Madison Walls, a senior at UNC School of Media and Journalism, ran into a VP of Google News at the Online News Association conference in October, and he gave her one piece of advice:
“Make bold moves, Madison.”
Madison, who is studying interactive design, was a student in my course at UNC last semester called Media Hub. We advertise it as a course for “the best of the best” journalism students. It mimics the environment of a news organization – without the cursing and stupid assignments – to prepare students for the real world. Students in print, broadcast, photography, design and public relations work together to propose and report stories for publication.
That Google exec’s advice was exactly what Madison needed. She had a vision for a story project on gender discrimination in tech.
“I want to make this story awesome,” she wrote me in an email upon her return. “I want it to be an interactive and immersive experience that dives into what women in this industry are experiencing at these different levels of life. It sounds big, right? Too big? I want readers and viewers to see what these women are seeing at each critical moment in their lives and how it is changing the way we experience the industry.”
That was the spark that became Our Story Continues, a site in which women share their stories of their struggles and successes in the tech industry. The site gives voice to a group that might have been considered voiceless. Without realizing it, she envisioned what Jeff Jarvis describes as a new definition of journalism: “To convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation.”
Madison: “At the Online News Association conference this year, I saw so many examples of innovative storytelling. This got me thinking about all the ways I could create an immersive story experience and in such a way that stayed within my scope of coding abilities. I already knew I wanted to do a story on women in the tech industry. It is a subject I am passionate about, and I think there are many stories out there that haven’t been told from all ages of women in the industry.”
Madison was a member of a four-person team — with Kelsey Mason, Samantha Paisley and Doni Hollway — which wanted to do a package of stories on women in tech. My co-teacher, Richard Griffiths, and I kept pushing for a tighter focus. “Yes, discrimination in the tech field is hot right now, but so much has been done. What are you going to do that’s new?”
The team had an answer: “The decision to do an interactive website where users can add their own story not only makes it more personal, but it makes the story a collaborative effort,” Madison said. “Normally the story stops at the last word, and this site will never have a ‘last word.'”
Samantha wrote a story, Doni recorded a broadcast piece, and Kelsey pitched the stories to professional news outlets and on social media. Madison’s “big idea” came together.
“The site would not exist without the support of my teammates,” Madison said. “This was a hard story to tell. Many people we interviewed felt uncomfortable bashing a company they worked for or jeopardizing their chances with a company by complaining about the industry. Everyone had a ‘we’re in this together’ attitude, and it made this story special for us as a team.”
As a former newspaper editor with experience in reader comments, I was concerned about comment moderation, about trolls, and about Madison’s commitment to keeping the site going past the last day of class. Shows what an idiot I am. She’s moderating the stories, swatting away trolls and is committed.
“Within one week, 64 women posted a personal story about their experience in the tech world,” Madison said. “Some vary in length, but for the most part, each story speaks to what’s amazing about this industry, and what some of the biggest issues are. Two of my tweets promoting the site now have 15,000 views according to Twitter analytics, and the website itself has nearly 5,000. The goal within the next two months is to get a story from every state in the U.S., and currently we are at 19 states.”
Part of the credit for those results go to Twitter friends in the industry spreading the word.
One of the earliest, best, lessons I learned as an editor was “Hire the best people and get out of the way.” While I don’t hire students, they are some of the best. I got out of the way.
I asked Madison what she learned from the experience.
“I’ve learned the most from the stories these girls are posting,” she said. “It is incredible to see just how alike we are, but how we all have such a different story. It is empowering to watch this map populate.
“In terms of the project itself, I’ve learned to never give up on an idea. This project took two months to turn from idea to website. It sat in the idea stage for about six weeks because we weren’t sure what the focus of the project was or how it would work. I am so glad we stuck with it, because I think this project has been one of my greatest accomplishments as an undergrad.”