Author Archive

Today’s journalism students must understand media policy and business

I began my previous post with a story about my first, feeble attempt to discuss net neutrality in Journalism 24/7, my course on the changing news industry,  planning to segue into a response to Nick Lemann’s recent “Dean’s Letter” in a Columbia J-school alumni publication. Lemann’s letter addressed the importance of teaching journalism students about media policy, but I never got to it. Instead, I wrote about how that teaching blooper (what students might call an epic fail) taught me an important lesson about pedagogy, one I’ve used to great advantage in the years since.

And now to Lemann’s letter. Lemann, Columbia’s dean since 2003, writes that his attitude toward teaching students about media policy has evolved. His letter begins: “For most of my life as a journalist, I was blissfully, even willfully, ignorant about media policy.” But, he continues, Continue reading

Great moments in teaching: leveraging student participation

With just a month’s notice, I’d been assigned to a brand-new course, JRN 301: Journalism 24/7, in the second semester of the very existence of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. The course topic: the changing news industry. My idea for that day’s class: Discuss net neutrality.

Sometimes – less now than in years past, thankfully – but sometimes, like all teachers, I think, I fail to allot sufficient time to class preparation and suddenly it’s class time and I’m forced to wing it. This was one of those days. The term “net neutrality” had been showing up frequently in my online reading (read: cramming) as I struggled to get a handle on the turbulence of the news industry in the late 2000s.

I got to class and began talking, using the skimpy notes I’d thrown together. It wasn’t more than two minutes into my “lecture” that I realized I was hopelessly lost. Could not talk about net neutrality. Had no backup. An hour left of class! What to do? Continue reading

The New York Daily News: A newsroom that feels like home

One of my favorite hidden delights in Manhattan is the lobby of the old Daily News building on the corner of 42nd Street and Second Avenue. Though the newspaper abandoned this Art Deco masterpiece nearly 20 years ago for a home on the dreary Far West Side – a bland space that the paper will leave this spring for even cheaper digs downtown – the lobby of its eponymous building is still dominated by a massive revolving globe, described neatly by RoadsideAmerica.com:

A 1941 postcard image of the globe in the lobby of the old Daily News headquarters.

The globe is 12 feet in diameter and weighs 4,000 pounds. It is housed in a mirrored circular pit beneath a black glass dome, and is lit from below. A sunburst, inlaid into the terrazzo floor, radiates out from this spherical beauty, with text marking the direction and distance to major cities around the world. The lobby walls are decorated with contraptions of precise measurement such as thermometers, wind speed indicators and an ornate world clock.

I loved that clock! I used to visit the lobby regularly when I worked catty-corner at 800 Second Ave. in my first writing job after J-school. The inlaid bronze rays of the sunburst, indicating the mileage to Valparaiso, Paris, Tangiers and other locales more or less exotic, never failed to stir me. Back then, anyone could walk through the main lobby to dally along two aisles of galleries displaying Daily News photos, past and present. It was a wonderful way to spend a lunch hour.

I took the students in my Reporting in NYC class to visit the New York Daily News last month, courtesy of News Editor John Oswald, who handles many of the paper’s internships and whom I’d gotten to know by phone and e-mail. Globe or no globe, bronze sunburst or no, after our visit a week earlier to the austere Temple of Journalism on Eighth Avenue, aka The New York Times, I wanted the students to see a traditional newspaper newsroom. Continue reading

#NYTimes: Continuous News vs. Page One

I arranged with a Stony Brook alum, Dave Joachim, an editor at The New York Times, to visit the paper with the nine students in my Reporting in NYC class on Jan. 11. The last time I brought a class there, the very senior editor who took us around pointed out staffer after staffer with Ivy League or similar private-school credentials – kind of a tin ear, I thought, and I figured Dave wouldn’t be so snooty. He wasn’t, of course; he was charming, and though he made the point that no Stony Brook senior is going to walk straight from graduation into a job at the Times, his experience – toiling in the vineyards of tech trade publications for 10 years (a worthy but unglamorous endeavor) before he took a stab and reached out to a Times business editor he’d met, a stab that after a year and a half of tryouts and waiting led to a job on the business copy desk, from which he gradually moved up to his current and very exciting job as banking editor – his experience shows that the Times isn’t out of reach forever to graduates of a public university. Nor should it be. Isn’t one of the problems of contemporary mainstream journalism the coziness of elite journalists and their sources?

Back to our visit. Dave had arranged a terrific morning for us, beginning, he hoped, with our sitting in on the morning Page One meeting (sitting in the visitors gallery, mind you). But someone had beaten him to the gallery seats, booking them for a group of students from Princeton; no comment.  Quick on his feet, Dave arranged for us to observe the morning meeting at the Continuous News Desk, which couldn’t have been a happier turn of events.

