Is central Iowa home to the next great media brand?

For a journalism student, the blogosphere lately has been full of conversations that should lead to some reflection opportunities. First, there’s been the debate surrounding Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s public claim denouncing journalists’ personal branding. Then yesterday, Jeff Jarvis posted a less talked about, but insightful, post on Buzz Machine dealing with the value of relationships in journalism versus content. Two seemingly different topics, however, for my peers and for up-and-coming journalists at Simpson College, they weave themselves together in a discussion that’s worth taking apart.

To sum up Jarvis’ “Content Dethroned” post in a paragraph (be sure though, to go and read the post), today, it’s not articles, photos or video in and of themselves that attract people to our journalism. Content now, Jarvis argues, is user generated (i.e., status updates on Facebook) and it’s everywhere. Now, value comes from creating relationships and extracting connections from the mass amount of data that users create. He sites a study in which researches were able to predict the rise and fall of the Dow Jones Industrial Average based upon Twitter conversations. Interpreting and reporting these types of connections is the direction in which Jarvis says journalists must realign themselves.

It seems that those on the forefront of new media certainly agree with Jarvis and give credibility to his claim. Keeping that in mind, I’m going to make what may be a radical claim. I think it’s possible for the next great media brand to come out of Simpson College. I’ve been around the people enough to know that the potential is there. Here’s my reasoning.

First, if there’s one thing a liberal arts education prepares you for, it’s making and drawing upon connections between multiple disciplines. It certainly happens in Simpson’s classrooms, but a few students are carrying these connections to the web as well. Check out Senior Erin Guzman’s sites, including her blog and tumblelog. Often, she writes about her studies as a religion major or her world travel and she integrates Twitter (amongst tweets about her roomates’ summer adventures) as a tool for philosophic discussions. It’s personal, but also has journalistic merit and draws connections in a way that is meaningful for readers.

Second, fortunately, we’re in an area of the country where people are building technologies that are fundamentally meant to connect people. This, I think, was highlighted at Macy Koch’s Startup Storm event in April, where speakers such as Dwolla‘s Ben Milne discussed entrepreneurship and startups. While these companies have little to do directly with journalism, the sounding board for ideas that Des Moines-based professionals can offer could be a huge resource for students if they reach out. It’s one personal goal of mine to become more aggressive in networking and I’d love to have more join me.

Also at Startup Storm, Lava Row founder and CEO Nathan Wright complimented Simpson students on being extremely active on social networks, specifically Twitter. While there’s always room for improvement, I think Simpson has some serious momentum on Twitter. If students would readjust their focus on how they use the network, they could be exposed and expose others to the ideas and conversations from which future media brands will grow.

I hope that there are a few others in the Simpson community who see this happening and who recognize the potential for growth. This brings me around to my final point, launching the next great media brand from Simpson College. In one of the many blogs arguing Weingarten’s anti-branding stance, I read a quote from Forbes editor Lewis DVorkin. “Pandering for traffic is not brand building. Winning the respect of your audience is.” To win respect, there must first be a relationship. Simply combine the understanding of relationships and the resources I highlighted above with the passion for communicating and community that I’ve seen multiple times from Simpson students, and you have the recipe for a great brand, right from the “small” school in the middle of Iowa. And who knows, this brand could be developed through the efforts of an enterprising student, or through the team efforts of The Simpsonian (I think it’s poised for great things this year). All that matters is that somebody gets out and does it.
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Ankeny Summer Sounds with The Eldorados

If you haven’t listened to any Sun or Chess Records material lately, The Eldorados are a refreshing reminder of why guys like Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Howlin’ Wolf are legendary. Now, it might be considered tame, but then, this stuff was reckless.

I shot this video with a Canon Vixia HF s20 and a Rode shotgun mic, trying to capture all the sights and sounds of the event. Enjoy, and keep an eye out at 1:59. I think that might be George Jones in the audience.

