Media Innovation Studio I
JOUR 6306 • Fall 2015

Instructors: Jeff Howe and Aleszu Bajak
CRN: 17659
Phone: 917 992 6531
E-mail: /
Classroom: 163/171 Holmes Hall
Office: No. 145 Holmes Hall

“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”
— Abraham Lincoln

There are two ways to read this quote. The first holds that this country’s 16th president was extolling the virtues of hard work. Coming from a man who taught himself to read after 16 hours behind a plow, that is surely true. But I like to believe Lincoln also meant that the ripest plums go to the hustlers—the savvy operators who know the game is rigged. The truth is that Lincoln’s quote could be referring to journalism, but only if we’re willing to accept both interpretations. Success in journalism requires intelligence, the ability to sculpt meaning from language, and simple, patient toil. But it also requires wit and speed and the ability to improvise.

This has never been so true as it is today, when journalists must treat every project like a new start-up company, with branding campaigns and reader outreach. This graduate program also rewards the hustler. We provide you with the keys to one of the best educational institutions in the world, offering a degree of academic freedom far beyond that offered by any other journalism school. We assume that you possess the maturity, ability, and most of all, the motivation to make the most of that freedom. It’s a grad program for people who, if born into a world without journalism, would have to go out and invent it.

The studio sequence is the thumping heart of the Media Innovation program. Because our whole purpose is to send you all out into new fields like entrepreneurship and computer science and design and video, we need an anchor to keep the centripetal forces under control. The Studio sequence is that anchor. It’s where we take the lessons learned outside of journalism, and integrate them back into journalism, by way of your Big project. It’s also an exercise in knowledge transfer: Think of yourselves as emissaries, or spies. You go forth into strange new worlds, then return to the Studio to report on what you’ve found. This has a multiplier effect, allowing you to vicariously attend many more classes than you could possibly fit into your schedule.

Finally, the Studio performs the very practical function of the newsroom. You will critique each other’s work, suggest sources and leads and phrasings to each other. And it’s the faculty’s chance to gently guide and shape the story and ultimately find it a home with an appropriate news outlet.
The Newsroom is one of two components to the Studio sequence. The other is called Skills Training, which is pretty much just what it sounds like. As you’ll recall from the mission statement, the program is intended to provide students a broad, digital fluency as well as the kind of specialized training you’ll acquire through working on your story.

Skills Training is meant to help provide that sweeping, general knowledge about digital media without drawing too much of your energy away from your work on your story. As you’ll see in the schedule below, Studio I has three skills units.

The first is called the State of Media Innovation. We’ll employ readings, group exercises, class discussion, and the business case study method to acquire an up-to-date understanding of how journalism is adapting to the digital age. And because at the end of the day our primary mission is to get our students the best journalism jobs possible, we’ll focus especially on why some innovations have proven successful, and why others have failed.

The second unit is short, and equally straightforward. You won’t all become programmers, but Cracking the Code for Digital News should give you a cursory understanding of what languages, platforms, and technologies have become part of the journalist landscape, and the functions they serve.

Finally, we’ll spend the last half of the semester learning how to tell stories using data.

Expectations: My most earnest wish is that you will look back on your time in this program as one of the most challenging periods in your life. I would, if I could, bestow unto you the gift of agonizing self-doubt, then reward you with intellectual challenges that leave you exhausted and spent. My greatest fear is that you’ll remember me as a nice fellow who had a few interesting ideas about journalism. This could all be rephrased as: You have agreed to disrupt your lives and drain your bank account to attend this program. Our goal is simply to make those sacrifices worth it.

On the other hand, we’ve selected all of you because you’ve not only demonstrated an aptitude for journalism, but also a passion for it. Media Innovation is intended to be a challenging program, and the Studio courses are meant to reflect that. I have a simple attendance policy: I expect everyone to show up for every class. As a citizen of the program, your input—on the readings, in the exercises, and concerning your colleagues work—is valuable and essential. Arrive prepared to discuss them all. If you’re going to be absent, give me as much advance notice as possible.

I expect you to approach your Big Project—the story (or in a few cases, your business plan) with the same level of ambition with which we regard it. Which is to say, we start with the assumption that every student’s project will eventually make its way into a prestigious news outlet with international reach.

