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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Education Toolbox

Sites help students build portfolios

By Jeff South

Kate Lewanowicz, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, knew she had a compelling story when she witnessed a shouting match between a fiery street preacher and sign-waving students in VCU’s free-speech zone. There was just one problem when Lewanowicz pitched the idea to the editors at the campus newspaper, the Commonwealth Times: They had recently published a similar piece.

So Lewanowicz submitted her story to UPIU.com, a news Web site created for college journalists by the UPI wire service. Lewanowicz’s article soon became the site’s most popular story; UPI even selected the piece for publication on UPI.com and sent it to subscribing media outlets.

In recent years, the Internet has spawned dozens of sites where fledgling and veteran journalists can post stories. These sites are an opportunity for budding reporters to get published — and old pros to disseminate articles to a different audience.

Some sites are affiliated with mainstream media organizations, such as CNN’s iReport.com. Others are start-ups like NowPublic.com, which calls itself the world’s largest citizen-journalism organization.

Some sites are local, such as ChicagoTalks.org, published by Columbia College Chicago. Others are international, like Map Your Moments (MaYoMo.com).

Many sites let users self-publish — and their content often includes opinionated rants and copyright violations. Other sites, such as GroundReport.com, vet every story for accuracy and style and pride themselves on producing objective and original breaking news and analysis.

“GroundReport’s goal is to support high-quality reporting on important issues and events around the world,” said Rachel Sterne, a former United Nations reporter who founded the site in 2006.

GroundReport has more than 7,000 registered contributors. Sterne estimates that half are professional journalists, a fifth are student journalists, and the rest are bloggers and professionals in areas such as business or technology. GroundReport syndicates its stories to LexisNexis, Google News and The Huffington Post.

Most sites don’t pay for articles. But for young journalists especially, the payoff is clips that can be used in hunting for internships and jobs.

Harumi Gondo, the international coordinator for UPIU, said 3,000 student journalists from around the world have registered to publish on her site. Besides building their portfolios, they get feedback from UPIU’s faculty mentors. The mentors help students improve their articles — particularly the 120 stories chosen so far for distribution by UPI.

The new media journalists occasionally have scooped old media — or at least added a perspective lacking in mainstream news. GroundReport, for example, broke stories about domestic violence in Afghanistan and Tibetan protests at the Beijing Olympics; and through UPIU, students at Michigan State University explored Islam in America.

Not every contributor gets high marks. Gondo recalled a student who traveled the world filing stories: “He was a great writer. His stories were unbelievable. And it turns out, they were unbelievable. We don’t know how many stories or sources he made up — for example, he made up a whole luxury mall in Brazil — and we eventually had to delete his account.”

More news organizations are opening their Web pages to college journalists. In February, The New York Times announced that journalism students at New York University would cover the East Village for a Times blog. And The Huffington Post started aggregating content from college newspapers and planned to create a team of 30 college journalists to cover college issues.

You don’t have to attend a particular school or be selected for a special team to contribute to most citizen journalism sites. Consider (at right) a few places you can publish your work now.

Jeff South teaches journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University and chairs SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee. He can be reached at jcsouth@vcu.edu.

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