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On the Media: At Neon Tommy, the reporters are responsible for delivery too

The workings of USC Annenberg student-run news website illustrate the new reality for journalists.

March 23, 2011|James Rainey

A conversation this week in the offices of Neon Tommy, a USC student-run online news outlet, went something like this: Editor: "We should be tweeting more of the Tumblr content." Journalist One: "You can publish automatically to Twitter from Tumblr." Journalist Two: "But the tweets can look weird. It's better to move the link to and customize it. Do your own."

The exchange might sound like Greek to those not immersed in the mediasphere. But the young people running Neon Tommy are purveyors of a new journalism, concerned as much with how a story is delivered and discovered by its audience as with how it's reported and written.

A generation ago, journalists wrote their stories and moved on to the next thing, with someone else worrying about delivery of the end product. In today's digital world, journalists must not only create the stories but make sure they get to readers. The USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism created Neon Tommy as a laboratory for these practices. Students promote their work in real time, highlight the best stories by others on the Web and repurpose old content with new analysis. That's only a start, as they push their journalism through myriad channels to reach a maximum audience.

They must be doing a few things right just west of the Harbor Freeway because, two years after its birth, Neon Tommy draws a larger audience than any other Web-only college news site. It ranks sixth among college outlets when thrown in with those that also produce print publications — such as the No. 1 Daily Bruin at UCLA and the No. 2 Harvard Crimson.

With more than 270,000 unique visitors and 360,000 page views a month, the site has grown enough that the student and faculty leaders talk about competing with mainstream media outlets like KCET, the public television station, which reports just under 260,000 page views a month, although using a different measurement system.

Many university journalism programs have become more aggressive about pushing their students into the world, to share their stories with a broader audience. And professional news organizations, shrunken because of the retreat of traditional advertising, have been looking at them as partners to bolster their coverage.

UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, for instance, has partnered with the new nonprofit news site Bay Citizen to help provide coverage in the Bay Area. In Los Angeles, Annenberg has several professional media partners, including the Los Angeles Times. Neon Tommy reporters contribute, for example, to the Times' Homicide Blog, which tells the stories of murder victims across the city. Professional newsrooms covet these young "digital natives," whose facility with the Internet and social media can make them more employable than we, the loyal order of ink-stained wretches.

The push from the harbor of academia into the open ocean of journalism hasn't come without stresses. Parents objected, for instance, when the newly founded Neon Tommy interviewed a student who was the victim of a hit-and-run driver in an accident that killed another student.

Other stories have rattled a few cages in Los Angeles — most notably by pushing for better disclosure of swine flu deaths when the disease swept the country two winters ago. A detailed review of the Urban League's initiative to improve Crenshaw High School and the surrounding community — a task the student journalists found only partially fulfilled — also made some waves.

"We are learning all the way around," acknowledged Ernest J. Wilson III, Annenberg's dean. "We and other journalism schools, like Columbia and Medill, are part of an ecosystem that is changing and broadening out in ways we never would have anticipated a few years ago."

Neon Tommy can be all over the place and nowhere in particular in its subject matter. Its writers and editors venture over topics that strike their fancy — from Tahrir Square to the state Capitol. They might write about Obama's track record or Ricky Gervais' best jokes at the Golden Globes. A feature on cooking recipes has been popular. One of several just-inaugurated pages on Tumblr — a blogging website — focuses on "food politics." It's called Neon Tummy.

"Every now and then I get an itch for clarity" of focus on the site, said Geneva Overholser, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism. "But journalism right now is trying to find its way and I have to practice what I preach, which is to take risks. It's a very exciting and innovative creature, this Neon Tommy."

Marc Cooper, the director of Annenberg Digital News, who helped launch the site and still oversees it, said it has progressed "beyond our wildest aspirations." He's aggressively unapologetic about schooling today's students not just in reporting and writing but in "aggregation."

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