Media Innovation is intended to be a challenging program, and the Studio courses are meant to reflect that. But then, journalism itself is challenging, and for good reason. The late New York Times media critic puts it best:

“The dirty secret: journalism has always been horrible to get in … If you’re gonna get a job that’s a little bit of a caper, that isn’t really a job, that under ideal circumstances you get to at least leave the building and leave your desktop, go out, find people more interesting than you, learn about something, come back and tell other people about it — that should be hard to get into. That should be hard to do. No wonder everybody’s lined up, trying to get into it. It beats working.”

Submission of Work: All assignments need to be submitted to the class as a whole by 12 pm on the day—that’s usually a Tuesday—preceding our class. This is to provide everyone an opportunity to read each other’s work. We will not always engage in “workshops,” aka group critiques, but we should have the freedom to do so when time and circumstance permits.

Academic Integrity: This is one group of students to whom I need not belabor this point. But it’s boilerplate, so here you go: Academic integrity, obviously, is a serious matter. You must always be honest, and take responsibility for your work and your decisions. You must not share work, or seek to copy other students’ work. You must not fabricate work in this class. For example, there may be occasions in which you are required to interview and quote someone. If you fabricate quotes, or people who say these quotes, you will fail
the course.

Plagiarism: There may be legal exceptions to the dictum that thou shalt not kill. There are no such exceptions for plagiarism. You will not take other people’s work, and pass it off as your own. There is no gray area, here. If you do this, you will fail the course.

Punishment: Probation is the minimum penalty for students who are found to have violated the University’s honor code. Any and all evidence of academic dishonesty will be referred to the Student Judicial Hearing Board.

Citation: The responsibility for learning the proper forms of citation lies with the
individual student. Quotations must be placed properly within quotation marks and must be cited fully. In addition, all paraphrased material must be acknowledged completely. Whenever ideas or facts are derived from a student’s reading and research or from a student’s own writings, the sources must be indicated.

Sources: This too should go without saying: A source is never a family member, a pal, or a roommate.

Necessary Equipment: You will need a laptop for this course, but also the media innovation program in general. A Mac is vastly preferred, if only because we will all be on the same page when it comes to technology. Perhaps more importantly, you must have a quality smart phone (Apple or Android are both fine). You could conceivably complete all the tasks of the modern journalist without access to a computer, but you wouldn’t last one day without a smart phone.

Recommended Equipment: If you spring for a good digital recorder capable of recording professional quality audio, like the Zoom H-1, you will not regret it. (You will want to buy a windscreen for outdoor use. A cheap one is included in B&H Photo’s accessory kit for the Zoom H-1. For the Documentary Project in the second course in this sequence, Studio II, we use the Zoom H-6, or an equivalent Tascom. You can always check these out if you’re interested in exploring professional audio gathering.

If you’re thinking of specializing in video, then there’s a long list of equipment that you may need by the time you graduate. As you’ll see, we have much of this available through either the Media Innovation program itself, or via the digital media studios in Shillman Hall, but eventually you’ll want your own. (Checking out university equipment is a great way to figure out what’s best for you, though.)

Assignments and Grading: This is not a course with mid-terms, finals, and multiple-choice tests. I generally find grades to be imperfect motivators at best, and counter-productive at worst. Starting this semester I’m embracing a new system of grading. You will all start the semester with As. If you perform up to expectation, you’ll keep that grade. Whenever you fail to meet expectations, I will deduct from that grade. You will be informed whenever that happens, and given an opportunity to reverse the deduction.

That raises the question, what are those expectations? In the broadest sense, it is to love what you do, and to exhibit to your peers and instructors the tangible results of that love. That means hustling to make your own stories better, and enthusiastically working with your peers on their stories. That means submitting blog posts to StoryBench or our class blog, just because the topic fascinates you. Demonstrate a passion for your story, and the process of learning to be a better story teller, and I guarantee your grades will never be a concern. That’s a little vague. Here is more precise guidance:

The studio’s primary function is to advance the work on your Big Projects, and facilitate an exchange of ideas. We work more like a newsroom with an educational component than a journalism school that occasionally produces content. As such, I prize class participation when grading. Do your readings. Bust ass on your story. Be prepared to contribute substantively to our discussions. The work on your own Big Story is at least as important, so the quality of your submissions (outlines, pitches, etc.) will receive equal weight with class participation. I give a little less emphasis to the skills training, but that doesn’t mean you can blow it off. Finally, while I expect you to maintain a blog and social media feeds on your chosen topic, this shouldn’t be at the expense of the above. A breakdown, then, would look something like this:

