Friday, March 28, 2008

Access to Information

Thursday night, I paired up students in my Reporting class and instructed them to head to the library in search of budget information on the college. It was a multi-part assignment/project. I wanted them to:
1. Actually go through the process of finding public information.
2. Get a real look at how complex things like budget can be.
3. Spend time in groups figuring out what in a budget is important.
4. Return as a class and present group findings.
5. Formulate story ideas based on the information.
Classrooms are great, but when it comes to teaching journalism there is no replacement for actually doing it.
What students found, however, was that the Grand Rapids Community College (Michigan) library does not have basic budget documents available in the library. They were told that they haven't had things like that available in the 13 years the librarians on hand could remember. And the class was told to contact a college administrator to get a copy of the budget; assuring them that the information was readily available.
I was disappointed by the entire scenario. When information is difficult to obtain - only available in certain places, and during certain hours - that can have a similar chilling result as not making it available at all. No matter what the intention. I think that's why most colleges make these sorts of documents available at a place like the library - where the hours are longer, including evenings and weekends.
It has been researched and reported that keeping documents like these only in administrative offices (even if freely available there) can have a similar result as keeping them under lock and key. Not only is it difficult for some people to get to the offices during normal business hours, but it can also be intimidating for some in the public to approach administrative offices. And I'm addressing not only journalists here.
I am a strong believer in open and freely available access to information. Libraries often provide a fantastic venue for those; in a non-threatening atmosphere.
I hope GRCC considers a change in policy regarding documents; sooner rather than later.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Writing for the Web

Journalists have to be ready to fill a number of roles within a newsroom. One of them is writing web-original content.
Some of the general guidelines of web news include: concise, specific, to-the-point, easy to navigate, links, lists and timely updates. Many of these overlap with good ol' fashioned news-writing. Some are clearly different.
The Collegiate staff had an opportunity to do some Web-original content when staff members learned the morning of March 20 that Grand Rapids Community College President Juan Olivarez announced he is resigning to take a position in Kalamazoo. After some confusion and discussion, staff members rallied to get the Web site ( updated by the afternoon. It included a photo, short story, a list of past GRCC presidents and a bio.
The content was timely and mostly well done.
The biography came directly off the GRCC Web site and should have been cleaned up for news style, with much of it condensed. It was too flowery. A link to Wood TV8, with video, also seemed unnecessary - it steers readers away from The Collegiate Web site. That's not a good idea.
Overall, I was impressed with the quick and well-planned coverage of this major news story. It's not easy to get the Web side of news right - this came pretty darn close.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Conference in NYC

I'm attending the College Media Advisers spring national convention the next few days in New York City. The convention this year moved to the Marriott Marquis in Times Square - creating quite the buzz among attendees. It's in the heart of the action.
That said, I couldn't wait to get away from the mania of Times Square yesterday. To find food, fun and the real city. I think a lot of people want to do that in a place like this; few actually find a way to do it.
Getting off the beaten path is a cliche among journalists in a lot of ways. As a collective, we talk about doing things differently and looking at the other side. Too often, we fail at that as an industry.
One of my goals for this conference is to find ways to encourage students to continue to look outside their comfort zones. To explore new story ideas, watch for new possibilities - and how to explore those to produce news content.
I have several other things I'm interested in doing here, of course. But journalists need to be reminded to continue to look not just straight ahead, but up, down, around and to the future in order to properly serve readers.