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September 05 2012

15:39

Miranda Mulligan: Want to produce hirable grads, journalism schools? Teach them to code

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing their thoughts with you. Here’s Miranda Mulligan — new executive director of the Knight News Innovation Lab at Northwestern, formerly digital design director for The Boston Globe — arguing that journalists need to learn how to code if they want to become better (and employable) storytellers.

Learning how to make software for storytelling and how to realize news presentations into code are currently the hottest, most pressing skillsets journalists can study. There has never before been more urgency for our industry to understand enough code to have meaningful conversations with technologists.

And yet if you attend any event with a collection of jouro-nerd types, inevitably the same question will come up. Someone will ask — philosophically, of course — “How can we tell better stories on the web?” and proceed to bemoan the tedium of reading a daily newspaper and a newspaper website, likening it to Groundhog Day, the same stories presented the same way, day after day. Sooner or later others add their frustrations that “we” — in 2012 — are still writing for the front page instead of the homepage.

It is our job as educators to remove fear of learning, a fear notoriously prevalent in journalists.

We’ve all had this discussion a thousand times. But now, it’s not just the visual journalists complaining about the stagnation of online storytelling and presentation.

For me, there’s only one response to this: Journalists should learn more about code. Understanding our medium makes us better storytellers. For an industry that prides itself on being smart, tolerating ignorance of the Internet is just stupid.

The time is now for our future journalists to learn about code. We need to innovate our curricula, really looking at what we are teaching our students. Learning, or mastering, specific software is not properly preparing our future journalists for successful, life-long careers. No one can learn digital storytelling in a semester. Mastering Dreamweaver and Flash isn’t very future-friendly, and having a single mid-level “Online Journalism” course offered as an elective does more harm than good. We should be teaching code in all of our journalism courses — each semester, each year, until graduation.

The list of jobs for designers and journalists who can write code is growing — seemingly exponentially. So, let’s all grab our copies of The Art of War and attack this problem from every angle: We need to teach our students to be more technologically literate. We need to teach them how to learn and how to fail. That, my friends, is making the Internet.

I am not arguing that every single writer/editor/publisher who learns some programming should end up becoming a software engineer or a refined web designer. The end goal here is not programming fluency. However, there’s a lot of value in understanding how browsers read and render our stories. Reporting and writing a story, writing some code (HTML, CSS, Javascript), and programming complex applications and services are all collections of skills. A fundamental knowledge of code allows for:

  • More significant conversations about digital presentation, ultimately leading to better, more meaningful, online storytelling. Understanding your medium makes you better at your craft.
  • Deeper thought and understanding of data. Learning more about what goes into writing and programming software teaches you to think in terms of abstractions, functions, parameters, components, frameworks, object classes, templates, and more.

Journalism needs hirable graduates that can create sophisticated visual presentations and can realize them in code. But many students are intimidated, not excited, by the tools now fundamental to visual storytelling. In fact, the prevailing sentiment throughout journalism and communications specialties is that “we” are still intimidated. Maybe this attitude is trickling down to the universities — or maybe up from them. But “we” have all got to get over our fear of the Internet.

Last September, I participated in a half-day student seminar at the Society of News Design’s annual workshop in St. Louis. To be brazen and speak for my panel-mates, we were all shocked by how apprehensive the students were toward HTML, CSS, and Javascript. In fact, after three hours of nudging them to make the time to learn some code, a female student boldly asserted that she really didn’t care about digital design and wanted advice for students hoping to break into print design.

It’s our job as educators to remove fear of learning, a fear notoriously prevalent in journalists. HTML is not magic. Writing code is not wizardry; it’s just hard work. Learning to program will not save journalism and probably won’t change the way we write our stories. It is, however, a heck of a lot more fun being a journalist on the web once “how computers read and understand our content” is understood.

Learning to program not only provides a practical skill — it also teaches problem solving. Students are learning more precise and nuanced thought processes, and the depth of their understanding of information and data will only grow. Also, for visual journalists, teaching code is teaching information design. Both news designers and web designers are burdened with the same responsibilities: organizing and rationally arranging content, illustrating ideas to deepen the understanding of a story, and working within the constraints of the medium.

I believe the most important thing an instructor can ever do is inspire students to be open-minded about their skills. No one knows what the storytelling landscape will look like in two years, let alone a decade from now. As educators, we can make becoming a digital journalist feel accessible and attainable. Graduates should leave armed with a skillset that includes the ability to learn quickly and adapt, to be open to new ideas and solutions, and to take initiative like the self-starters they were born to become. They will never get bored, and they will always be employable.

Our journalism pedagogy should inspire future digital journalists to be Internauts, to continually grow, constantly teaching themselves the newest storytelling tools and techniques, instilling processes for life-long learning.

Image by Steve Rhode used under a Creative Commons license.

