“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?