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Hyperlocal blogs are a great way for student journalists to get some experience of reporting, community management and online publishing. But what do their potential readers think of student-run hyperlocal blogs? Members of a community in Sheffield recently gave student bloggers a very hard time when they attempted to engage with their potential readership.

The problem seems to stem from the fact that there are two universities in Sheffield, plus a very good further education college, and therefore a lot of students working on community-based projects. Not only do you have journalism students working on community-based projects, you have film makers, geography students, law students and nursing students. At any one time there must be hundreds of students making contact with community groups and local online forums.

Now, there are of course some fabulous examples of students who have done fantastic things for a community as part of their course or with a student society. There are law students who have helped to challenge wrongful convictions as part of the Innocence Network and there are many other fantastic examples of where student projects have been a force for good.

But journalism tutors need to be mindful that while hyperlocal blogging can help students learn some valuable lessons about digital journalism, there is often a sense of weariness in university towns from residents who are regularly asked for help from students. Perhaps some people also feel let down after successful projects, such as hyperlocal blogs, are shut down after those involved move to take up work elsewhere after university.

I suppose part of the challenge for student journalists is winning over reluctant communities. But journalism tutors must consider whether their project briefs are actually exacerbating the tensions that are displayed in this thread. Perhaps one approach would be to ask students to target a “hard-to-reach” cultural or interest group, rather than the student-weary neighbourhood right next to the university.

Another thing that journalism tutors must educate journalists about is sustainability – making sure a publication continues after students go onto more exciting things. A great example of this is Blog Preston. Started by Ed Walker, who has gone on to a fantastic career in journalism, in 2009, it was then edited by Andy Halls and Joseph Stashko after Ed left Preston. Hopefully a new editor is in the wings to take over after Joseph graduates from the University of Central Lancashire.

As well as learning, students and their tutors need to consider legacy. Universities provide many benefits to cities, but sometimes at a social cost to surrounding neighbourhoods. Perhaps by leaving a positive, sustainable legacy when they leave universities students can help overcome some of this disappointing resentment towards them.

14 thoughts on “Student journalists in the community: Learning and legacy

  1. I had a similar sort of experience last year, when I handed Saddleworth News over to a third year student from University Campus Oldham to write. There was a good deal of negative comment on the site from readers complaining about it, largely because she wasn’t able to update the site as I often as I used to, and therefore wasn’t covering the same variety of local stories. I thought it would be better to keep the site going in some form rather than just close it down, and I still think that despite the criticism from some people.

    I’m afraid if you’re going to put yourself out there as a publisher, whether you’re a professional journalist, a student, or a complete amateur, you’re going to have to deal with a bit of flak. The ease with which the internet allows people to comment, often using false identities, helps embolden people to complain in a way they never would have done in an old-fashioned letter. When I contacted a few people who had left negative comments on Saddleworth News directly by e-mail and asked them about their concerns, I never received a single reply, so make of that what you will.

    In this case, the Sheffield students were a bit naive to write that post, when they could surely have searched the massive archive of that particular forum to find story ideas, as well as doing the traditional thing of being out and about on the streets of that area and getting to know it. Their post did kind of make it look like they wanted others to do their work for them, but I’m sure they won’t make that mistake again. University is for learning things, after all.

  2. As one of those journalism tutors involved in such a project, I do think it’s about the planning. Rather than firing hundreds of students out chasing stories at random (often two or three at a time), one of the keys is to create a network which allows for the management of content gathering. At Staffordshire University we’ve worked with local organisations to ensure that our structure fits their needs.

    We’re also looking to ensure longevity and put sites into communities rather than making them only ‘term-time’ projects with only a student input.

  3. Thank you for your comments Ross and Richard. Some great advice for students and tutors alike.

    It is interesting that other groups from the same class also posted on Sheffield Forum but got a much better reception. I wonder how much colleges and universities teach about how to approach the public?

    Ross, what reception have your students got from communities? Can you share some links to a project that has been sustained long-term?

    • Hi Rosie,

      At present we operate a regional site, but are working on plans to drill it down to hyperlocal level. But for me the key is not to tie it to a module. Instead it needs to be a project that has the hyperlocal value at heart – it shouldn’t be done by students because they have to, but because they want to.

