Journalism Education Roundup, Nov. 8, 2011

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The best stories across the web on journalism education

1. Leveraging a "teaching hospital model" in journalism education (New America Foundation)

2. Students "may be 'digital natives,' but they're wretched at searching" (Wired)

3. American Public University enlists faculty to write e-textbooks (Inside Higher Ed)

4. Census: Journalism majors make about $50,000 (Poynter)

5. News bosses talk shop in panel discussion on entrepreneurial journalism (Buzz Machine)

6. The 50 best books for journalism students (Best Colleges Online)

7. Plagiarism Report: Web sources for unoriginal content in student writing (Turnitin)

8. Resources for training journalists (Steve Buttry)

Education content on MediaShift is brought to you by: 

USCad68x68.gif Innovation. Reputation. Opportunity. Get all the advantages journalism and PR pros need to help put their future in focus. Learn more about USC Annenberg's Master's programs.

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Daily Must Reads, Nov. 8, 2011

The best stories across the web on media and technology

1. New Nook is latest entry in tablet wars (New York Times)

2. NewsTransparency aims to hold journalists accountable, reveal bias (Center for Sustainable Journalism)

3. Wired offers original photography through Creative Commons (Wired)

4. Google+ pages now available to brands (Google Blog)

5. Apple's planned obsolescence schedule (TidBITS)

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Do the Math! How Reporters Squandered the School Loans Story

When President Obama announced his school loan relief plan at the University of Colorado, Denver, a few weeks ago, the mainstream media's coverage followed three predictable trajectories that, for the most part, failed to accurately report the news for the majority of Americans -- and instead contributed to the collective spin-as-news that's all too prevalent these days.

This could have easily been corrected if journalists paid more attention to the math behind the news. But, most didn't, offering further fuel -- especially in the wake of some big snafus in coverage of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement -- for the argument that in this changing media climate, mainstream news organizations just don't get it.

Some student loan plan stories hewed closely to Obama's speech, and talked about students paying 10 percent of their discretionary income versus the current 15 percent, and being able to discharge their loans after 20 years rather than the current 25.

Others were primarily follow-up or reaction pieces that featured college students from all over the country talking about Obama's plan.

The final, and most pervasive, type of coverage was commentary where pundits assessed the impact of the plan subjectively.


Deficiencies in Reporting

All of these approaches -- save for a piece in The Atlantic by Daniel Indiviglio, who actually crunched the numbers -- had serious deficiencies, be they mathematical or logical. Those deficiencies, whether sympathetic toward Obama or dismissive, worked against the objective reporting of the facts of the program and its impact on borrowers.

Even some of those who bought the press release, the speech, and the photo-op, complete with the president's attempt to align himself with the vox populi, through an anecdote about he and the first lady paying off $120,000 of school loan debt in 10 years, went out and did some reporting. But despite their good instincts, they didn't accurately measure the plan's impact. Although Indiviglio calculated that Obama's plan would save the average borrower $4.00 to $8.00 a month (note the position of the decimal point), most stories were full of hyperbole and generalizations that reflected a lack of understanding of the plan on the part of reporters and their subjects.

Consider an AP story filed as breaking news that suggests:

Student loan debt is a common concern voiced by Occupy Wall Street protesters. Obama's plan could help him shore up re-election support among young voters, an important voting bloc in his 2008 election. But, it might not ease all their fears.

The piece then quotes an undergraduate who owes roughly $40,000, and who thinks that the plan is "a really big deal," yet still wonders how she'll make any school loan payments if she can't find a job.

An Iowa television station takes a similar tack with a story that's optimistically titled "Help On The Way For Students Drowning In Debt."

A piece in the Reading Eagle tells the tale of an undergraduate with little in the way of job prospects who owes upward of $100,000 for her liberal arts degree from a moderately selective college.

The reporter explains that Obama's plan is "good news for local college students" before letting a local college student speak for herself:

'I am so worried,' 21-year-old Shannon Rowe, a theater major at Albright College, said Wednesday in a hallway lounge waiting for her next class. 'This is a double-edged sword. We have to find a job and we have these huge loans ... I don't want to have to work at Wal-Mart to pay off my loans. I owe $100,000. I would like to get a job directing or teaching at a university.'