Turning Simpson College students into brand ambassadors

I’ve been at my internship with the City of Ankeny‘s public relations department for just under a month now and I couldn’t even begin to detail the things I’ve learned about effective marketing and brand development. Of the many insightful conversations I’ve sat in on and the experiences I’ve had, one of the most interesting projects I’ve seen is one that did not even begin with the city.

Earlier in June, the city asked citizens to post pictures and stories from Ankeny parks on its Facebook page. One response came from a woman who, along with her kids, had made it a goal to visit all 37 of the city’s parks in one summer, blogging about their adventures along the way. Another group of women had the same goal and ran a Facebook page dedicated to the challenge. Effectively, these women were acting as brand ambassadors for the city, positively promoting Ankeny’s parks via social media. It goes without saying that having this sort of engagement with an audience can be a powerful tool for a marketer.

All this lead me to think about my experiences in Simpson’s PR department, where, essentially, I worked as a paid student brand ambassador, developing videos and stories on life at Simpson to give prospective students a glimpse inside the Simpson Experience. This is a great program, however, I’m imagining the promotional campaigns that could be achieved if more of the college’s 1,500 students became engaged as brand ambassadors. Is it possible to engage students in a way that is both beneficial to the college and fun for the student? I’d say it’s certainly possible with a little resourcefulness and it wouldn’t even require many resources on the college’s part.

For Simpson College, it could be beneficial to follow the same model as the City of Ankeny. For instance, it would be simple to set up a competition during homecoming, asking students to post their pictures of the week’s activities on the school’s Facebook page and then offering a prize (a gift certificate to La Casa) for the student who provides the best picture. Not only will that generate attention for the college’s Facebook page, but those students’ friends (many of whom may still be in high school) will see the pictures in their news feed. Perhaps Simpson’s new and improved dining services could offer a hot Foursquare special, which would surely be promoted through students’ Twitter feeds.

None of these ideas are extremely original and they’re being used by all manners of organizations with success. No reason Simpson College shouldn’t be getting in on the action- but I bet there are a lot more original ideas out there on how students can be utilized as brand ambassadors. So, feel free to comment and please be creative! You never know who may be reading!

Navigating the career waters

It’s been a busy May Term for me, as I’ve been a part of Coop 119, Simpson’s job shadowing course. Originally, I signed up for the course hoping to meet professionals and make a few connections that might lead to a job or internship sometime in the future. The shadowing experience has been more however, giving me an inside glimpse of the workings of three media outlets, Iowa Public Televsion, WHO and the Des Moines Register. At the end of it all, I’m even more fired up for the professional world, but even less sure of my “plans.”

On my final day of shadowing, I spent time with several editors and reporters at the Des Moines Register, a paper I’ve always admired. At times, I’d say I even aspire to work at the paper. But, everybody knows the talk about newspaper jobs being hard to find and keep. When I set up my shadowing at the Register, I thought that maybe I could finally confront some of those rumors and talk to professionals about their perceptions. Should I have been surprised at what I found? Maybe not, but here’s basically what two different employees at the paper told me.

Writer 1: Newspapers have been going through a lot of layoffs, but the people who did the best work are still here and newspapers are still functioning.

Writer 2: Keep your options open, the newspaper industry isn’t really that healthy.

So, in the midst of planning a career, or at least a general direction, I find myself asking, who’s right and who’s wrong here? I think after a few days of contemplating though, that this is the wrong question. Really, as a journalism student, you have to appreciate and consider both pieces of advice. The right question to be asking is how can I use my skills as leverage to get a job in journalism. And the answer to that question, I realized after shadowing at WHO and the Register, is something we were told on the first day of Beginning News Writing and Reporting, that digital journalism is the future of journalism.

That last sentence isn’t really a revelation to anybody, but sometimes I don’t think students don’t quite grasp the concept of using the web as a news tool. In an informational interview I had to conduct for the class, I was told by Rod Peterson, WHO’s news director, that, indeed, he is looking for new hires who are fluent with social media. But he went a step further and told me, “it’s not just about people who can say, ‘oh yeah, I’ve sent a tweet,’ but it’s about people who realize the full scope of the tool.” After all, he reminded me, Twitter and Facebook are toppling governments.

