The core question as I moved from newsroom to classroom last year was what should I teach? After a 30-year newspaper career, the temptation was to dip into the well of experience to pass on the time-honored skills of our craft. But that approach didn’t feel right at a time of such tumult. So at the suggestion of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, where I had accepted a visiting professorship after 13 years as an editor at The New York Times, I developed an experimental, forward-looking seminar I called “Journalism in Transition.”
Inspired by research I had recently done for my master’s degree at Columbia University, it was intended as a timely look at where we are and where we may be headed. But at its heart, the syllabus overlaid traditional journalistic values onto new-media realities of the sort I had encountered on the Times Continuous News Desk, a pioneering bridge between the paper’s newsroom and its Web site.
The course began with readings and discussion about the core questions of who is a journalist and what is journalism in a media universe in which anyone with a computer and access to the Internet has instant, global reach in reporting “news” and the ability to claim the title “journalist.” In that spirit,we considered just what “truth” might be and how it should not be assumed to be synonymous with “facts.” We discussed objectivity, agendas, advocacy, privacy, identity and allegiances, the public sphere, the journalistic process, and the perilous reportorial shoals of Google, Drudge, Facebook and Wikipedia. We argued over the effects of moving from a print culture to a visual culture, of pictures rather than words driving stories, of emotion trumping intellect through the power of imagery.
In the context of an ever-expanding universe of bloggers, citizen journalists, “I-reporters” and the like, I offered a five-point test for ruling out what should not be considered journalism. The students avidly dissected, debated, employed and poked at the criteria throughout the course. My underlying purpose, one that I believe was realized, was not to formulate hard-and-fast, all-encompassing definitions for journalist and journalism, but to have these aspiring young practitioners contemplate the nature of their chosen field in a time of niche news, crowd sourcing, e-paper, multimedia platforms, 24/7 news cycles, and information centers focused on the hyperlocal.
Some students were unsettled by my message that the traditional j-school track system of newspaper/magazine/broadcast needs to be rethought and broadened and that 21st century journalists of all stripes need to possess some level of facility in multimedia skills beyond their chosen genre. But I argued that the Internet is a new, dominant medium that will resist efforts to wholly graft existing forms onto it and that their generation might well be the one to mold it into an effective, sustainable journalistic form.
Crucial to that task is an understanding of audience, and I pressed the students to explore just who’s out there now. Our resources included Pew research surveys, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and even Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” Web site, along with Time magazine’s rebuttal of his thesis.
We paid particular attention to how advances in communication technology have empowered audiences to bypass established media and seek out information on their own, share it with each other, analyze it, and validate or challenge it. We considered how the era of news by appointment is over. We explored ways in which journalists in the digital age might compensate for their diminished roles as gatekeepers and primary news providers by expanding their role as information arbiters to help audiences separate the wheat from the chatter. We also faced the fact that audiences now look over our shoulders as we work, ready to share their thoughts and assessments, for better or worse, directly with us or with the world—watchdogs for the watchdogs, and we had better get used to it.
Journalism’s Evolving Paradigm
A major concern I sought to convey was my belief that our business is in trouble—audiences shrinking even as the population balloons—in part because we have lost touch with our constituents, at least at the “big media” level, where I spent about half my career. Drawing upon the work of scholars like Robert Darnton of Princeton and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago, we considered how journalists are formed and why diversity in the newsroom—including that of perspective and background—is critical for news organizations if they are to connect with the larger public they purport to serve. And we considered how newsmakers—government, political, commercial and other interests—were progressively finding ways to bypass the journalistic filter and reach around us directly to audiences and how readers, listeners and viewers were reaching back.
RELATED WEB LINKS
Read Romenesko »
Visit Poynter’s Web site »
– poynter.orgWe took a cautionary look at journalism scandals in the context of professional credibility and accountability and examined secrecy, national security, and varying cultural sensibilities in a world where online anywhere means online everywhere. We weighed the rise and the role of “soft” news and the nature of reporting on communal tragedy in a diverse society. The Poynter Institute site, especially its Romenesko page, became required daily reading and the spark for many class discussions that the syllabus never anticipated.
