Trying Formspring with The Daily Tar Heel

25 April 2010

Daily Tar Heel reporters and editors are now taking questions via Formspring.

Answering reader questions isn’t a new idea, but we’re excited about trying that with this new platform. This isn’t a tool that was created with a journalistic purpose in mind, but neither was Twitter or Facebook – two tools that have we now recognize have immense value for journalists.

Creating a forum where readers could easily ask questions of DTH staff has been on our radar for awhile, but we’ve been limited by time and ability. Formspring might not be the most nuanced way for us to accomplish this goal (I imagine the ratio of spam to legitimate questions will be high), but I’m happy we’re trying something new. I think this is a really good lesson for other college newspapers: Make the most with what you have, and stop waiting for something better that might never come.

The latest win in the fight for FERPA reform

22 April 2010

Great news for those of us who worry about the increasing tendency of college administrations to throw the excuse of FERPA at every public records request: The University of Maryland will now have to release the names of those who violate the school’s code for sexual assault after the state’s Attorney General ruled that releasing the names of convicted offenders doesn’t violate the educational privacy law.

This is great news for all journalists, but especially college newspapers. FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — was meant to protect student academic records. But college administrators have used the gray area of the law to deny access to a range of records that were never intended to be restricted.

The Daily Tar Heel has fought against the misuse of FERPA for years, notably by challenging a 1996 decision to restrict DTH reporters from attending the disciplinary proceedings against two students accused of stealing copies of a conservative on-campus magazine. More recently, we’ve been denied access to petitions collected by student body president candidates with the argument that providing the names of students signers would violate their FERPA rights (I’d link, but the paper’s archives from the 2008-09 school year aren’t online). We’ve also been denied access to e-mails between the parents of a student shot by police earlier this year and the chancellor, again in the name of FERPA.

While any misuse of FERPA is cause for alarm, the situation in the Diamondback article touches on one of the most important reason why significant FERPA reform is needed. Student honor and disciplinary courts wield an enormous amount of power, with the ability to suspend and expel students for actions that now are often shrouded in secrecy. There is a reason that criminal courts operate publicly: Anyone accused of a crime should be granted an opportunity to confront their accusers, something that can’t be ensured if courts are sealed from observers in the name of FERPA.

FERPA resources

  • The Reporter’s Guide to FERPA, compiled by Sonny Albarado for the Society of Professional Journalists
  • Have a FERPA horror story? E-mail DTH General Manager Kevin Schwartz, who is collecting tales of FERPA misuse to mount a campaign for reform.

An experiment in Tumblr blogging for the DTH

20 April 2010

For several weeks now I’ve been posting on The Daily Tar Heel’s new Tumblr blog. The idea was borne out of my experience with my personal Tumblr and through this Q&A with the man behind the Newsweek Tumblr.

So far I’ve used the blog to share DTH cartoons, photos of weird goings-on in the Quad, reader comments and national stories about higher education trends. It veers more towards the light-hearted, although I have used to to respond to complaints about our coverage I saw raised in other Tumblr blogs.

What I like: Mostly, it’s ease of use. These are things I come across throughout the day, and they don’t always have a place elsewhere. In the past I’ve thrown similar-style blog posts up on our campus blog, but it’s not well-suited for a quick quote, photo or link. And sometimes that’s all that needs to be shared.

I’m not so sure how this fits into our overall strategy, or whether it serves any purpose.  Even if it does, I’m not sure if it’s something that is worth devoting limited time and resources to. We’re steadily gaining followers, and we’ve gotten a good deal of traffic from links posted to Twitter, but whether readers get anything out of it is another question. Undoubtedly we’re reading a different type of audience than we typically do though, so the question becomes then how to get them to And that I haven’t figured out yet. Any suggestions?

My new job as DTH community manager

16 April 2010

I’m really happy to announce what will be my last job at The Daily Tar Heel: community manager. As online managing editor I helped create this role, and I’m excited to see it continue and play a part in shaping it. We’ve made so many strides this year under Emily Stephenson’s leadership, and I only hope to continue in that vein.

My title is officially community manager, but I most identify with the notion of a community host similar to how Steve Buttry has described the role. Here’s how I described the role in my application:

Ideally, the community manager would realize that there’s actually very little about the community that can be managed; instead, she needs to be able to participate and know how to get the most out of each interaction. The community manager needs to be a personable and recognizable figure in the community, such that people know who to contact with concerns and ideas. She also needs to be trusted by the community. The community manager must recognize that she needs to build a relationship with the community before she can accomplish her goals. We can’t just swoop in and ask readers to share things with us — there needs to be a relationship from the beginning that encourages openness. For the DTH, the community manager needs to be someone who can relay concerns back to the newsroom and make its mission more transparent to readers.

I have my own ideas for what I can do with the role, and I’m excited to get started. For those who are old hats at this job, any advice?