Show students how to sculpt in a new medium

Wayne MacPhailIf we create j-school curriculum based on secrecy, control and broadcast we’re not training students to lead, writes Wayne MacPhail, we’re teaching them to do what’s already been done, but with less paper and more silicon. MacPhail is experimenting with new teaching methods for his online reporting workshops this year.

Journalism is a secretive trade. We hoard and protect our sources, we keep our exclusives under wraps, we cherish and crow about our scoops. Should the outside world do any nosing about in our laundry, we form tight protective balls that would put doctors, lawyers, sow bugs and politicians to shame.

And, we’re a craft that thrives on control. We constrain the size, tone, timing and content of the news. In fact, we decide if it even is news. We are to news what the Spanish Inquisition was to sin.

In an age of scarcity of presses, of airways and of broadcast licenses, that model was serviceable and comfortable – a conceptual famous blue raincoat.

We thrived on that scarcity, that control, that secrecy and that one-way pipeline to our audience.

But now much of that audience is moving to the social web where the concepts of scarcity, control, secrecy and broadcast are as out of place as prime rib at a vegan buffet.

Yet, much of what we teach in j-schools is predicated on those ideas: that we own the story, that we shape the news, that we control the valve that trickles the word on the street into the ears, eyes and minds of the public- that we are the gatekeepers on a farflung mishmash of data, drama, B.S. and ballyho that is so much noise and nonsense until passed daily through our purifying membrane.

When our instruction toughens that membrane by directing students to think critically, to crank their bullshit detectors to eleven, to unpack and tell great, human stories, we’re good. But, when we fail to encourage them to tell those great stories in new ways we retard our ability to prepare them for an online future.

If we create j-school curriculum based on secrecy, control and broadcast we will not be training students to lead, we will be teaching them to clean from behind. We will be teaching them do to what we did, but with less paper and more silicon. We will be demonstrating how to shovel, not how to sculpt in a new medium.

This semester I’m teaching an Online Reporting Workshop at Ryerson University in Toronto and an MA class in Online Journalism at the University of Western Ontario, in London. I’m predicating the courses on the principles of transparency, abundance, collaboration and conversation – notions, I think, that resonate with the harmonics of the online audience.

Let me explain. The two classes are collaborating on a multi-part, multimedia project called MakerCulture – Taking Things Into Our Own Hands. It’s a deep, wide exploration of the world of artists, hackers, fabricators, activists and citizens who have decided that a DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to government, software, art, music and hardware is a valid response to global consumerism. It’s a fascinating feature full of astonishing gimcrackery and a sideshow tent full of characters. Great stories, no question.

It will be collaboratively published on and The Tyee. It’s the first time Western and Ryerson have worked together on a joint journalism project, and the first time rabble and The Tyee have co-published a series.

The students at the two universities come together online using a collaborative website called a wiki. Each member of the team can edit, comment on, alter or erase any page of the wiki. It is a read-write medium with no central command and control. All the writing teams are responsible for updating their progress, their contact diaries, links, research notes and drafts. If you want, you can look at it here. If you like you can see all the levers gears, false starts and progress we’re making. And so can anyone else.

Sure, we could have said, “Wow, this is a great story. No one else is tackling. Let’s keep it under wraps until we’re ready to launch and then blow the lid off it.” But, online, in the world of social media, that would make no sense at all.

By exposing our work transparently we invite audience participation and engagement early in the story’s development. We encourage would-be readers of the final piece to help us shape the story, make it better, make it stronger, make it deeper and more true. We deliberately blur the line between author and audience. We want our audience to help up tell their story. We want to open source our journalism. That’s the spirit of the social web and, in a lovely meta way, the spirit of maker culture.

We’ve also created a blog for the project. You can see that here. It’s our public, ongoing diary where we share our discoveries, thoughts, needs and raw footage with our audience.

Is anyone interested? Turns out, yes. In the first week after the blog launched it got over 3,000 page views. Why? Because we also talk about our work on Twitter using the hashtag #mcry. It turns out a lot of educators, writers, journalists and folks in the growing maker culture are very interested in what we’re doing, and are keen to help.

In fact, when we were first developing the mindmap for the feature series we made it public so members of the community could contribute nodes and notions. You can see that here. Turns out that turning our audience into collaborators made the mindmap, and the project, stronger from the outset.

I’m already getting feedback on Twitter and via email from folks who will be great sources and content experts for our stories. So are my students. They are engaging early in a conversation with our audience and inviting them into the process long before the feature series is published (probably next January).

This transparency not only makes the inclusion of the community simple, it makes the process of doing the story simple. No passwords, no central command-and-control. Instead we are creating an organic and open story development process that engages a community of people who can act as evangelists for our work. In the world of the social web that creates an expanding virtuous circle of network links and reposts that gives us access to expertise we would otherwise have missed.

When the story is finally published, all the folks who worked with us to tell the stories will be there to view the final product and to see what impact they had on it.

We’re trying to tell this great story in new ways. We want to embrace everything that is powerful about social media: its ability to virally share enthusiasm, its belief in the collective creation of a common good and its trust in the kindness of strangers and use that to, together, tell a story to ourselves.

This is an experiment. We have no idea how it will turn out. But, we’re diving in and putting our trust in the best of the social web.

Maybe that’s a good idea for our craft in general.

MacPhail is director, emerging-media at He has been a print
and online journalist for 25 years and was managing editor of Hamilton
Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until
he founded Southam InfoLab, a national future information products
facility for Southam Inc. in 1991.

This article was also published on