‘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.

Curation is the new editing

I’ve been planning to discuss the idea of digital news “curation” with the students in my Journalism 24/7 class. This blog post by the ever-insightful Ken Doctor is just what I need to kick-start the conversation.

Ken writes:

“The idea of the FWIX’s and Outside.ins: provide a round-up of the best local news, by aggregating local news sources, big-time and small, blog, story and broadcast, professional and user-gen, applying some hierarchy of quality to it. Both efforts race for the same audiences and related advertising as the original content-creators, AOL’s newly expanding Patch and Examiner.com. In addition to those of course, the number of hyperlocal efforts increases by the day (and some of them are being rounded up by local dailies, witness the Seattle Times aggregation, for instance).”

Later in the post, he notes:

“The new-fangled word for it is curation, rounding up lots of content, providing some hierarchy of value. Of course, it’s just good editing, bolstered by intelligent technology, and a growing flexibility to accept and work with a wider world of voices, styles and views. … Importantly, it also asserts that readers are smart: they can tell the difference between a New York Times (or Sarasota Herald) byline and that of a community contributor. That assertion is a Pro-Am gamble for the Times and all proud brands, but it’s one that should be made — and backed up with clear, prominent and never-ending disclosure.” (emphasis added)

I’ve quoted at such length from Ken’s post because, as we teach our students, you quote what you couldn’t say better yourself. Ken captures the key points that ally this new style of editing, the curation function, with solid journalistic practices. “Clear, prominent and never-ending disclosure” prevents the stupid mistakes that have felled reporters and bloggers in several recent, highly publicized incidents. Disclosure also protects news organizations that practice digital curation from problems erupting from the stories the curators link to.

Disclosure helps readers increase their news literacy.

I’m convinced that curation holds great promise for hard-pressed newsrooms that have closed bureaus and slashed reporting staffs. As Mike Masnick recently pointed out on techdirt, curation could free reporters from re-reporting run-of-the-mill stories and allow them to pursue folos or fresh angles or different stories. I’m not saying that re-reporting stories broken elsewhere is a worthless exercise; re-reporting can certainly correct or clarify flaws in the original piece. And assignment editors will have to make tough choices when they could link to another news outlet’s (or a reliable blogger’s) take on a mayoral press conference or a journo scrum on the courthouse steps instead of tying up one of their own for a day.

But tough times mean tough choices.

Beyond its necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention appeal, curation allows a news organization to expand the perspectives it offers its readers. It gives editors the power to guide readers who want to explore a topic or issue. A trusted news brand that curates successfully will keep curious readers from moving off its site to hunt around on Google and Wikipedia. Curation allows journalists to harness the power and multiplicity of the Web, adding breadth and depth. A reader’s good experience with an editor’s curation should deepen her trust in the site where she started her journey.

Job-hunting tools: Indeed.com and mediajobpod.org

I added a new category to the blog this week: Professionalism 101. Part of my job at Stony Brook U.’s j-school is coordinating internships and helping our seniors and graduates find jobs. And as the mission of this blog is to reflect on how j-schools are preparing the new generation of journalists for the evolving news industry, writing about job issues and the transition from student to professional feels like a natural fit.

When Joe Grimm met with our graduating seniors last week, he mentioned indeed.com, which he described as a “job board scraper.” Indeed.com has been around for years, apparently, and has been written about widely, yet it’s new to me. I’m an instant convert.

Just for fun, I tried searching for three starkly different job titles — newspaper reporter, hydrogeologist and sewing-machine operator — and got lengthy search results for each. Users can narrow the results by location, salary, company or title, among other choices; one can have e-mail alerts sent whenever a new job is posted in a selected category. The site has a blog examining overall trends in hiring, forums by job title, FAQs, search tips and a neat feature that Joe mentioned: job trends by industry. Today’s page on trends for a category called “media and newspaper jobs” says that job postings last month in this area were up 18 percent over February 2009. How’s that for some good news for a change? (Numeracy alert: Let’s remember that last February, such job postings were few and far between. Still, better up than down.) Among the top 10 job titles in this group: copy editor, with more than 11,000 such jobs posted at an average salary of $48,000.