The Continuous News Desk meeting begins, much as Page One meetings do, with editors from Continue reading

A teachable moment in numeracy

A recent Business Day front page in The New York Times featured an enjoyable story headlined “Rabbit Ears Perk Up for Free HDTV,” by Matt Richtel and Jenna Wortham. It reported on young people who have dropped their cable-television susbcriptions and replaced them with “the modern equivalent of the classic rabbit-ear antenna.

“Some viewers,” the story continued, “have decided that they are no longer willing or able to pay for cable or satellite service.” These viewers, “including younger ones, are buying antennas and tuning in to a surprising number of free broadcast channels. These often become part of a video diet that includes the fast-growing menu of options available online.”

“Cord-cutting,” as this phenomenon is known in media circles, has been much discussed in my Journalism 24/7 class, which examines the changing news industry. Good, I thought, here’s a story I can use in class. I turned to read the continuation on page B6, where I learned that from April to September, “cable and satellite companies had a net loss of about 330,000 customers.” Antennas Direct, a St. Louis manufacturer, “expects to  sell 500,000 this year, up from 385,000 in 2009, according to its president.” A young couple in Minnesota and another in Virginia were quoted on their decisions to cut the cord and whether they miss the cable offerings.

So this cord-cutting thing is really happening, I thought as I finished my breakfast and glanced at page B7.

“ESPN Says Study Shows Little Effort To Cut Cable,” said the headline at the top of that page.

Hunh?

My first thoughts were snarky, I’ll confess: Is this evidence of some kind of internecine warfare on the biz desk? Don’t the Times business editors talk to one another? Ah, schadenfreude.

The ESPN story, by Brian Stelter, reported that Continue reading

When teaching feeds the soul

My most moving teaching moment in the past two weeks came when I looked up from the work I was grading at the students in my grammar lab, who were midway through their first high-stakes proficiency test.

For our intro reporting students, moving ahead in the skills courses of our journalism curriculum is dependent on their passing either this test or a second given in the last week of classes. I allow the students to bring any materials they need into the test: books, handouts, printouts, their notes, anything but electronic devices. My rationale is that writers and editors constantly use reference materials; my goal isn’t for these students to memorize every rule for commas or the entire AP stylebook but for them to recognize the grammar and syntax elements that give them trouble and to know where to go for answers — to develop that essential journalistic habit of checking.

So I looked up at my 18 students, immersed in their task. The room was nearly silent. Some were paging through stylebooks that had at last begun to show signs of wear.  Others were leafing through our grammar text (Brooks et al., “Working With Words”), seeking the sections they had marked with bright bristles of Post-It notes. They looked so studious, so intent, these students who had started class nine weeks earlier not knowing a preposition from a pronoun. Continue reading

An ideal journalism curriculum for undergraduates?

The consensus on preparing tomorrow’s journalists is this: They have to be able to do everything: write well, handle digital still and video cameras proficiently, edit photos in Photoshop, edit video with FinalCutPro, produce podcasts, produce slide shows, blog, promote themselves and their employers on social media. Have I left anything out?

And underlying those skills, there’s more – the skills that journalists have always needed, the reporter’s fundamental mindset. Tomorrow’s journalists, like today’s, like yesterday’s, need to spot stories in the world around them, find out what’s been published or aired on those stories, figure out new angles and follow-ups, research people and topics, synthesize information swiftly, write quickly and gracefully, revise their own and others’ copy, analyze and use numbers, conduct all kinds of interviews, be prepared to wrestle with ethical dilemmas, possess a broad knowledge of history and current events, meet deadlines. Accuracy, brevity and clarity, the ABC’s of journalism – they sound simple, but much study and practice are needed to achieve them.

From an educator’s standpoint, a key question is this: How do we weave the fundamentals and the technology together in a curriculum that not only teaches students to compete in today’s media job market but also how to think and reflect and write? The follow-up questions come thick and fast. Do we start by teaching students how to shoot and edit video? Do we have them produce stories in multiple platforms from the beginning? Or do we start with a focus on the fundamentals, the writing, research, interviewing, revising and numeracy skills? Is it possible to do everything at once?

The answer to that last question is the only easy one: No.

Spread the material too thin, try to cram too much too fast into students’ brains, and you end up with students who can do nothing well. There may be a superficial technical glibness, but the content, the storytelling, suffers. The ability to tell important stories accurately, quickly and clearly comes first. The platforms come second. And writing is still the best way for students to demonstrate their mastery of putting a story together – whether writing for “print” or writing “broadcast” scripts or writing directly for the web. (Those are air quotes. Nearly all “print” and “broadcast” work ends up on the web at some point.)

My dream journalism curriculum looks like this.

Continue reading

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