Contributed by: Chris Newton, Assistant Director of the Eugene S. Pulliam Center for Contemporary Media and WGRE Operations Support Coordinator
Evolving digital technologies have been a real “game-changer” in the mass media industries. TV, radio and print media have benefited in numerous ways from the advances in computer technology and the switch to digital creation and transmission tools. Perhaps the biggest change for media companies, however, has been the speed with which they have had to learn to effectively use the Internet, both as a secondary transmission tool (repurposing original content) and as a primary, stand-alone media outlet. They have discovered that they can carry all the elements of “old” media on the Internet without the overhead of additional expensive equipment, buildings or people.
As the Internet has become more agile in transmitting video, audio, still-photos and text in interesting ways, it has aggressively encroached on traditional media. It is quickly becoming the only source for a growing class of consumers who access their favorite content on their own schedules on computers or cell-phone screens instead of TV’s or radios. Newspapers find themselves teaming with radio and television stations on the Internet to provide more than just simple text and photo archives of their printed product. TV and radio stations offer new, exclusive Internet content in addition to archiving popular programming. Some pundits have coined the term “media stations” to replace “radio stations” or “television stations” reflecting how the Internet has changed how we consume our media. No need to turn on the TV or radio and open a newspaper; you can do all three on just one website!
For a University that teaches contemporary mass-media theory and practice, this means continuously adjusting what we do to encompass this evolving reality. We go beyond teaching electronic acquisition, editing, writing and producing skills to include multimedia “convergence” skills. It’s not enough for our students simply to learn how to write for entertainment or journalism, or how to acquire and produce standard audio and video packages. Our students must also understand that “digital storytelling” includes tailoring content from any media for the web, and learning to choose the best media element to tell a story online. Students also need experience with stories that are conceived specifically for the web, necessitating a different workflow.
In the Media Fellows Program, the second semester of the First-Year Colloquium was chosen as the class in the program where this need would be directly addressed. This is normally a hands-on class focusing on practical media ethics, techniques of audio and video production, writing skills and photojournalism. The decision was made to teach a more aggressive “convergence” model of commercial media with the idea that student projects would end up on the web as a way of better understanding what it takes to create and maintain a media portal on the Internet. Rather than teaching skills in each media area separately, it was decided that it made sense to teach within the context of “digital storytelling.” The goal was for each student to create a media blog with news articles, blog posts, audio, video and photojournalistic assignments, to get a feel for the practice of contemporary journalism.
After working with Michael Gough in FITS and debating the best way to get student projects to the Web, the teaching team decided that WordPress would be a good compromise, mirroring in many ways what media outlets are using commercially. The team also decided to use our local WordPress server, so that we would have better access to IT personnel and local training resources.
The class was introduced to the concept of digital storytelling with small group training on the different software and hardware tools they would be learning to use for the class. From the beginning, they were encouraged to use all the resources of the PCCM and immediately were introduced to SoundSlides – professional Flash slideshow software – and WordPress. This was a lot of different software and hardware to teach, but to properly reflect the skills of online storytellers, the teaching team felt it was necessary.
Students then concentrated on their writing skills, interviewing skills and class presentations on digital storytelling by current journalists from TV, newspaper and Internet-only media. Along with various writing and blogging assignments, students were eventually assigned two major audio/visual assignments which were to end up on their blogs.
Instructors were available to the students outside of class throughout the course. The most effort was given to teaching SoundSlides and fine tuning how they used WordPress. The students were pushed to strengthen their storytelling skills in each of the media and to learn when to use one media over another. Their overall storytelling ability and their technology skills improved from the beginning to the end of the course. It was interesting to note that the majority of the students had the hardest time telling stories with video. Even with today’s technology, video is still a labor-intensive medium to teach and quickly be successful.
In summary, through discussion, assignments and a class survey we ascertained that the class was generally successful teaching students about media convergence concepts. WordPress was an integral part of that. The majority of students thought it was a valid tool when used in this way. WordPress efficiently handled uploading everything but the SoundSlides Flash files, which were easily linked from another location online. Having a local FAQ file updated with current best-practice strategies was also helpful. Students were able to experience first hand what it was like to maintain their own online media portals. They also got a good sense of the time commitment and “real world” work flow necessary to successfully get a good digital story in front of an audience.
Understanding how to communicate effectively in different digital media is a powerful key to success for students in any major, and this Media Fellows course is one way the University has worked to address this concept.