Thursday, January 20, 2011

More on j-schools as news providers

(Author's note: This post is being made as part of a "blog carnival" being organized by David Cohn of the University of Missouri. Many thanks to David for his efforts and for selecting such a great topic -- "The changing role of universities for the information needs of a community.")

The idea that journalism schools should be contributing to the ecosystem of local news is one that's intrigued me for the past year, since I read some of the ideas along those lines that Michael Schudson and Len Downie suggested in their report on "The Reconstruction of Journalism." And, as David Cohn pointed out in his message organizing the blog carnival, it's something the Knight Commission has suggested as well.

Not all of the ideas in the Reconstruction of Journalism report were well-received, but this one deserves to be. In their discussion of the topic, Downie and Schudson use what I think is a great analogy, which is that of teaching hospitals. Wherever a top-flight medical school is found (and we have one here in my town, associated with the University of Rochester), there is an affiliated hospital offering treatment to the community, much of it by the medical-professionals-in-training.

In like fashion, Downie and Schudson reason, why shouldn't journalists-in-training provide news coverage for their communities. This is already happening and it's fairly easy to find examples of this, actually.

The challenge for me, at a small institution where I am essentially the only teacher of both traditional and emergent journalism classes, has been figuring out how to do this on a shoestring. But this semester I'm taking a shot at it, using off-the-shelf tools and a "baby-steps" approach to getting student work about the community out there for public consumption.

My approach is going to be using a Feature Writing class that until this semester has followed the traditional model of stories produced basically for the professor's eyes only and making it into a truly public effort. Using basic blogging software, I'll set up a class "website," with headlines and story summaries, each of which link to the full story on a student's blog. By using the same blogging software and similar templates, the class site and all of the student sites will have a coherent look. The students will of course produce text stories on the the topics, but some multimedia extensions as well (likely slide shows and/or short videos).

As for the "baby steps" toward community coverage, that will come in the form of the story assignments themselves. One themed assignment will be the college's engagement with the community. Fisher has a wide range of programs in which service learning classes, student organizations and other campus groups go into the Rochester community for service activities. A set of class stories -- one from each student -- will focus on some of these activities. Another assignment will be to profile young alumni from our program who are active in the community.

Neither of these is exactly the same as using a class to cover an entire community the way, say, NYU is able to do in partnership with The New York Times on The Local: East Village. But they are a starting point to tell community-based stories through the classroom experience. It's a novelty for our school, and my teaching, so I'm looking forward to working on it and seeing how it comes out.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Value in reading the news

Getting students to pay attention to news coverage can be a challenge. As Harvard University researcher Tom Patterson noted in a study a few years ago, "in the case of the newspaper and the Internet, an absolute majority of teens and young adults are non-users. The newspaper particularly has little appeal to young Americans." I've noticed the same tendency in my classes: many students just aren't interested in reading the news.

Which is why I so enjoyed an article in today's New York Times about young professionals whose jobs involve attending to the news, and how important that attention is. As the article points out, "these 20-something staff members are learning [that] who knows what — and when they know it — can be the difference between professional advancement and barely scraping by."

A great quote attributed to David Perlmutter, the director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, stood out also. The author quoted Permutter as saying:

“You don’t want to be coming into the office at 8 a.m., and everyone is saying, ‘Oh, my God, can you believe what happened?’ And you’re going, ‘What happened?’ ”

I posted link to it in the course website. Let's see if they read the story!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Random thoughts for a Saturday

It was heartening to see a couple of really positive blog posts Friday about journalism careers. For one, Robert Hernandez at Online Journalism Review wrote about how more journalism jobs seem to be available now, a bit of a thaw from the retrenchment that's been going on in recent years. Also, Mark Luckie of 10,000 words posted this guide for doing well at an interview for such a job.

When I hold academic advising sessions with students, I always ask what they have in mind at the end of the road ... what type of career they hope to start with after graduation. A surprisingly large, and growing, proportion answer along the lines of "I have NO idea..." (often with that sort of emphasis on the "no," meaning none). I'm going to start suggesting they check out journalism again. With all of the bad press (pun intended) about the state of legacy journalism industries that's been a hard sell in recent years. Maybe we're entering an era where it again will be cool (and feasible) to aspire to a journalistic career.

* * *

On a totally unrelated note ... while I love the Daily Show and think Jon Stewart generally does a great job of most things, there is one thing about him that annoys me and, in my view, undermines what he tries to accomplish with the show. All too often, he can't get out of his own way when he asks a guest a question. The interview on Wednesday's show with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a perfect example.