The spin

After the initial wave of good old-fashioned follow-up reporting that attempted to gauge a response to the announcement, the pundits and commentators ramped up the chatter and added to the spin.


Michelle Bachmann, assorted Republican politicians, and conservative commentators criticized the plan. Fox News ran an absurd story about a theoretical, and by no means representative, undergraduate named "Suzy Creamcheese" who racked up $212,000 in debt at George Washington University before taking a $25,000-a-year job as a social worker, and sticking the taxpayers with a bill for the balance -- around $183,800 after 20 years (not including compounded interest).

The New York Times had a bunch of experts weigh in on the plan in their Room For Debate section. As a whole, they didn't seem to be any more inclined toward doing the math than the Fox commentators, or the assorted undergraduates polled on quads or in auditoriums at schools across the country. Rather, they articulated a wide range of college expense and loan-related issues that warrant our attention, including rising college costs generally; borrowers' lack of awareness of the income-contingent repayment plan; and predatory lending.

One, a senior fellow in economics at George Washington University, assessed the plan accurately without discussing specifics, and called it, "minor changes in the rules," and "a step in the right direction." Another expert from Ohio University questioned its legality, implied that the plan amounted to subsidies for the rich, and wondered:

Since over one-third of college students from families with annual incomes over $100,000 have student loans, is it appropriate for our financially strained government to show preference in government entitlement policies to a pool of persons who are not at the bottom of the economic ladder?

If I'm reading this correctly, then two-thirds of students with loans come from families that make less than $100,000. I'd suspect that those at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder get more college money through federal and state need-based aid like Pell Grants and New York's TAP and from college aid (whether need or merit-based).

The writer makes a slight nod toward the lower-middle class, likely clustered around the $100,000 marker at best, who are borrowing the most, as they've been doing for decades, because they're too well off to qualify for Pell Grants, and too poor to write a check to the bursar's office. This number is creeping north, as middle class and upper-middle class millennial students are forced to borrow more, like their striving lower-middle class forbearers of Gen. X and Y, and it's likely responsible for the confluence of public and private school students at Occupy Wall Street that the Huffington Post notes in similar, search engine-exploiting, stories from the same author.

But the news here is that based on Indiviglio's calculations, despite the fact that it may or may not have been a response to MoveOn's School Loan Forgiveness initiative that was making the rounds on Facebook last month, or to Detroit Rep. Hansen Clarke's H.R. 365, Obama's plan is unlikely to help many people. The public is better served if the pundits, like the on-the-ground reporters at regional dailies, make this point abundantly clear, and objectively assess what the president is proposing based on interviews with informed sources -- be they students or experts.

Or, if they sit down with their own Sallie Mae payment books, and loan terms, and see if they can figure out what the plan means for them before they begin to report. The smart conservative commentators figured this out, and realized that good math is ideologically neutral.

The stakes

For reporters, the stakes have never been higher to get it right. Take, for instance, Dalhia Lithwick's excellent Slate column, which attacks the mainstream media for criticizing Occupy Wall Street (OWS) for not having demands, and predicts the MSM's demise as a consequence.

The New York Times reported a gossipy series of stories on OWS that implied that they may have been having sex under those dirty blue tarps, and drinking Guinness even, that they'd been invaded by homeless people and that they weren't diverse enough.

In defense of the MSM, Occupy coverage is tough. There are people involved. And the issues, like the granite in the park, are slippery. But the student loan plan, in contrast, should be much simpler to get our heads around. It's math.

Most basically, as the fourth estate, the press exists and flourishes as a useful commodity because it adds value and protects our democracy from corrupt politicians on the one hand and unchecked corporations on the other.

Today's college students, and yesterday's college students currently camped out at OWS sites around the country, are increasingly disinclined to trust politicians, corporations and, sadly, journalists and instead turn to Jon Stewart.

Journalists unfortunately have a high-profile record of steering them wrong in recent years: on yellow cake uranium and on weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war in Iraq; on global warming; and, at least according to anyone who's taken a walk through Zuccotti Park recently, on OWS.

