Morgan MoJo Lab
Students at Baltimore's historically black Morgan State University will serve as mobile digital journalists, using video and audio podcasts to focus on community issues in Northeast Baltimore. The university will also conduct, for a fee, training workshops to help community residents contribute. Content will be offered to local newspaper and television stations.
Morgan Gets Its MOJO
The mobile journalists of Morgan MOJO Lab have written and filmed more than 50 hyperlocal news pieces about Baltimore and formed a content partnership with Baltimore Brew, a daily online journal. They turned iPods into recording devices to cover the city using pilot equipment from VeriCorder, and edited the footage with the iPod app 1st Video Net.
In the past year, MOJO Lab has recorded volunteers who sell clothes out of school buses and put the spotlight on an elderly woman who encourages others to stay fit. Garnering the most video views for MOJO Lab this year: its behind-the-scenes look at the softer side of Baltimore’s star quarterback. Students wrote the majority of the stories, and Allissa Richardson, MOJO Lab’s founder and director, selected outstanding pieces for the prototype site: www.thebaltimoremojo.com.
Helping students develop their news sense were workshops with The Baltimore NewsTrust, an experimental news project that taught them how to evaluate news, considering factors such as objectivity and timeliness. “Then, [NewsTrust] came in twice to evaluate a few of our brave students’ pieces,” said Richardson.
The Lab learned about Web infrastructure from local video game developers. The team also discovered that the project can’t have an open call for photos after an unfortunate incident with Flickr led to an inappropriate photo being published on the site. Like comments, photos must now be moderated. MOJO Lab redesigned the site to have mobile appeal. Stories now appear on a grid, similar to apps on an iPhone screen.
When students went off on vacation, two AmeriCorps Vista volunteers provided content. They also filled in when citizen journalists had other commitments.
As MOJO Lab moves forward, Richardson wants it to involve more community leaders and citizen journalists and explore international trends when they pertain to Baltimore, she said.
To continue the project, MOJO Lab has received $8,000 in funding from J-Lab and matching funds from 2MPower Media, LLC. The Baltimore-based private firm specializes in creating multimedia educational content for nonprofits, media companies, and schools.
Morgan MOJO Lab is affiliated with Morgan State University, one of a few colleges nationwide that has introduced mobile devices into its journalism curriculum, according to Richardson, an assistant professor of journalism.
MOJO Lab seeks to stay connected to its news consumers as the media landscape evolves. In its progress report, it noted that African-Americans use mobile phones to access the Internet more than any other demographic group – almost 48 percent compared to 40 percent of Hispanics and 31 percent of whites.
MOJO has attracted attention abroad, too. GlobalGirl Media, an award-winning nonprofit news group, invited Richardson to start a mobile journalism program in its news bureau in Johannesburg, South Africa. In June, 10 girls there, many of whom had never used a computer before, participated in a pilot camp, where they produced 21 reports in three weeks.
The pilot’s success has spurred Richardson to spend the second year of J-Lab’s New Voices project fine-tuning MOJO Lab’s cross-cultural reporting beats. Upcoming themes include the effects of civil rights on the development of mostly African or African-American cities, environmental justice, and the rights of women and girls of African descent, said Richardson.
- Ari Pinkus
Morgan Gets Its MOJO
After months of planning, Morgan MOJO launched a beta version of New Content Providers. In the beginning of our project, Jan Schaffer advised us not to rely solely on students for content. She was certainly right! Our students, while excited about the MOJO Lab, often had to distribute their time between school, work and the Lab. Even though MOJO Lab students are doing the work for a grade (and are registered in a practicum class) they were initially intimidated by the level of thought and planning that goes into a multimedia piece. One student said, “I thought I was just going to shoot things going on in Baltimore. Why do I have to prepare an outline?”
The fun part of creating our website was emphasizing to students that the videos, in isolation, do not tell the story. We tell the MOJOs that story (and writing) are still key. Around November, they started to catch on. We began to see more carefully crafted stories, rather than profiles of cool Baltimoreans. One stand-out story featured a student’s enterprising piece into who plans to run for Baltimore Mayor in 2011. We need more stories like that, to gain reader credibility.
The only downside to our steady flow of content is the amount of work its takes to edit every piece. All of our students’ stories still have not made it online, but we will definitely post them all during the holiday lull. All in all, running a website is very time-consuming, tedious work. It can be a labor of love at times, what with all the fact-checking, photo credit-checking and caption-writing. It really does take more than one person to be a webmaster. We are looking forward to selecting an editor, once the second installment of our grant comes through.