Another site I’m crazy about is mediajobpod.org, which the Society of Professional Journalists mentioned in a recent e-newsletter; one of my colleagues passed it on to me. This site is the brainchild of two journalism profs at Kent State University, Karl Idsvoog and Dave Smeltzer, a former TV journalist and corporate videographer, respectively. Nice job, guys! They bill the site as “Job Search Advice for Multimedia Journalists and Production Majors.” It consists of beautifully produced video clips of top staffers, and executives who make hiring decisions, discussing topics such as internships, cover letters, writing and multimedia for specific job titles. The journalism job titles currently listed are TV reporter, TV producer, videographer/editor and Web reporter. Among the people who appear on the site are NBC’s Tim Peek, executive producer, new media; CNN anchor/reporter Carol Costello; and the elegant Rita Andolsen, news director at WKYC in Cleveland.

What’s so great about this site is the chance to hear and see professionals giving the advice that matters most to students, the nitty-gritty details about resumes and cover letters and interviews. Hearing from professors is one thing; for students, sometimes, it’s a lot like listening to parents, in one ear and out the other. Or so I fear. But hearing from professionals, and watching them speak, often in newsroom settings, is like diving into the Atlantic off Long Island. It wakes you up. The concern they express for helping students get the job-hunt right, and their passion for finding great young people to bring on board, makes for an inspiring experience.

Thinking twice about Facebook groups

Here at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, we were graced this week with a visit from Joe Grimm, the longtime recruiting editor for the Detroit Free Press, a Poynter columnist and one of the nation’s experts on newspaper careers. Since leaving the Freep 19 months ago, Joe has moved much of his voluminous advice for internship seekers and job hunters onto his Web site, http://www.jobspage.com/. And he’s expanding his bailiwick beyond newspapers to news careers of all sorts. (No fool, he.)

Joe is a witty, warm, nice man. We kept him busy for two days, meeting with faculty, meeting with our seniors and speaking to classes. I’ll have a lot to say about his visit over the next couple of days, but for now, I’d like to reflect on something he said about Facebook.

When Joe met with our graduating seniors, someone asked him what he wanted or didn’t want to see on a job applicant’s Facebook page. Stupid pictures are bad, of course, he said, the ones that show you crazed from booze or flaunting assets best left to the imagination.

We’ve all heard that before.

But then he mentioned Facebook groups, and that was one of those this-is-so obvious-how-could-I-never-have-thought-of it moments. I’d never thought about how groups I’d idly joined, whether out of interest, to show solidarity or to please a friend, could so easily reflect personal opinions, political leanings or beliefs that I might not want to share with every “friend” I have on Facebook. As Joe said several times, anything you put online is ubiquitous–everywhere–and forever.

I’ve dropped some groups from my list now. No doubt there’s still a way for anyone determined to dig up the names of those groups to do so, but few people will bother, I’d be willing to bet. Monitoring one’s online persona is a constant responsibility, and now I’m going to avoid joining groups that reveal more about me than I might wish.

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.

Getting seniors ready for work

After reading my previous post on deadlines, one of the students in my senior seminar expressed disappointment that I hadn’t mentioned her name among those who have been posting regularly to our class blog. She was the first student to post, she noted, and has posted every week. She added that she had put her disappointment aside to concentrate on catching up on her missed work — and on getting her name off our weekly “Work Owed” chart.

That got me thinking about the importance of learning to live without much praise.

I remembered when I was a young reporter on the business desk at New York Newsday — so young, it seems to me now! I was 29 or 30 at the time of the incident I’m recalling; certainly I was old enough to know better, and I knew that at the time. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’d been at the paper for about a year, maybe a little more. I was meeting with my assignment editor, Steve Zipay. I don’t recall what made me say this, but I clearly remember complaining to him, “No one ever tells me I’m doing a good job.”

He fixed me with a mildly exasperated yet kindly look. “Barbara,” he said, “at this level, no one’s going to tell you you’re doing a good job.”

It’s assumed that you’re going to do a good job, he went on. Occasionally, someone may remark on it, and if you do something really terrific, you may get some brief recognition. But day to day appreciation? No. People are going to tell you what they need. Everyone is busy, and everyone is thinking about the next thing that has to get done, the next deadline.

It was a lesson that stuck with me, obviously.

Most of my students are already working, but not at jobs that mean much to them. When they get a job that serves their passion and reflects their training, they may be hoping for more recognition than they expect now, from the assistant manager at the store, say. Keep that hope in check, I want to tell them. The reason for working at something you’re passionate about is that the work is its own reward.

Recognition comes in other ways. Extra responsibility. A tougher assignment. Eventually, perhaps, an award or a promotion. But day to day, the motivated worker finds satisfaction in the work. In teaching these seniors, I’d better be as demanding, and as frugal with praise, as the overworked editors at their first jobs will be.

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