Open Journalism Project:

Better Student Journalism

Circa 2011

In late 2011 I sat in the design room of our university’s student newsroom with some of the other editors: Kate Hudson, Brent Rose, and Nicholas Maronese. I was working as the photo editor then—something I loved doing. I was very happy travelling and photographing people while listening to their stories.

We don’t know what we don’t know

We spent much of the rest of the school year asking “what should we be doing in the newsroom?”, which mainly led us to ask “how do we use the web to tell stories?” It was a straightforward question that led to many more questions about the web: something we knew little about. Out in the real world, traditional journalists were struggling to keep their jobs in a dying print world. They wore the same design of shoes that we were supposed to fill. Being pushed to repeat old, failing strategies and blocked from trying something new scared us.

Common problems in student newsrooms (2011)

Our questioning of other student journalists in 15 student newsrooms brought up a few repeating issues.

  • A news process that lacked consideration of the web
  • No editor/position specific to the web
  • Little exposure to many of the cool projects being put together by professional newsrooms
  • Lack of diverse skills within the newsroom. Writers made up 95% of the personnel. Students with other skills were not sought because journalism was seen as “a career with words.” The other 5% were designers, designing words on computers, for print.
  • Not enough discussion between the business side and web efforts
From our 2011 research

Common problems in student newsrooms (2013)

Two years later, we went back and looked at what had changed. We talked to a dozen more newsrooms and weren’t surprised by our findings.

  • Very little control of website and technology
  • The lack of exposure that student journalists have to interactive storytelling. While some newsrooms are in touch with what’s happening with the web and journalism, there still exists a huge gap between the student newsroom and its professional counterpart
  • No time in the current news development cycle for student newsrooms to experiment with the web
  • Lack of skill diversity (specifically coding, interaction design, and statistics)
  • Overly restricted access to student website technology. Changes are primarily visual rather than functional.
  • Significantly reduced print production of many papers
  • Computers aren’t set up for experimenting with software and code, and often locked down

A train or light at the end of the tunnel: are student newsrooms changing for the better?

In our 2013 research we found that almost 50% of student newsrooms had created roles specifically for the web. This sounds great, but is still problematic in its current state.

We designed many of these slides to help explain to ourselves what we were doing
  1. Not just social media
    A web editor could do much more than simply being in charge of the social media accounts for the student paper. Their responsibility could include teaching all other editors to be listening to what’s happening online. The web editor can take advantage of live information to change how the student newsroom reports news in real time.
  2. Web (interactive) editor
    The goal of having a web editor should be for someone to build and tell stories that take full advantage of the web as their medium. Too often the web’s interactivity is not considered when developing the story. The web then ends up as a resting place for print words.
The current Open Journalism site was a few years in the making. This was an original launch page we use in 2012

What we know

  • New process
    Our rough research has told us newsrooms need to be reorganized. This includes every part of the newsroom’s workflow: from where a story and its information comes from, to thinking of every word, pixel, and interaction the reader will have with your stories. If I was a photo editor that wanted to re-think my process with digital tools in mind, I’d start by asking “how are photo assignments processed and sent out?”, “how do we receive images?”, “what formats do images need to be exported in?”, “what type of screens will the images be viewed on?”, and “how are the designers getting these images?” Making a student newsroom digital isn’t about producing “digital manifestos”, it’s about being curious enough that you’ll want to to continue experimenting with your process until you’ve found one that fits your newsroom’s needs.
  • More (remote) mentorship
    Lack of mentorship is still a big problem. Google’s fellowship program is great. The fact that it only caters to United States students isn’t. There are only a handful of internships in Canada where students interested in journalism can get experience writing code and building interactive stories. We’re OK with this for now, as we expect internships and mentorship over the next 5 years between professional newsrooms and student newsrooms will only increase. It’s worth noting that some of that mentorship will likely be done remotely.
  • Changing a newsroom culture
    Skill diversity needs to change. We encourage every student newsroom we talk to, to start building a partnership with their school’s Computer Science department. It will take some work, but you’ll find there are many CS undergrads that love playing with web technologies, and using data to tell stories. Changing who is in the newsroom should be one of the first steps newsrooms take to changing how they tell stories. The same goes with getting designers who understand the wonderful interactive elements of the web and students who love statistics and exploring data. Getting students who are amazing at design, data, code, words, and images into one room is one of the coolest experience I’ve had. Everyone benefits from a more diverse newsroom.

What we don’t know

  • Sharing curiosity for the web
    We don’t know how to best teach students about the web. It’s not efficient for us to teach coding classes. We do go into newsrooms and get them running their first code exercises, but if someone wants to learn to program, we can only provide the initial push and curiosity. We will be trying out “labs” with a few schools next school year to hopefully get a better idea of how to teach students about the web.
  • Business
    We don’t know how to convince the business side of student papers that they should invest in the web. At the very least we’re able to explain that having students graduate with their current skill set is painful in the current job market.
  • The future
    We don’t know what journalism or the web will be like in 10 years, but we can start encouraging students to keep an open mind about the skills they’ll need. We’re less interested in preparing students for the current newsroom climate, than we are in teaching students to have the ability to learn new tools quickly as they come and go.
Another slide from 2012 website

What we’re trying to share with others

  • A concise guide to building stories for the web
    There are too many options to get started. We hope to provide an opinionated guide that follows both our experiences, research, and observations from trying to teach our peers.

A note to professional news orgs

We’re also asking professional newsrooms to be more open about their process of developing stories for the web. You play a big part in this. This means writing about it, and sharing code. We need to start building a bridge between student journalism and professional newsrooms.


This is a start

We going to continue slowly growing the content on Open Journalism. We still consider this the beta version, but expect to polish it, and beef up the content for a real launch at the beginning of the summer.



Tinkering at the intersection of computers and journalism.

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Pippin Lee

Building machine learning systems @dessa. Sometimes I build tools for space exploration. I don’t know much, so I better start here.