Do the Math!

The least we can do, even if we're in Lawrence, Kan., or Reading, Pa.., or in Wilmington, Del., is to do the math. It's a step in the right direction, and it won't aid and abet spin.

Obama may be taking game theory to its most absurd and cynical, in that he's smart enough to know that this windfall from Uncle Sam is not likely to bring the people camping out at OWS home anytime soon, or to guarantee that they vote for him or vote at all.

What, then, is the plan all about? Likely, it's about Republicans like Bachmann taking Obama's bait, criticizing the plan as "socialism," and looking more ridiculous than he looked for suggesting it. And it's about Obama getting points for trying.

Journalists shouldn't help Obama or Bachmann by perpetuating vagueness that allows the spin to sneak in and that causes readers to think that we're part of the problem.

Devin Harner is an assistant professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York where he teaches journalism, film, and contemporary literature. His recent scholarly work has included essays on Chuck Palahniuk's non-fiction; on the film Adaptation's relationship to Susan Orlean's, "The Orchid Thief;" and on virtual time travel through YouTube. He is currently at work on a piece that treats Buddhist philosophy in Richard Kelly's film, "Donnie Darko."

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Daily Must Reads, Nov. 7, 2011

The best stories across the web on media and technology

1. Researchers release "socialbots" on Facebook to collect user data for security study (CNET News)

2. All the Groupon IPO really proves is that the bubble is back (GigaOM)

3. Investing in selling nothing: Zynga's march to an IPO (NPR)

4. Disney partners with YouTube on new video series (New York Times)

5. Ira Glass: "Who cares if radio survives? Something else will happen" (Nieman Journalism Lab)

6. Facebook is still growing, but tweets have an edge in promoting news content - especially on mobile (Monday Note)

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6 Tips to Support Digital News Through Advertising

This is the first in a series of columns on new business models for news and other media. You'll be able to find other stories in the series by clicking on the Business Models tag.

One of the toughest ways to support a digital news operation is via advertising. Over my years working in advertising, helping many and talking to many others, I've learned a number of key lessons.

The ones below focus mainly on lean startups with small staffs but hold true for larger sites as well.

1. Ad Networks Alone Won't Work

For news properties, there's a brutal equation: Good content, even when aggregated or curated from elsewhere, requires people to produce it. The amount those people need to be paid is usually more than the content they produce can attract from ad networks.

The math is simple. High-paying networks -- ones that require content in high-value niches such as health or technology -- typically pay publishers $1.50 or less per thousand ads shown (referred to as a $1.50 eCPM, or effective cost per thousand).

That means that if your site is loaded with eight ads per page, you'll get $12 per 1,000 pages on average. You'd have to generate about 350,000 pageviews per month to earn $50,000 per year -- perhaps enough to support one person working full-time from a not very expensive home and doing everything.

General interest news gets less money, a 50-cent eCPM or less, meaning you have to generate three times as much traffic to get the same revenue. (I've put a Google Doc spreadsheet here to show my calculations.)

Note: There are "supply side platforms," auction exchanges and other tools, all of which can boost revenues. But I have found the equation to be basically as above for smaller sites. I'd be happy to entertain any SSPs or networks that want to let me test them.

2. Sell Your Own Ads

If you can't generate the traffic to make a profit via network ads alone, another option is to sell your own ads. But there's another difficult equation: Selling is time-consuming, and every hour is one not working on the site and its content.

Competent digital media salespeople with modest experience can command base salaries of $60,000 and above. Even if they're part-time, which is not optimal, the compensation requires that much more revenue.

Servicing clients takes still more time and is a different set of skills that, again, is difficult and expensive to hire.

So, is there a solution? There can be.

3. Keep it Simple

street fight summit.jpg

At the recent Street Fight Summit, which focused for two days on hyper-local news, Scott Brodbeck told me how he's built a business out of, focused on news in Arlington, Va.

Advertisers contact Brodbeck via a form, and email him the ads. Unsold spots go to an ad network. Brodbeck doesn't spend time selling, he said. People in the community hear about him and his site, and his ads are "well-priced and effective." His pricing is simple: $400 per month for the home page, $300 per month for one-eighth share of voice of the story banners.

