Archive for the ‘ Journalism Fundamentals ’ Category

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

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

Slipping numeracy into reporting class

I’ve started putting into action one of the most important things I learned at the AEJMC meetings in Denver last month. I’m not waiting for that special day, that somewhere-over-the-rainbow day, when every student in our program takes a class devoted to quantitative literacy. I’m focusing now on ways to incorporate quantitative thinking into lessons and discussions that ostensibly have little to do with numbers.

On Tuesday, for example, I gave my introductory reporting class its first weekly current-events quiz and included a couple of questions about President Obama’s speech on Iraq. I asked:

In his Oval Office address last week, President Obama said the U.S. has spent more than _________________ on war in the past decade.
a. $10 billion
b. $75 billion
c. $1 trillion
d. $10 trillion

The answer is C, $1 trillion. But more important, this was an opportunity to discuss estimation and to talk about which numbers pass the sniff test.  What is a billion? A trillion? How can we make sense of these numbers not only to readers but also to ourselves?
The key, I told my students, is to keep some number comparisons in your mental back pocket so you can pull them out easily. For billions and trillions, I said, I’d use our university’s annual budget of nearly $2 billion. Is it likely  that seven years of fighting two wars cost the United States $10 billion, or only five times as much as it costs to run the campus for a year? Continue reading

Summer travels 2: AEJMC in Denver

The AEJMC, or the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, is a 98-year-old organization that holds annual meetings for faculty members who teach journalism, advertising and public relations. It meets every year during the first week of August in some large U.S. city. Roughly half its 4,000 members show up to attend sessions in the sunless, underground meeting rooms of an anonymous convention hotel and to schmooze with friends they haven’t seen since grad school.

That’s grad school as in doctoral studies, for the most part. AEJMC seems to be dominated by people with PhD’s who conduct studies with names like “The Media and Identity Scale: Some Evidence of Construct Validity” and “The Influence of Interdependent Self-Construal on Consumers’ eWOM Behaviors in Social Networking Web Sites.” (I’m sure these are both very fine studies.)

The daily sessions begin at 7 a.m. and run until nearly midnight. There may be a dozen or more sessions during any given 90-minute time slot. The sessions are labeled in degrees of opacity: research panel session, refereed paper research session, high-density research paper session, scholar-to-scholar refereed paper research session, panel session, teaching panel session, mini-plenary teaching session. None of the four AEJMC staffers I consulted could define these terms. This schedule goes on for four days, plus a “pre-conference” day of workshops.

With so many choices, finding intriguing sessions at this year’s meeting in Denver was easy. I attended “Journalists and Numbers: They Can Mix,” “Planning, Launching and Running a Convergent Student News Website,” “11 Years of Terrific Teaching Tips” and “The New Convergence: Innovations in Industry and Academic Collaborations.” I went into one session by mistake but stayed for a fascinating account of how “K-State” University journalism professors helped rebuild the media infrastructure of a tiny Kansas town destroyed by a deadly tornado. Continue reading

Summer travels I: Barcelona’s language lessons

I mention my trip to Barcelona here because of the opportunity it afforded me to think about language. For 35 years, I have retained a smattering of schoolgirl French and Spanish that has seen me through travels in France, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. Though Barcelona is part of Spain, Spanish is not its primary language. Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, was the last stronghold of the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War and retains an abundance of regional pride. The people speak Catalan, and one of the region’s triumphs since Franco’s death in 1975 has been the establishment of Catalan as an official language. Public signs are written first in Catalan and secondarily in Castiliano, as the Catalan people refer to the language spoken in most of Spain.

It didn’t take long for me to see that Catalan lies somewhere between Spanish and French — naturally enough, as Catalonia, or Catalunya, as its inhabitants call it, borders the Pyrenees that divide Spain from France. Take, for example, the Catalan word for “you,” vostè. In Spanish, the word is usted; in French, it is vous. Vostè is a nice compromise, don’t you think? Catalan reads phonetically, like Spanish, and uses accents, like French. Questions have question marks only at the end, without the upside-down opening question mark of Spanish. The most common expression for “please” is si us plau, sometimes rendered sis plau and meaning “if it pleases you,” not far from the French s’il vous plaît.

I had failed to find a Catalan phrasebook before leaving the States. There were none on the big bookseller websites or on Google. A friend sent me a link to this useful online source, which I cut and pasted into Word, edited for the needs of my trip, shrank the font of and printed on seven sheets of paper, which I then folded to pocket size and stuck in my Barcelona folder. Naturally, it was missing when I arrived at the flat my husband and I had rented in the Eixample (pronounced eye-ZHAMP-la) section of Barcelona. Continue reading

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