MSU Students Embrace Online Publishing With an ‘Edge’

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By: Miki Johnson

Michigan State University instructor Bonnie Bucqueroux believes that her students are the future of journalism, and now she’s looking to prove it with SpartanEdge.com, a student-run Web site that promises the “the future of online campus news is now.”

The idea for SpartanEdge arose after Bucqueroux invited MLive.com Senior Producer Bill Emkow to speak to her Intro to Mass Media class last year. Bucqueroux says she was surprised to hear him say that few graduates coming out of J-school show an interest in working on the Internet.

Bucqueroux was surprised because she knew “a ton” of freshmen and sophomores interested in Web publishing.

“They felt that’s where journalism is going,” she said.

Hoping to give students an arena to display their Web savvy, she created SpartanEdge.com, a student-run alternative to the university’s main newspaper Web site.

Bucqueroux began meeting with interested students before Christmas and the first content went up over the holiday break (the site officially went live Jan. 16). She runs SpartanEdge through the Canadian ISP Baremetal.com, which provides audience-tracking data, and students use Adobe’s Macromedia Contribute, which she describes as a “stripped-down Dreamweaver,” to publish their stories. While under construction, the site received about 50 unique users a day, which jumped to 500 the day it went live and has remained steady ever since.

The site currently includes topical articles, podcasts, video interviews, music videos, discussion forums, a poll, and 15 blogs. Bucqueroux pays the $300 a year site hosting fee out of her own pocket, and the site is not officially associated with the university, which spares the school any criticism drawn by the site and gives the students more freedom to experiment.

Sure enough, one blog has already drawn its share of criticism while highlighting an ethical disagreement in the larger journalistic sphere about the place of blogs alongside traditional journalism. The Spartanette blog, written by Rachel Wilkerson, a sophomore with a penchant for stand-up comedy, ran a Jan. 14 entry about sexual favors owed for different levels of dinner paid for on a date. Complaints ranged from accusations that the author was “advocating rape” to more nuanced observations about the dangers of commingling opinion-based writing with “objective” journalism.

Bucqueroux edits SpartanEdge blogs by the same rules the Detroit News editors use when she blogs for them: Content is only removed if it constitutes a personal attack or violates copyright law. But the site’s blog list does now include the heading, “Our Blogosphere Free Speech Zone — Enter at your own risk,” which is meant to signify to readers the presence of opinionated, rather than purely journalistic, writing — a distinction Bucqueroux and Wilkerson seem to agree is more important to the site’s older readers.

“The students [and I] watch Comedy Central and MTV and VH1,” Wilkerson emphasizes. “We know satire when we see it.”

(The site has also touched off a debate over a non-compete clause the university’s main newspaper, The State News, makes its staffers sign. SpartanEdge is now running open letters from Bucqueroux and two other student publication leaders asking the The State News to do away with the restrictions.)

Rich Gordon, chair of the newspapers and the new media department at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, says the issues raised by online publishing such as SpartanEdge’s blogs are “rich topics” for discussion in a new media class, although they may not qualify under traditional definitions of “journalism.”

“[SpartanEdge] looks to me like a really good vehicle for teeing up those conversations and allowing students to get their hands on them,” Gordon says.

But Bucqueroux feels this experiment in student Web publishing can also benefit those outside academia. Because of the special demographics of SpartanEdge’s audience — users are more likely to have newer computers and broadband Internet connections than the average user — the site can try new projects that might not fly with big, professional papers.

“I absolutely believe that the university environment should or could be a place where you glimpse the future happening,” Gordon said, although he’s been disappointed with the number of projects like this he’s actually observed.

Regardless of whether professional papers have the foresight to keep an eye on sites like SpartanEdge, Bucqueroux is excited to see where the experiment takes her students. In their efforts she sees the seeds of the next online revolution.

Questions she and the staff have been pondering include: What is the role of video on the Web? Should it be three-minute prepared pieces or 30-second funny pieces? Is there more room for humor online? Why have forums not done well and how can we make them more appealing? How can you make online editing work? What are the editing standards for blogs or podcasts versus online articles?

“I don’t think anybody has all the answers yet,” Bucqueroux admits. “But it’s really interesting trying to figure this stuff out.”

Ed’s Note: If you have answers to any of these questions, or want to make us aware of a similar project, e-mail us at letters@editorandpublisher.com.

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