UPIU: “Building the J-Future” Atop Students Worldwide

A street preacher with a flair for the dramatic and controversial recently drew crowds of followers and protesters at Virginia Commonwealth University. As a Quill piece noted, upon witnessing the growing fervor, VCU junior Kate Lewanowicz “knew she had a compelling story,” one worth sharing with outside media and the world . . . wide web.  Cue UPIU.

The offshoot of the United Press International wire service is unique among student news sites.  UPIU does not just publish content by j-students, it provides training, editing, and one-on-one mentoring to help their pieces sing.

For example, Abhirup Bhunia, a journalism student in India, recently submitted an article draft for inclusion on the site.  It was the start of a productive journey: “[T]he story came back [to Bhunia] again and again, each time with notes from the UPIU senior mentor. Abhirup had to review his story for opinion and poor word choice.  He had to do more reporting than he initially thought necessary, and was told he couldn’t take quotes from other news sources.” The story eventually earned him a UPI byline, and Bhunia was the better journalist for it.  “It was real slogging,” he said, “but it did pay off.”

The other standout component of UPIU is its worldwide reach.  It has partnered so far with 20 schools in 10 countries, leading to a cluster of student-produced stories touching on things such as Nigerians and the World Cup, Kenyans and antibiotic resistance, the U.S. and the oil spill, and China and homosexuality. The UPIU motto: “Connecting people one story at a time.”

Below, UPIU’s impassioned international coordinator Harumi Gondo discusses the service’s awesomeness, its many facets, and the ways in which students and schools can become involved.

What motivated you to begin UPIU, and what went into its creation?

Over the year since UPI launched UPIU.com we’ve become all about journalism training- not free content. We want to leverage UPI’s solid reputation to attract aspiring journalists and improve foreign coverage.  I’ve not encountered another program that has such direct communication and relationships with journalism schools around the world. I think we are really unique in that aspect.  It’s been a great experience building something from the ground up.

The hardest part has been getting in touch with the schools.  I’m starting to get requests from schools now, but for the longest time it meant working during the day communicating with the UPIU team in the U.S. and contacting U.S. schools and then staying up at night making phone calls to China and Australia and India! So many countries with so many different time zones!

Sometimes the school websites’ English sites were just dead links or had no contact information whatsoever, or the voice on the other line didn’t speak English, or couldn’t hear me, or the line was too fuzzy. Once I stayed up until 3 a.m. for a scheduled phone appointment with a professor in Thailand: The man was on a rowdy bus filled with elementary school children headed for a very rural area that had bad reception. Boy, was I mad!

Why does UPIU rock?

The perk of UPIU is that submitted stories have the possibility of getting a UPI byline.  But the real gem of UPIU is that it offers j-students feedback and mentoring.  When an aspiring journalist submits a story, he/she gets in-depth feedback from the mentor within two to three days (sometimes the same day).  And our mentor is powerful. She once gave feedback on seventy stories in three days.

In September we’ll be working with Rhodes University’s 280 students!  For j-students in the U.S. this may not be such a big deal (although I think it should be!), but for non-U.S. students this is an opportunity that we’re seeing is not offered in their schools.  Many professors have communications degrees and are heavy on theory, but not always on experience actually practicing shoeleather journalism.

There was one very awesome video conference we did with Peking University j-students  that I think gave students a taste of what it’s like being in an actual newsroom. The UPIU mentor, Krista Kapralos, definitely cares about her mentees and tries not to push them too much if it’s not going to get results, but she’ll also stick to her guns if she needed to teach the student solid journalism.

UPIU also offers the opportunity to see the work of journalism students around the world.  It’s interesting to see the different leanings and tendencies of j-students around the world.  Many Indian news organizations don’t make the same distinctions between news and opinion that U.S. news organizations do, and j-students there follow suit. The stories we see from U.S. students show a good understanding of journalistic writing, but they could do with a little help in getting their creative juices flowing when it comes to story topics.

We’re a lean operation and flexible when it comes to good ideas: video conferences with schools all over the world at all kinds of crazy times, local school visits to teach j-students how to optimize their stories for search engines, and international chat sessions with passionate j-student from all over the world.

How can students become involved with UPIU?