With 15 home page spots -- all the same size and all in the right column -- that's $6,000 per month if he sells them all, which is not uncommon. Selling half the banners on stories (gets another $1,200. Assuming a 50-cent CPM for the network ads, and internal traffic data he shared with me, he'll get another $185 or so from those for a total of about $7,400 per month. (The calculations and traffic are on the Google doc.)

What he makes is respectable for a solo operator, but not a fortune -- which leads to another part of the equation:

4. Control Expenses

It surprises me how often lectures, speeches and courses for so-called entrepreneurial journalists focus on how to bring in revenue without focusing on costs, which always exist. Controlling them is a key way to remain profitable.

Brodbeck told me his main expenses are his apartment, another $300 per month for server space, and a freelancer he has to hire, "probably my biggest expense," when he's out of town for things like the Street Fight gathering.

5. Seize Opportunities to Sell

To support the business you have to treat it as a business, and that can mean doing some things you may not learn in the purest journalism courses.

David Pachter, the CEO of marketing company LocalVox, told me at the Street Fight Summit of one client who runs a neighborhood site with about 20,000 unique visitors per month. The client constantly visits local businesses to find out what they're up to, and "has a chance to sell them ads, but he's an editorial guy," Pachter said, shrugging.

I'm not advocating strong-arming clients into buying ads in exchange for good coverage, or polluting the editorial stream with puff pieces. Entrepreneurs in small operations, though, do have to be comfortable wearing multiple hats and finessing the need to cover some of the same outfits that might help pay the bills.

It's been done since well before the digital era. Former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz told a small group recently of working as chief of a Far East Economic Review bureau, writing articles one moment and selling ads to clients the next.

We'll deal more with the need to tear down walls between editorial and sales in an upcoming column.

6. Create Ad-Friendly Content

Why do you think newspapers have separate sections for real estate, cars, electronics, movies and health? Here's a hint: It's not because the journalistic imperatives required it.

If you create content that advertisers like that's also supported by high-paying ads, that money can help fund other parts of the operation. You may be able to create special sections, advertorials, and formats that advertisers like.

Again, I'm not an advocate of letting the desire for revenue overtake core editorial principles. But if you can serve your community and make advertisers happy, you'll have a better business.

Up Next: Alternative Revenue Streams

If you're looking to support a local news website through advertising, there may be more good news. Ezra Kucharz, president of CBS Local Digital Media, said at the summit that the share of digital advertising controlled by local media is expected to rise to 24 percent in 2014 from 17 percent this year.

Still, ads are, of course, not the only way to make money from content.

In an upcoming column, I'll cover alternative and often-innovative revenue streams I've seen in action and implemented that are helping support news operations.

An award-winning former managing editor at and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

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An Apple Television Set?

Apple has already brought innovation to music, cell phones and laptops. Is the TV set its next frontier? Rumors have swirled for years that Apple would come out with a TV set, but nothing's happened yet. VentureBeat's Dylan Tweney believed there was enough evidence to support an Apple TV set coming out by the 2012 holiday season. Plus, Steve Jobs himself is quoted in the recent Walter Isaacson biography as saying, "I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synched with all of your devices and ... will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it." So if he cracked it, would you buy it?

Vote in our poll (you can vote for multiple answers) or explain more in the comments below.

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Daily Must Reads, Nov. 4, 2011

The best stories across the web on media and technology

1. "Students may be 'digital natives,' but they're wretched at searching" (Wired)

2. The Onion grows print distribution through local franchises (Nieman Journalism Lab)

3. Robert Levine on why copyright is good for the Internet (Adweek)

4. China: Government taking steps to shutdown Web TV (Penn Olson)

5. Magazine publishers divided over giving free digital issues (ZDNet)

6. Apple spends lavishly on manufacturing process, gets operations advantage (Businessweek)

7. ABC exec producer: Viewers watch live TV to avoid social media spoilers (paidContent)

8. The Associated Press cautions staffers on retweeting (The Cutline)

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