The 'five W's' go to multimedia boot camp

Film at 11? That's so Old School try Flash at dawn, streaming video at noon, and enthusiastic local coverage around the clock. Berkeley's first-year journalism students aim to succeed where newspapers have failed

| 20 November 2008

At 4:37 a.m. on election day, Nov. 4, the first live news of the day blipped up on one of six new Graduate School of Journalism community-news sites, Mission Loc@l: "Only the garbage trucks are out."

By 7:32, polling-place lines extended out the door all around San Francisco's Mission District, and journalism professor Lydia Chavez's crack team had their newsroom running full-bore in her living room.

Like every newsroom across the land, the students were all over the year's biggest story. They'd already posted the first in a day-long stream of blog posts, videos, and audio feeds of voters and their views, plus slideshows of late-night celebrations a rich, detailed report on a historic Election Day.

Only couple of months earlier, most of the students were just sitting down for their first lessons in multimedia technologies like Flash and video editing at the same time that they were beginning to learn to write and report.

Mission Loc@l ( and its five fellow community-news websites were launched this fall by the journalism school, staffed by 60 students enrolled in the graduate program and supervised by five faculty members. The other sites are devoted to areas of the East Bay extending from Fremont through Oakland and Berkeley to El Cerrito. All six can be accessed at

The websites grew out of the journalism school's desire to find innovative ways to fill the community-news vacuum created by the shrinking of the mainstream news industry, while preparing students for jobs in a fast-changing media world and keeping its curriculum up with those changes.

"It's really pioneering," says Chavez. "And it's making us relevant in this world when the industry is falling apart."

Neil Henry, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, says the idea developed out of a conversation he had with Calvin Sims, a program officer with the Ford Foundation, about how to improve journalism education at a time of such uncertainty about the industry's future.

"I thought, what if we could develop enhanced story-telling and at the same time improve our program by taking first-year kids and throwing them right into digital media?" relates Henry, a veteran Washington Post and Newsweek writer before landing at Berkeley in 1993.

He applied for a grant from the Ford Foundation, which came up with $500,000 over two years, mainly to hire two digital-media specialists: Richard Koci Hernandez, a longtime photographer for the San Jose Mercury News, and Geeta Dayal, from the Center for Future Civic Media at MIT.

When first-year students arrived in late August, recalls Henry, "before they even knew the basics of reporting and writing they were immersed in a one-week multimedia boot camp" run by the Knight Digital Media Center, which provides training sessions for working journalists from its offices in North Gate Hall.

"After just six weeks, the sites went live," Henry says. "Nothing like this has been attempted before, on this scale, by a journalism school."

Producing the websites has revolutionized J200, the core news-reporting and -writing course taken by every journalism student. The websites also have become a Petri dish of experimentation on new ways of engaging local readers.

For its election-day coverage, for example, the Mission Loc@l team took laptops to cafes around the Mission and invited people to check out streaming video of their newsroom, their live blog posts, and interviews with voters posted in Flash and video. On the spot, team members say, Mission denizens loaded the news site's URL into their iPods.

Two students, Armand Emamdjomeh and Noah Buhayar, used newly learned Flash technology to post 25 voters' photos. A visitor who clicked on each photo would see a page come up with information about the person and audio of his or her views on the election. The full array of responses was searchable by topic keywords like economy and race.

Election day gave the students their first concentrated burst of breaking news. But by then, Mission Loc@l had been live for several weeks, covering hot neighborhood issues like immigration or rising levels of antagonism over public urination and defecation there (an ongoing series called the Pee Chronicles).

"One of the purposes of the project is trying to fill the holes in mainstream coverage. The [San Francisco] Chronicle only goes into the Mission when there's a homicide or a new boutique," says Madeleine Bair, a graduate student reporting for Mission Loc@l. "We're inspired to get what's going on, what people are talking about."

The students are working long days, motivated by the positive feedback they're getting from their readers, by their desire not to be scooped by other media and by the responsibility they feel to the community they've woven themselves into, they said during a post-election recap in class.

All six of the websites carried live news on Election Day. In a more normal week, each one posts at least one or two new pieces a day, Chavez says.

The North Oakland site (, developed under the tutelage of Professor Cynthia Gorney, has taken on local controversies (such as bike riding on sidewalks) and explored issues (like the nation's economic crisis) as seen by local experts. In Emeryville (, supervised by journalism instructor Terisa Estacio, carries video profiles of City Council members and of high-school seniors voting for the first time this year. Filling out the coverage are El Cerrito Focus (, The (510) Report (, and East Bay West Online (

Multimedia accelerates the learning curve for the students, according to both Henry and Chavez. Before, first-year journalism students reported and wrote articles about local news, but with less of a tight geographic focus, and mainly for their editors. Occasionally, Chavez says, she could get local newspapers to run their articles, but that was a relatively rare occurrence.

Having the students go live in the community and have an two-way communication with their readers has injected incredible energy into the program, Chavez says.

The plan is for the sites to be maintained even through Berkeley vacations, and into the next semester as an elective.

Beyond the immediate impact on the journalism program, the students, and the communities they cover, Henry says the new approach offers research potential that could yield solutions for the mainstream media's woes.

Collaborations with the Haas School of Business and computer experts in the College of Engineering, he says, could lead to new business models for the industry, or new ways of reaching audiences.

The students, looking forward to long careers as journalists and well aware of journalism's importance to democracy, are hoping it works.

Says Mission Loc@l reporter Jordan Conn, "The content and the way we are presenting it is ahead of the curve. And we are all keeping our fingers crossed that the business model will improve so a site like ours can be self-sustaining. Because that's necessary for communities, and for journalists."