August 13 2012

14:02

April 24 2012

19:52

December 23 2010

11:02

THE BEST MULTIMEDIA JOURNALISM EDUCATION STILL IS A STRONG LIBERAL ARTS CURRICULUM

Professor Jay Rosen says that Journalism Schools are increasingly becoming R&D labs.

First, I am not sure about that. Second, If yes, I say no.

I don’t have any problem with universities and professors doing research.

More than that: without research, teaching and education are very poor.

But the idea that our Journalism Schools have to become R&D Labs is wrong.

The best Journalism education still is a strong Liberal Arts curriculum.

Reading, Thinking & Writing, are more important than playing and doing.

You will spend the rest of your life playing and doing.

So you better spend your College years using your brain, not your hands.

For many years Journalism Schools were focused on just print media.

Then, broadcasting programs came.

Later, public relations & advertising… and integrated marketing communications!

Yes, I know, mutimedia is here and now our old fashioned Journalism Schools want to catch the future just becoming R&D Labs…

What all these professors don’t know is that the problem are them, not the students.

The new generations of students are “digital multi-media-tasking natives” so they don’t need more technical training because they are fully trained before they enter in the schools.

These professors and administrators eager to get funds for R&D Labs are the ones needed of this training.

What good students are looking for is for challenging thinkers, first class teachers, inspiring personalities, and not IT amateurs.

Let’s be serious:

You still learn more about new narratives reading Antigone than spending hours in front a computer.

Specially now when you can read Antigone in an iPad!

September 17 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: J-schools as R&D labs, a big news consumption shift, and what becomes of RSS

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Entrepreneurship and old-school skills in j-school: We found out in February that New York University and the New York Times would be collaborating on a news site focused on Manhattan’s East Village, and this week the site went live. Journalism.co.uk has some of the details of the project: Most of its content will be produced by NYU students in a hyperlocal journalism class, though their goal is to have half of it eventually produced by community members. NYU professor Jay Rosen, an adviser on the project, got into a few more of the site’s particulars, describing its Virtual Assignment Desk, which allows local residents to pitch stories via a new WordPress editing plugin.

Rosen’s caution that “it is going to take a while for The Local East Village to find any kind of stride” notwithstanding, the site got a few early reviews. The Village Voice’s Foster Kamer started by calling the site the Times’ “hyperlocal slave labor experiment” and concluded by officially “declaring war” on it. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, on the other hand, was encouraged by NYU’s effort to give students serious entrepreneurial skills, as opposed to just churning out “typists and videographers.”

NYU’s project was part of the discussion about the role of journalism schools this week, though. PBS’ MediaShift wrapped up an 11-post series on j-school, which included an interview with Rosen about the journalism as R&D lab and a post comparing and contrasting the tacks being taken by NYU, Jeff Jarvis’ program at the City University of New York and Columbia University. (Unlike the other two, Columbia is taking a decidedly research-oriented route.) Meanwhile, Tony Rogers, a Philadelphia-area j-prof, wrote two articles (one of them a couple of weeks ago) at About.com quoting several professors wondering whether journalism schools have moved too far toward technological skills at the expense of meat-and-potatoes journalism skills.

They weren’t the only ones: Both Teresa Schmedding of the American Copy Editors Society and Iowa State j-school director Michael Bugeja also criticized what they called a move away from the core of journalism in the country’s j-schools. “I expect to teach new hires InDesign, Quark or Twitter, MySpace, FB and how to use whatever the app of the week is, but I don’t expect to teach you what who, what, where, when, why and how means,” Schmedding wrote. TBD’s Steve Buttry countered those arguments with a post asserting that journalists need to know more about disruptive technology and what it’s doing to their future industry. “Far too many journalists and journalism school graduates know next to nothing about the business of journalism and that status quo is indefensible,” said Buttry.

A turning point in news consumption: Like most every Pew survey, the biennial study released this week by the Pew Center for the People & the Press is a veritable cornucopia of information on how people are consuming news. Tom Rosenstiel of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has some fascinating musings of the study’s headline finding: People aren’t necessarily ditching old platforms for news, but are augmenting them with new uses of emerging technology. Rosenstiel sees this as a turning point in news consumption, brought about by more tech-savvy news orgs, faster Internet connections, and increasing new media literacy. Several others — Mathew Ingram of GigaOM, Joe Pompeo of Business Insider, Chas Edwards of Digg — agreed that this development is a welcome one.

The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz and paidContent’s Staci Kramer have quick summaries of the study’s key statistics, and DailyFinance’s Jeff Bercovici pointed out one particularly portentous milestone: For the first time, the web has eclipsed newspapers as a news source. (But, as Collective Talent noted, we still love our TV news.) Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman took a closer look at news consumption via social media, and j-prof W. Joseph Campbell examined the other side of the coin — the people who are going without news.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project also released an interesting study this week looking at “apps culture,” which essentially didn’t exist two years ago. Beyond the Book interviewed the project’s director, Lee Rainie, about the study, and the Lab gave us five applications for news orgs from the study: Turns out news apps are popular, people will pay for apps, and they consume apps in small doses.

