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This is social news

Last week in Berlin, I spent the day with the student-interns at Axel Springer’s in-house, two-year journalism school (that’s common in the industry in Germany) to critique the work they did creating a new news site that used social tools to report: This is South Africa. The site — and the students — were impressive because they stretched the definitions of news and reporting and the culture of journalism and did so inside a media giant. Companies in the U.S. would be wise to inject such youth and innovation into their bloodstreams

The students set off to report on South Africa around the World Cup using only social connections to people there via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, et al. They did not argue that this would replace reporters on the scene; it complements.

They studied the blogging scene in South Africa and made connections with them. They used Twitter and Facebook to follow the news and also to ask people there to report for them and to take pictures. They distributed their news socially.

Their news coup came when they reported on the trampling of spectators at an early game, beating big-media competitors in Germany by 30 minutes to more than two hours. They also argued that they covered stories the mainstream press didn’t, getting social contacts, for example, to take pictures of Blikkiesdorp, the “tin-can town” or concentration camp where homeless, black South Africans were moved for the games (I did find coverage in Die Zeit but not much elsewhere). They say they heard and shared the authentic voices of South Africans they met online and reported via different sources than mainstream media’s, interacting with those sources in new ways. They interviewed sources via Skype and even Facebook. They tried to tie online with the streets and create vuvuzela flashmobs across Germany. They measured success by retweets and conversation.

The students called what they made a beta. That alone is contrary to news culture, where we tried to convince ourselves and our audiences that we reached perfection at every deadline. The entire relationship with their public is something new for news culture — something I hope they can bring into their company and its publications as this class of students starts now on their practicum, producing Welt Kompakt (which on July 1 will have an issue produced by bloggers). I hope the students have the opportunity to train other journalists in the company on what they learned about what they can gain by using new tools to build valued new relationships with the public.

My only complaint about their project: They bragged that it had no ads. Give me these students for a term in my entrepreneurial journalism course and I’ll turn them into capitalists.

: SEE ALSO: Five things journalists should learn from bloggers.