Wednesday, February 24, 2010

College-pro collaboration in journalism

In their report titled "The Reconstruction of Journalism," one of the ideas proposed by Len Downie and Michael Schudson was that journalism schools ought to be contributing to the news mix to a greater degree. As they describe it:

"Universities, both public and private, should become ongoing sources of local, state, specialized subject, and accountability news reporting as part of their educational missions. They should operate their own news organizations, host platforms for other nonprofit news and investigative reporting organizations, provide faculty positions for active individual journalists, and be laboratories for digital innovation in the gathering and sharing of news and information."

To be sure, this is already happening; elsewhere in the report the authors point out examples from institutions such as Berkeley, Missouri, Columbia, and Florida International.

A new one coming on the scene is a cooperative venture of New York University and The New York Times. The Local: East Village is set to launch in fall 2010, and will consist of NYU students and faculty producing the coverage, which will appear under the Times' brand on its site. As NYU professor Jay Rosen describes it,

"It’s about innovation; it’s about the classic virtues, like shoe leather reporting. It combines the discipline of pro journalism with the participatory spirit of citizen journalism. It’s an ideal way to study the craft, which is to say it’s an entirely practical project. It’s what J-school should be doing: collaborating with the industry on the best ways forward."

NYU apparently has had some kick-back from some stakeholders about this; Rosen mentions that near the end of his posting that "not everyone is thrilled" about the plan but says any problems that arise will be dealt with in course. (Read Jay's full post.)

These collaborations are terrific ideas, in my view, and could really contribute something valuable to the new ecology of journalism. Downie and Schudson make an interesting analogy to other types of professional training, where the faculty are practitioners and contributors to the field:

"In addition to educating and training journalists, colleges and universities should be centers of professional news reporting, as they are for the practice and advancement of medicine and law, scientific and social research, business development, engineering, education, and agriculture."

That's a very powerful idea for what journalism schools could contribute to the craft and society at large. I'm excited for the faculty and students at NYU and I'll be looking at the NYU-NYT collaboration to see how it plays out. I hope it's a real success and becomes a model for other colleges and news organizations. Maybe, if I'm fortunate, I'll be involved in something like this one someday.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Addition by subtraction

Tracy Boyer at Innovative Interactivity offers a good summary of what must have been an interesting talk by Brian Storm, founder and president of MediaStorm, at the University of North Carolina recently. Two of the bullet points pulled out from the talk offer terrific advice for creating better presentations online -- and maybe in other venues as well. Boyer cites Storm as saying (among many other things):

  • We work from a subtraction process … we take out what isn’t interesting.
  • We use text because it is the non-emotional way of giving information. Viewers read the text in their own voice.

I love the idea of strengthening your work by looking for whatever isn't interesting, and removing it. And, while I'm a big fan of the power that interactive multimedia can add to a story, the idea that there are some things best told in text -- best experienced by the readers via their own voices in their own heads -- is a really under-appreciated aspect of journalism in the contemporary age.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pyramid Power

An entry in the Knight Digital Media Center's Online Journalism Review by Benjamin Davis proposes an intriguing way to think about news presentations, something he calls the digital media pyramid. Significantly, it's shaped like a standard pyramid because it's meant to update the traditional news formulation known as the inverted pyramid.

In the inverted pyramid, the width is a metaphor for importance -- wider at the top means more important, narrowing as it goes down to less-important material. In the digital media pyramid I'm guessing the width is a metaphor for breadth of the presentation, or perhaps the number of elements or individuals contributing to it? (I presume the width is a metaphor for something, otherwise what's the point of the visual representation. I'd welcome clarification on this.)

As Davis puts it:

"The basic premise of the Inverted Pyramid remains sound, but the device desperately needs to be adjusted for the fast-moving digital world. ... The 'Digital Media Pyramid' does not replace the analog-based Inverted Pyramid. It simply enhances it by bringing it into a 21st century digitally dominated information universe."

Mostly it adds a number of considerations to the mix that journalists need to account for in an online environment, including cut-and-pasted and linked material; artwork and ads (often auto-generated ones that appear almost seamlessly with the text); and the ways in which reader content and sharing through social networks and other resources extend the presentation.

At the risk of sounding like a fan for reductionism, I like models such as this that sum things up with a visual shorthand for something that has a lot of moving parts. So I was intrigued to read about it and think it might offer a useful frame for talking about the differences between digital and traditional storytelling. I highly recommend checking out Davis' entry for much more explanation and detail than I have offered.

