How SRCCON Changed the Way I Teach Journalism

Strategies to transform how you teach and train in the classroom or the newsroom.

(Roel Dierckens)

I walked into class as a journalism professor for the first time feeling smug about the website I’d made for the course. The students would surely take one glance at my stylish-but-legible font choices and gratefully realize I had so much to teach them. I wrote the URL on the board and waited. It quickly became apparent that a not-insignificant portion of the class had no idea what a URL was or what to do with it. (You don’t necessarily need URLs in a smartphone world of apps and links and share icons.)

So, two minutes into my teaching career, I realized I was the one with a lot to learn. I misjudged teaching in broader ways, too. I wanted to dash into the classroom straight from the newsroom and breathlessly explain How the News Industry Works. Not so long ago I sat in those same chairs, knowing so little, and now I had the opportunity to share all that I’d learned! But telling students what to do is not the same as telling them why, and explaining professional journalism conventions reveals how weak the justifications often are. Now, of course I want my students to successfully get jobs in the news industry—but more than that, I want them to feel empowered to change it.

Nothing has shaped my approach to teaching more than SRCCON, which is on the surface a conference about technology and innovation in news. But it’s also a stealthy conference about education. A growing body of research shows that the content we learn is significantly affected by how we learn it, and that experiences seemingly unrelated to the topic at hand—whether you belong, whether you have perspective on your place in the world, whether you connect with your core values—shape the way we receive and retain new information. Attending SRCCON transformed my own perspective on teaching by demonstrating how popular education strategies benefit professional journalists—and you can also use these strategies in newsrooms and journalism.

Decentralize Power

The moves toward engagement and community-centered journalism parallel the push toward “active learning” in education. Both are, at heart, a rejection of the traditional transfer model of an authority figure bestowing knowledge upon the passive masses. At SRCCON, this is why sessions are led by “facilitators,” who are expected to foster participation and discouraged from presenting lengthy slide decks.

This isn’t a new idea, but it’s still rare to see it fully implemented. Relinquishing power is difficult and often messy. It’s not especially efficient. In education, it’s much easier to prepare a lecture and deliver it year after year than it is to enter a classroom unsure of what will happen. Improvisation is exhausting! In news, it was much simpler back when you could publish a story, assume your audience was enlightened, and move on to the next thing. But it’s well-established that people don’t learn much from what’s critically called the “sage on stage” approach.

The alternative in education is active learning, which is really any participatory instructional method that requires students to do something—talk to each other, write a reflection, come up with examples, sort or rank things, etc. It can be an approach to curriculum, but it’s more broadly about trusting people to be involved in their own learning and welcoming what they bring to the process rather than suppressing it.

It’s also about recognizing that we have a limited amount of shared time and need to use it wisely, which is also true of conferences and meetings. In education, this leads to the flipped classroom, where students do the lecture portion of a course on their own time—typically as readings or pre-recorded videos—so class time can be reserved for working through hands-on activities together. But it could also mean watching a video or listening to a podcast during class if collectively absorbing and processing the story is a more powerful experience. Shared time is valuable, but only if everyone expects it to be.

Strategies to try

Tend the tomatoes. There are lots of analogies we can use here, but let’s imagine growing tomatoes. Along with water and sunshine, the plant may need a wire cage or a wooden stake to guide the vine upward as it grows. You can help the plant, but you can’t make a tomato. It has to make the tomato on its own. Similarly, educators use scaffolded projects, which break large tasks into small steps so students can reach a high standard without getting overwhelmed. Think about how you can provide an outline, structure or process instead of filling in all the blanks.

Make the most of time spent together. None of us wants to attend a meeting that could have been an email, so what’s useful about gathering everyone together? In education, class time allows students to learn from each other and solve problems more quickly. It might allow everyone on a team to freely discuss ideas without distractions. Make sure everyone can play an active role and the time commitment matches the value of participating.

Ask: “Am I doing something for people that they could do for themselves?” This is a good question for managing your own workload, but it’s also about involving others in the entire process. When I prep for classes, I often spend a ton of time doing something like finding examples to illustrate certain design principles. If I flip that around, searching for examples becomes a useful activity that gives students practice in applying abstract ideas. In news, this is an option if you find that it’s hard to categorize a messy dataset or if two definitions provide widely different results—take your audience into that process, perhaps with an interactive that shows how the outcome differs depending on which definition you use.

