Saturday, August 8, 2009

What I learned in Boston

Just returned from four days at at annual convention of Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), held in Boston this week (Aug. 5-8). I've been a member of AEJMC since 2003 and attended every convention since then. They're always great fun, reconnecting with friends/colleagues from around the country whom I've met at prior conventions and establishing new friendships as well.

Here are a few ideas or recurring themes that seemed to stand out from some of the sessions I attended.

The two ideas about the future of newspapers that appear to be reaching a consensus are (1) that editors finally seem to "get it" in terms of the industry being in a new situation that requires a different apporach to doing journalism; and (2) that there is no single approach that is going to solve the industry's problems (or even a clear path to one).

Several times I heard top editors, from well-known and respected news organizations such as the Boston Globe, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Miami Herald and Christian Science Monitor say that what the industry is embarking on is an era of experimentation. Some experiments will succeed, others will fail. Until they're implemented and allowed to run for a while, there's no way of telling which way these innovations will turn out.

What's heartening is to hear editors talk this way. Newspapering is an industry that historically has been averse to innovation. But editors who recognize that there's no turning back the clock are now open to the idea of trying things that a decade ago would have been unimaginable, such as the Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach papers combining their efforts on certain stories rather than using depleted staffs in inefficient, competitive ways.

Newspaper leaders also seem to recognize that audience contributions to the news mix are desirable and invaluable. During a session involving four top editors from the Boston area, talk turned several times to story comments, with a range of opinions from the editors including some positive assessments. The value that newspapers can add is aggregation, filtering and guidance to the worthwhile elements in the glut of audience-created content.

And journalistic innovation is happening outside of the legacy news organizations as well, of course. The conference featured a well-attended session on non-profit models for journalistic coverage which, while also not a panacea, are one of those experiments that may bear fruit. Several times I heard discussion about the need for those interested in journalism today to be "entrepreneurial;" staff reductions from legacy organizations create opportunities for those with good ideas to fill the gaps left in the coverage.

Among educators, the debate over teaching basics vs. teaching modern technical skills rages on. Even though knowledge of certain media production software (for publication design, Web design or audio or video editing) is a part of many modern jobs, it's unclear how much classroom time should be devoted to software training vs. nuts-and-bolts such as grammar, newsgathering and ethics. One clear message is that all communication programs need to have multimedia convergence incorporated thoroughout their curricula, since it touches all aspects of communication work.

For their part, some of the editors said they want to see students emerge from college with a better understanding of how the world works. That includes a better general understanding of the impacts of modern communication technology, and how it affects the world and the way people communicate with each other. This was something the editors rated as more important than knowing how to use a particular piece of software.

They also said the most valuable characteristic of a new journalist is something that can be developed but not really taught (as a piece of instructional content). This is that the best journalists have an innate sense of curiosity and desire to find out everything they can about the world around them.

That's one point on which there was consensus.

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