Adapting a newsroom to life online, and picking up Slack

Adapting a newsroom to life online, and picking up Slack

In normal times, Computer Lab 3 is Terra Tailleur’s favourite spot on campus. Tailleur is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism, and the lab usually serves as the newsroom for her News Reporting Workshop. It was always abuzz with energy.

“It was a busy, happening place. There would be people coming in and out all day,” Tailleur says. “There would be desktop computers all over the place, so you’d have students hunkered down, writing their drafts or researching stories they were working on. They’d always be asking questions, bouncing ideas off each other and offering suggestions to each other. It was always loud, there was always something happening, and the room would buzz.”

That’s an atmosphere that’s not exactly easy to replicate online.

She says, “It’s so completely different now. The challenge for me has been how do I create that buzz in the newsroom when nobody can gather in one place? And I’m not going to lie: it’s been a challenge.”

The newsroom energy was also part of what drew journalism student Simon Smith to King’s. It was so important to him, that he considered deferring his studies when he learned courses would all be online. But he’s glad he stuck with it. “I had a good feeling that things would work out—and, luckily, I think they have,” he says.

Of course, King’s journalism students find themselves facing many of the same constraints as professional journalists—and using the same tools. They edit in Google Docs, for instance. Tailleur says one tool that has proved invaluable is Slack, the messaging app.

“My days are all Slack all the time, and thankfully it’s been the one tool that has allowed us to communicate as a newsroom. The students are all on Slack. The teaching team is on Slack. We communicate in terms of quick assignments or back-and-forth with students. So that’s been a really a big lifesaver for us,” she says.

Zane Woodford, who is part of the workshop teaching team, has been covering Halifax City Council for years.

“I used to kind of scoff at media outlets that covered Halifax Regional Council remotely thinking, what are you guys doing? You’re missing these little interactions… and you’re missing getting to know the councillors so that they tell you things. And now that’s just the reality,” he says. “A student can really jump in and basically have the same experience that I do.”

“The challenge for me has been how do I create that buzz in the newsroom when nobody can gather in one place?”

With breaking news, Woodford says, “We get a story out in what I would describe as a pretty real-world working journalism workflow. And pretty quickly, especially for first-year students who come into this workshop used to handing things in a couple of days out. Within a few weeks, they learn to hand things in within a couple of hours.”

The university provided journalism students with kits (microphone, phone adapter, tripod) to help them gather news. But for those doing audio and video reporting, there are additional challenges to not being on campus.

“It’s more difficult in a video or audio environment where you’re having to move around fairly big files,” says Director of the School of Journalism, Tim Currie. “So that element of editing audio and video is much more of a challenge than simply working with text and images.”

And for students in communities with more tenuous internet speeds, that can be difficult.

On the other hand, having students doing their courses online while living in other communities has increased the range of stories they can cover. “We’re certainly casting a wider net in our sourcing for our stories,” he said.

“They’re coming up with really compelling story ideas. And I’m really impressed with that, considering how challenging it is to report these days,” Tailleur says. But she also sees a difference in multimedia. “We do stress photography, but these days it’s really difficult to do that. Because of the restrictions, you don’t have as many people out there doing things, and we obviously can’t have students breaking any of the physical distancing guidelines. So that hampers a few things. We have to get creative.”

At one point during the fall semester, Tailleur got tired of working at home and dropped in on Computer Lab 3. “I went and sat at the end of the table and just thought how lonely and quiet the place was,” she says, and notes she hasn’t been back.

But even though faculty and students are physically apart, Smith says, “Everyone has come together to make this year the best it can be. Despite not being able to get together physically, it’s really been a quite active environment. I’ve done collective stories with my classmates, and they’ve helped me to get photos of things in Halifax that I wouldn’t be able to. So that’s been something that’s been really helpful in the online format—having a good positive group that works together.”

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