Build a niche content site into communication curriculum: My advice to chairs and directors

A full-fledged niche content site can train students in key areas of digital communication: content production and curation; community building; social media marketing; and campaigns and ecommerce.

digital journalism majors

Why we need a niche content site?

For decades, communication programs have elements in the curriculum that provide hands-on training to students: broadcast majors work on campus TV/radio productions, and print majors get involved in campus newspaper.

However, as more programs are now incorporating digital communication or digital media into the curriculum, they do not have a way to provide students the same hands-on experiences in the emerging areas.

As I observed in a survey of 12 university-sponsored news sites, some communication or journalism programs operate news sites, but with their emphasis being on news production, such sites do not train students for the full gamut of digital communication skills. For instance, student reporters usually do not get involved in story promotion, community building, campaigns, or ecommerce activities.

What is a niche content site?

The niche content site I’m proposing is a new breed of student-run service. Although sponsored by an academic department or a university, a niche content site does not promote the sponsoring institution; rather, the site focuses on a specific theme and produces contents that appeal to audiences who share the interest in this theme.

Sometimes called “brand journalism,” what the content site does will bring prestige and exposure to the sponsoring institution, which in turn will lead to business benefits. However, for content sites operated by a communication program, the focus is not on the business benefits, it is on the range of hands-on experience the site offers to students.

If a program wants to go this route, the first thing the director and faculty need to brainstorm is the niche theme. The “criteria” for a good theme may include:

  • It is a narrow and focused theme, with adequate public interest.
  • The school administration may have an interest in the theme, and may support the site or otherwise get involved in its operation.
  • There are good on-campus resources to tap, such as well-known professors or a leading academic program in this field.
  • There are content opportunities for a variety of productions: article, audio, video, visualization, multimedia, etc.

What training does a niche content site offer?

For a full-fledged content site, there’s just so much that staff members can do and experiment. The site’s “newsroom” may consist of the following divisions:

Content production: research and produce relevant articles, videos, audios, and multimedia materials, as well as try out emerging digital productions such as data visualization, interactive maps, mobile production, live blogging, etc.

Content curation: search the web for contents that are of interest or value to the target audiences, and present the contents either as a section on the site or via third-party curation tools such as RebelMouse or Paper.li.

Community building: grow and engage a community – a group of like-minded people who interact with the site and interact among themselves.

Social media marketing: leverage various social media networks to promote contents, events, campaigns or merchandise sale.

Campaigns and eCommerce: plan and execute campaigns or sales events that involve all the divisions. As examples, a campaign can be seeking donations for a relevant cause; and a sales event may be promoting sales of relevant books or publications.

For a niche content site to play a functional role and prepare student for a seamless transition to their employment, program administrators need to secure and dedicate adequate resources to the site operation: the site needs to operate using the same tools and software that a real-world site uses in everyday operation, the staff need to put their hands on the latest digital production tools and equipments, and the team needs budges for promotions such as advertising on Twitter and Facebook.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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2 Responses to Build a niche content site into communication curriculum: My advice to chairs and directors

  1. We in Nepal perceive digital journalism education as the end of history. And we are preparing to meet the challenge in our own way.

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