And although I’m still not sure of my exact career plans (and we’re all still struggling to figure out how to get a job in the world of communications), I do take pride in the fact that my education thus far has emphasized many of the previously mentioned tools. I’ve now seen firsthand that I do possess the skill set necessary to go into journalism and that alone is assuring.

And if this post seems a little rambling or directionless to any readers, I apologize. Next time I won’t blog and listen to the Old 97’sat the same time.

Folkin’ Around

It’s May Term at Simpson College and things are generally a little more laid back. So, I’m taking this post in a new direction to reflect a little of the relaxation that all students have been experiencing now that finals are over and summer is drawing near.

While browsing Twitter streams yesterday, I came across a bluegrass/roots/folk musician I wasn’t familiar with, Sarah Jarosz, a budding singer/songwriter out of Texas. Apparently, despite thinking of myself as a connoisseur of the genre, I’m a little behind the times when it comes to Jarosz’s music. However, I dug into NPR’s live stream of her new album, “Follow Me Down,” and came out on the other side with some fresh perspective on acoustic music.

One aspect of Jarosz’s music that struck me from the outset of “Follow Me Down” was the dark undertones explored in her music. The opening track, “Run Away,” tells the story of a seemingly forbidden romance, with the narrator urging her partner that now is the time to run away together. For me, with it’s fingerpicked melody and haunting guitar phrases, the song conjures images of the deep south.

Follow me down through the cotton fields, moon shadows shine bright the way you will. Lead us down a road, where no one goes, we can run away… 

Overall, it’s a beautifully crafted song that opens the album well. The next standout came with track three, another haunting piece, “Annabelle Lee,” an Edgar Allen Poe poem adapted and set to music. Here, Jarosz demonstrates her superb clawhammer banjo skills.

Jarosz chose a few interesting covers for “Follow Me Down,” including Radiohead’s, “The Tourist,” and Bob Dylan’s, “Ring Them Bells.” The latter, I’ve heard multiple covers of, however, I’m highly impressed by Jarosz’s. Featuring a chiming dobro solo that I assume is played by dobro master Jerry Douglas, the song has a bright and uplifting feel, relatively absent even in Dylan’s version.

After a full listen of Jarosz’s album, which also includes some killer instrumentals, it’s easy to see where she’s coming from. Her music carries a tradition and sounds forged by bands like Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers (she’s actually jammed with the Punch Brothers, producing this video). It’s rooted in traditional bluegrass and folk, but also carries a sound of its own. All I can say is I hope she travels to Iowa soon!

A perceived lack of communication

It’d be fair to say that most Simpson College students don’t want to cause conflict and would rather skirt around the edges of it than face it head on. That being said, there’s no doubt this year that there has been a fair share of conflict between Simpson’s Student Government Association and our student newspaper, The Simpsonian. It’s been fleshed out, sometimes rationally, sometimes unprofessionally, in opinion articles and blog posts from both sides. Being a class senator and a Simpsonian staff writer over the past year, I often found myself caught in the middle. However, now, I’m a former class senator and a future editor at the Simp and I’m hoping my combined knowledge of both organizations can lead to more harmonious flow between the two.

Before going any further, I need to say, neither side is right or wrong.

In the final edition of the year, the editorial staff of the Simp wrote a column entitled “Thumbs are up and down for 2010-2011,” in which the staff writes,

The communication between students, student groups and Student Government Association (SGA) was lacking this year. The frustration of who got what money all seemed to be a game of who was best liked or who was the most persistent. Things were not consistent throughout the year, which led to more frustration and misunderstanding. 

To address the first point, I think one of SGA’s greatest accomplishments this year has been its creation and updating of its blog, its video blog and its social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter (with every meeting being live-tweeted). With news and content from SGA available on almost every platform a student could access, the “lack of communication” argument simply isn’t valid.

