Blogs have become part of the editorial furniture of most news sites. In the U.S., 95% of the top 100 newspapers feature reporter blogs. So it seems appropriate to include blogging in the curriculum of journalism schools. For the past couple of years, my students at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism have written blogs as part of their course work.
For several weeks starting in January, my graduate students will be required to maintain a blog with twice-per-week entries. The aim of this assignment is to introduce students to the notion of blogging as a form of journalism. Just because this is a blog, it doesn’t mean the students can write about anything.
The blog has to have a specific focus. Ideally, it should cover an area where the student has some personal expertise that they can bring to bear. This is perhaps one of the most important decisions as the best blogs are those where the author brings their own personal experience and expertise to the table.
This is more than just choosing a topic like politics or arts. Students need to focus on a specific aspect within these overarching topics. In the past, students have chosen to write about marketing, consumer culture and money in sports. These blogs worked as the students chose topics they were passionate about and then approached it from a particular angle, taking a strand from events in the news and unraveling it to provide a fresh perspective.
A place for reflection
The challenge becomes explaining that the blog is not a platform for students to pontificate about what they think about a particular issue. Rather, it is to provide a critical perspective on issues in the news within a student’s specific area of expertise. In some ways, the blog is similar to op-ed writing. The value of blogging in a journalism course is as a tool for reflection and critical thinking about events in the headlines.
The blog has emerged as a powerful platform for journalists to provide context, analysis and interpretation, often including behind-the-scenes information that does not fit into the structure of a traditional news story. It has also provided journalists with a way to communicate with readers in a more conversational and informal tone, rather than in an abstract voice of authority.
Even though blogging has been around for more than a decade, there is still an unease about blogging among some professional journalists, often encapsulated in the phrase, “blogging isn’t journalism.” This is a tired argument that mistakes form for content.
Blogs, just like magazines, radio or television, can contain journalism, but they may not. The content, rather than the platform, defines whether or not it is a work of journalism.
However, the form does affect the content. The technology and history of blogging has lent the medium some generic qualities. Blogs are expected to be written in a personal and conversational tone, often in short posts, with links to related sites and reader comments.
Live to the web
In some cases, blogging can be seen as a new form of real-time reporting that does not have the filtering or editing associated with established journalistic practices.
This can be somewhat of a challenge to the students when they first hear of the blogging assignment. During the fall semester, their stories routinely went through various editing stages and rewrites. Come January, they will be publishing live to their blogs, without having passed the copy by one of their professors first.
The notion of blogs as immediate, uncensored and unmediated can appear at odds with established journalistic norms and practices. But it provides a valuable learning tool as it makes the students directly responsible for what they write.
The students are not only graded on the quality of the content and writing, but also on the links they provide. The more specific a link, the more value it has to a reader. This is intended to encourage students to look online for new and interesting material from other sources. In other words, it recognizes that a student blog is part of a web of information, part of a network of journalism.
Some students have found that having written a blog as part of a journalism course can make a difference when it comes to applying for internships. One student who kept a blog about The New Yorker went on to intern at CBC Vancouver. He worked on a summer series on climate change and ran the show’s blog, which unfortunately is no longer online.
Blogs and new media have undoubtedly changed the landscape of journalism. In terms of its form, journalism as a whole has become more conversational, and iterative, as readers seek to contribute to the story, and journalists open more of their processes to public view. Blogging has played a role in this process and warrants a place on the curriculum at journalism schools.
(This article was originally published on PBS Mediashift and is used with permission.)
Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and journalism educator. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.