Archive for the ‘ J-schools ’ Category

‘Facebook is nothing more than a campfire’

That’s what Paul Gillin told the students in my Journalism 24/7 class when he visited a couple of weeks ago.

He’d given a pithy run-through of the reasons why the new industry must, in his words, “destroy the old to create the new,” and the students were asking probing questions about collateral damage.

“What’s going to happen to verification?” asked Lauren Cioffi, a junior who has interned at Newsday and written for The Statesman, one of our campus papers. (Links are to the blogs students write for my class.)

The emphasis on speed over accuracy is “scary,” said Ari Davanelos, one of two exceptionally computer-savvy students in the class. “Will we reach an equilibrium?”

“The jobs being lost in the old model — what about all the people who are being squeezed out?” asked David O’Connor, who wants to be a sportswriter. “Is that okay?”

“What’s the future of journalism schools?” Paloma Paultre, who hopes to be a news anchor, wanted to know.

Gillin’s answers had a common theme: What has changed are behaviors, not a value system. “The essential values of human trust have not been changing,” he said.

“Facebook is nothing more than a campfire,” he went on. “We get together at the end of the day, and we shoot the breeze.”

It’s a comforting thought — that despite the tumult and uncertainty enveloping the news industry, people ultimately want to know that they can trust the storytellers.

But “the next 10 years in journalism are going to be really ugly,” Gillin said. The democratization of publishing is “now destroying the institutions we have relied on since the Civil War to tell us what is true.”

“Big media was created to solve a problem: lack of information,” he told the students. “You’re going to enter a world where everyone is publishing.” Publishing “is cheap and easy. And that changes everything.”

“This is much bigger than just journalism,” he added. “When anyone can publish … then it’s much harder to hide.”

Gillin earns his daily bread by consulting with businesses that want to harness social media, and he noted that many companies — he cited the Coca-Cola Co. as one example — now encourage mid-level employees to blog, or to communicate in forums, or to use Twitter and Facebook. Like journalism, business in general will be “more participatory and more transparent.” Companies will be smaller and flatter with less need for middle managers, whose role traditionally has been to communicate up and down within organizations.

For media companies in particular, which in a largely digital future won’t need expensive real estate, presses, paper, ink, drivers, press operators or circulation departments, “the future is going to be in ‘small.'”

From a societal perspective, the whirlwind is destroying institutional knowledge, reducing journalism’s role as government watchdog, making it harder  to afflict the comfortable and eliminating “a common reference point for conversation.”

“That’s bad,” he said.

(A note to those who demean observers like Gillin, Michael Rosenblum and others who are delineating the new realities: These observers are not the enemy, and they are neither ignorant nor uncaring about the toll of the destruction. They are news people reporting a story.  Scratch their enthusiasm for the possibilities of the new order, and you’ll find a deep disquiet about the loss of many aspects of the old — just like the classic newspaper grouch whose cynicism masked a deep but often thwarted idealism.)

In Gillin’s view, the role of the journalist is expanding. Reporters will continue to write stories, but “our product is not a single story any more,” he said. “Our product is a flow of information … Curation is really, really important.”

And that’s where the conversation comes back to trust and basic human values. The digital journalist who becomes a trusted “brand,” for lack of a better word, leads readers (viewers, news consumers, news participants, whatever you call ’em) not only to his or her work but to the best of the work others produce. People who want to make sense of the world will follow those who can curate the most meaningful interpretations of events, issues and trends.

“The principles of journalism are very, very solid,” Gillin told Paloma, the student who had asked about the future of journalism schools. “And they’re not going to change.”

Reinventing J-School: We get the Gillin imprimatur

It’s nice when someone whose opinion you value tells you, “You’re doing the right things.”

Responding to the invitation I issued in one of my first posts on this blog, Paul Gillin, creator of the widely read Newspaper Death Watch blog, came to Stony Brook University last week to see for himself what we’re doing at our 4-year-old School of Journalism — how we’re reinventing j-school at a time of chaos (or challenge and opportunity, as my dean prefers to call it) — in the news industry. He liked what he saw.

“Journalism Educators Who Get It,” the title of his post about his time with us, was a nice change from “Misshaping Young Minds,” the post he wrote just before he arrived, or “J-Schools Get an F in Finance,” the post he wrote back in February that triggered my invitation to him.

He liked our News Literacy program. He liked our multiplatform worldview, our insistence that every student learn to write and edit text, to shoot digital photos, to shoot and edit video, to blog, to create interactive news elements. He liked the 18-credit interdisciplinary concentrations each of our journalism majors completes in addition to 47 credits in journalism. (A typical course is 3 credits.) Ditto our required senior project, in which students spend six weeks reporting a story and then tell it three ways: in text, in video or audio, and interactively. Ditto Journalism 24/7, the class I teach on the history, present and possible futures of the news business. Ditto that each student in the class reflects on what he or she is learning via twice-weekly blog post.

He had ideas for us, too, some that I liked a lot and others that I liked less. I liked his suggestion that we expand on the concept of our new Center for Communicating Science, which is about to have its first big event at Brookhaven National Lab, and provide a thread of courses teaching writing, blogging, audio and video skills to undergraduates from all disciplines. Scientists outside of the information-technology area lag in understanding how to use the power of the Internet, as my friend Denis Pelli, a psychology professor at New York University, showed poignantly when his timely panel on the subject drew a meager audience.