New Technology Partners
Morgan MOJO added to Global Project
In early 2011, VeriCorder, which manufactures production used by mobile journalists, added Morgan’s MOJO team to its Global MOJO Project. Richardson has provided feedback on the mobile application, and the VeriCorder staff has offered advice on how to build a better news site. Newsrooms from 16 countries are participating and Morgan MOJO Lab is the only Historically Black College or University involved. You can watch a promo video on the project here: http://vimeo.com/21668549
The MOJOs are using iPods with VeriCorder microphones attached, for improved audio. VeriCorder also invented the iPod app that the students use to edit, called 1st Video Net. While I was tinkering with the app, in preparation to teach the students how to use it, I got stuck on how to add captions. I e-mailed the company’s salesperson. She asked how I was using their product, and I shared the MOJO Lab concept with her. She was intrigued, and mentioned our work to the company’s CEO. As a result, Morgan State students are now one of very few official product testers for VeriCorder! The company’s reps have sent us an advance beta test of the iPad app. It will allow one master user, such as a teacher or editor-in-chief, to view several stories on the screen, to create a website playlist. There is also a drag-and-drop feature for easy uploading to our MOJO website. To avoid any conflict of interest, the MOJO Lab still will pay for its edition of the VeriCorder newsroom syncing, the apps and the microphones. We are excited, however, about being a pilot school.
We are excited about our new partnership with News Trust too. The organization, funded by Open Society, aims to improve readers’ media literacy and news judgment. Their website allows readers to rate news stories based on key principles, such as objectivity, credibility and context. After meeting with News Trust’s Executive Director, Fabrice Florin, we agreed to place a widget on our website, which will allow readers to rate us. I think this level of accountability will help our MOJOs become better reporters. The students groaned, of course, when I told them of this new partnership. Nevertheless, News Trust will teach us in January to integrate their site seamlessly into ours.
The Takeaway: Student MOJOs
The students readily embrace video podcasting, but they shied away from audio podcasts this semester. At the end of the course, I asked why, when given a choice, they preferred the visual medium. One student told me, timidly, that he was self-conscious about his accent. When I asked the other students if they felt the same way, nearly half of the class raised their hands. They felt it was easier to edit out their voices in video.
In the second part of the course, next semester, I have booked a vocal coach for the students. He is a member of our faculty, so it will not cost the Lab anything but smiles. Many students have shared that they will feel much more confident after learning this soft skill. In many ways, the MOJO Lab literally gives these students a voice. They really are a timid bunch. Many of my students are first-generation college students, graduates of low-performing high schools or youth who have beat the myriad odds Baltimore has thrown at them. Those odds caused them to create the swaggering bravado they use to communicate to each other. Yet, when their teacher hands them an iPod and says, “Create!” they incredulously ask, “Who? Me?” The MOJO Lab has allowed me to say, “Yes, you.”
The first day the students handled the iPods, they were like children on Christmas Day. They poked the screen and slid around icons. They groaned when their videos froze or when an editing partner accidentally erased their B-roll. As their teacher, the hardest thing has been not to interfere with their experimentation. Although I know how to add a voiceover track to an existing video, I often refrain from butting in, in favor of allowing the student to figure it out themselves. The reporters are more empowered this way. They also shared that they feel more confident in the field, when technical problems arise.
The Takeaway: Citizen MOJOs
Citizen journalists have rounded out our coverage tremendously. Our best citizen MOJO is Bobby Marvin, who attended Morgan State University. The graduate now has his own blog, called HuesVoices.com. Bobby was so excited when he heard about the MOJO Lab, he asked if he could contribute. You will see some of his videos alongside our students’. Our other citizen MOJO is Doni Glover. Doni publishes the online newsmagazine, BmoreNews.com. Doni reached out to us too, when we put out a call for more content support. His video has been invaluable as we begin to build our library.
The best thing about working with citizen journalists is that they share the same passion for hyperlocal storytelling that we have. What we would like to do, however, is start setting publishing standards for our site. Both of our citizen journalists are not too fond of preparing print companions for their video pieces. We want to train them to beef up their coverage in this way. Our website is a little skimpy on the print, and as a former magazine journalist, that unnerves me! Therefore, our first citizen journalism boot camp will take place in January, with support from the Baltimore chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. We are designing invitations to send out to local grassroots leaders, and other indie bloggers and journalists.
Now that the site is live, the real work begins. The site soft launches on Monday, December 20, to about 100 area journalists and professors. We will use their feedback going into the new year to perfect the site. Let us know what you think.
