Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Investing time in Open Secrets

Red River College journalism students are demonstrating the importance of original work.

For the last three months the students in my second-year Creative Communications journalism major have used Manitoba’s freedom-of-information legislation to dig out untold stories. Open Secrets, the Winnipeg Free Press calls the resulting stories that it is publishing.

Some of the information is striking, such as the fact that Manitoba’s task force on missing women does not officially exist.

Other topics include the scarcity of complaints to the government body that regulates bar bouncers despite a string of serious incidents and even death at Winnipeg bars – and the shocking lack of training required to become a bouncer.

This is the second year I have run this assignment, and again I am impressed by the quality of the students’ work.

They pulled this off while doing a multitude of other assignments for me, including interviewing voters and candidates for, profiling notable people for the official history of Red River College, to be published in the fall of 2011, and spending full days on such assignments as covering trials at the Law Courts.

Oh yes, they were also taking half a dozen other courses that require a ton of time and effort.

I hear that one or two of them are even trying to have private lives.

Their achievements prove that blending a longer-term view of journalism with the minute-to-minute demands of daily news pays off. Their success is a rebuke to those professional news media that live for the moment, never creating anything genuinely new.

Newspaper chains and private broadcasters, are you listening?

If all you offer your audience is routine coverage of public events such as car crashes and press conferences, nobody needs you any more.

Breaking news is becoming a commodity. Anyone can blog, post videos to YouTube, and report on Twitter.

But your salvation could lie in creating unique content, as these students have done.

Thanks to the Free Press, particularly the two journalists who made this project happen.

Mary Agnes Welch helped the students refine their information requests and pursue the stories that resulted. Wendy Sawatzky worked with them to create material that helped tell the stories online.

Watch for more unique work from these students in 2011.