• Class Participation: 30 percent
• Story Assignments: 30 percent
• Skills Training Assignments: 25 percent
• Blogs and Social Media: 15 percent

Fall 2015 Class Schedule at a Glance

September 9: 5:35 pm – 9 pm, 171 Holmes Hall. UNIT 1

September 16: 5:35 pm – 9 pm,171 Holmes Hall UNIT 1

September 23: No Class

September 30: 5:35 pm – 9 pm, 171 Holmes Hall UNIT 1

October 7: No Class

October 14: 5:35 pm – 9 pm, 171 Holmes Hall UNIT 2

October 21: 5:35 pm – 9 pm, 171 Holmes Hall UNIT 2

October 28: No Class

November 4: 5:35 pm – 9 pm, 171 Holmes Hall UNIT 3

November 11: No Class

November 18: 5:35 pm – 9 pm, 171 Holmes Hall UNIT 3

November 25: Thanksgiving

December 2: 5:35 pm – 9 pm, 171 Holmes Hall UNIT 3

December 9: 5:35 pm – 9 pm, 171 Holmes Hall UNIT 3

December 16: Finals Week … Class TBD.
Calendar of Assignments and Lesson Plans

September 9:

Welcome to the Media Innovation. On our first day of class we’ll do a short review of the syllabus (this was provided earlier in the summer, so you should be familiar with the general outline already), then dive immediately into course content:

Newsroom: You should all be coming to class with three rough ideas for your Big project. (Note: All assignments are due to me by noon the day before we meet.) Do not sweat your prose, but give some real thought to the ideas themselves. We’ll begin critiquing individual ideas; the goal is to have the general topic for every student’s Big project chosen by September 30. • We’ll discuss student blogs and social media accounts. • Beats vs. Big Stories.

Skills Training: We’ll begin our unit on the State of Media Innovation with a brief discussion of how our industry has evolved in the 21 years since Netscape released the first commercial web browser. • I’ll assign every student an individual case study. Group exercise on scale and transcience. • Last but not least: Agape.

Assignments for September 16: Choose a provisional topic for Big Project and write a researched and reported blog post about it. Research Case Studies.

Readings for September 16: Excerpt from John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World (handout); Pew Center’s State of the News Media: 2015 pages 4 – 31; excerpt from Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma; Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.


September 16:

Newsroom: We’ll look at everyone’s blogs and do some quick-and-dirty quality control. (I’m not overly concerned about aesthetic, but it has to look just professional enough to not raise red flags.) Discussion will primarily focus on story ideas, and eliminating weaker ideas. • Big project as beat, cont. • Reporting for Topic.

Skills Training: Unit 1 … the State of Media Innovation, cont. We’ll discuss last week’s readings, focusing on the difficulty and dangers of innovation. (Hint: Every firm says they do it; few actually do.) • Group Exercise: Create a timeline to examine the shelf life of conventions, within the media and otherwise. • We’ll discuss case studies in progress.

Assignments for September 30: Spend the next two weeks vetting your story ideas. Pick one—even if it wasn’t among your original three—and write your second blog post (researched and reported … no navel gazing in this program) about why the topic requires deep reporting and multimedia presentation. Create a working bibliography, briefing packet, and source list. (You DO NOT need to submit these prior to class; just bring in these materials and I can check them quickly before we break.) Write your case study, employing financial research and a few apt charts. Be prepared to present your findings to the class.

Readings for September 30: The Business Case Study format; Excerpt from Nicco Mele’s The End of Big; Pew Center’s State of the News Media: 2015 sections TK – TK; More TBD.


September 23: No Class


September 30:

Newsroom: We’ll devote much of the first half of class to nailing down every one’s story topic. • The Story vs. the Story Idea. (Note: You can, theoretically, change your Big project idea at any point in the program. But as you shift focus to chasing stories—characters performing actions embedded in both place and time—you will be putting more and more chips on that particular square. To avoid wasting a great deal of energy, it’s important to be confident and comfortable with your topic as early as possible. • I’ll quickly go over everyone’s supplementary material (bibliography, etc.)

Skills Training: Final section of Unit 1: The State of Media Innovation. Each student should be prepared to deliver a short presentation (aim for four minutes; at minute five you get the hook!) on their case study. We’ll put all the case studies into conversation with each other and try to draw some general conclusions. Are we witnessing a new business model for journalism? Will it work in other countries? Will it support hard-hitting, watchdog journalism?

