Archive for the ‘ Journalism Fundamentals ’ Category

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.

Shining a light on missed deadlines

One of the biggest complaints among my colleagues — and, I imagine, among journalism professors everywhere — is the student who misses deadlines.

Why else the dire threats in every journalism syllabus I’ve ever seen: a grade lost for every day the assignment is late. No credit for work more than a week late. No work accepted late, at all.

I’ve written those threats into syllabuses myself. Yet I find myself nodding in resignation when a student begs to print out her story during a break or to e-mail it to me after class.

What to do? I could develop a steelier spine and follow through on the threats — and I have lowered grades for late work. Yes, I could do that consistently, in theory.

But I’ve stumbled upon a couple of techniques recently that have proved effective, and they’re more pleasant than the glowering tough-guy approach. Both harness the Internet.

Like many colleges and universities, Stony Brook uses an online educational tool called Blackboard. Each course has its own Blackboard site, with pages for assignments, email, announcements, course documents, gradebook, discussion boards, blogs and many more.

I like to use the Announcement function, which also allows me to send the announcement as an e-mail to all students in the course.

The night before a deadline, I post an announcement reiterating the details of the deadline: time, place, format. I specify that the work is due in hard copy, typed, triple-spaced and stapled, at the start of class. For good measure, I e-mail the announcement to all the students.

This tactic worked well during my winter-session course. Everyone managed to make the deadlines, despite commutes of up to 90 minutes for a class that began at 9:30 a.m., pre-dawn by student standards.

This semester, I tried something else when half of the 12 students in the senior-project seminar I co-teach with Marcy McGinnis had missed two interim project deadlines three weeks into the course. I threw together a spreadsheet listing all the students. The next column listed missed assignments — blank for those who were caught up. Then a column with the due date, and a column — blank — for the date submitted.

I posted the spreadsheet on Blackboard and e-mailed it to the class yesterday. Then I sat back and watched the late assignments roll in. All but two students are now caught up.

A picture, or in this case a chart, is worth a thousand nags. Seeing their names on the bad-boy list means public embarrassment, however slight. Just stating the facts, folks; it’s up to you to do something about the situation.

These students are working on semester-long projects. If  they fall behind this early in the semester, they are doomed. I plan to make this chart a weekly feature of the course.

Pictures of dead Haitians

After the earthquake last week, one of my students asked why news organizations had no compunction about showing images of dead Haitians amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince, images that clearly showed their faces, images through which family members elsewhere in the world could easily identify victims. She recalled that U.S. news organizations declined to show footage of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, which led to a discussion of the controversy over news photos of dead soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why, she asked, was this sensitivity to survivors’ feelings, or to what some have called the dignity of the dead, abandoned in the case of the Haitian earthquake victims?

Why, indeed?

Unleashed in the metropolis

What I love about teaching Reporting in NYC is unleashing Stony Brook students on the metropolis.

Stony Brook University, for all that is good about it, is a tough place to report. The campus is isolated from the community — deliberately, according to lore, but certainly effectively. A four-lane divided roadway, train tracks, woods and fields cut the campus off from Stony Brook and the surrounding hamlets, which, after 50 years of cohabitation, bear little student imprint. There’s no college-town ambiance.

Moreover, Long Island’s near-total dependence on the automobile keeps many students campus-bound. And the university is making a slow adjustment to the soaring number of student journalists who are trying to cover it. Access to university officials has often beendifficult, though all sides  hope to improve the flow of information. The School of Journalism and top administrators met last month to discuss the situation, and several useful ideas came out of the meeting. More on this another time.

But here in the city, freedom reigns. For the most part, students find story ideas easily. All they need to do is walk out the door. At the university, information is centralized; here, students can find multiple sources for answers to many of their questions. And with some perseverance, they’ve generally been able to get comments from politicians and government officials when necessary, perhaps because those sources are more accustomed to dealing with the press.

The experience is enormously liberating for the students. They feel more like “real reporters” than they have before. I’d like to teach this class year-round.

