Riding the Digital Wave Into Journalism
What is this new media stuff? Should journalists clasp it to their bosoms? Should schools of journalism require it? Should journalism students be encouraged to study it, to the exclusion of other, more traditional subjects?
I come from several generations of hard-nosed newspapering. A tradition of professional skepticism. Of the old Mr. Dooley ethos: The role of the newspaper is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” In fact, my pappy taught me, almost from birth, “Never believe what you read, and damn little of what you hear or see.”
So along come these “new media,” whatever they are. Do these new ways of communicating have anything to do with afflicting or comforting anybody? What do they have to do with skepticism? Or are they just toys?
And should the producers of most journalists these days (the nation’s 450 schools and departments of journalism provide more than 80 percent of new hires) be teaching what are essentially mechanical skills to students who end up with degrees in something called “journalism”?
When an enthusiastic and talented writer asks whether she ought to major in new media instead of studying magazine writing with the likes of Victor Navasky (formerly of The Nation) or television reporting with the likes of Rhoda Lipton and Derwin Johnson (ex of ABC News) or radio interviewing with John Dinges (formerly with NPR) or working as a front-line journalist on a weekly newspaper in the gritty South Bronx, what should my advice be?
And how is my advice influenced by what I see around me, in all the ways in which the “compunications” (the blending of computers and communications) revolution and its new digital tools have already upended the news business beyond the imaginations of either Mr. Dooley or my dad? And that we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
What do I advise when I realize that the average graduate makes $20,500 to start, on average, at a U.S. newspaper; the average TV major makes $17,500? But starting salaries in new media average $25,000 to $30,000 a year, while the mid-level salary turns out to be $75,000. Some of Columbia’s most talented new media graduates refuse to even consider offers to start at less than $60,000 a year.
What do I advise when I know that this woman, age 28-plus (the average age of our incoming students this year is 28, and women comprise 62 percent of our class) will have taken out at least $40,000 in loans to fund her nine months of education? (Students at the Columbia Journalism School now pay $26,506 in tuition and fees, plus $12,850 to get by—frugally—in New York for nine months. That totals $39,356.)
Usually I reply that I think that a journalism school should teach journalism. That means training in and steady exposure to critical thinking, skepticism, synthesis, accuracy, analysis, integrity, probity, resourcefulness, et cetera. Nowhere in there do I find what Quark Express 4.0 has to offer.
Except. A big except. If you want to get a job as a copyeditor anywhere in the United States of America, you’d better know Quark Express 4.0. That’s the software tool that enables editors to lay out newspaper pages at their desktops. Copyeditors—no matter how skilled, no matter how insightful, no matter what their skills at converting hack copy to beautiful prose—can no longer get a job without knowing Quark.
Except. Do you have the wherewithal to pay back your graduate loan, not to mention those you accumulated as an undergraduate? The difference between $20,500 a year and $30,000 or even more suggests a pretty obvious answer.
Except. Most of us—editors, publishers, anchor men and women, reporters, researchers, even journalism professors—know that something really big is afoot in our business. That the digitization of the world—that revolution, that sea change—has hardly even started. Those new tools with the 4.0’s and 5.1’s and 2.0’s dragging along behind their names are already wielding influence far beyond the algorithms that drive them. They already are changing the traditional definitions of news, of reporting, even of thinking. The fact that the House of Representatives chose to release the report of the Independent Prosecutor on the World Wide Web signaled that we weren’t kidding around any longer. The new era was now under way.
Except. Except journalists should not let computer whizzes decide what this new journalism will be. Journalists need to know enough to mold these new technologies into ways to tell stories better, not just better ways to soup up graphics and sounds and the like.
Shouldn’t we really be channeling our best and brightest into new media, so that they, and not the Bill Gateses of this world, can invent the future of our business? At Columbia, we wrestle with this dilemma constantly.
What we’re doing right now makes some sense to us: We require all our students—budding newspaper photographers, reporters, editors, magazine writers and editors, radio commentators, television producers and anchors—to learn a little about new media forms of storytelling. They play with PhotoShop, manipulating images. They create their own sites on the Web. They learn the theory and philosophy of communications and the role of digital math in that. They record audio digitally, then play around with their sound bites as if they were so many Legos.
The concept underlying this approach is much the same as “visual literacy” that journalism schools instituted when television first exploded onto the scene. We regard digital literacy as even more important. We believe all students should graduate with the ability to comprehend whatever changes are coming and be able to understand them and to incorporate them into their practice of journalism.
For serious new media types, we also offer a newsroom-oriented workshop that gets them to devote two full days each week to learn how to work with these emerging technologies. It is aimed at students who, despite all the concerns above, are trying to create different ways of storytelling, of doing journalism, and at the same time acquiring all these new media tools. They take some ribbing from the other students. They get labeled as “techies.” Or “computerheads.” Or “propellerheads.”
What these media students are doing so far amounts mostly to experimentation with merging various ways of presenting news. Much of what this involves is quite similar to what more than 5,000 newspapers around the world are doing on their Web sites, “repurposing” text that was originally intended for print. So far what they have created could be called new media feature stories, comprised of digital images, sound and text, brought together to tell stories in innovative ways. But so far I’ve found few student reporters and producers who have figured out ways to take full advantage of the remarkable freedom unleashed by a limitless news hole.
The missing element in telling stories—so far, anyway—is full-motion video. When it becomes available via the Internet, news on the “net” might well drown out everything else. Probably by next year technology will provide the capacity to send television images across phone and cable lines, along with text, graphics and sound. Then, when a reporter sets out to tell a 60-second news story by mixing in the incomparable attraction of colorful moving images, a whole new epoch in the business of conveying news will have begun.
In the meantime, our students are getting ready, learning to use the computer tools they’ll need and broadening their skills in ways of gathering and presenting news. Like the media companies that will be hiring them, these students aren’t so certain about exactly what lies ahead in this technological revolution, but they do know the coming cataclysm will redefine much of what we consider journalism today.
The new media students probably work harder than their 240 classmates who take other, more conventional workshops. My office overlooks their workspace and frequently I see the same students working at their computers when I come in the morning who were there when I left the night before. And, despite my heritage that links me to the hard-nosed ways of my newspaper legacy, my heart is really with them. It’s probably what I’d be doing if I were 40 years younger.
Stephen Isaacs is professor at the Graduate School of Journalism and Co-founder of the Center for New Media at Columbia University.