Two ways: 1) Telling their journalism professors about UPIU so that we can work with their classes.  Or 2) Signing up themselves.  Some students submit their stories to UPIU.com and we never hear from them again, but we’re looking for users who are willing to put in the work to improve their journalistic skills.

Kamil Zawadzki is a recent grad from Loyola University’s journalism program; he wrote to his dean about us:

As some of you may know I’m a recent graduate from Loyola’s School of Communication. As I’ve started to look for jobs, I’ve also looked into freelancing and writing opportunities to help build up my portfolio and practice my writing, so that once I get the job I want, I can hit the ground running.  A great opportunity I have begun taking advantage of recently is UPIU.com, which is a sort of student writing offshoot and sub-division of the United Press International wire service.

I would just like to put in my own two cents here and vouch for UPIU.com as a wonderful chance for journalism students to get some freelancing done and practice the basics of reporting, interviewing, and writing even while they are still in school.  While the Loyola Phoenix has weekly opportunities to write and contribute, and is a great award-winning student newspaper, Loyola students can only benefit from working on articles assigned by UPIU.com’s senior editors as there is much editorial oversight scrutinizing each writer and article to guarantee quality of work.

This gives students a shot at improving their writing considerably through the constructive criticism, suggestions, and cooperation of the professional journalists who edit articles. As a bonus, works that are truly top-notch can be recommended by these editors to be submitted as features on UPI itself, bringing the writer even more exposure and the bragging rights of a byline on a major wire service.

Articles that don’t pass muster to join the best of the best on UPI will nevertheless be posted on UPIU.com, with the author’s byline; if the writer is associated with an organization or school collaborating with UPIU.com, he or she will have an additional tag on their byline naming that organization (i.e., Jane Smith/Loyola University Chicago).

Although I have just started writing for UPIU.com, I have nothing but wonderful things to say about it. My first article has gone through several major revisions and is now close to being submitted to qualify for the honor of a feature and byline on UPI; whether or not it makes it up there, the help I got from the editors has made it a much better piece over the past few days, and has offered me other learning lessons I can apply in future work.

If the students are willing to put in the work, our mentor is willing to put in just as much time in mentoring and guiding the students; if a story generates income for UPI we are very open to sharing that revenue with the student.

What posts, chats or other features are you excited to soon be rolling out?

We are really excited about our Going Global program, where we work with a different school every week.  Going Global has a few steps:

1) Introductory workshop via Skype and explain basic tips for writing and publicizing a great story.

2) Students work during the semester on their stories.

3) On the deadline date, students file their stories to UPIU.com.

4) The UPIU senior mentor provides students feedback and recommends a few stories for UPI.com.

5) The mentor meets with students via Skype.  She provides feedback on stories and explains the reasons some of the stories excelled.  She also announces the top three stories that received the most Web traffic.

This year we have worked with or will be working with:

Peking University (Beijing, China)

University of Wollongong (Wollongong, Australia)

Communication University of China (Beijing, China)

United States International University (Nairobi, Kenya)

Southeastern Louisiana University (Louisiana, US)

University of Lagos (Lagos, Nigeria)

University of Philippines Diliman (Manila, Philippines)

University of Philippines Los Banos (Los Banos, Philippines)

Temple University (Tokyo, Japan)

Michigan State University (Michigan, US)

Rhodes University (Grahamstown, South Africa)

Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)

West Virginia University (West Virginia, US)

University of Technology, Sydney (Sydney, Australia)

Jamia Millia Islamia (New Delhi, India)

Rutgers University (New Jersey, US)

Ohio University (Ohio, US)

Frostburg State University (Maryland, US)

St. Thomas University (Florida, US)

And looking for more!

We’ll also be doing another international journalism student chat (check out the first one here), but this time it will be a Q&A with a student from one country (six students from six countries and observers who were also interested in chatting and discussing the issues became WAY too chaotic!).

We also occasionally have pitch sessions with students on dimdim.com.  It is a browser-based (no need for downloading) video conferencing site where students who are working on some story ideas can pitch their ideas to our senior mentor.  It’s great because students can pitch their ideas via video, audio or chat to the mentor from their own homes.  Whenever we’re doing a pitch session I’ll tweet it out and anyone can come in and observe.

A screenshot from the site featuring the first UPIU international j-students chat.

One Response to “UPIU: “Building the J-Future” Atop Students Worldwide”
  1. Rosin says:

    Dan I like your Article very much.