Publication critiques in a digital world

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Times are changing in the journalism world. As educators, we pride ourselves on preparing students to adapt to new innovations for delivering and consuming news and information. We preach a “digital-first” mindset, and we instill a revised approach to storytelling that encompasses a wide range of media.

Students are certainly adapting. Their work incorporates print, video, audio and Web-based reporting to create well-rounded story packages that allow readers multiple means to approach a story.

However, are the criteria we use to evaluate and to recognize students’ efforts changing readily enough? This post is a compilation of my thoughts, however narrow and lacking they might be, about the measurement devices used by state and national scholastic press organizations in an age of digital and social media.

Critiquing and rating services are valuable tools to help staffs gauge their performance and to set goals for improvement. However, most critiques are demarcated by type of publication or news operation—print newspaper/magazine, yearbook, or broadcast. For instance, a newspaper is generally evaluated in areas such as writing style, range of content, design and visuals, and editorial leadership. Those breakdowns were appropriate and worked fine in the days when silos were king—various media focused solely on one means of production. But as media meld, how should the criteria be updated?

What follows is list of observations and questions I’ve formed while judging publications this summer and fall for several national and state associations. I also spent nearly five years helping to run critiques and rating services for a state scholastic press association. It’s tough to stay ahead of technology and to anticipate how students should and will use it to tell their stories. The purpose here is to start a conversation as we work to find ways to serve students best by providing them with the most comprehensive evaluation possible of their work.

What’s the most equitable way to account for production differences? Because of differences in resources (financial and technological), staffs are at uneven points in production—some have opted to go online only, while others are a mix of online and print products. Some update their websites daily with breaking news content, while others have a website but only use it as a storage area for content following the print publication’s distribution. Some engage their audiences with social media, while others choose not to do so.

What standards should be used to judge the quality of digital products? The learning curves associated with new technology and engagement practices can be steep. Using Facebook to interact with friends is different from creating a strategy to both inform and engage your audience with that tool. Simply posting isn’t enough. While everyone will stumble as they learn, clear standards need to be applied during the evaluation process.

The basics still matter. Everything a staff produces needs to be quality work. Tweeting regularly during sporting events is a good thing, but it doesn’t overshadow shoddy reporting or poor design techniques in the print publication. Some staffs seem so proud of their new online ventures and experiments that they forget to devote proper attention to all of their platforms. It all matters, and it all still counts toward the evaluation.

Administrative restrictions abound. Some schools place bans on social media sites and other online resources. Is it fair to punish a student staff (hold them back from a top ranking) just because they can’t use social media? Yes, it’s possible for students to post from home, but such restrictions make it tough to do that properly and effectively.

Are judges qualified to evaluate it? Some judges of scholastic press association contests have little to no experience with social media and online platforms. While most judges might be solid on basics like reporting and design, the newness of online media might also translate to less experience and varying degrees of competency with new digital storytelling tools.

How are we measuring it? Critique books and criteria need to account for the publication’s entire information strategy when providing a ranking. In today’s age, is a newspaper performing at its peak without further engagement with social media and other storytelling platforms, even if it excels at all of the traditional criteria mentioned above? No doubt, a stellar print publication is providing an invaluable service to readers, but it acceptable to stop there? Criteria must be updated to make them specific to the content under evaluation. It’s tough to assess properly an online-only operation with a set of criteria for print publications.

This post is the start of a list that will grow with experience and insights as technologies and storytelling platforms continue to change. I welcome thoughts from others and their experiences as judges, contest coordinators, advisers and students.


Copyright permission and fair use (Teaching Law/Ethics series)

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Part 1 of this post discussed the rationale behind copyright protections and why student journalists need to observe the law. This part discusses some of the ins and outs of navigating copyright law, especially when republishing content from the Web.

A word of caution, these posts are intended to be a guideline about the most important parts of copyright law students need to understand. An experienced attorney should answer specific questions. The Student Press Law Center offers excellent resources, too.

As I stated before, it’s essential to secure permission when republishing a copyrighted work. Seeking permission isn’t often difficult; securing permission could be.

First, discover the identity of the copyright owner—an individual, a corporation, a publishing house, a movie or recording studio. Send that person or entity a letter stating who you are, what part of the copyrighted work you want to use and how, and some indication of your deadline or a preferred timeframe for a response. The approval process can be lengthy because requests from small student media outlets might be of low priority, and some requests go unanswered. No response doesn’t equal permission granted.

Remember, copyright holders legally control how their work is used. The owner can say no or charge a fee (perhaps one that far exceeds your staff’s ability to pay). Create a backup plan for other ways to illustrate your story.

Government photos are free from copyright protection. Use photos from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for instance, to illustrate stories about natural disasters. Again, always give credit.

On the flip side, copyright owners can legally allow others to use their works without permission or payment. Remember, owning a copyright is akin to owning a physical piece of property. Some owners have opted to use creative commons licensing, a way for a copyright holder to grant blanket permission in advance for specific types of uses (educational, non-commercial, etc.).

Wire services like MCT Campus and stock photo services, which generally charge a fee to join, can provide your staff with a legal way to publish photos from national and world events.

However, in some cases, it’s not necessary to seek permission to use a copyrighted work. When crafting the law, Congress understood that requiring people to seek permission every time they wanted to discuss or use a copyrighted work was overly prohibitive. Lawmakers understood that society benefits when people discuss, debate and critique other’s creative works.

For these reasons, legislators enacted an exception to copyright law known as fair use, which allows people to use limited portions of copyrighted works for purposes beneficial to society—teaching, research, comment, criticism and even news reporting. The law includes a four-part test courts use to determine whether a use of a copyrighted work is fair use. The criteria focus on the nature of the original copyrighted work, the purpose of the use (commercial vs. beneficial to society), the amount and substantiality of the original work used, and the effect of the use on the market value of the original copyrighted work.

Directly quoting and citing several lines of a research paper to bolster a point in your own original paper would be considered fair use. The amount of copyrighted material you’re lifting is small and is used for a beneficial purpose (research and education). The use doesn’t negatively affect the market value of the original copyrighted work nor does it act as a substitute for the original work. Students are probably familiar with that example of fair use when writing papers for other classes, even if they didn’t know the concept by name.

When applied to journalism, fair use allows journalists to use a copyrighted photo of a famous singer in a review of that singer’s latest CD. However, the image must originate from a site or source owned by that singer or the recording company discussed in the review. It’s not fair use to lift a photo of the singer from a random fan website or from the website of another news service like The Associated Press or People Magazine. In the former instance, those photos don’t necessarily belong to the copyright holder (in this case, the singer or the recording company). In the latter instance, the copyright holder of those photos is the magazine or news service.

Unless they accompany a story about how various magazines visually portray popular musicians, using those images is not fair use and requires seeking permission from the copyright holder.

Copyright law is dense, no doubt. This post certainly can’t answer all the questions an adviser or students need to know. However, the ideas expressed here hearken back to one essential piece of advice: seek permission when in doubt.