College Media / ideas

Aggregation done right: Behind the Daily Tar Heel’s sexual assault coverage page

sexual assault page

The Daily Tar Heel launched a special page called Campus Coverage: Sexual Assault last week. It aggregates stories published by campus news outlets around the country.

UNC has been at the center of a national story about sexual assaults on campus. What started as a handful of stories in The Daily Tar Heel is now being picked up by the New York Times and CNN, among others.

To recap: A group of sexual assault survivors and advocates spoke out about UNC’s handling of sexual assault complaints. They filed a complaint alleging the university created a hostile environment for victims and pressured officials to under-report the number of sexual assaults on campus. Then one of the students who filed the complaint found herself the target of charges in UNC’s student-run Honor Court. The student she accused of rape said her actions had created a hostile environment for him.

The situation at UNC is particularly high-profile. But it is far from unique. Similar stories are playing out on nearly every campus across the country.

Daniel Pshock

Daily Tar Heel Online Editor Daniel Pshock (Photo by Erica Perel)

The reason? In 2011, the Department of Education decided to codify a process that many universities had done for years in different ways – adjudicate sexual assault reports internally and in secret, often without a criminal investigation. The new guidelines spelled out processes for universities to follow. The transitions at schools across the country were often tumultuous. Victims started speaking out.

Here at the DTH, student journalists have been brainstorming new ways to tell the story. The aggregation page is a form of storytelling unique to the digital world — a way to show readers that this story is at once national and intensely local. It also seemed a great way to at once harness the power of student journalists and give them a resource to draw upon for future stories.

Building the page wasn’t technically difficult, once Online Editor Daniel Pshock started thinking about it. The website already has what’s called Topics pages, based loosely on the New York Times Topics, in which readers can explore years worth of stories on a certain topic. We worked with our web developers at SNWorks for the best way to build a topic page that aggregates links to outside stories instead of internal ones, and that could be updated easily.

We wanted to give all the credit – and web traffic if the page got big — to the journalist and news organization who reported each story. So the page links directly to the other news organization’s story, and also features the reporter’s name.

The page still needs work. We found the stories to include on the page initially through a combination of search, requests to various college journalism groups and personal pleas. We’re using Google Alerts to keep us abreast of new content, and asking journalists to send us their stuff. But the Alerts are sparse on student-produced content, and we’re looking for better ways to update the page in a way that’s not too labor intensive, especially with summer break on its way.

The staff is also looking for ways to make the page even more useful, perhaps with sidebars on sexual assault resources and links to papers that keep topic pages on assault, and to promote it better. The goal was to get a page up quickly, and then make it better. Suggestions are welcome, and so are stories about sexual assault on campus.

Good Aggregating

Aggregating — sometimes called curating to distinguish from work a computer could do — is an increasingly essential component of online journalism. It’s in student journalists’ best interests to learn to do it smartly. Building this kind of aggregation page on an important topic is a good way to build that skill.

  • Good curators add value by bringing together a variety of voices and stories that give readers a more complete picture than they could get from any one article.
  • They do not paste in huge chunks of someone else’s story before including the link. If readers could get the full picture without clicking the link, it is stealing content. If it piques readers’ curiosity and sends them on, the post is doing its job.
  • Good curators aren’t afraid to link and credit the competition if the competition’s work is important to understanding the full picture. But they don’t create a post around the competition’s work just to siphon off some of its traffic.
  • Good curators are transparent about the purpose and method of the aggregated content. They look for a wide range of news sources and viewpoints to include.

Building a college media aggregation page

  • Use a broad topic. Find a topic that is broad enough to be covered by many outlets and important enough that people will want to read about it. Think about your readership. If your readers love football, for example, it might make sense to build a page that aggregates the football content from other college newsrooms that cover your school’s conference.
  • Alert the parties involved. Reach out to your counterparts at other news organizations to tell them what you’re doing and ask for links to their stuff. If you are dedicated to giving them credit (and clicks), they should be happy to participate.
  • Stay aware of new content. Set up Google Alerts, RSS feeds and other electronic ways to send you links.
  • Keep it simple. Depending on your CMS, determine a simple way to display a list of stories on a page. You can use basic HTML to style the hyperlinks and bylines how you want. For the football page mentioned above, a blog format might be a simple way to add each day’s new content in a post.
  • Promote the heck out of it.

Erica Perel is the newsroom adviser of the Daily Tar Heel.