype interviews) — I began to understand two distinct groups that teach as adjunct journalism professors. I also hosted an #EdShift chat all about adjuncts in July.

I fall into one group — a group of educators that have professional experience and juggle freelancing, various projects, and teaching. This group, myself included, relies on the income from teaching. But there’s a second group, I learned; this cohort works full-time in media and teaches occasionally.

I worked on a data-driven story on adjuncts over the summer. Reporting and stats by Melissa DiPento.

Overall, I’ve interacted with members of this community in a variety of ways. So far, that has led me to a few interesting insights. I’ve talked to educators and students in person, over the phone/skype, at journalism meetups and events, via Twitter, through surveys I’ve created, and in threads on two active Facebook groups — The Disruptive Journalism Educators Network and ONA Educators.

My first step in understanding what might help serve this community is synthesizing what challenges and issues I’ve heard from members of this group. Many educators seek more connection with other journalism educators. Some are trying new and innovative things, and want to feel supported in taking a few risks. Others are adjunct professors, who don’t have regular colleagues who they can turn to for support or advice. Others simply enjoy learning new things and staying up-to-date.

I came up with four initial ideas for a product or service: a newsletter, an email group, a Slack channel and a podcast.

Graphic by Melissa DiPento.

I posted this image in both the ONA Educators and the Disruptive Journalism Educators Facebook groups and I asked educators to rank which services they’d be most willing to use to connect with other educators.

Between the two groups, I received more than 30 responses. While that’s not a ton of data, it’s rich because it’s coming from the audience I am most looking to serve and connect.

After about a week, I decided to calculate the results. This was a bit confusing, because some people ranked the items one through four, while others only stated their top choice. Others shared the only thing they wouldn’t use.

Photo by Melissa DiPento.

I assigned each platform a color and went through each comment to determine what educators selected as their first, second, third and fourth choices. As you can see from my second grade artwork, not many educators made it to a fourth choice.

While I love color, I thought I’d make my data findings a bit more presentable.

Graphics by Melissa DiPento.

The clear winner from this round of listening is the Slack channel, and that has major potential to be a route I take to help connect this community.

I’ve heard from some educators that the two popular Facebook groups can sometimes seem a bit passive. I’ve heard that it feels daunting to post something in these groups. People like being asked to contribute, and often do when asked. If the Facebook group is a place where people publish and promote their research but don’t invite the community to join in and offer feedback or ask questions, it’s not a safe place for everyone to connect.

I want the Slack Channel — should I choose that as my service to the community — to be a meaningful meeting place, a watercooler of sorts, for educators. I could see starting distinct threads for adjuncts, those interested in diversity, those interested in VR, etc. as a place to connect with other very like-minded people.

Unlike a newsletter or podcast, there is no advertising model for Slack. That changes things.

I have considered the idea of making this a paid subscription service — perhaps a low, yearly fee — but I think I would need to provide the community with more than just a place to chat and come together.

I like the idea of creating merchandise for the community — perhaps with shirts and mugs that say “It’s on the syllabus” and other catchy, quirky journalism educator inside jokes. I think people would be interested in paying for this, but I need to do more research into this to make sure my assumption is correct. It might not be!

Educators, would you wear this? Mock-up created by Melissa DiPento.

I would also consider applying for grant funding and starting a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to print, create and distribute the merchandise.

I would initially begin to market my idea for a community Slack channel in four ways. First, I’d contact my existing email/Twitter list of 200+ educators. Next, I’d promote the community through Twitter. I’ve amassed a decent following from this community, so I think promoting it on Twitter would work. I would also announce the service in the two journalism educator-focused Facebook groups.

Next, I’d pitch my service to a few journalism-based news organizations, including Nieman Lab, Poynter and MediaShift. I’d also consider advertising in journalism conference program materials, including the Online News Association conference, the ACEJMC conference, and others.

I do want to be realistic about how many people would be interested and willing to sign up for this journalism education Slack community. But, I think a small group of very active and engaged community members could be more meaningful than hosting 1,000 educators who never make real connections and drop off.

Last week, while I was still collecting the data comparing the four products and services, I chatted with an educator about my proposed final project. In speaking with her, I realized that none of these platforms would ultimately serve her, as she said she feels lucky to have a place for support at her university.

So I asked her to talk about what groups she’s in, and what she likes or doesn’t like about them.

She mentioned this group that formed prior to a conference she attended earlier this year. Before the conference, organizers paired attendees up and asked them to chat over the phone before the conference. There were a few questions they had to ask of each other. This seemed like another thing to add to the to-do list, but turned out to be a wonderful experience, she said.

Because she had made a friend prior to the conference, they planned to meet at the conference, and indeed, hit it off. After the conference, this new friend asked for guidance on a project, and she was happy to provide it because she was specifically asked to do so by a trusted friend who she was now invested in.

This got me thinking about other ways I could connect educators. It can be challenging to throw a new idea into the pot — especially when you’re already cooking up a few other good ones — but it’s a worthwhile investment of time and energy. I would much rather change course now before getting heavily invested in a idea.

I like the buddy system idea, and am considering what that would look like at a larger scale with educators across the country. Maybe I would serve as the liaison, helping to connect educators based on their needs and interests.

Perhaps I could connect two educators who are both interested in a mentor/mentee situation. Or maybe two peers — an educator who teaches VR and an educator who teaches data journalism — who have both expressed an interest in learning something new.

So again, I will be going back to the community and asking for feedback about this new idea.

This is why it’s crucial for me to continue listening and learning.

My next steps for this project will be ask for feedback in the Facebook groups about the “buddy system” idea. I’m not sure if I want to pit it against the Slack channel idea (like I did with the four ideas earlier this month) since they are two different concepts.

I will also be attending the ONA conference next week, and plan to ask educators and students what their thoughts are about this new idea.

I attended ONA ’16 in Denver and ready to meet more educators at ONA ’17. Photo by Melissa DiPento.

I thought I had finalized how I could serve the journalism higher education community, but I think it’s important for me to ask more questions and to listen. At the end of the day, I’d hate to create something that the community doesn’t use or benefit from.