To help everyone appreciate that the future is now, I embraced a graduate student’s suggestion in the fall to devote a week to student media, both on campus and far beyond. The use of peer-produced newspapers, magazines and edgy Web sites fanned the students’ enthusiasm, because they could identify with the material and the people producing it. It proved a perfect illustration of the benefit of knowing your audience.
To accommodate such productive detours, I kept the course schedule flexible, and the world of news did not disappoint. When the Don Imus controversy erupted during the spring term, we spent a week researching it, writing about it, and discussing it. The episode dovetailed nicely with my planned examination of the coverage of a racially charged street crime in RELATED WEB LINK
Bravo TV’s "Tabloid Wars"
– bravotv.comNew York City in 2005. In that exercise, students read and analyzed reams of first-day newspaper and wire service accounts. After class discussion, they watched an episode of the Bravo cable channel’s “Tabloid Wars” series chronicling how the New York Daily News had covered the story as it unfolded. In the fall term, I persuaded two senior Daily News editors to talk about the coverage via speakerphone. In the spring, I showed “The Paper,” Ron Howard’s riveting 1994 film about a fictional New York City tabloid’s handling of a racially charged street crime.
In each term, virtually all the students said their initial, critical views of how the story was covered had been softened by watching “Tabloid Wars.” I took that as a testament to the power of visual imagery, a growing force in media and culture that we explored elsewhere with examples as disparate as Abu Ghraib, convenience store hold-ups, the Muhammad cartoons, car chases, and dogs stuck on ice floes. “Tabloid Wars” was also an argument for greater media transparency; sometimes watching the sausage get made can have a salutary effect, conventional wisdom not withstanding.
In the spring, we departed from the script to spend a week examining coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings from almost the moment the news broke. Early on, I took a survey of my students as to where they had turned first for information. All but one had gone straight to established mainstream news media—either online or on cable—before heading off to their more usual informational Web haunts like blogs, news aggregation services, and start-up sites with attitude. Even the students were surprised at their collective behavior, and the finding underscored the seminar’s message that credible, authoritative journalism is worth serving and preserving regardless of the medium.
Putting It All Online
From my previous experience as an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in New York City and the three years I had spent studying part-time at Columbia for my master’s in journalism, I was already aware of the limited appeal that “dead tree” formats held for today’s students. So instead of spending hours at the photocopy machine churning out reams of paper handouts, I put all my class readings—or links to them—online at a Web site I created and paid for until I could gain access to Ohio University’s restrictedacademic Intranet. Further, I insisted that all written assignments be filed via e-mail—no hard copies allowed—which I corrected using the “track changes” and “comment” modes in Word and then returned via e-mail.
I took advantage of the high-speed Internet connections in the school’s classrooms to pull up Web sites that augmented class discussions. We also went online to watch videos of network news programs and PBS documentaries, live netcasts of news conferences, replays of “The Daily Show” segments, snippets from YouTube, and slide shows and podcasts shot, narrated and produced by dyed-in-the-wool print reporters to accompany their articles on nytimes.com.
At first, I rather smugly regarded all this as somewhat cutting edge, but I came to learn that for Americans of a certain age, watching TV online—even network news or prime-time entertainment shows—is becoming unremarkable. One disappointment, however, was my inability to arrange high-tech video teleconferences with the dozen or so speakers who addressed my students from afar. I had to settle instead for low-tech speakerphone engagements.
From the outset, I emphasized that since this was a journalism course, not only would I demand fine writing but also rigorous research. One result was a highly successful spring exercise in which students trolled the Web for two examples of novel storytelling—one good, one bad. Most cast a wide net and collectively returned with a bounty of highly informative, diverse examples of how our craft is evolving. I devoted four hours in each section to collective dissection and discussion. I could probably have developed a whole course from that exercise alone.
Fittingly, for a course about change, one of the biggest challenges was finding material with a shelf life. By the time September 2006 rolled around, information and even themes I had plucked in June or July had already withered or been overtaken by events. Similarly, the course I taught in the spring was dissimilar in many respects to the course I taught in the fall. Now I’m preparing for a new fall term at a different university, and already I know my seminar will be a significant departure from its two previous iterations.
Everything new is old again.
Mark J. Prendergast is an associate professor at St. John’s University in New York City. He was the Scripps Howard Visiting Professional at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in 2006-07.