Make Space for All Voices

Too many forums still operate on the assumption that if you just provide an opportunity to talk, anyone with something to say will speak up and a “conversation” will happen. But those with the most to contribute might, for many reasons, be the most reluctant. A lawless arena dominated by the loudest is not really a space for all voices.

So, if it’s not enough to merely invite conversation and sit back, what can you do? I’ve borrowed a lot of ideas from SRCCON for my classes, even though those two spaces exemplify different challenges—at SRCCON, it can feel like everyone wants to talk, unlike an 8 a.m. class of undergraduates staring at screens to avoid my gaze. In either situation, look out for the negative space: Who isn’t volunteering? Who is engaged but silent? What viewpoints aren’t getting represented? Avoid putting anyone on the spot, but acknowledge the unraised hands along with the raised ones, and leave a few beats of silence.

Strategies to try:

Set ground rules. Tell people what’s allowed and what’s not, especially as it relates to personal behavior. It’s important to have this formalized as a Code of Conduct or, in teaching, as part of the syllabus. That establishes the tone, but ground rules aren’t a one-time thing. Follow up with reminders, and specifics about the process. For example, it’s OK to say, “This topic disproportionately affects women, so I’m going to prioritize comments from women in this room.”

Think-Pair-Share. This is a classic discussion framework in education, and the purpose is improving large-group discussing by quickly workshopping ideas. This can be done in minute-long increments, like one minute to think about a response and one minute to discuss it with a partner, before sharing highlights with the larger group. Since some people are hesitant to share with a large group, you can try variations like having partners share the other person’s idea.

Silent feedback. Create standard methods for sharing thoughts without speaking up. Quick online forms are one option, or using sticky notes to collect or categorize ideas. Another option is body voting, such as asking people to give a “fist to five” scaled response by holding up a hand or asking people to move around a room to position themselves as data points. (Of course, anything requiring a particular physical ability should have an alternative for anyone who can’t easily perform that action.)

Have phrases on hand. Especially if you’d rather avoid conflict, rehearse responses for keeping discussion fair and on track. Keep track of who has talked, and scan the room for anyone who looks like they want to contribute. It can work well to have two-part phrases that acknowledge the question or contribution, then pivot to other voices: “That’s a good question; let’s hold that for later on.” “I hadn’t thought about it that way; let’s see what others have to say, especially anyone who hasn’t spoken yet.” “This is really interesting; let’s follow up later to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak now.”

Encourage self-regulation. Remind people to think of how they personally fit into the group dynamic. During a lunch conversation at SRCCON:POWER, Joe Amditis of the Center for Cooperative Media introduced me to Cathy Deng’s clever open-source app, arementalkingtoomuch.com. Try it out at your next large meeting, or with TV news! But what’s brilliant is not the precise timing, but how it makes everyone aware that we often hear certain voices more than others.

Celebrate the Process of Learning

Journalism tends to attract people who are curious and enjoy learning. But professional language often celebrates knowledge as an unchanging personal characteristic. She is talented. He is a genius. To qualify, you must be an expert. This type of language undermines the reality that everyone has to work on skills, and we can all improve, even if there is some variation in natural aptitude. This is psychologist Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset,” and in education and business it’s replacing long-held “fixed mindset” beliefs about innate intelligence. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows an association between fixed mindset beliefs and stereotypical beliefs about who is smart.)

In general, news nerds are pretty good at maintaining a culture of learning, since no one expects technical work to be the same as it was 15 or even 5 years ago. SRCCON sessions rarely focus on learning a specific technical skill, but there is an overall focus on growth and change, with activities that gently nudge people out of their comfort zones. At the most recent SRCCON, Lewis Raven Wallace of Press On used a session assumption that SRCCON organizers amplified as a theme of the entire conference: “We all have work to do.” This is both humbling and encouraging, and succinctly reinforces that this community values progress.

During a SRCCON session in 2017, Eric Nelson introduced me to the power of the trailing “yet”—if a student says she can’t do a thing, add “yet” to the end. This is part of Dweck’s paradigm, which has a little bit of self-help fervor, but I’m amazed how often I can apply this with myself: I don’t have much experience with that (yet). I’m not good in that type of situation (yet). I also remind my students frequently that if their classmates are better at a particular skill, it’s almost definitely because they’ve practiced it more. This isn’t exactly fair—there’s nothing fair about the fact that some students excel because their families could afford fancy gear and free time, while others squeeze in what they can between multiple jobs—but it allows us to have more realistic expectations for ourselves.