Not to say that the Simp writers don’t have a point. Consistency in how different groups were treated when requesting funding has been an issue, complicated even more by a little-understood finance code in need of a few revisions. In the final student government meetings of the year, discussion on revisions of the finance code revolved around developing two separate codes: one for groups requesting money during the spring budget hearings and a second for groups coming throughout the year requesting money from SGA’s operating budget for specific events or activities. This seems to be the most reasonable proposal brought forth, however, it will be up to next year’s senate and the students at large to ensure that new regulations be put in place.

So if the communication issue is not as big of an issue as previously believed and next year’s senate works to solve the consistency issue, then what else needs to happen to encourage cooperation between the Simp and SGA? On the part of the Simp, I think it’s essential to have a reporter present at SGA meetings. Perhaps this will fall under my authority (as next year’s Perspectives editor I’ve contemplated running a bi-weekly or weekly column on SGA) or will be traded between different reporters. However, as a senator, I’ve seen the nuances, the discussion and sometimes, the confusion that can take place during SGA meetings. To report fairly on the proceedings, it’s essential to have reporters and writers observe and record the various points and arguments discussed during an SGA vote.

Both of these organizations consider themselves to be advocates for students and watchdogs of the administration. Many opportunities exist for cooperation between the two groups in the form of hosting joint forum events or Q&A sessions with administrators. Of course, the Simp always has a duty to report honestly on SGA proceedings and decisions and SGA has the responsibility to make the decisions it thinks are right, even in the face of negative press. Yet in the end, a strong student press and a strong student government working to understand and cooperate with each other can only bring about positive benefits for the Simpson community.

Picking up on Twitter

I noticed a tweet from a professor of mine earlier this morning that read:

“Some of the #SimpsonCollege #BNR students have absolutely no idea how to use Twitter as a journalism tool.”

First off, I couldn’t agree more. From following a few of the Beginning News Writing and Reporting students’ Twitter feeds, it’s evident that many of the students haven’t realized the tool’s full potential. They use a technique (I know from experience) of tweeting information and Simpson news found in emails just to meet the minimum requirements for the class. Yes, it’s unfortunate and can be annoying to follow…but then again, we all start somewhere.

I went back through and dug up some of my old tweets from when I was in Beginning News Writing and Reporting. They were boring. They demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of the use of the hashtag. So I thought, “what were the blocks that held me back from a more thorough understanding of Twitter and why don’t students embrace it more enthusiastically?”

One of the first things I realized is that Twitter as a journalistic tool will only be embraced by journalism students who have a passion for journalism. I’m not convinced that all of my peers have an honest-to-god, live it and breath it passion for journalism. For me, the passion didn’t really hit until sophomore year, so that’s not to say that many of them won’t catch the fever. It’s just that, despite professors’ insistence, many don’t recognize Twitter as a 24/7 journalistic tool.

The second factor that proved to be a setback for me was something a lot of students suffer from: not having a smartphone. It’s arguable, but without a smartphone, Twitter loses much of its excitement. It’s hard to be engaged in Twitter’s conversation with a traditional cell phone, as all the incoming tweets will fill up your inbox. It ends up that for many, the only time to be on Twitter is when a computer is accessible and then Facebook wins the attention-span battle. To fight this, it all goes back to a blog post that Brian Steffen, another professor, wrote earlier in the year about the essential tools for journalism. If you’re a BNR student reading this and you don’t have a smartphone, trust me, it’s the wisest investment you will make in your career as a journalist.

Lastly, while I may be completely off here, from my observation, it doesn’t seem as though some journalism students are plugged into what’s going on in the media world. When it comes to using Twitter as a tool, this is important. Following journalists who use Twitter in great ways is really the only way to learn the skill. A few on top of my list are Andy Carvin (@acarvin), whose Twitter feed documents the situation in Libya and other countries in uprising and Kathie Obradovich (@KObradovich), who is a political columnist at the Des Moines Register. The way they deliver up-to-the-minute news via Twitter is revolutionizing the way consumers use media and on a smaller scale, I think it’s important that students incorporate their techniques and adapt them to fit their own style.

So although I agree with my professor’s tweet, I think it’s important to remember that all aspects of multimedia journalism are trial and error procedures. The only way students will improve is with time, practice and exposure to this medium.