Assignments for October 14: Whew! Use the next few weeks to take a bit of a breather. You should continue to keep up with your blog and social media networks, but this is a time to dig into some of those books and create a space for epiphany and serendipity, both of which seem to come when you’re approaching your topic at an oblique angle. Come to class with a rudimentary story. (Submit a paragraph or two the day before, as always). It needn’t be the perfect fit for your topic. (It would be shocking if it were). Instead, show that you’ve caught the right scent, and will be chasing the right prey the rest of the semester.

Media Innovation: Looking Outwards Assignment
Over the course of the semester, each student will conduct an analysis of a prominent example of innovative journalism. Students will interview the creators involved, highlight the art and science of the storytelling involved, and explore the importance and novelty of the project. This will run between 1,000 and 2,000 words and the objective is to write up a report after you’ve deeply familiarized yourself with the creative process and execution of a prominent example of innovative journalism.
Projects that deserve this appellation? ProPublica’s Losing Ground, The New York Times’s The Dawn Wall, or the podcast Serial. The Society for News Design awards is a good place to look for innovative journalism projects. See Storybench’s “Under the Hood” series for inspiration but bear in mind that your project will be the result of a semester’s worth of interviewing and analysis.
The idea is to reveal and document exactly how the project got made in such a way that, much like a scientific paper, the project could be replicated by someone who has only read your analysis. The tone will be technical yet approachable. How would you explain the technology used to a writer unfamiliar with Javascript? How would you describe how the sources were found and interviewed to a developer? How do you explain the user experience and interaction design to a person who’s never used a computer?
You want to capture the aesthetics–functional, visual and interactive–that this project employs. To help understand how to structure your analysis, see the pieces written for the Media Innovation’s StoryLab assignment Interface. Read through the guidelines here. The format is loose: we suggest you get creative with your sections and use a lot of visuals (with the consent of their owners).

The final projects will be presented on Storybench’s new longform website:

Rough draft due by 5:30pm E.T. Oct 21.

Final draft due by 5:30pm E.T. Oct 28.

Readings for October 14: Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Introduction to Programming Languages TBD; Primer on Coding and Journalism: “What is Code,” Paul Ford. “How to build a simple narrative web layout” by Storybench. Excerpt from The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall; Excerpt from Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron. : Information Architecture for News Websites, Stijn Debrouwere.


October 7: No Class


October 14:

Newsroom: We’ll quickly check in to discuss the stories each student brings to class. This is a great exercise, as it allows us to identify some of the story elements crucial to developing the narrative propulsion we’re seeking for each topic. • The structure of story • Does story change when the medium does? (Hint: Yep.) • Reporting for character, aka, subject vs. source.

Skills Training: Unit 2: Breaking the Code for Digital News. Guest speaker TBD. The goal with this two-week unit is straightforward: Improve every student’s digital fluency. Students should already have a handle on the basics of HTML and CSS (Complete this Codeacademy course). As you’ll recall from the Media Innovation mission statement, news executives would often prefer to see a great journalist with a basic grasp over the various languages and how they’re best used than a mediocre journalist who can code PHP.

Assignments for October 21: Keep up your blog and social media feeds. Bring a paragraph or two about each of three possible characters to class. This is a little different than finding a story, but the former often leads to the latter. (Submit by Tuesday at noon, as always). The gradable work here, by the way, lies in your ability to find a good, promising character and present the relevant facts that make her interesting. Again, not a perfect story, or even the best possible story, and don’t sweat the prose.

Readings for October 14: More on coding TBD; “The Programmer’s Price,” Lizzie Widdicombe. More on Story Structure TBD. Examples of successful pitches, from magazines, digital publishers, and documentary production houses. Pick one Storybench How To and do it. Be ready to teach the tech to fellow students next class.


October 21:

Newsroom: We’ll review the characters in a group critique format, and discuss how deep reporting—deep as in, you should see if your subject will let you come live with them for a few months—can bring story and otherwise great material to bloom in even the most unpromising soil. • Writing the pitch. • In Media Res, aka, getting your reader/viewer’s attention in the first few sentences, then never letting it wander.

Skills Training: Final session of Unit 2: Breaking the Code for Digital News. Guest speaker TBD.

Assignments for November 4: Blog and SM feeds. Your midterm is due November 4. And look, it’s just a wee little one page assignment! How cute! DO NOT BE FOOLED! The pitch needs to be a polished document capable of persuading even the most jaded editor to consider your proposal with due care.