Gerald Grow, Grammar Guru

“In a manner of speaking, students cannot learn journalism; they can only learn to become journalists. That is, students cannot remain who they used to be and just add journalism to that self. They must experience a transformation of identity, skills, habits, and values, a transformation in the way they think and know and see the world — the transformation of becoming a producer of journalism and not just a consumer of it. It’s like that point in learning a foreign language when you begin to think in that language.” — Gerald Grow, professor of journalism (retired), Florida A&M University, in “When Journalism Majors Don’t Know Grammar (causes, considerations, and approaches),” from ASJMC Insights,  Spring 2006

This bears repeating: “[S]tudents cannot remain who they used to be and just add journalism to that self. They must experience a transformation of identity, skills, habits, and values, a transformation in the way they think and know and see the world … “

Some might argue Gerald’s point that students must become producers of journalism and not just consumers of it in a world in which everyone, especially current college students, publishes all the time to Facebook, Twitter and so on. But publishing is not journalism. Publishing is a necessary but not sufficient condition for becoming a journalist. It is the critical mindset; the thirst for understanding and describing events, people, trends; the voracious reading — these are the necessary and sufficient conditions.

Which brings me back to Reporting in NYC, Winter 2010. Course requirements, expressed in the syllabus and on the first day of class, include “Come to class prepared to discuss the news of the day.” I told the students to read all metro and regional coverage in The New York Times. I assigned each of the six students to bring either the New York Post or the New York Daily News to class each morning.

I assumed it was clear that this meant buying the paper at the start of the commute, reading it on bus, ferry, subway or train, and being fully abreast of the latest developments by the 9:30 start of class. I hoped that each would go to nytimes.com the night before class and learn the history and context of the day’s news from the lengthier stories there. (It’s horrifying how short the tabs’ non-scandal coverage of most local stories has become — a few grafs at the bottom of each page. But that’s a post for another day.)

So far, only one student has come to class prepared.

Understanding that this kind of work informs the journalistic mindset — that it must take place — is the part of the transformation Gerald described so acutely in his 2006 piece on teaching grammar. The connection with grammar comes, in part, with his observation that “it is possible that the problem of grammar might prompt journalism schools to refocus many types of instruction in order to deal with the underlying problems that originally led to the grammar problem. The goal in this case is not to teach grammar, but to teach students to figure things out for themselves — in preparation for a life of figuring things out for themselves.”

Figuring things out for themselves: Whether it’s syntax or the dysfunction in New York State government, the journalist figures things out for herself. Figuring it out requires preparation. Preparation requires reading. Reading requires curiosity. Curiosity — is there an app for that?

Reporting in NYC, Winter 2010: Day 3

Nothing is more gratifying to a journalism teacher than watching a student find an original story idea and get fired up with excitement during the reporting process. Today, the six students in our winter reporting intensive — 12 days in three weeks, finding and developing stories in Manhattan — began to show signs of real progress on their stories.

Gabby Pretto came back from the ice rink at Bryant Park aglow both from the cold air and from the pleasure of alighting on a willing and eager group of sources. The early-morning skating crowd, upon discovering her presence, had descended upon her, and she got interviews with seven of them.

Ryan Lavis came in with some good ideas for reporting on the recession-charged business of thrift shops.

Constantine Loizides had found a 9/11 rescuer who, having recovered from the injuries he sustained when the buildings fell, has made a new life as a Ground Zero tour guide and motivational speaker.

Jie Jenny Zou is exploring Curry Hill, that stretch of Lexington Avenue in the 20s populated by spice shops and South Asian restaurants. She’s examining whether Curry Hill is losing steam as a center for Indian and Pakistani culture, losing out to Jackson Heights and Edison, N.J. Now the trick is finding the demographic data she needs to support shopkeepers’ anecdotal evidence.

Luis Gronda has a lead on a candy store off Tompkins Square Park, a local institution threatened by rising rents, the recession and the aging of its longtime proprieter.

And Fendy Lamy spent the day interviewing the folks involved with an odd community garden in Chinatown, where nothing grows but artifacts contributed by local residents.

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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