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UT Journalism Students and Faculty Head New Initiatives with Snapchat


Rachel Wenzlaff, Brittany Shulman and Cassandra Jaramillo cover Austin's
technology industry on Snapchat for the Austin-American Statesman.

Students at the School of Journalism are getting snappy – with Snapchat, that is.

Snapchat, a popular video messaging app that is gaining traction in modern journalism, became part of the School of Journalism's curriculum this summer when Professor Robert Quigley made it a requirement in his Social Media Journalism course.

“I’m always looking for a way to get our students involved in what’s the next way to distribute news and engage with communities,” Quigley said. “It’s obviously very early still in using this platform for journalism but the journalism school is a great place to experiment with new tools as they come along.”

Quigley is also acting as the supervisor for a new project this semester involving three journalism students and the Austin-American Statesman.

These students, Cassandra Jaramillo, Brittany Shulman and Rachel Wenzlaff, are producing a Snapchat series that covers the local technology, or “tech” industry for the Austin-American Statesman’s new Snapchat account. Recent stories have included a virtual tour of Capitol Factory and a meeting with Feminist Hack, a group in Austin striving to combat sexism in the tech community.

A promotional video for the series can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=21&v=EvBWhoz4yAE

John Bridges, managing editor for the Austin-American Statesman, said that Snapchat is “uncharted waters” for the publication.

“News brands are stepping into that space and we haven’t really figured out how to or found our place in Snapchat as a way to distribute our news content yet,” Bridges said. “So when the students brought forth the idea for this project it sounded like a great way to put a toe in the water for us.”

Though the series has been deemed successful by the student team so far, use of this new technology comes with unique challenges.

Rachel Wenzlaff said that one of the greatest challenges of using Snapchat as a storytelling medium is the inability to edit content later on.

“Usually, whether it’s a print story or a broadcast story, you edit it. You film everything and then you can rearrange it and make it make more sense,” Wenzlaff said. “But with this you have to just figure out what’s going to make sense on the spot.”

Cassandra Jaramillo said one of the best things about the way the team is using Snapchat in telling stories about the Austin tech scene is that it is more relatable than traditional reporting.

“So much of business and tech reporting here in Austin is based on how much companies are raising and their funding,” Jaramillo said. “As important as that is, I think a neat thing we’re doing is giving people a behind the scenes look of the people in these companies and how they’re growing and how they’re changing.”

Brittany Shulman also said that it is important to tell the story of all people in Austin’s tech industry, not just “Fortune 500 CEOs.”

“We want to tell the stories of the freelance coders, of the struggling startups, of the feminist hackers. These are just a few of people that make the Austin tech scene unique,” Shulman said. “By telling the stories of the people who aren't covered in mainstream tech news, we get to provide a more in-depth look at what really keeps Austin ticking.”

To follow the Austin tech scene stories this semester, Snapchat users can add “AustinStatesman” and expect to see around two stories per week.

Snapchat covers the “Trib Fest”

Another initiative involving journalism students and Snapchat will happen right on the UT campus, Oct. 16 – 18.  Supervised by Quigley and R.B. Brenner, director of the School of Journalism, eight students will cover the Texas Tribune Festival, the annual gathering of local, state and national policymakers in a weekend of panels and discussion about the state and nation’s pressing issues.

Quigley said that a similar project happened last year in which students live-tweeted the festival. This year, the Texas Tribune pitched the idea of having students use Snapchat to cover the event.

Instead of all the students roaming randomly and possibly ending up at the same speaking event at the same time, Quigley will set up a plan for the students to spread out and cover the event as a whole.

“We’re going to have [the students] go around the festival and catch the newsmakers and talk to them on Snapchat, but also get a feel for the overall festival so everything from talking to people who are in attendance to volunteers to the food cart person,” Quigley said. “Hopefully they’re going to get a nice complete picture done through this new platform, basically for the Tribune, but using their own accounts.”

The eight students include Sunny Sone, Brittany Shulman, Miranda Mason, Faith Ann Ruszkowski, Cassandra Jaramillo, McKenzie Jones, Michelle Sanchez and Mikaela Casas. The students will post snaps to their personal accounts, but being on a special list for the Texas Tribune Festival’s Snapchat story will ensure their snaps get added to the event’s story.

Look for the Texas Tribune Festival’s Snapchat coverage under the “Live” headline in the app’s stories section. The story will pop up automatically for anyone within a certain range close to the UT campus.

These new initiatives with Snapchat are celebrated by more than just Quigley and the students involved.

Brenner said Snapchat use is a great example of how modern journalists should take on new technologies.

“We should try to figure out a technology’s possibilities and limits and always think ‘how does this serve journalism’ and ‘what are the challenges to journalism’,” Brenner said. “It’s a really important thing for us to teach that it’s not just learning a tool, but it’s really being able to figure out how is this in service of good journalism.”

Brenner said that a part of using new technology in journalism, especially Snapchat, is being prepared for and being able to handle making mistakes.

“The thing that journalism in the future is going to need to get better at is what Silicon Valley has gotten good at – accepting failure, learned lessons and rapid improvement. Journalism has always been a culture that’s conservative, it’s like we don’t want to make a mistake,” Brenner said. “So it’s turning on its head. We’re preparing students for being comfortable with things that even in the professional world they’re struggling to be comfortable with.”

For journalists, it may be difficult to get used to being okay with making mistakes on such an unforgiving platform, but through these initiatives, UT journalism students may begin to accept this new form of storytelling, one snap at a time.

- Melyssa Fairfield