This thing of ours:
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.
Weekly assignments as noted in the outline. The assigned reading for each week must be completed before that class.
Before we begin the semester, do read:
“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic
“The Empathy Exams” and “Fog Count” by Leslie Jamison (I highly recommend her whole book, btw, but it is not assigned as such.)
“The Wrestler” by David Carr for Medium
The places we will go: a course outline
(subject to significant emendation)
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 in it.)
Random assignment into writing groups of four.
- “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” by Clay Shirky
- “2013: The Year the Stream Crested” by Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic
- “Baptism by Fire” by N. R. Kleinfield for The New York Times
- “Why did Jodon Romero Kill Himself on Live Television” by Jessica Testa for Buzzfeed
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.
Brief in-class writing assignment.
Due Next Week: a story on Medium that takes advantage of the format and can be read in under five minutes.
- “Dr. Glimer and Mr. Hyde” by Sarah Koenig for This American Life (audio)
- “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace for Gourmet
- “The Emperor Miramaximus” by David Carr for New York
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.
Due today: First draft of Medium story #1 (under five minutes)
Due Friday, Sept. 26 at noon: Edits and feedback on group members’ drafts — please make all notes public by Friday at midnight
- “The Remains of the Night: Sex, trash and nature in the city” by Elizabeth Royte for Medium
- Glass, a blog on Quartz by Zach Seward (read a few days’ worth)
- “Deep Sea Cowboys” by Joshua Davis for Epic Magazine
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.
Due today: Read the comments by your group members, professor, and TA on your work
Due next week: Final Medium story #1
- “My So-called Stalker” by Anonymous for Washington City Paper
- “At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture” by David Carr for The New York Times
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 table. Are there other ways of supporting storytelling? A look at referral sales, branded content, and the vanity press.
Due today: Final Medium story #1
Due next week: Just the readings
- “What Journalists Need to Know about Content Marketing” by Shane Snow for Poynter
- Google Hangout with Brian Lam of Wirecutter and Kevin Kelly of Cool Tool
- “GE become legit news publisher” by Lucia Moses for Digiday
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.
Due today: Just the readings
Due next week: first draft of a short profile (1000 words) on an interesting person of your choosing
- Arcade Fire’s “Reflector” by Vincent Morisset
- “India’s Toilet Crisis” by Emily Gibson for Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (password protected — password is “india”)
- “The Most Deranged Sorority Girl Emails You Will Ever Read” by Caity Weaver for Gawker
- “Zombie Underworld” by Mischa Berlinski for Epic Magazine
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? Special guest TBD.
Due today: submit Essay 1 to appropriate collection; first draft of profile (peer edit your group’s work throughout the week)
Due next week: final draft of profile, incorporating any comments from your group
- “Amazon is Killing My Sex Life” by Tricia Romano for Dame Magazine
- “Me and My Girls” by David Carr for The New York Times Magazine
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.
Due today: final profile draft, submitted to appropriate Medium collection
Due next week: pitch for your final project
- “Your rape fantasy is boring, Katie Roiphe” by Hamilton Nolan for Gawker
- “The Princess and the Trolls: The Heartrending Legend of Adalia Rose, the Most Reviled Six-Year-Old Girl on the Internet” by Camille Dodero for Gawker
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.
Due today: pitch for final project (due by email by start of class)
Due next week: Submit profile pieces to Persons of Note collection by start of class. Final pitch and proof of content due in class. (Have you made contact with any subjects? Can you prove your pitch is an achievable goal?)
- “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze and Maybe Infuriate You” by Maria Konikkova for The New Yorker
- “Click Print Gun” by Erin Lee Carr for Vice Media
- “Statistics—Measuring the Impact of Your Story” on Medium
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.
Due today: Final pitch and proof of content. Profile pieces should be submitted to Persons of Note by start of class.
Due next week: Come to class with what you have so far on your final projects, to workshop in small groups.
- “2013: The Year the Stream Crested” by Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic
- “What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong” by Tony Haile for Time.com
11. Telling Stories in a Visual Age (Nov. 17)
If we are going to be writing for an audience of visual learners, can typing solve all of our problems? Probaby not. A look at image-based social media, including Instagram, Pinterest, and Vine. And we will peer in on the video content economy — what works, how long is too long, and can serious content go viral on YouTube?
