Spring 2006

Teaching Journalism for an Unknown Future

Journalism professors work to align essential skills with emerging technology.

By Peg Finucane

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 story; 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.

The third point, flexibility, is complex. I've never heard anyone argue against flexibility, but it's clear that not everyone thinks change is good per se. Change is often seen not as evolution, but as criticism or rejection of older ways; therefore, this change might be easier for journalism students to embrace than for middle-aged professors and journalists. Remember, our students are the children of the baby boomers — many of whom are included in the decreased newspaper readership tracked since the 1960's. Few of our students, even the print majors, come from newspaper-reading households. They don't read newspapers every day unless we threaten them with news quizzes, yet they are constantly gathering and sharing information: online at desks, laptops and PDA's; texting or taking pictures with their cell phones, sometimes even starring on their Webcams.

This generation of students knows how to communicate in this era of round-the-clock deadlines; we need to show them how to tailor their energy to communicate with mass audiences, maybe even in service of the First Amendment.

The Converging Future

Many of us remember the transitions from hot type to cold type and from typewriters to word processors. If we squint myopically into the past we're bound to see reporters and editors who resisted these changes before being forced to adapt, plus a few who left the news business rather than change. The transition now from print journalist to multimedia journalist is meeting the same resistance throughout the industry, primarily from the over-40 crowd, who might feel they've changed enough. Some of these journalists are taking buyouts or retiring early in part because they're not sure they want to jump onto the good ship convergence. Many others are reserving judgment or trying to ignore this new technological future, fearing and rejecting the Internet and other digital tools just as their predecessors first ignored and then opposed the introduction of radio and then television as news media.

Thus, the area of least consensus among journalism educators and practitioners involves the tools we use to produce news and other information for our audience. Some of my colleagues in academia, like Hofstra's Carol Fletcher, who heads a committee studying convergence, believe we should expose students "to as many different technologies and strategies for storytelling as possible, without sacrificing the fundamentals." To guarantee this exposure, many universities have developed converged newsrooms or, like mine, are working to develop one.

Many, including me, also try to emphasize that the reporting skills and values useful in print are useful in all media and that all the "rules" stay the same whether the story is on paper or onscreen. This is the lead and the bottom line for journalism educators. A large part of our mission remains the same: producing quality people who will produce good journalism, whatever their job titles or specs.

"There is always going to be a need for content, and honest reporters provide the best, most reliable, most trustworthy content," according to Carol R. Richards, recently retired deputy editorial page editor at Newsday on Long Island. "Newspapers have a product of great value, particularly in a marketplace where there's so much content and so little of it is thoroughly vetted," she said, even if "how we deliver it in the future is unclear."

The difficulty is not only in maintaining that reliable, trustworthy content, but also in convincing the audience that the journalists producing it still are different, dare I say better, than bloggers, interest-group commentators, or citizen monitors. Although the notorious Matt Drudge has asserted that "Anyone with a modem can report on the world," he also has admitted that his original reporting may be accurate only 80 percent of the time. Unless we want to cede the powerful tools provided by the Internet to nonjournalistic information purveyors like Drudge, we must teach young journalists to understand the visual and digital world, plus yet-unseen technologies, and to use these to produce and distribute good journalism — news gathered and sourced with the traditional values.

In other words, while parts of the journalistic world are changing rapidly, in full color, ear-splitting audio and eye-catching video, other parts remain more essential than ever. We dinosaurs are still teaching our students all of the old tricks while preparing them to learn new ones; we can explain the evolution of our industry as it's happening and help them to manage change. But as Professor Steven Knowlton, another colleague and former ink-stained wretch, said, "Journalism is still journalism and biased, unsourced junk is still biased, unsourced junk." It remains our task to teach the difference.

Peg Finucane, a 1985 Nieman Fellow, is an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Hofstra University's School of Communication in Hempstead, New York. She was an editor for 29 years at various newspapers, most recently at Newsday on Long Island. Her recent research focuses on newspaper editors' reaction to and acceptance of new media.


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