June 2015 Podcast: Creating a global network of student journalists

Knight Fellow Beatrice Motamedi discusses her project Global Student Square, an international network of student journalists.

Frank LoMonte: Hi everyone, and welcome to another edition of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast, a rundown of issues affecting student media nationwide. The Student Press Law Center is an advocate for student voices. We work with student journalists and their advisers to help them gather information and share ideas. There is more information about our work and about the rights of young journalists at the www.SPLC.org website and we hope you’ll also follow us on Twitter, which is just @SPLC.

At the Student Press Law Center, we take hundreds and hundreds of calls a year from young journalists in the United States who are facing adversity and obstacles when they try to publish journalism across all mediums. But — and this is not diminishing the adversity they face — these are quite literally first-world problems. Our guest on the SPLC podcast is dealing with problems in the developing world as well, and trying to provide some resources, encouragement and guidance for journalists in the developing world as they too work to gather information, share ideas, and inform their communities.

Our guest Beatrice Motamedi is a veteran journalism educator with a distinguished background as a professional journalist as well. When you start reading Beatrice’s resume, you think you’re talking about three or four different people because she’s certainly accomplished and taken on enough work for three or four lifetimes. Just some of the highlights, in addition to the fellowship at Stanford University, which she’ll tell us about in a minute — Beatrice has been a founder and director of the Newsroom by the Bay program which is a very successful and immersive, intensive, training program for high school journalists, that is taught in the San Francisco area. She has worked on encouraging the development of high school journalism programs in Southern California in collaboration with the University of Southern California. She’s been a media literacy tutor for UNESCO. Gosh, and she’s worked in professional news media — this brings back memories — at places like UPI (United Press International) and also at WebMD, San Francisco Chronicle, Barclays, on and on and on.

So Beatrice Motamedi, thank you so much for joining us. I really want to hear first about the Knight Fellowship program that you’re doing right now at Stanford University and how you became involved in that.

Beatrice Motamedi: Sure, thank you so much, Frank, I’m honored to be here. And thank you for such a nice introduction. So yeah, the Knight Fellowship was sort of always on my radar. When people come up in journalism… the Knight Fellowship, it’s been around for 45 years. It was definitely something I always aspired to, and really thought about applying to, and when I became a journalism educator, I pretty much thought it would be out of reach.

We talk a lot about the old Knight Fellowship and the new Knight Fellowship. About five years ago, the fellowship kind of changed from what it had been in the past, which is pretty much a fellowship you’d get if you won the Pulitzer Prize. You would come to Stanford for an open-ended sort of year to study, take courses. I’ve had friends who were Knight Fellows who literally spent the year sitting under a tree reading poetry, and it was a great reward and a great year off for awesome achievements and efforts in journalism. About five years ago, the Knight Fellowship found that many of the fellows, after their year, they were trying to go back to jobs that no longer existed. Literally managing editors, editors, reporters, were finding that they had either been laid off or given buyouts or their news operations were suffering and they were just not going to be able to go back to the jobs they had before. So the new Knight that started about five years ago seeks out people basically who are willing to be disruptive in their journalistic lives. People who are in someway restless, want to do something new, think that something ought to exist and they should build it. They call us digital innovators, media innovators — I think that’s something we all aspire to, none of us feel like we’ve really accomplished it completely yet. But the resources that we’re given now and the commitment and the mission that we’re given now is to really build things and to do something to save and protect and enhance journalism.

So that’s our mission and I think that’s why they took me, as an educator, because that’s something that doesn’t usually happen. I’m very grateful for it. I’ve spent my year trying to bring what I consider our truth of scholastic journalism into the wider ecosystem as a whole.

LoMonte: So the specific deliverable from your fellowship, the project on which you focused your attention is something called Global Student Square. this looks like an online gathering place for young journalists all around the world, and I’d like to hear more about how that idea came about and how you envision that it will work.

Motamedi: So Global Student Square right now is an online platform. It’s a website with tools and with content that reflects student stories around the world and the collaborative efforts that we’ve been trying to pull together. We have a virtual newsroom thanks to Camayak, which is a content management system, online content management system, that’s working I know with JEA and other high school journalists across the country. We sort of have a backend to our backend. We have a virtual newsroom where students have been coming in and doing things together — for example, writing a story in South Korea, getting it edited in California, getting photos and videos attached from other places in the world, and finally published to our website. We’ve been playing with that deeply collaborative method of pulling story packages together. It does go on a website. I actually don’t think websites are all that innovative at this point. I think the point of the realm in digital media is really the shareable link, and so what I’m working hard on — and the students I’m working with are working hard on — is really using social media to push stories out into the world and to find new ways to get stories to be constructed together by students working together from different places in the world.

Global Student Square I hope will develop into a series of story packages we’ll be doing beginning next fall called Engage, where we will actually take common themes like say, hunger or what it means to be a hijabi (someone who wears the hijab and is a Muslim teenager) anywhere in the world. What it means to be concerned about say, global warming — there’s a great big conference happening in Paris at the UN in October. I’d like to take some of these global stories and see if we can pull on the levers of the global student network to get the stories reported and written and produced and out there in a new and unusual way the rest of the news ecosystem has not seen yet.

