• Meredith Cummings

Here's to you, YouTube



This article was originally published on December 15, 2015 on Quill, a magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Educators use YouTube for education videos (think Kahn Academy), and media students and advisers are uploading broadcast videos to YouTube every day. Yet more educators — as a staff or individually — need to encourage students to use the medium as a means to gain valuable skills in journalism while they have fun.


In short: YouTube is powerful, and many students are missing out.


If students aren’t harnessing the power of YouTube, they are losing a huge potential audience for their work. It has over a billion users — almost a third of all people on the Internet.


More importantly, YouTube teaches skills above and beyond the journalism skills we all already know and love. In addition to critical thinking, great storytelling and social watchdog issues, having an active YouTube channel teaches students about online community responsibility, the importance of their social media footprint and a springboard for issues dealing with social justice, an underlying tenet of journalism.


John and Hank Green ― known as The VlogBrothers on YouTube ― are the creators of VidCon, a YouTuber convention in Anaheim, Calif. Because I’m from Birmingham, Ala., and they went to high school there, I’ve always been enthralled with how a novelist and vlogger could transcend their sleepy city to create a convention that grew from 1,400 people in 2010 to a strong 19,500 this year.


I made the trip with my 13-year-old daughter over the summer. I met the Greens, and I agree completely with what Hank said: YouTube is so diverse that you can’t possibly be a fan of or follow everyone. But because of its a la carte nature, when you find a personality you like, you tend to stick with them.


Gen Xers and baby boomers might dismiss a lot of what is on YouTube, and even the medium itself. But a quick peek inside VidCon reveals that students are learning lessons not only about shooting and editing video but about website mobilization, music and copyright laws, and community standards and norms. They learn without even realizing it.


This is helpful because this generation watches YouTube like other generations watched TV. By its own estimation, YouTube overall ― and even just on mobile alone ― reaches more 18- to 34-year-olds and 18- to 49-year-olds than any cable network in the United States.


So many people are on YouTube that the company even rolled out YouTube Red recently, a $10-per-month service that allows for exclusive content, no ads and other perks, such as a subscription to Google Play music.


YouTube videos do not have to be comical — a myth perpetuated by some of the videos that go viral (think cat videos or people shooting basketballs from the top of skyscrapers). Yet they do need to have personality and be engaging and interesting to at least some segment of the population. And, like legacy media, they need to serve the public.


The best thing about creating videos for YouTube is the minimal equipment required. A phone and a willing creator are all you need to get started in a classroom. It’s power in the hands of the people. It can be the ultimate form of journalism — journaling and documenting life one person, staff or classroom at a time.


Consider a few tips I learned at VidCon about the YouTube community that can be useful in classrooms:


No judgment, no fear. People at VidCon don’t care what you think of them, which is funny because they put themselves out there on a daily basis to be judged and critiqued online by the world. Students need a sense of confidence, not bullying, while they create. This safety net of embracing the moment gives them a sense of wonder missing from many social media platforms.


Anything goes. The spirit of empowerment is everywhere, and each person is embraced and welcomed for his or her talents, fashion sense, abilities, etc. I may have been the only one in attendance without blue or pink hair (except Katie Couric).


Failing is a very big, good idea. Encouragement to fail abounded. Everyone knows that failure sets us up to succeed. These guys fail big. They fail hard. And that’s OK, because that’s how news ideas start working and coming together.


People come from around the world for a common love. You can be in an elevator and start talking about a YouTuber and immediately people know who you’re talking about and chime in, even for YouTubers with few subscribers.

© 2020 by Meredith Cummings.

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