The formula for good narrative video: Shot well, there are experimental elements to engage jaded viewers; a cultural nerve is hit and begets conversation and sharing.
Due today: Bring to class what you have so far on your final projects.
Due next week: Submit drafts of final projects to Press Play collection by start of class. Your small group, David, and Mikaela will make notes on them over Thanksgiving.
- “Life After Food” by Brain Merchant for Motherboard
- “Getting High with Russia’s Spiderman” by Ralph Avellino and Masha Charnay for Vocativ
- “Interview with a Cannibal” by Santiago Stelly for Vice
12. Pitching for All the Marbles (Nov. 24)
Is it more important that you fit in or stick out? At what point does a pitch cross the line from persistence to stalking? How to elbow your way in, get noticed, and leverage who you are and what you have done. A lot of miscellany, including how to target pitches, best time of day to send them, and how long to make them. Work for free or no? Send the whole story or just a pitch? And when to take “no” for an answer.
Due today: Semi-final drafts of final projects should be submitted to the Press Play collection by start of class.
Due next week: Make notes on your group’s work, as early in the week as possible. Final projects due, along with a plan for social media dissemination, by start of class.
- Media Equation Column on Epic by David Carr for The New York Times
- “Behold the Heart-Breaking, Hair-Raising Tale of Mexico’s Monkey Woman” by Tim Stelloh for Buzzfeed
13. The Unveil (Dec. 1)
In-class presentation of final projects, with audience feed-back, notes, and digressions on finer points of storytelling. Class stories will be assembled in collection on Medium, and we will push the button to publish. We will also discuss plans for dissemination via the social medias, U.S. postal service, megaphone-wielding wildebeests, etc.
Due today: Final projects, along with a plan for social media dissemination.
Due next week: List of metrics on how your project was shared (be prepared to talk about distribution strategies, wins, and failures). Also due: a short critique of Medium as a CMS and learning platform.
- Your classmates’s stories!
14. So What Have We Learned? (Dec. 8)
A look back at the things we made and lessons learned about the art of collaboration and distribution. In the present future, is there really a dividing line anymore between print, Web, radio, and video? We’ll take a long, hard look at the media ecosystem and your place in it.
Due today: List of metrics on how your final project was shared, and a short critique of Medium (800 words or less) as a content management system and a platform.
- “The rise of the personal franchise site in news” by Jay Rosen for Pressthink
- “Can Rupert Murdoch Hold onto Kara Swisher?” by Felix Salmon for Reuters
- “Ezra Klein Is Joining Vox Media as Web Journalism Asserts Itself” by David Carr for The New York Times
The good news is that this is the first time that I have taught this class, so boredom will not be an issue. It’s also the bad news, because even though I have done a great deal of teaching over the years, it’s the first time I’ve been an actual professor and have had to string together an entire semester. You are a beta, which means things will be exciting and sometimes very confusing. Let’s be honest with each other when that happens. If you don’t get where I am going or what I want, say so. I care deeply that I do a good job in all endeavors, especially this one. I expect you to work hard and want to respond in kind.
And just so you know, to speak to Mikaela is to speak to me. I lean hard on her and trust her judgment. Just saying.
Not need to know, but nice to know: Your professor is a terrible singer and a decent dancer. He is a movie crier but stone-faced in real life. He never laughs even when he is actually amused. He hates suck-ups, people who treat waitresses and cab drivers poorly, and anybody who thinks diversity is just an academic conceit. He is a big sucker for the hard worker and is rarely dazzled by brilliance. He has little patience for people who pretend to ask questions when all they really want to do is make a speech.
He has a lot of ideas about a lot of things, some of which are good. We will figure out which is which together. He likes being challenged. He is an idiosyncratic speaker, often beginning in the middle of a story, and is used to being told that people have no idea what he is talking about. It’s fine to be one of those people. In Press Play, he will strive to be a lucid, linear communicator.
Your professor is fair, fundamentally friendly, a little odd, but not very mysterious. If you want to know where you stand, just ask.