Backpack journalism offers refreshing take on news reporting

Release Date: 12/11/2012

University of the Ozarks' communication department has always worked to stay ahead of the ever-evolving world of news reporting. This semester, Ozarks' Backpack Journalism class implemented one of the latest trends in journalism: blogging.

Director of Broadcasting Susan Edens taught the Backpack Journalism course during the 2012 Fall Semester and envisioned a class producing in-depth features and managing a strong online presence.

The concept behind backpack journalism is to teach students how to be completely self-contained as journalists. The students were to act as reporters, photographers, and editors for their own pieces.

Alejandro Córdoba

Alejandro Córdoba, a sophomore communication major from Costa Rica, is the blog editor of the Backpack Journalism course. The course blog, which contains video features produced by U of O students, can be found at http://ozarksbackpacknews.blogspot.com.

Alejandro Córdoba, a sophomore communication major from Costa Rica, acted as blog editor for the Backpack Journalism course. According to Córdoba, the innovative quality of the course began with its journalistic focus.

"Backpack journalism is a really different way to make news. There are more of what we call features," Córdoba said. "We peel more layers of the onion, so to speak. We want to get on the human side of every issue. The main idea of the class is not to just report on the event, but to go beyond and actually have a conversation with those involved."

The class as a whole knew they could create great news stories, but the challenge then was how to get those stories out to the public.

"When the semester started, the idea was to develop our online presence as a media outlet," Córdoba explained.

"We already uploaded our videos to YouTube for people to watch, but we didn't have a website for our news stories. The idea was to develop a blog for this class as an opportunity to make a place for ourselves on the web," he said.

As blog editor, Córdoba was responsible for designing an attractive and functional home for each student's posts.

"We assigned roles from the very beginning of class. I stepped in as blog editor, because I had some experience developing blogs back home in Costa Rica," Córdoba said.

"I admit that I don't know everything about web design, so when I started the Backpack Journalism blog I began with a template. I worked for hours doing research on how to make this template work for us," he said.

Just one of the issues Córdoba faced was how to properly coordinate and catalog each post with so many contributors.

"Susan Edens gave me the flexibility to develop blogging guidelines for the rest of the class, so that each person's posts would fit into the blog," Córdoba said. "Our idea was to have our stories presented in a professional manner on the main page, but we also needed them to be accessible in other ways. That was a challenge."

As with most creative solutions, Córdoba's answer was simple and effective.

"I was looking for a way to link all the stories in groups," he said. "Websites have pages of material that link back to one another, but this isn't a website. I decided the best way to make that happen was to assign labels to each post, and basically make each label its own tab in the blog."

"For example, if the format of a story is a video, it should include the 'video' label. That way, when someone clicks on the 'video' tab, they'll have a list of all the posts that included videos. That was another reason why I wanted to standardize the way everyone posts to the blog," he said.

Córdoba's favorite Backpack Journalism project was actually his first production for the blog, a piece called "The Campus Keepers."

"It's a story about the maintenance department here on campus. I started working for them as part of my work-study at the beginning of this semester. It got me thinking that, even though every department offers something to campus, the maintenance department is really important," Córdoba said.

"If they weren't here, many things would not be done. The buildings wouldn't be clean. The lights wouldn't work. Our equipment would be in disrepair. These are all things that we take for granted every day that we wouldn't have if the maintenance department didn't exist. The people I've met there are amazing, and I wanted to showcase them a little. I wanted to show how wonderful they are and how important they are to campus.

For Córdoba and the rest of the backpack journalists, producing news for a blog has been an exciting and informative way to learn.

"This is a very different way of delivering your homework. In fact, you don't really think of it as homework," Córdoba said.

"There wasn't necessarily a due date on our projects. We had to keep our eyes peeled for new stories and ways to go beyond the surface of those stories all the time. In a way, it's been like learning in a laboratory. We've had to go out into the field, talk to people, and gather contacts. We've had to stay on top of the digital component of the class as well: recording, editing, and posting to the blog. It's been an amazing hands-on experience," he said.

For more information about Ozarks' Backpack Journalism course as well as profiles of the student contributors and access to their latest stories, visit their blog at http://ozarksbackpacknews.blogspot.com.