I liked his insight that Web sites will decline in importance as information consumption rolls inexorably onto mobile devices. This comment startled my colleague Wasim Ahmad, who cherishes good Web design and has made design central to his teaching philosophy. Food for thought: Original design won’t mean much when most people get to the Internet via the tiny screen of a smartphone.

I didn’t agree with Gillin’s print-is-dead pronouncements. Media history has shown that new platforms are built on the old while the old learn how to live with the new, processes definitively described in 1997 by Roger Fidler in his essential work, “Mediamorphosis: Understanding the New Media”: “Coevolution and coexistence, rather than sequential evolution and replacement, have been the norm.” People still hunger for print. The audience for print is shrinking but not vanishing. For j-schools, this means coevolution and coexistence in course offerings. Continue to teach writing and copy editing, layout and headline writing, but make room in the curriculum for all students to learn the other modes of communication, too.

That’s how you get to a 47-credit journalism major.

I’m still wrestling with the argument Gillin made, one made by many on the leading edge of journalistic entrepreneurialism, that the wall between editorial and business is not sacrosanct, that it is being eroded by journalists’ need for survival skills. Yes, journalists need to make money in an era of fewer staff jobs and click-driven metrics, but (to round up the relevant cliches and mix a metaphor or two), it’s a slippery slope, and you can’t serve two masters.  Of all that the faculty discussed with Gillin, this idea gave my colleagues the most trouble.

We are a forward-thinking group and we’re doing a lot that earns the praise of those who, like Paul Gillin, seem to see clearly where the news industry is going. But as a faculty, we have some old-school ideas about right and wrong.

My next post will report on Gillin’s visit to my classroom and how our students responded to his vision.

Tom Jolly

My colleague Jon Pessah, who teaches sports journalism at Stony Brook and blogs about sports and other topics at True/Slant, invited me to sit in on his class yesterday to hear New York Times Sports Editor Tom Jolly speak.

Jolly’s comments after his talk endorsed the approach we’re taking here at the SBU SOJ: Fundamentals first, then technology.

He spoke at length on how the Web and the existence of nytimes.com have changed the way the sports desk works. To Pessah’s question “Is the game story dead?” he replied that he’ll post a 300-word game story on the Website immediately after a game. But for the next day’s paper, reporters have time for to interview and to craft a story that explains why a game turned out the way it did or what the events of the game reflect or portend. Those old-fashioned play-by-play stories have no place in print: Sports fanatics have already seen the highlights reel on TV or on the Web, and casual sports fans are more interested in the broader context than in the details.

He uses Twitter promote stories on the Times site and to follow what other sports desks are doing and what sports-journalism critics are saying. And he finds Twitter the best source of breaking news. When the National Hockey League lifted the suspension of a prominent player (the name escapes me), Jolly had read the NHL’s tweet before his hockey reporter heard the news.

But after class, when I asked him what these changes in practice mean for journalism schools — what we should be doing to prepare our students for the new news ecology — he barely hesitated. Training students to be excellent reporters comes first, he said firmly. Multimedia skills are great, but they are the icing on the cake.

Some j-schools are trying the tech-first approach. Their entering students attend technology boot camps to learn multimedia before they study research, interviewing or verification. As a faculty, we’re pretty much unanimous that this does students a disservice. I know my dear friend Michael Rosenblum will shake his head, but we still believe in training reporters. We also prepare them for the new realities in the news business, and we continue to beef up that aspect of their education. But we remain dedicated to creating reporters — or at the least, to imparting reporters’ ethics and ways of viewing the world — first and foremost.

A New Year, A New Blog

January 2, 2010. 01/02/10, 01/02/2010. How anagrammatical. Or, as I’m among many to observe, how palindromatic.

JRNTeaching.wordpress.com: Inside the J-School Evolution has two purposes. One is to examine how the Internet revolution, which is reshaping the news industry, is driving changes to the journalism academy. It’s a parallel journey. Just as legacy news businesses — newspapers, magazines, network television — are thrashing about in a frenzy, trying to hold onto readers, viewers and advertisers in an era of free content, journalism schools are striving for new ways to prepare students for a very different industry than the one we professors came up in.

It’s a constant amazement that students are flocking to j-schools despite constant reports  of layoffs, cutbacks in coverage, shuttered publications and the rest of that grim litany. Young people want to tell stories. They want to share information. They’re turned on by the things that alternately intrigue and terrify their teachers: transparency, change, community. The school  at which I teach, the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, is midway through its fourth year of existence and has nearly 300 majors and 70 minors. Our youth as a school makes us more flexible than some long-established institutions, yet we, too, struggle to anticipate what will best serve our graduates.

At the same time, the fundamentals of journalism remain paramount. Those venerable ABCs: Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. How to get there? Research. Interviewing. Proper syntax. Quantitative literacy (the clear and accurate use of numbers). Writing about how I teach the fundamentals in the Internet Age is the second purpose of this blog.

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