In 2001, as a columnist for ABCNews.com, I interviewed a 13-year-old girl whose AOL screen name was UWannaLoveMe7. I asked the obvious question: Why would a nice girl like her adopt a screen name like that? “I have different screen names for when I am feeling different ways,” she explained. “I use that one when I want more attention.” I called UWannaLoveMe7’s mother, who was unaware that people employ pseudonyms online or that her daughter was trolling virtual space in search of “more attention.” “My Melissa?” she squeaked. “UWannaLoveMe7? Are you sure?”

That was five years ago, an eon in Internet time. Since then, I’ve devoted much of my professional life to exploring the experiences and identity development of kids in virtual spaces. UWannaLoveMe7, a member of the first generation of digital natives, spent hers growing up in a virtual world.

That world changed permanently the year she was born, the same year that CERN1 and Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web. She and her peers were fourth-graders when Shawn Fanning’s Napster upended our notions of copyright and intellectual property; fifth-graders when Wikipedia replaced the Encyclopædia Britannica as the source of universal knowledge, and high-school juniors when YouTube became the site of all-things-video and MySpace the glorification of all-things-me.

This fall, UWannaLoveMe7 and her friends will arrive on our college campuses. They’ll come to us as eager as freshmen always are. But it’s a watershed, nonetheless, one as worthy of note as the relative trends in their collective SAT scores and high school GPAs. For these are the kids who grew up online, whose childhoods evolved in a virtual universe as interactive and age-blind as it was dynamic and immediate. That experience exposed them early to pornographic images and sexual advances.

It also prepared them to be journalists in a digital age.

Participatory Culture and Journalism Education

Henry Jenkins at MIT has proposed a new definition of literacy appropriate to our “participatory culture.” It privileges play, negotiation, transmedia navigation, and collective intelligences over reading, writing, arithmetic and iconic deconstruction. In fact, it captures precisely the characteristics of our class of 2011:

  • They’re information junkies who define knowledge production in terms of access rather than storage.

  • They’re multitaskers who process input at broadband speed, who assume that content morphs easily from one medium or platform to another, and who are certain—always—that the answer is out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. By them.

  • They’re bricoleurs,2 who grew up playing with technology (and are perplexed, therefore, by journalism education’s collective obsession with the tools of media production: If you need to learn Photoshop, you learn Photoshop. What’s the big deal?).

  • Many are gamers, masters of collaborative engagement and targeted outcomes; all have performed multiple identities in virtual spaces and understand intuitively how to tailor a message to a particular audience.

Contrary to our persistent (and self-righteous) complaint that they cannot discern credible from incredible content, they value truth and accuracy—and a decade of virtual experience has produced in them the ability to recognize both. And they operate from a set of assumptions that defies the premises of our journalism schools and the profession it serves: In the worlds they inhabit, online and off, content is free, knowledge production is collaborative, and media are participatory.

That means they’ll listen to us talk about intellectual property, the authority of the “professional” journalist (not to mention the professional faculty member), and the inherent credibility or value of longstanding journalism traditions and structures (like the inverted pyramid, for example, or newsrooms). They may even nod and take notes (it could be on the test). But their experience—as valid and real as our own—instructs them that such ideas are historical artifacts of a pre-Web culture, leftovers from how things used to be.

And they are certain (and right) that that’s not how things are anymore.

Emergent Innovation

About 18 months ago, a friend of mine, the executive vice president of one of the country’s largest media companies, was describing his frustration with corporate culture. “After you’ve been in the corporate environment for more than six months, it’s impossible to have an original idea,” he told me. “So we all end up just talking to ourselves, telling each other what we want to hear.”

It reminded me of my colleagues in journalism education during the past few years, all struggling to figure out how we’re going to inject convergence and “new media”—whatever that means—into curricula that haven’t changed all that much since pre-cable TV.