An also-interesting postscript was added by digital journalist Mark Luckie, who blogs about online and digital journalism at 10000 Words. In a comment on Davis' entry, Luckie points out that

If the digital age has taught us anything it is that storytelling is no longer linear. A pyramid, whether it is inverted or "digital," is still linear.

(His comment brought to mind another Web site with some other visual depictions I recently used in a lesson about nonlinear storytelling, Mazzba Productions' summary on Web Content Design.)

While I certainly understand Luckie's point and, and I am intrigued by Davis' thoughts, I want to offer a humble (and very brief) defense of linear thinking and the traditional IP construction.

Certainly, news presentations at the macro-level are nonlinear. But most of them always have been, even in print newspapers. As I love to tell my students, I usually start with the comics and sports and double back to the "A" section of hard news only when I'm on my second cup of coffee. Few, if any, people read the paper from page 1A to the final page in order, starting every page at the upper left and going through to the end. Random access is the rule.

A key difference, of course -- and what Luckie really means -- is that non-linearity is now the rule at the individual story level, as well. Many Internet news presentations consist of several individual parts, and readers may choose to access some, all, or just one of them, and readers who do look at several of them can choose the order of reviewing them. Journalists who don't account for this take the risk of creating weak presentations that confuse their readers.

But below a certain level of granularity in the presentation, the information MUST be presented and processed linearly. A text block, even if it's only 200 words, isn't read by looking at the sixth paragraph first, then the fourth, before doubling back to the lead. It's read in order. A video, even a short one, or a narrated slide show, runs from beginning to end as the producer put it together. We haven't become completely disattached from our linear storytelling roots when it comes to the components that comprise the overall presentation, even for non-linear presentations.

And in my classes I still teach the inverted pyramid as something more than the historical curiosity that Davis frames it as. It's still a simple device for organizing the facts of a story, especially for breaking news on the Web, and powerful in that simplicity.

If there's one fact that stands out from nearly every reading on Web usability, it is that on-screen reading is slower and more difficult than ink-on-paper, so online readers scan presentations, absorbing short chunks of text best. That seems almost tailor-made to IP presentations, getting the basic ideas and facts up front for the readers. Then, the Digital Pyramid can take over in terms illustrating how the rest of the mix enters in.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Good, the Not-So-Bad and the Ugly in Multimedia Presentation

My students have been finding some excellent -- or at least pretty good -- examples of multimedia presentations, such as these from the Miami Herald, New York Times and Times again.

Then, there are the truly awful ones out there, such as this one found and tweeted by my friend Serena Carpenter of Arizona State. In my re-tweet of it I said it looked like a cliche ransom note assembled out of letters cut-and-pasted from newspapers and magazines!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Clever switch in Super Bowl ad

This sharp-eyed observation comes courtesy of my wife, Missy.

It concerns an ad for Flo TV that first aired during the Super Bowl last week. The spot, titled "Spineless," shows a young man being dragged along on a shopping trip with his girlfriend, and missing "the big game" as a consequence. Just to sharpen the point, for most of the commercial he's walking around with a red bra draped over his shoulder.

When we saw the game during ESPN's telecast of the Syracuse-Louisville basketball game on Sunday, Missy noticed that the big-screen TVs in the background of the stores they walk through, as well as the FloTV sample screen close-ups, showed basketball action. Remembering that it had been a Super Bowl spot, she was a little incredulous. They didn't have basketball action in the background during the Super Bowl, did they? she wondered.

So, we found an online version of the ad as it was broadcast during the Super Bowl and, sure enough, the sports clips in that one are football. Same commercial in general regarding dialogue, actors and all ... but customized for the sporting event it appears within. Very clever use of post-production technology to target an audience.

So, now that we've noticed this I'll be looking for it during NBC's telecasts of Olympic hockey to see whether it has skaters in the scenes rather than cagers or gridders.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Important Date in Journalism History

See posting about why Feb. 9 is an important date in journalism, particularly for the practice known as civic or public journalism.

(The link is to a post I made at another blog to which I occasionally contribute, that of the Civic and Citizen Journalism Interest Group of AEJMC)

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Myth of Multitasking

Frontline had a very interesting documentary the other night about the impact of digital technology on a wide variety of things in our lives.

In the built-in irony department, I had recorded this Frontline episode on DVR, then watched it with my laptop in front of me, and I'd be lying if I said my attention never wandered from the show to look at my e-mail or Twitter. But mostly the laptop was there to take notes for this posting.

