In the inaugural experimental storytelling course as part of the Innovator-in-Residence program, students investigated Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) drug abuse among college students – focusing in particular on their classmates at WVU.

The in-depth reporting project, “The Drug Next Door,” was designed as a mobile-first project. The story incorporates a mix of data visualization, audio, video, social media and traditional boots-on-the-ground reporting.

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The School’s first Innovator-in-Residence Sarah Slobin, then senior graphics editor at The Wall Street Journal, co-taught the course with Associate Professor John Temple and Dana Coester. Through the Innovator-in-Residence program, the School of Journalism is able to bring to campus top media professionals who are leading experimental change in their own newsrooms.

Coester says the program is designed to connect students with media innovators who are tackling new challenges in the industry.

“Industry experts, like Sarah, are at the forefront of coming up with new solutions for storytelling, and this lets students become a part of that process,” said Coester.

 

In this case, students were responding to the current challenge of how to design and develop a news project for mobile for mobile delivery. A story experienced on a mobile device requires the process of “atomization” (or breaking it down into smaller parts) that make the story more user-friendly for a mobile audience.

Beyond taking a mobile-first approach, students were also challenged to work outside their areas of expertise and traditional silos.

Throughout the spring semester, journalism students worked as a trans-disciplinary team with students from WVU’s creative arts and engineering colleges to produce the data-driven, device-centric project from conceptualization to published product.

“We worked across disciplines in this project – from polling to data to multimedia to social media – so there was always a chance to learn something and always a chance to make mistakes,” said Slobin. “It’s not an easy way to work, but given how fluid the digital storytelling landscape is in journalism, learning how to fail fast and fail gracefully is an excellent skill set.”

Journalism senior Bryan Bumgardner says the class was unlike any other journalism course he has taken.

“By forcing us to do multiple things – and not just the thing we’re really good at – that pushed us outside our comfort zone,” said Bumgardner. “That’s how it should always be if journalism is going to survive. A writer should never have to ask a developer, ‘Can we do that?’ You should already have a sense of whether it’s doable or not.”

Mentorship within the class from industry professionals enabled an immersive experience for students that cannot be matched in traditional curriculum. In addition to working closely with Slobin, students interacted weekly with other journalists through Google+ Hangouts, including Megan Thee, editor for news surveys at The New York Times; Mark Scheffler, deputy editor for video at The Wall Street Journal; Brian Boyer, news applications editor at NPR; and Greg Pliska, music composer for film, theater and television.

In 2014, Brian Boyer, then news applications editor for NPR, visits class via Google Hangout to talk with students about mobile-first reporting.
In 2014, Brian Boyer, then news applications editor for NPR, visits class via Google Hangout from the newsroom to guide students in their mobile-first reporting.

In addition, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, a 2009 School of Journalism alumna and producer/director of the Peabody award-winning Hollow, worked with the students on content strategy and curation, editing and outreach. Using her experience in self-distribution and marketing of Hollow, Sheldon also helped the team develop a plan to market and promote the story to multiple audiences.

Students used guerilla marketing tactics to help promote “The Drug Next Door” project.
Students used guerilla marketing tactics to help promote “The Drug Next Door” project.