We’ve done, in good faith, what our own experience tells us we should do: We’ve set up committees and attended workshops. We’ve benchmarked the programs that looked like they knew what they were doing (even as they benchmarked us). And we’ve earnestly debated the banal: Are bloggers journalists? (Answer: When they’re doing journalism.) Will they replace “real” journalists? (Answer: No.) Should we incorporate “new media” into all of our courses or create a “new media” requirement for all students? (Yes. Both.) And we have drummed into our students—with an archaic resolve—that there is no moral difference between sharing a music file and shoplifting a CD. (Is it possible we believe that? Really?)

We’ve been talking in circles. Just like our corporate counterparts.

But there is one significant difference: Every fall, we enjoy the privilege of newness. Millions of first-year students arrive on our collective doorstep, perpetually 18. And increasingly, those newbies will be culturally literate as Jenkins defines the term, multitasking bricoleurs armed with the confidence of youth and the perspective of a childhood lived as much online as off. That represents a whole slate of challenges—to our egos, to our pedagogy, to the core mission of the academy—which we have not yet begun to anticipate. But in an era of extraordinary chaos and unpredictable change, that also may be among the greatest and most undervalued assets we have.

A corporate colleague and I decided to test that theory, to leverage that creative capital in a process of open innovation that would produce executable results. Last summer, we piloted an innovation incubator with six students at Ithaca College. We worked with his executive team, which established the deadlines and served as our client. And we gave the group a single instruction: Create something new in the online travel market.

That was it. No rules. No grades. No limits. No answers. It took six weeks, and it challenged the students in ways they didn’t expect; in fact, they were furious when we refused to set parameters, answer questions, or provide direction (that’s what faculty do, isn’t it? Well, isn’t it?) It was an open playing field and, at the end of the project, they hit it out of the park.

Now we’ve expanded the model. Under a grant from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge project, seven journalism schools across the country are collaborating on a network of innovation incubators.3 We’re testing John Seely Brown and John Hagel’s notions of productive open innovation: big ideas, firm deadlines, and clear outcomes.

And the project’s faculty mentors are tracking the processes through which students collaborate and generate original ideas as a baseline for future research and model development. By spring, we’ll have produced three “marketable” projects, field-tested them with media partners, and piloted a system for transferring intellectual innovation and creative capital from the academy to a news industry desperately in need of both. And just as important, we’ll have reexamined the very nature of journalism education in a participatory media culture.

Following the Leaders

That process must begin with an admission that cheap paper—no matter how familiar—is a lousy platform for content delivery. That doesn’t mean journalism is irrelevant; it just means we’ve stopped reading newspapers. And contrary to the handwringing going on in our newsrooms and our classrooms, that’s the result not of cultural crisis but of a failing business model. It’s also a wake-up call for American journalism education, a signal that our own future depends entirely upon our willingness to move beyond the tools of our trade and the practices of our past.

For starters, we need to stop teaching software (except, perhaps, to each other). Our students will come to us knowing it, or knowing they can learn it when they need to. We need to stop conflating the newspaper industry with journalism itself. When we see yet another study about how kids aren’t reading daily newspapers, we should worry less about the democracy and more about the insularity of our research frame: Journalism is alive and well on digg.com, YouTube, Crooksandliars.com, and The Smoking Gun.com. And when our students challenge our authority or fact check our proclamations during class, we need to stop scrambling for classroom management techniques and start addressing the widening gap between their assumptions about knowledge production and our own.

In short, our core mission, as educators and as journalists, is platform neutral—even if we are not. And our currency and credibility will depend not upon our ability to provide access to equipment or train students for a moribund industry, but upon our capacity to nurture collaborative innovation that produces accurate, informative and interactive content—for every screen and every audience.

Fortunately, our future is as participatory as it is inclusive; we have all the intellectual capital we need, right where we live. Her name is UWanna-LoveMe7 and, if we pay attention and adjust our assumptions—and our pedagogy—accordingly, her generation will lead us everywhere we need to go.

Dianne Lynch is dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. On January 1, 2008, she will become the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

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