Sunday, October 30, 2011

What I Learned at the Journalism Interactive Conference

Ways in which technology offers myriad opportunities to reinvent journalism dominated the conversation at the recently concluded Journalism Interactive conference, held at the University of Maryland on Friday and Saturday.

The discussion about new technological tools in social media, search, presentation (e.g. data visualization software), and other innovations went beyond the all-to-typical “gee-whiz” hype about these tools I’ve seen in many past conferences to really emphasize how to teach students to use such technologies effectively to create better journalism. The usual earnest intonations from assorted speakers about how “teaching the fundamentals is still important” were heard, of course – but they seemed less out of place than I have sometimes thought in the past.

In fact, at many conference sessions I’ve attended, statements about the importance of fundamentals seemed to be almost lip service when juxtaposed with implications that unless students are learning every new technology that comes along and using every gadget that comes out then they can’t be effective journalists in the 21st century. This conference reflected a better balance of the ideas: new tools allow stories to be told in new ways, yes, but the storytelling matters even more than the platform or device with which it is told. And unless the information is accurate, verified, contextual and of interest to the reader, all the technological whiz-bang in the world is meaningless. Good writing still underlies effective media presentation.

That said, it was impossible to escape the message that students must be far more savvy about two things: the inner workings of the technology that is transforming journalism, and an understanding of business. The conference had many in-depth discussions of both topics.

With regard to technological skills, several industry professionals said they have had internships and even full-time jobs available for which they could find no qualified candidates because the jobs required an understanding of scripting languages, website development tools, and the like. Knowing about analytics for audience metrics, and how to use tools such as metadata to make information stand out to audiences, is a critical skill, for example.

The journalists themselves don’t have to be highly skilled programmers, these professionals said. But if they are going to work in the growing field of multimedia presentation they need to know more than just how to use applications for word processing, image editing and social media. They need to do some of the coding for the interactive web and mobile presentations themselves and also need to be able to speak capably with those high-level programmers who make the presentations come to life. “We live in a digital world and programming is the language of that world,” Associated Press director of interactive media Shazna Nessa said in one session.

As for business skills, the idea of entrepreneurship was raised repeatedly – from students developing their own businesses to being “intrapreneurs” who help the organizations they join become more innovative and adaptable to the changing world around them. More generally, students entering the commercial world need more business acumen and an understanding of topic such as accounting and finance that comprise the vernacular of business, several presenters said.

Conference presenters from an assortment of backgrounds – working professionals, consultant and academics themselves – all said there was a need for more interdisciplinary work. Journalism and communication programs should be collaborating, especially, with business schools and computer science departments on their campuses.

A couple of other random thoughts:

  • Data visualization, or visual representation of large amounts of numerical and textual data, is going to be a much more significant aspect of information presentation (journalistically and otherwise) in the near future. A simple example of this are “word clouds” created by the popular Wordle site; more sophisticated examples can be found at the Associated Press’s experimental Overview project.

  • Developing content with mobile devices in mind also is becoming more important at an increasingly rapid pace. Predictions are that smartphones and tablet computers likely will be the main way most people access online content in just a few years.

  • Conference organizers deserve major props for a really thought-provoking event that featured many terrific presenters with highly valuable insights – most of whom were also entertaining and engaging. A real standout in this regard was the Innovative Storytelling panel featuring Shazna Nessa of AP, Mark Luckie of the Washington Post and Richard "Koci" Hernandez of University of California - Berkeley. Panels and presenters this good aren't all that common at conferences such as this, and overall it made for a fantastic experience.

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