LoMonte: Well this seems so promising on so many levels, including bringing the talents of student journalists to a wider audience. One of the challenges student journalists face everywhere is the low expectations of adults, the doubts, the uncertainties — it’s so often said by adults that the students aren’t capable of doing journalism that is worthy of reading by an adult audience and of course those of us who work in the field sees exceptions all the time. And as you say, in the current news ecosystem, we really can’t afford to take any journalist for granted who’s willing to go do this work. If someone is willing to go out there and inform us and bring us images and information from places we wouldn’t otherwise get to see, why wouldn’t we do everything possible to support and encourage that? And that’s one of the exciting things about a project like Global Student Square. I guess since part of SPLC’s work is about trying to help break down barriers that students encounter — particularly censorship barriers but sometimes access barriers as well — can you talk a little bit about the students you’re working with around the world? What are the sorts of barriers that they encounter and what are the ceiling in which they are bumping when they are trying to do journalism in conditions different from our own?

Motamedi: Right, well it’s been very interesting. I think I went into this project really feeling like I had so much to learn. When I went through my interview for the Knight Fellowship, they kind of looked at everything I was doing and they were like, ‘well, you seem very passionate and committed about student journalism — if you don’t get this fellowship, are you still going to do what you want to do? Are you still going to produce this international student network?’ And I said you know, possibly, but I have so much to learn about the legal and ethical restraints on young journalists abroad and what I really need to do is take classes in area studies. My year here in Stanford, I’ve taken a lot of classes on Islam and Iran and politics in Iran. I’m part Iranian and for me that was a life goal, to be able to study with people like Abbas Milani at Stanford and in doing that, I learned a lot about the different constraints that students face. Being a UNESCO tutor as well, it’s very interesting.

I’ll read to you a couple of quotes — I’m a tutor right now, I have 40 students from around the world. We’re in a MOOC, it’s a massively open online course and we’re sort of piloting how that might work in the areas of media literacy. Some of the students are saying they can’t participate or their participation is kind of spotty because they don’t have access to the Internet. Other people, just for example: someone from Burundi says, “We have been passing through political crises here, and it was not easy to have access to the Internet. I’m writing to ask if it’s too late to learn.” Students from Nepal have of course been through an earthquake. Students in Iran — I’m working with a couple of Stanford students right now, we’re doing a project on an underground railroad that runs gay youth out of Iran and into the West. It’s a very interesting story and it’s unfortunately a story that cannot be reported from Iran. We actually have to go to Turkey and border towns in Istanbul to find these gay activists, these student activists for the most part, because from Iran, it wouldn’t be safe. There are 40 million people in Iran on the Internet, 5 million of them are on Facebook, but it’s not a country where free speech is honored or sanctioned or allowed. I’m finding more and more that it’s really not a matter of knowing what the law is. I mean often there isn’t a First Amendment, there aren’t laws that can protect student journalists. There have to be common-sense approaches and on the ground understandings. Part of what I’ve done here is to try to educate myself about just asking the right questions and also try to develop contacts in different countries around the world where I know I want to work first and sort of have pros where we go, on the ground people who can assist and help student reporters. We may have to do things we don’t like to do in this country, like offer anonymity, shield or hide where people are reporting from. I’ve been looking at things like Tor — different ways of constructing websites so people who contribute to them cannot be found.

LoMonte: Sure. Tor is an encryption method that would enable people to avoid being traced in case there are hostile government forces that would be interested in exposing them or their sources.

Motamedi: Thank you, that’s a good definition, that’s great. One of the fellows here — really, one of the incredible benefits of having been a fellow here at Stanford is just getting to know the people in my cohort, and one of them, Najia Ashar, she’s a very young woman, but she’s often called the Diane Sawyer of Pakistan. She lives in Karachi. I actually have a student that I’ve been working with who traveled to Karachi to do some podcast work for us. I was sharing with Najia and she was able to advise my student, Shahnoor (Jafri). Najia and Shahnoor were talking about how it would not be possible for Shahnoor — who wears the hijab, she’s hijabi, she’s Muslim — it would not be possible for her to use a cell phone on the street in Karachi. It would not be possible for a woman to be seen using a cell phone, even though everyone has one. So we had to kind of work around that, and how she would get maybe ambient noises of street sounds in Karachi and finally Shahnoor got that by having her brother go out and do it for her. There are constraints. Anybody who studies in Stanford gets to study a little bit at the design school, and I took some courses there and that’s one of the first things that you learn, that there are constraints everywhere. And if you’re creative, you just have to blow through them. You have to find a way to get to the story. In our case, try to keep people safe as much as you can. That’s a big factor for me. But get the story.