      The other thing I’m keen to ensure when we do push hyperlocals out is that they are for the benefit of the community rather than as an education tool. As a hyperlocal publisher myself, it’s one thing I’ve had to realise – to be a success you need to be part of the community rather than preaching to it.

      Inspired by your blog post, I put out some more views here: http://thejournalismnotepad.co.uk/2012/02/20/university-hyperlocal-sites-need-to-be-more-than-just-educational-tools/

  4. Pingback: University hyperlocal sites need to be more than just educational tools | The Journalism Notepad

  5. Thanks for the mention Rosie, very kind! It’s a good issue and one that universities certainly need to manage – as you can end up with hundreds of students calling the same council press office when working on a story.

    With Blog Preston we could probably improve our relationship with the local university further, we have an informal one with them at the moment – rather than the type of one that Richard mentioned he has with Huddersfield in an earlier comment.

    I think the key is just to stick around when it comes to hyperlocal. So many sites start up and say ‘NEWS FOR YOUR AREA’ but it’s tumbleweed after a week or so. Part of that is to ensure you keep an open mind when it comes to content and contributors, and the longer you stick around for the easier it becomes to create content.

    I wrote a post last Autumn about handing over Blog Preston to the likes of Jo and Andy and what that taught me: http://www.edwalker.net/blog/2011/10/05/handing-over-a-hyperlocal-site/

    For students though, it’s a good experience to be told to “do one”, as you’ll often find a similar reaction when working for local/regional/national media!

    • You’re right in what you say, Ed. The trick for me is not to think of them as ‘student’ anything. They need to be contributors in the same way that non-students are. Otherwise getting content for an assessment becomes more of an issue than creating content for the site’s audience.

  6. Thanks for your comment Ed and the link to your blog – some great advice on there about not relying too much on student bloggers and on having a proper handover. It sounds a tricky business finding the right person to take on a site and handing it over, as Richard recently found.

  7. This is a very interesting case study. I have sympathy with the Sheffield Forum users on this. The students should have approached them in a different way. If I was a user of that site and the first contact I had with a student journalist was:

    “So if you have any stories, regardless of how “un-newsworthy” you think they may be, share them on here!”

    … I fear I may have given a similar response. It’s not incumbent on the users to tell the journalist what’s happening – the journalists should be listening and watching. As “Strix” rightly says: “There’s actually no need to log in here and ask US to do the work for you. If you’d bothered to read your way down the ‘sheffield discussions’ list you’d have most likely found everything you need”.

    That user has been on that site for eight years and someone joins up in a day and wants to get involved. The response is one of “who the hell are you anyway?” It’s like walking up to a group of people in a pub and stopping the conversation.

    The big picture is perhaps that this was a useful exercise for the students, however, so perhaps it’s a worthwhile experience.

    • Thanks for the comment Patrick. I suppose, if anything, this experience will be a good lesson in how not to engage with your community. Hopefully, a tutor will respond by giving them some pointers like the ones given in these comments and on the original thread about how to engage better with people on online forums. It would be interesting to see what strategies the other groups used.

  8. Sheffielders weary of students? That was the story long before hyper-local blogging appeared!

    I went from being one of those student journalists in the mid 1990s to working on the Sheffield Star and reporting on problems between students and their local neighbours.

    On the whole, though, it’s a relationship that has worked well in Sheffield, demonstrated in part by the fact that the city has a high retention rate of students after they graduate.

    Any would-be journalist needs to understand and make sense of the world around them and build relationships with people. What better place to start to learn this than the area where you live or study?

    And if some of those hyperlocal blogs you refer to turned into businesses that gave the city media a run for its money on its own patch, you could end up with a more thriving local news scene than the one you have in many English cities at the moment. Now that really would be worth supporting and I am sure many Sheffielders who are only-too-weary of the quality of local news they get from established media organisations would be thankful for that too.

    • “Any would-be journalist needs to understand and make sense of the world around them and build relationships with people. What better place to start to learn this than the area where you live or study? ”

      Great advice Ben. As a Sheffield University graduate I agree that the relationship has worked in the city, certainly better than in Leeds where neighbourhoods have become student ghettos (although I understand that things are changing for the better in Leeds).

      I think that students have potential to put something back into the community whatever they are studying and creating a quality, sustainable hyperlocal blog is a excellent way of doing this. And as you say the odd one could even rival mainstream media. Maybe this is something that university enterprise hubs should be supporting?

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