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Journalism students go beyond the newsstand

December 7, 2010
News PhotoWhen senior magazine majors at Drake University met this fall to discuss their vision for a new publication, the wish list read like the promotion plan for big-budget, high-circulation fare:

  • Host fashion shows and photo shoots in Omaha, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Chicago and Des Moines, including at the top of the United States' tallest skyscraper
  • Produce media-rich content featuring sound and video
  • Promote to the Midwest using broad social media techniques and one of the first iPad applications for a college publication

In short, one thing was clear -- a traditional print magazine wasn't going to cut it.

"Through discussion, it felt like we wanted something new and different," said Kate Baratta, a magazine and marketing major from Glenview, Ill. "Something that had never been done at Drake."

From this vision arose Urban Plains, an all-digital lifestyle magazine for the Midwest set to launch Thursday, Dec. 9. Starting that day, the issue will be available for download and live stream at urbanplainsmag-digital.com.

Baratta is editor-in-chief of the publication that includes articles on roller derby in Kansas City, beer brewing in Minneapolis, organic ice cream in Chicago and other content aimed at the 22- to 30-year-old set.

"We hope to appeal to young people doing fun things out in the world," Baratta said.

The hook: Urban Plains is only available online. A plethora of short videos, photo slideshows, audio clips and hyperlinked content weave seamlessly into the design. Articles are easily shared to Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools.

"We're one of the first universities in the nation to have a fully multimedia-integrated digital edition of a student-produced publication," said Jeff Inman, assistant professor of journalism and supervisor of this bold foray into new media. "In forging this we had to rethink nearly everything we did -- from the way we told stories to the way we put them on the page and promote them to the world."


News Photo
From left: Jess Hoffert, Kate Baratta and Alysse Gear look over the Urban Plains publication.

RETHINKING EVERYTHING

Until this semester, Drake's magazine capstone has published 5,000-copy print runs under the names 515 and Think. This fall, Think won a prestigious Associated Collegiate Press Pacemaker award.

Without sacrificing the skills required for print, Inman's staff of 10 students went further. They expanded their organizational structure to include a multimedia editor, blogging editor and social media-oriented director of marketing.

They did away with traditional print design tropes -- left and right inside pages separated by a fold -- in favor of "double-truck" layouts that span two full pages. In this way, the 60-page Urban Plains publication covers the ground of a traditional 120-page magazine.

The cover is a red screen-print by artist John Vogl, AS'06, of staff writer Allison Maze during her body art photoshoot. It will shift from a double-truck layout to a vertical orientation when viewed by mobile phone users and in the e-store. Clicking on any of the cover blurbs zaps readers directly to the relevant feature story.

"It is a blessing that we're doing this online," said Multimedia Editor Jess Hoffert, a magazine and broadcast news major from Winona, Minn. "It ties in the print side of my magazine major with the multimedia side of my broadcast studies."

CREATING OPPORTUNITIES

A print magazine, for example, may not have afforded Hoffert the opportunity to film a fashion shoot on the 103-story Skydeck of Willis Tower in Chicago.

Or to embed video clips from the 2010 Flugtag competition in St. Paul, Minn.

Or to include links to 15 hip hop video clips for a feature story slideshow on the 15th anniversary of Rhymesayers Entertainment, the independent hip-hop record label in Minneapolis.

Or to display a video photo slideshow with commentary by Charlie Wittmack, the Des Moines lawyer working on an 11-month, 10,000 mile journey from London to Mount Everest, gathered via Skype while Wittmack was in Uzbekistan.

Once completed, the entirety of the publication is sent to a third-party company called Texterity -- makers of digital magazines for AARP, Better Homes and Gardens, Entrepreneur Magazine and other major outlets -- for processing.

"This really puts Drake at the forefront of media innovation," said Inman, who worked as arts and entertainment editor for three different weekly news publications between 1995 and 2001 and spent seven years freelancing for major publications including Rolling Stone and Better Homes and Gardens. "Our students are having to address the absolute same questions people in the industry are now having to deal with, including how to engage their audience in multiple formats and across multiple platforms."

LEARNING TO ENGAGE

With a publication aimed at thousands of people in seven major Midwestern cities -- an "exploding demographic" that may include readers well beyond the intended audience -- the Urban Plains staff has to rely on more than coffee shop chatter to market themselves.

Senior magazines and English writing major Jami Bowen maintains the publication's Twitter account, username @UrbanPlains, and Facebook fan page, pushing out daily teasers and material from the staff blog, www.urbanplainsmag.com.

As of Dec. 7, they had 135 followers on Twitter and 277 fans on Facebook.

Bowen, a Des Moines native, wasn't a techno-socialite when she came to Drake. She created her personal Twitter feed as a requirement of a magazine writing class, mostly to promote her personal blog -- also a course requirement.

Faculty in Drake's journalism school are increasingly pushing new media and social media tools as a precursor to careers in magazines, newspapers and other bastions of journalism, said Lori Blachford, the Peggy Fisher and Larry Stelter chair of magazine journalism.

"Because of changes in our industry and our technology, all of our first-year students during their first semester of classes must take a weekly lab to familiarize themselves with technology," Blachford said. "They're not meant to be experts, but they want to be comfortable holding these tools."

As they continue in their journalism track, students find themselves submitting audio recordings of their interviews, presenting photos and captions for travel articles, shooting and editing video profiles in lieu of text stories and corresponding with their faculty members on Twitter.

"It's the magazine experience on steroids," Blachford said. "It allows students to jump into new forums in a really real way. If we can teach these students to take a risk in order to start something new, I don't know that we can do any better by them."