Stewart had a particular premise he was pursuing, and wanted Pawlenty to comment upon, and it was this: why are conservatives, and GOP leaders in particular, so vociferous in crying "tyranny" over the actions of the Obama administration that expand federal authority and spending when they were so accepting of expansion of federal mandates and spending under the Bush administration?

It's a great question, and one I've wondered about. Getting someone like Pawlenty -- who likely will be throwing his hat into the GOP presidential ring -- to answer it would have been an interesting thing to see. Stewart even had the perfect foil to pursue this, in the No Child Left Behind Act, which hugely expanded federal authority in local education. He even tried the tack of: imagine what the reaction of the right in the current environment would be if Obama had proposed that law rather than Bush?

But rather than just asking that in a straightforward way, and waiting for Pawlenty to answer it, Stewart asked it and kept talking, and talking, and by the time he was through Pawlenty could just ignore the basic question. Stewart does this often -- asking six questions at once, sidetracking himself in the process of asking the questions to throw in some jokes and/or observations, and the like. In doing this he generally buries a good, and often important, question in so much dross that the interviewee is either unable to answer it or can avoid answering it if he doesn't want because he can just respond to something else in Stewart's info barrage.

Maybe I'm expecting too much. Stewart is, after all, a comedian not a journalist. But at the same time, he is really intelligent, often has good questions about public affairs he wants to pursue with guests who are involved in the issues, and has the willingness to ask some tough or nasty question even some journalists wouldn't. Maybe that's precisely because he's not a journalist; he doesn't have to worry about currying favor with the interviewees as sources for future stories.

But I still think he could do a better job of this much of the time. When I teach my intro journalism students about interviewing, one of the key skills I stress is learning when to shut up and let the source talk. I kind of wish Jon Stewart would do the same sometimes, especially with his political interviewees.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Social media as a news pointer -- but that's about it

A couple of news stories this weekend -- one trivial, one tragic -- helped to highlight for me the connection and interrelation of social and legacy media.

Starting with the trivial,* I didn't watch the Saints-Seahawks playoff game Saturday for a variety of reasons, the main one being that my daughter had a friend over and they were watching the TV. I wasn't all that interested in the game so I was happy to let them use it.

But in the early evening as the game was wrapping up I was online, and saw some Twitter chatter that seemed to indicate an upset was in the making and that ex-Bill Marshawn Lynch had a role in that via a long TD run. My daughter was no longer watching the TV, so I turned it on in time to watch the last few minutes of the game, confirming that indeed an upset was happening.

Twitter gave me a sense of things regarding the game, and if I worked hard enough I could have found a live blog about the game, or a hashtag with a more complete set of tweets where I could have found the score and other details lacking in the first few items I read. It was a whole lot easier and faster to turn to legacy media -- the NBC broadcast -- for the definitive story.

With regards to the tragic, I'm of course talking about the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and several other people in Arizona. From Twitter and Facebook postings early this morning, I got a sense that something had happened involving the shooting of a political person in Arizona, and that she wasn't the only one shot because others (notably a 9-year-old girl) were killed. But again the picture was hazy. As a sort-of experiment (with this blog post in mind) I deliberately avoided jumping right to a news site and spent a few minutes trying to determine how complete a picture social media would give me. In short, not very complete.

So after a few minutes I linked to the NYT where of course I got a fairly quick and complete summary of the five W's and much more. Before I went there I also had followed a link from one tweet to a Keith Olbermann commentary that had some of the background mixed in with Olbermann's very pointed editorial about language and imagery of violence in political discourse.

There's no arguing that social media add richness, context and recommended referrals that enhance news presentations. A friend in Tucson posted photos from a memorial gathering for the dead bystanders in the Giffords shooting to Facebook, adding a layer of coverage the New York Times wouldn't have. I doubt I would have found the Olbermann piece without the Twitter referral, and with regard to the other news event mentioned here a Facebook link also led me to a video of Lynch's run.

But while recognizing that referral/curation value, I still I think some people go too far in dismissing the value of the legacy media in the emerging world of news. Lots of conversations in social media (on Twitter, especially) seem to regard legacy news operations in the news ecosystem with outright disdain. "Well, yeah, newspapers ... *big sigh* + *eye-roll*..."

In my view, legacy news still has a crucial place in the emerging news ecosystem, and online news sites associated with legacy media (NYT, MSNBC) were my main sources on the Giffords story. But as the legacy economic model becomes ever more tenuous it's hard to fathom what the news world will look like if/when most of them disappear.

*OK, if you are a Saints or Seahawks fan this isn't game wasn't trivial, and I probably wouldn't have used the adjective if the Bills were involved. It's used mostly as a comparative term to the other example in this post.