It’s empowering to acknowledge the capacity for change. It also removes the excuses we make for ourselves and each other. I have a lot of students every semester, and I’m not great at remembering names. At least, that’s what I used to apologetically tell my classes. That announcement was really just an abdication from the effort of learning names. Our strengths and skills say much more about our priorities than about our innate abilities.

Strategies to try:

Share your process. Most of our work involves a certain amount of fumbling around and guess-and-check, which is not as glorious as the end result. I used to get embarrassed and flustered when I made mistakes while demoing something in class, but now I’m glad when I mess up or when students ask me something I don’t know, because then I get to model the process of figuring it out. In news, being transparent about the reporting process improves trust and credibility even if most people don’t bother to read it.

Get slightly less bad at something. There are lots of things we know aren’t our strengths. Choose something that kind of scares you, work-related or not—investing, pronouncing names, folding fitted sheets, whatever—and set out a plan to get better at it. Even with an hour of deliberate learning, you’ll see improvement. Artist Leah Kohlenberg leads drawing workshops for journalists, including a session at a previous SRCCON, for this exact reason. At some point growing up, most of us decide we’re just not that good at drawing, and do it less. But drawing is a skill, and seeing improvement when we practice makes us more open to learning other things, too.

Praise effort. There’s a stigma around praising effort as a last resort, like a “most improved” consolation prize. It’s cool to make it look effortless. But this leads to a culture where people care more about appearing smart than actually learning. Acknowledging effort everywhere creates a culture that values growth and improvement, and makes people more willing to collaborate and ask for help.

Meet Physical Needs

About a year before her death, actor Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame) posted a lyrical tweet that I think about often: “My body is my brain bag, it hauls me around to those places & in front of faces where theres something to say or see”

Our “brain bags” are pretty spectacular, really, but the messy realities of our physical selves often distract from the work our brains are doing. The first time I attended SRCCON, it reminded me of grown-up summer camp for reasons I couldn’t quite pinpoint, and I think it’s because physical needs are met in a way that reminds me of being a kid. Everyone is well-fed and hydrated (and caffeinated, if you wish). There is a quiet room if you need a break. There are supplies in the restrooms, which is logistically helpful and also makes using the restroom feel like part of the conference rather than an inconvenience.

We can’t think at our best if our physical needs are unmet, yet many work environments make this actively difficult. I’m not sure I want my students to think of me as a “mom” figure, but we’re all better off with some nurturing, so sometimes I lean into it and urge them to stretch during class, get a flu shot, not glorify all-nighters, etc. Because I want to teach my students about accessibility practices in news, I’ve been forced to confront what I never learned in newsrooms about the how and the why, and it’s led me to change some of my own course policies since the accommodations needed by a few often benefit everyone at least some of the time.

Of course, other types of physical characteristics—weight, skin color, gender presentation, disabilities—also affect how comfortable we feel in a given situation. We need to see people who look like us to know that space is for us. And even if we believe that some learning and news coverage should take people beyond their comfort zones, we also need to acknowledge how violent photos or certain data are not uncomfortable in the same way for everyone.

Strategies to try:

Be trained to help. Especially if you have any type of leadership role, make sure you can answer questions about the nearest bathroom, nearest vending machine, closest accessible exit. Take a mental health first aid course. Look out for people.

Anticipate requests. Set up spaces so people don’t need to ask or apologize for what their bodies need. Expect to accommodate various needs instead of throwing something together when it comes up. Trust people; don’t require proof or permission. In news, make accessibility practices part of the standard process rather than optional or occasional.

Create spaces that feel supportive, inclusive, and equitable. Representation matters in education, and research confirms that students from underrepresented groups are more likely to experience common setbacks as evidence that they don’t belong. Discussing and naming these feelings, as stereotype threat or imposter syndrome—a common topic at SRCCON—makes it easier to deal with them. When I tell my journalism students there’s a place for them in the industry, I sincerely hope that’s true.

Make Room for Transformation

While attending the most recent SRCCON, it came up in a few conversations with folks attending for the first time that sessions can be a little negative toward journalism. This surprised me at first, because I think of SRCCON as being uniquely friendly and supportive. But these aren’t contradictory views. The outcome, when people can contribute and grow, be heard and welcomed, is a space where people are eager for candid discussion of problems and what we can do about them, individually and collectively.

After the conference, I found myself thinking back to disagreements, moments of tension, and times when people quietly or overtly rejected a particular premise. Both in education and in news, we tend to think of engagement as a cheery, uniting experience—and it can be!—but getting along is not the point. The goal is creating spaces where we can be transformed by one another, and leave thinking in a slightly different way.

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