Personally, I have some goals I would like to achieve as a web developer. I wanted, for instance, to have a dominant slider image on our home page, but got stumped by Java. I will be working diligently during the Christmas break to get us a rotating main picture. I also will work hard to figure out how to post our Flickr account pictures in our sidebars. I put a placeholder gallery there, as you will see, since our API key just would not cooperate in time for this report. WordPress says “Code is Poetry.” I would paraphrase this to say, “Code is Unforgiving.” One incorrect bracket could stop the whole show. This is the kind of challenging work I wanted though, when I signed on to be the site designer. Every time I solve a programming problem, it is like a little victory.
Aside from coding, gracious volunteers and students also will continue to upload all of our student MOJO work. When we get our next award installment, we will also invest in our own video hosting, through Brightcove. We hate the look of the YouTube player, but it was the only free alternative that played video on PCs and mobile devices. (While experimenting with an iPad, we realized that Vimeo’s player would not appear on the screen. We suspect it relies on Flash.) YouTube is not a long-term option though, since user traffic bogs down its servers. Too often in our testing phases, our videos took too long to load, or simply did not load at all. So we are looking forward to a more reliable video library host “in the cloud,” which also gives us more control over our player appearance.
You can also follow along as we build this on our blog. I will post my lesson plans here, and real-time commentary from our MOJOs. I think chronicling this exciting experiment will help other schools interested in MOJO training. We hope we inspire some folks!
Morgan Gets Its MOJO
Publicity from winning a New Voices grant in 2010 placed The Morgan State University MOJO Lab on the map, noted professor and lab director Allissa Richardson. At the same time, she and her team remained focused on developing an editorial strategy and distribution partnerships.
In the first 90 days of the grant, Richardson worked with other professors this summer to define the Lab’s concept and devise a plan of action. The most controversial decision, she said, was the decision to not cover crime, “simply for crime’s sake.”
“We decided as a team then to highlight specific incidents only as building blocks to write more solution-oriented stories,” Richardson said.
After appearing on a Baltimore NPR affiliate, WYPR 88.1 FM, the Governor’s Secretary of Planning invited her to meet to learn more about the Lab and suggest ways the Governor’s office could help. “As a result of that meeting, the Lab’s reporters will have generous access to cover the gubernatorial campaign, city and state planning meetings and many other political functions,” Richardson said. All this came before the site’s planned launch in December 2010.
Seeking Distribution Partnerships
Richardson has begun exploring partnerships with three other news organizations. News One, a website that targets an African-American could put the lab’s reports in front of an audience of roughly 9 million unique visitors a month. In a syndication deal, News One will pay the university $99 per month. The editor of an NBC website, The Grio, met Richardson and discussed plans to launch a college site for African-American students. Richardson has submitted a proposal to be included, which may serve as an additional revenue stream. And MOJO signed on with Baltimore Sun’s advertising team to create a pre-roll video ad for the MOJO site.
Richardson, a committee member of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Digital Media Task Force, will organize Morgan State’s first Historically Black Colleges and Universities Student Media Institute in April 2011, designed to help replicate the Lab’s community news approach at other HBCUs. That may bring in additional revenue as well.
But Technically, Not So Rosy
With all of its success, the Lab has experienced some logistical problems on the web front. The Lab is on the same Ingeniux content management system that Morgan State uses, in order to retain consistency in format and security. However, the rest of the MOJO Lab website is run on the WordPress platform. Richardson discovered their site prototype had been hacked after logging on while at a convention.
“All of the designs and coding were gone. A blank screen stared back,” Richardson said. The University’s information technology team found that the open source nature of WordPress made it easy for hackers to plant viruses.
Fortunately for the Lab, the team was able to restore the site prototype after finding the server’s last known configuration of the Lab’s website. The Lab since fortified the site to add better security to the platform.
"We are happy to report that the website has not been hacked since the hardening efforts! This is a great relief," Richardson said.
Making the Most of the MOJO
Like all startups, MOJO Lab had to find ways to fundraise, particularly to generate the New Voices $8,000 matching requirement. In a fortuitous string of events, the cybercaf� in the campus center closed, leaving the campus with a coffee void. The MOJO Lab developed a “News and Brews” fundraising effort that sells coffee and newspapers in the caf�.
Here’s how it works: The Journalism Department at Morgan subscribed to the Times, which delivers daily 150 copies of the newspaper. A student worker is then paid through the Times to distribute the paper. “The student also serves coffee as a barista. We sell the coffee with the free newspaper. We keep the money,” explained Richardson. Students also took orders from professors and deliver coffee and a newspaper daily, with a renewable subscription fee.
“It is already taking off,” Richardson said. “The University Comptroller has created a special account to collect our fundraising money.”
With the launch date in December 2010 set, the Lab has ordered equipment and established legal protection for intellectual property.
“We are enjoying the learning curve,” Richardson said. “The MOJO Lab is on its way.”
- Briona Arradondo
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