Also bring a paragraph or two about each of three possible characters to class. This is a little different than finding a story, but the former often leads to the latter. (Submit by Tuesday at noon, as always). The gradable work here, by the way, lies in your ability to find a good, promising character and present the relevant facts that make her interesting. Again, not a perfect story, or even the best possible story, and don’t sweat the prose.

Readings for November 4: “Death to ‘Data Journalism’” from the Upshot in The New York Times. “How Big Data Busted Abraham Lincoln” by ProPublica’s Scott Klein. Watch Journalism in the Age of Data, Stanford University.


October 28: No Class


November 4:

Newsroom: I’ll try to return your midterms right away so we can critique them as a unit. • Anecdote and exposition, the bricks and mortar of non-fiction storytelling. • The story as multi-medium production.

Skills Training: Unit 3: Lies, Damn Lies, and Big Data. Guest speaker Chris Amico will help us introduce our data storytelling unit, which will take up the rest of the semester. We will be working with a real life dataset, a record of every homicide to have taken place within the city of Boston since 1963. During the first two sessions we will concentrate on cleaning, aka, “normalizing” the data to root out the inconsistencies and improper categorizations (dates treated as text, for instance) that have kept us from going public with the database.

Assignments for November 18: Explainer (400 words) due.

Readings for November 18: How to Get to Grips with Data Journalism, Simon Rogers, editor of Guardian’s Data Blog; Scraping for Journalism: A Guide for Collecting Data, Dan Nguyen, ProPublica; Navigating the News With Upshot, by David Leonhart, NYT. The Algorithims of Our Lives, Lev Manovich, The Chronicle;


November 11: Veterans Day. No class.


November 18:

Newsroom: We’re going to run an abbreviated newsroom to make way for the second day of our data unit. We’ll watch a few of the selected videos and cover some video production fundamentals. A basic grasp of these skills will serve you well over the next 18 months. (And that’s true even if you’re working with a smart phone—many of which shoot higher quality video than an expensive camcorder did ten years ago.) We strongly encourage you to record either audio or video of all your interactions with your subjects (the Murphys) so long as it will not compromise their trust or otherwise alienate them.

Skills Training: Unit 3: Lies, Damn Lies, and Big Data. Matt Carroll, former data journalist at the Boston Globe and current head of the Future of News Initiative at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, will discuss how Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) began and morphed into data journalism as both the tools and the data moved online. He will also provide a quick, hands-on demonstration of the tool we’ll use to clean our data, Open Refine.

Assignments for December 2: TBD. Ideally we will farm out discrete pieces of our homicide dataset to each student, then reunite the clean data when we come back from the Thanksgiving break.

Readings for December 2: Primer on Data Visualization TBD. “When data journalism becomes datum journalism” by Alberto Cairo. Audio interview with The New York Times’s Amanda Cox about working with data.


November 25: Thanksgiving. No Class.


December 2:

Newsroom: We’ll try to keep the time we devote to newsroom to a minimum again. Final, polished pitches are due in two weeks. Some students will invariably have encountered some major or minor calamity. (Spoiler alert: They’re all minor.) • Group Exercise Part I: Draw a standard line chart mapping the group’s estimation for the rate of violence throughout human history.

Skills Training: Unit 3: Lies, Damn Lies, and Big Data. Guest speaker Dietmar Offenhuber will kick off the second part of our data storytelling unit by discussing data visualization. We’ll also explore some programs, such as ChartBuilder, that have made Data Viz something closer to a consumer hobby.

Assignments for December 9: Use the Homicide Watch dataset, split into groups, clean it.

Readings for December 9: Excerpt from Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.


December 9:

Newsroom: We’ll troubleshoot final pitches again, and otherwise address last minute concerns. We’ll also discuss media treatments and brainstorm for eventual venues for students work, but not at the expense of the data unit. This assignment was to get you ahead of the ball for Studio II, when you’ll go into actual production on your Big project. • Group Exercise Part II: Using what you’ve learned from Pinker, draw a standard line chart mapping the group’s estimation for the rate of violence throughout human history.

Skills Training: Final Session of Unit 3: Lies, Damn Lies, and Big Data. We’ll look at everyone’s charts. Guest speaker TBD.


December 16:

FINALS WEEK. I generally decline to give a final test, and the only reason we would convene on this day is if we need the additional class time to finish the Data Storytelling unit.

Assignments Due: Final Pitch along with source list, transcripts, updated bibliography, and video and audio footage.

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