Journalism professor learns new forms of storytelling with digital, social media

When Leigh Wright began her journalism career 20 years ago, she did exactly what she was expected to do.

She reported on events and happenings within the Paducah, Ky., community, interviewed people and wrote a 500-to 800-word piece to be in the next morning’s Paducah Sun. Then, she moved on to her next assignment and that was that.

Fast forward to 2013 and Wright is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at Murray State and is exploring new and exciting ways to tell stories and deliver the news.

This summer, Wright spent two weeks in Stuart, Fla., learning how social media can be used in (and out of) a newsroom. As one of six recipients of the Scripps Howard Foundation/Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Social Media Externship Grant, Wright received $3,000 for travel, housing and other expenses for her trip. The Scripps Howard Foundation will also provide a media professional from Stuart, Fla. $1,000 to use on travel expenses to visit Murray State during the 2013-14 academic year.

The externship allowed the six professors to learn firsthand at a newspaper or broadcast station how to incorporate social media platforms into their work. The six newsrooms the professors could choose to visit were C-SPAN in Washington, D.C., KUT Radio in Austin, Texas, DNAinfo in New York, N.Y., Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa, Knoxville News Sentinel/Scripps Networks Interactive in Knoxville, Tenn., and Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Stuart, Fla.

“When I did my application, I chose to be placed at the Florida paper, and the reason I did that was because I looked at their papers and they are strong believers in community journalism, which is what we teach here at Murray State,” Wright said. “I thought that if I went to that type of area where there is such a strong emphasis in community journalism, I could bring that back to our students and show them what’s being done now in a professional news environment with digital and social media.”

Other than Wright, the five remaining professors teach at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hofstra University, University of Kansas, Elon University and University of Miami.

All applications for the grant were reviewed by a panel of AEJMC members who scored applicants based on the value and need of the program for the applicant. They also scored applicants based on the impact of the visit on the applicant’s home campus, strength of ideas for the professor’s visit and the overall quality of the application, according to a Scripps Howard Foundation press release.

During the first week of Wright’s externship in Florida, she said she attended several meetings, planning/strategy sessions and talked to multiple people about how they were using social media with reporting. Wright also witnessed some of the new ways newspapers are measuring readership.

“I talked to the digital team about the analytics – the entire back-end of social media and digital media and how many hits they have,” she said. “(They could measure) how far down someone reads a story on the website before they quit. There are jobs in newsrooms now for people who want to analyze things like that.”

Wright realized that the news, advertising and business departments of a publication are now working together more so than they ever used to within a newsroom.

During her second week, Wright left the newsroom and got to witness the reporters using social media while working.

“I went out one day to a protest about the Indian River Lagoon and kind of watched the reporters tweet,” she said. “They used Twitter a lot. When I was reporting, it was still very much in a notebook. You took notes in your notebook at the scene and now I noticed a lot of reporters were using their phones to tweet information out.”

When Wright left The Paducah Sun in 2009, she said they were just beginning to try to incorporate video. She said they had not even begun exploring Twitter.

Among her experiences during the two-week externship was getting to explore the opening day of lobster mini-season. Wright shadowed outdoor writer Ed Killer and discovered that lobster season in Florida was similar to deer or turkey season in Kentucky. Wright was even asked to write a first-person narrative about her experience with lobster hunting.

“I asked several lobster hunters what skill was needed for a successful day,” Wright wrote. “Several said it was persistence, one person said it was patience and another replied it was luck.”

Wright, along with Killer and other correspondents, released tweets and Instagram posts throughout the lobster hunting experience. Wright curated her favorite posts into a Storify timeline to tell her story in a nontraditional format.

Though Wright does not have dates yet planned for her guest speaker to arrive on campus, she is already implementing new techniques into her classes.

“One of my classes on Monday is going to do a Racer-edition scavenger hunt using Twitter and Vine,” she said. “I’ll give them questions like ‘what’s the deal with the shoe tree’ and ‘where’s the best place to study on campus?’ I’m going to want them to get used to thinking in a picture and social media sense.”

Wright will be using a class hashtag to pull the posts together and make a story. She also plans on having some of her students in another class create a public affairs story told through various platforms. This means they will write a print version, an online version using digital tools, a broadcast package and a social media strategy for their story.

“The reason I’m doing this is because now you’re expected to be able to do a social media story and get information out there and write for digital, use alternative story-telling formats and sometimes use video,” she said.

So, what is Wright’s advice for journalism students today after her experience? Think digitally first, but understand the core values of journalism.

“Even with all of this fun digital stuff and social media, we need to still make sure that our students can report and write well,” she said. “Now we have these extra tools that you are expected to know. Being able to know about social media and use it effectively for journalism (is essential).”


Story by Anna Taylor, Staff Writer