LoMonte: Sure. Well in addition to the challenges that these students are facing on the ground, I have to imagine that just building and coordinating a network of this kind must be enormously challenging, especially for someone who’s based here in the United States without, I imagine, limitless travel funding. Talk a little bit about the challenge of doing that — identifying these contacts on the ground in various places, getting familiar with conditions on the ground, and I guess most importantly, recruiting and identifying and training these students. How do they find you, and how do you find them?

Motamedi: Right, well I’ll deal with the first question first, about scaling. That is something I also wanted to try to figure out at Stanford. The good news is, I had a year to sort of ponder it and the bad news is that there’s no solution to the fact that you’re not going to get a lot of sleep sometimes. There are times when I’m Skyping someone at 6:00 in the morning and then Skyping someone at 10:00 at night. Just dealing with time zones is ridiculous and I sort of have to apologize for people for how I look on Skype or Google hangouts or how i sound. I think the solution to doing something globally really is to break it down. I came in really hoping to have an international student network, with literally people all over the world…sort of like Where’s Waldo. One person anywhere around the world you might choose.

I sort of swiftly found that you need to focus and refine. Those are design school steps as well. I spent my first quarter sort of flaring, where in the world would I want to be in? And then increasingly, sort of focusing more and more and more on where must I be, and where should I be, and where should the collaborations happen first? And then the second wave and the third wave of collaborations can happen afterwards. I’ve been trying to focus on conflict zones, on places where views are not heard from in a consistent way. In this first iteration, just finding students around the globe, it’s proved easier just to use existing journalism networks. I’ve gone to American schools abroad and I’ve gone to advisers that I know here in the States and the advisers in Palo Alto have just been enormously supportive and helpful and I’m very grateful for how they’ve helped me take my early steps. I’m very interested in the international baccalaureate program and global studies and about the fact that here in the U.S. and also abroad, we have these global studies programs, but students are A. not practicing journalism and B. they’re not connecting with each other. So it’s possible for a student to be in an IB program in California — there’s a very good one just down the road from me in Sequoia High School in Redwood City — but you’re not necessarily connected and you’re not talking to students from around the world. That really surprised me. So I worked with the international baccalaureate program at Sequoia and we started doing some work — basically kids who are in English classes, not practicing journalism, seeing if we can start practicing journalism and align what they are studying to current events. So we did a project about Russia and we’re hoping to extend that next year to a school in Moscow so students are finally collaborating and connecting and creating stories together.

I guess the short answer is for next year, especially with series of global stories that we’ll do, called Engage, I’m going to focus on just five or six schools. The idea will be to pull the levers of those schools so that every single time we do a package, those five or six schools are contributing, and that package comes from all over the world and provides unusual insights into how that story or how that theme is living in the world.

LoMonte: We’ll just take the few minutes that we have left to talk about what you envision for the future of this project, given that you are on a limited time clock with this fellowship. You have about three or four different careers to go back to when this is over with, so how sustainable is a project like this and how do you envision it, perhaps, having a life after your fellow term is up?

Motamedi: It’s a good question because our commencement is Friday (Editor’s Note: in mid-June) so my fellowship actually ends this week. But I think I’ll always be a Fellow. You know the Knight Fellowship has such a great, deep sort of structure of fellowship. There are Knight Fellows all over the world that I’ll be able to work with, and I know that they’ll help me build what I’m building as I go on. I do have funding to be able to push the program into next year. I may not be drawing a huge salary, but I do have the ability to keep Global Student Square and to take it into the next phase. So beginning in September and then through February, we’ll have stories once a month, these global story packages, and they’ll be going out, and we’ll see. I think what I want to do and what the investment that has been made in the project is geared towards, is really working out the workflow. How do these stories happen? What’s the editorial chain of command? What’s the structure? It’s very important for me to have student buy-in and student leadership, not only student involvement but students actually actively making story decisions and shaping the content as it comes out. So for example, we might do a story about climate change, you know, that might happen with the UN conference in Paris, but really have students plan how that story package appears. We might do some collaborative data collection so we might be trying to find one thing that we haven’t measured yet about global warming that you can uniquely measure and measure that around the world — try to do that consistently over the week, get that data in, analyze it, visualize it, see if we can offer something really uniquely new to the global conversation about this topic.

So I think next year between September and February, it’s not going to be about me, or about us gathering hundreds of schools around the globe, it’s going to be about trying to perfect this little watch, this little machine, this little way of doing something and once we’ve done that, hopefully we’ll be able to scale.

LoMonte: Terrific. Well, I could talk to you for hours about journalism interests. Beatrice Motamedi is one of those thoughtful people in scholastic journalism and a real force for good. I’m so happy that you’re there. We have to wrap up this podcast but please keep the conversation going. The website is www.globalstudentsquare.org and they have a feature that enables you to connect and comment through there. And I should also mention donate as well since it is a donor funded enterprise.

So Beatrice Motamedi, thanks so much for being with us and thanks to you who are listening this month. If you’re interested in the work of the Student Press Law Center, the website is www.splc.org. We’re active on Facebook and Twitter, and of course you can always reach us with questions about your rights as a journalist or educator. The easiest way is by email, splc@splc.org or by phone, 202-785-5450. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll talk to you next month.