Not too long ago, C. Max Magee, when he was a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, focused his research for his master’s degree program on the topic of “The Roles of Journalists in Online Newsrooms.” It was an attempt, Magee explains, “to define which skills and intangible characteristics are most important in online newsrooms.” His findings came from online surveys he conducted in 2005 with 438 people who work for online news sites. His goal was to identify “the skills and characteristics that hiring managers are looking for” and also to learn what online journalists need to know and do in the context of their typical workday. Magee’s survey identified 35 skills that he divided into four categories:
Attitudes and Intangibles
Editing and Copyediting Skills
Online Production Tools
Despite his precise recording of the comparative usefulness of each of these skills—and his helpful assessment of how and why many “old” skills still matter greatly—what Magee learned from online journalists is that the technical aspects of their work are not what sets them and their work apart from those working in “old media.” Instead it is “a different way of thinking” that is characterized by “a willingness to learn new things, multitasking and teamwork.” When summed up, the online journalists’ attributes amounted to the ability to “think online,” paired with convincing “others to do the same.” It is these qualities that those who are hiring journalists for online media are seeking in applicants who come their way.
To think about Magee’s findings—and his conclusions—is to challenge some of the ways in which our universities and graduate school programs in Colombia, and in the rest of Latin America, now approach the teaching and training of future journalists. It’s very clear from studies such as this one (and other less rigorous ones conducted in Latin America) that students need to become actively engaged with online journalism. This means not only encouraging them to immerse themselves in what it is producing but also to help them analyze what they are reading and seeing and hearing. Additionally, they actually need to be producing it as part of their classroom experience.
Yet little of this appears to be happening in many of the 1,300 communication and journalism schools that exist throughout Latin America. Financial considerations—figuring out how to get the highest possible income from students—has convinced many programs on this continent to offer certificates and postgraduate study programs with pompous names and dubious quality without touching the undergraduate programs, which is where education designed to promote “digital thinking” should start.
One problem in having this happen is that to develop these online competencies would mean that many journalism programs would need to redefine their academic curricula. And this task would reside with scholars who, for the most part, are not prepared to do what is necessary to push their programs into the digital age. Often today, the students criticize their professors and administrators for not having contact with the “real” world of journalism, and this criticism is aimed at their separation even from traditional media.
Another consequence of gaining this level of understanding about online journalism is knowing that when students leave journalism programs the newsrooms they enter—if they even enter a newsroom at all—will define jobs in new ways. And the roles they assume are likely to be expanded as opportunities for serving other communities—such as online social groups and niche audiences—evolve. Job opportunities might also open up at Web sites looking for people to “manage content” in order for them to sell their products or services through the Web or to figure out how to use content in corporate Intranets, to mention a few possible directions.
The emerging journalist’s multimedia abilities should go hand-in-hand with the spirit of an entrepreneur, and the attributes of entrepreneurship should be nurtured at college, too. Given the kind of less structured environment in which these graduates will be working in the future, acquiring these skills would provide more comfort for them in taking risks as they create new ways of distributing what they produce.
I share my pessimistic perspective with other journalists in Latin America, including my El Tiempo colleague Julio César Guzmán, with whom I RELATED published“The State of Online Journalism in Latin America” in 2004. In our research, more than half of the Latin American journalists who responded to our survey told us that the quality of available journalism schools’ academic programs were not good enough. Also, 77 percent of those surveyed said that the biggest need in terms of training was to teach students how to create multimedia content; 17 percent indicated that the second most important need was how to write for the Internet. (Those who responded to our survey included journalists responsible for the Web edition at 43 of the most important newspapers in Latin America.) In the 2007 version of our report, which will soon be published on the Poynter Institute’s Web site, journalists insist again on the need for additional training for students while they are at school; these newsroom leaders also tell us that at least 55 percent of those working in online operations for the major Latin American newspapers do not have formal training in online journalism.
Another frequent approach in this region—one to be avoided since it only reminds the next generation of how bonded we are to the old way of doing things—is the strategy of using patches, of adding an elective here and an elective there. Instead, entire programs must be completely redesigned. Those who advocate the patch-here-patch-there approach tend to be the academics in Latin America; these are the same people who argue that this new direction in journalists’ training—whose strongest advocates are often from the United States—is not valid here because our context is totally different from that in developed countries. They contend, for instance, that Latin America has a relative low rate access to the Internet or that interest in news at all is concentrated in the smaller realm of the higher social classes.
As journalists we insist on the importance of looking at this issue with its globalized context. What is going on now in more developed countries is showing us a path that sooner or later we will have to walk—and to prepare students now is our role and our responsibility.
‘We Media’—in Spanish
In February of 2004 the Spanish edition of “We Media: How Audiences Are Shaping the Future of News and Information” was posted online. I was involved in its translation, which I felt was important so that Spanish-speaking journalists could have access to the kind of information about online journalism that English-speaking audiences have been able to absorb. And this report offers plenty of evidence of why and how the Internet poses a big challenge to journalism schools in Latin America. But it also is a great opportunity for those who work at these schools to increase their level of understanding by gaining this access to material otherwise unavailable to them.
Commissioned by The Media Center at the American Press Institute, “We Media” can now serve as a textbook about online journalism at many schools where classes are taught in Spanish. According to its authors, Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, the Spanish version has been downloaded almost 100,000 times since it was posted—more times than the English version. The reasons for its online success—due to it being free and available in Spanish—speak to yet another difficult circumstance of many journalism schools in Latin America: their dependence on expensive and outdated course books. The reason: Spanish-speaking journalism programs do not represent an attractive market for book publishers who specialize in these topics, and the few translated versions there are take too long to reach our students. And this lag time is especially dramatic when it comes to receiving current information about the Internet, new media, online journalism, or convergence. Though few acknowledge it, especially at journalism schools, language becomes a great barrier to accessing available information. The development of and the most vigorous debate about journalism’s digital challenge is happening and being documented most fully in English.
To try to repeat the successful experience of “We Media,” a Spanish version of the manual “How to Write for the Web,” a 300-page handbook, will be published and will be available for free at El Tiempo’s Web site, which is the leading Web site in Colombia. It provides a good balance of theory, research and real-world examples.
While these are examples of steps that can and are being taken in Colombia, it is important to point out that the developed world could—and should—make a greater effort to share its knowledge about journalism with those in the developing world and do so in languages that aren’t English. This would be a good start toward prodding our universities and journalism programs to move out of the 20th century and teach our students for the jobs they will find as the 21st century marches on.
Guillermo Franco, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, is content manager of new media at Casa Editorial El Tiempo and editor of Eltiempo.com in Colombia. He has been a professor in postgraduate journalism programs and lecturer on online journalism.