Magazine article Nieman Reports

Teaching Journalism for an Unknown Future: Journalism Professors Work to Align Essential Skills with Emerging Technology

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Teaching Journalism for an Unknown Future: Journalism Professors Work to Align Essential Skills with Emerging Technology

Article excerpt

Imagine the world 65 million years ago, where great, lumbering dinosaurs roamed. Imagine that some of them heard a warning, deep within their small, unevolved brains, that they were about to become extinct. The climate was changing. Their food was disappearing. Smaller, more nimble creatures were gathering the best leaves and refusing to stand still long enough to be killed and eaten. Some would ignore it: How could the largest beasts on earth all die? Some would worry, but go on with their lives. Perhaps a few in this imaginary world would look at the other beasts and try to find a way to survive; if this happened, we know they did not succeed.

In the media world today, newspapers are the great, lumbering dinosaurs. For almost 40 years, we have been hearing warnings that newspapers were about to become extinct. But many journalists and educators have ignored them, even as papers have died and others suffered drastic cuts in a triage effort to stay alive or increase profits.

As an educator with almost 30 years experience in the newspaper business, I sometimes think of myself as a dinosaur who has learned to use tools. My colleagues and I are trying to teach the next generation how to evolve quickly while retaining the best parts of our dinosaur culture. We are training them for both the current, rapidly evolving world and a near future of changed media. We are training some students who will graduate and assume traditional jobs, but we are training others for jobs that haven't even been invented.

Passing on Necessary Skills

There is no blueprint for this effort, and many newspapers cannot define what they want our journalism graduates to know or do. Do they want writers? Interviewers? Storytellers? Multimedia producers? Chat room monitors? Community developers? Podcast recorders? The newspapers don't know, and neither do we. Yet in committee meetings and conversations, my colleagues and I find important points of agreement that form the foundations of our teaching:

* Good journalism--good writing and editing--is just as important as ever.

* Good journalism works in all media--the delivery methods might change, but the content must be informative, interesting and reliable.

* Flexibility--the ability to manage change rather than being overwhelmed by it--is required for survival.

Agreement on the first point is unanimous. We teach the same reporting skills today that my professors taught me years ago: What is news? How do journalists find information, ask questions, talk to real people, or talk to newsmakers and their professional handlers? And we teach the same writing skills: how to organize a stow; how to make a story both fair and accurate; how to interest an audience through active language, compelling narrative, and precise details; how to avoid libel or copyright issues. We discuss the same issues, practical and philosophical, including news judgment, history, ethics and the importance of communication for individuals, community and culture.

On the second point, there is majority approval, if not unanimity. It is hard for some print dinosaurs to admit that other media might serve their audiences as well as newspapers. Most journalists are not early adapters to innovations. But almost all newspapers, even the smallest, have established a presence on the Web by now. In its early form, this presence generally is no more than a straight transfer of stories and pictures from the newspaper to a Web site. Web readers get no more or less than their neighbors who read ink on paper. As newspaper Web sites become more sophisticated, newspaper staff members are pulled inexorably toward digital journalism as they are asked to edit Web content, report special or additional features, or even join online chats or podcasts. Not surprisingly, these staff members find they are doing the same work, but the end product just looks different--and it might not appear on the front porch at all. …

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