The show's opening had producer Rachel Dretzin talking about her home with her husband and son on two different computers, and younger kids playing a game on her i-Phone. The scene looked a lot like our house much of the time; in fact as I watched the program, with laptop at hand, my daughter was on the other computer, working on a project of her own.

But my favorite part of the program was the juxtaposition of quotes from an MIT professor and MIT student, demonstrating what I call the myth of multitasking.

When I teach classes in computer labs I have very strict rules for use of the computers, basically forbidding them being used for ANYTHING other than assigned classwork. If I catch students violating that rule, I dismiss them from class and mark them absent. I think the students are sometimes resentful of this stern, zero-tolerance attitude. But I stand by it because I agree with the MIT professor, Sherry Turkle, who said that students do themselves a disservice by believing that they can pay adequate attention when multitasking. I'm with her in thinking that "There really are important things you cannot think about unless it's still and you are thinking about only one thing at a time" (Turkle quote).

I wholly disagree with the counterpoint statement by a student named Lauren that: "I feel like the professors here do have to accept that we can multitask very well and that we do at all times. If they try to restrict us from doing it, it's almost unfair because we are completely capable of moving between lecture and other things and keeping track of the many things going on in our lives."

She portrays it as some kind of new generation gap; older people can't do this but younger people can, with no adverse impacts on their ability to absorb and process the information. But I consider it a hubristic display of a generational "third-person effect" for her to say that she and others of her generation can do it because they're young and the older generation just doesn't get it.

I just don't think it's possible to do for Lauren -- and others, including likely many of my own students -- to pay attention to multiple things at once as effectively as they claim they can. If you're writing an e-mail during class, you can't possibly absorb the ideas of a professor's lecture; it's the words of the e-mail that are running through your brain, not the words of the professor. If you're writing text messages or reading Facebook updates you can't be paying enough attention to a classmate's comments to respond to them in a discussion. I've even dismissed students from class for playing solitaire during a lecture. What the student would probably call multitasking to me seems more like a choice that playing a game is something he'd rather be doing than paying attention to the teacher.

Students may not like my lab rules, but I'm standing by them because in my judgment multitasking is a pure myth.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Employers seek mix of traditional, modern skills

Arizona State professor Serena Carpenter has completed a really interesting study that highlights the importance of students learning both traditional journalistic skills and modern technological ones. (Full disclosure: Serena is a friend and collaborator; she contributed a chapter to my recently published volume Public Journalism 2.0 And, as a further aside, as a researcher, I especially admire the creative approach she took to the methodology -- a content analysis of postings on the Web site Journalism Jobs.)

The study, published in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator and summarized on AEJMC's "Hot Topics" site, says that on the traditional-skills side, solid writing, working under deadline, editing, teamwork and communication skills, and familiarity with Associated Press Style all still matter both for traditional media organizations and non-traditional ones. But also important to both types of organizations are skills such as content posting and management, image editing, blogging, video editing, and social media knowledge. (Interestingly, though, the non-traditional news organizations rate the tech skills as less important than the non-tech ones). But when it comes to these non-traditional news outlets, something that Serena calls "adaptive expertise" -- things such as creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving -- takes on added importance.

In my view, these findings are interesting and important ones as we try to figure out how we should be teaching today's college students to be tomorrow's journalists. The challenge this presents, naturally, is how to fit all of this instruction into our courses.

(As I wrote that I couldn't help but recall the phrase used by my first real journalism "boss," the crusty managing editor of the Buffalo News during an internship I had there more than 30 years ago, who described the task of an editor trying to fit all the news into the newspaper as "fitting 10 pounds of s#%t into a 5-pound bag." But I digress.)

This old-vs.-new milieu was a topic of some discussion at some sessions I attended at the AEJMC convention in Boston last summer, also. To what degree should we as educators be providing what amounts to trade-school training in software packages and other technical skills? How much of a distraction can that become to our traditional role teaching reporting, writing and editing, not to mention topics such as accuracy and verification, ethics, law, etc.?

In programs such as ours, with one main journalism course, what can we drop out of the current curriculum to make sure all of the new aspects are covered? When the industry is saying "teach all of the traditional skills and values" and also "make sure your graduates are technically skilled and capable" at the same time, it's hard to determine the answer to that question. At what point does the emphasis on the new attenuate the old, diminishing it to the point of damage? Or, to put it another way, how do we fit 10 pounds of ... stuff ... into a 5-pound bag?