Did social media kill RSS and press releases?: Ask.com announced last Friday that it would shut down Bloglines, the RSS reader it bought in 2005, citing a slowdown in RSS usage as Twitter and Facebook increase their domination of real-time information flow. “The writing is on the wall,” wrote Ask’s president, Doug Leeds. PaidContent’s Joseph Tarkatoff used the news as a peg for the assertion that the RSS reader is dead, noting that traffic is down for Bloglines and Google Reader, and that Google Reader, the web’s most popular RSS reader, is being positioned as more of a social sharing site.

Tech writer Jeff Nolan agreed, arguing that RSS has value as a back-end application but not as a primary news-consumption tool: “RSS has diminishing importance because of what it doesn’t enable for the people who create content… any monetization of content, brand control, traffic funneling, and audience acquisition,” he wrote. Business Insider Henry Blodget joined in declaring RSS readers toast, blaming Twitter and Facebook for their demise. Numerous people jumped in to defend RSS, led by Dave Winer, who helped invent the tool about a decade ago. Winer argued that RSS “forms the pipes through which news flows” and suggested reinventing the technology as a real-time feed with a centralized, non-commercial subscription service.

Tech writer Robert Scoble responded that while the RSS technology might be central to the web, RSS reading behavior is dying. The future is in Twitter and Facebook, he said. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and media consultant Terry Heaton also defended RSS, with Ingram articulating its place alongside Twitter’s real-time flow and Heaton arguing that media companies just need to realize its value as its utility spreads across the web.

RSS wasn’t the only media element declared dead this week; Advertising Age’s Simon Dumenco also announced the expiration of the press release, replaced by the “real-time spin of Facebook and Twitter. PR blogger Jeremy Pepper and j-prof Kathy Gill pushed back with cases for the press release’s continued use.

Twitter’s media-company move: Lots of interesting social media stuff this week; I’ll start with Twitter. The company began rolling out its new main-page design, which gives it a lot of the functions that its independently developed clients have. Twitter execs said the move indicated Twitter’s status as a more consumptive platform, where the bulk of the value comes from reading, rather than writing — something All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka tagged as a fundamental shift for the company: “Twitter is a media company: It gives you cool stuff to look at, you pay attention to what it shows you, and it rents out some of your attention to advertisers.”

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and venture capitalist David Pakman agreed, with Pakman noting that while Google, Facebook and Twitter all operate platform, users deal overwhelmingly with the company itself — something that’s very valuable for advertisers. The Lab’s Megan Garber also wrote a smart post on the effect of Twitter’s makeover on journalism and information. The new Twitter, Garber writes, moves tweets closer to news articles and inches its own status from news platform closer to a broadcast news platform. Ex-Twitter employee Alex Payne and Ingram (who must have had a busy week) took the opportunity to argue that Twitter as a platform needs to decentralize.

On to Facebook: The New Yorker released a lengthy profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and while not everyone was crazy about it (The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal thought it was boring and unrevealing), it gave the opportunity for one of the people quoted in it — Expert Labs director Anil Dash — to deliver his own thoughtful take on the whole Facebook/privacy debate. Dash isn’t that interested in privacy; what he is worried about is “this company advocating for a pretty radical social change to be inflicted on half a billion people without those people’s engagement, and often, effectively, without their consent.”

Elsewhere around social media and news: Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik wrote a fantastic overview of what news organizations are beginning to do with social media, and we got closer looks at PBS NewsHour, DCist and TBD in particular.

Reading roundup: Plenty of stuff worth reading this week. Let’s get to it.

— Last week’s discussion on online traffic and metrics spilled over into this week, as the Lab’s Nikki Usher and C.W. Anderson discussed the effects of journalists’ use of web metrics and the American Journalism Review’s Paul Farhi looked at the same issue (from a more skeptical perspective). The Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman had the read of the week on the topic (or any topic, really), talking about what the constant churn of news in search of new eyeballs is doing to journalism. All of these pieces are really worth your time.

— The San Jose Mercury News reported that Apple is developing a plan for newspaper subscriptions through its App Store that would allow the company to take a 30 percent cut of all the newspaper subscriptions it sells and 40 percent of their advertising revenue. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum was skeptical of the report, but Ken Doctor had nine good questions on the issue while we find out whether there’s anything to it.

— Another British Rupert Murdoch paper, News of the World, is going behind a paywall in October. PaidContent was skeptical, but Paul Bradshaw said it’ll do better than Murdoch’s other newly paywalled British paper, The Times.

— The Atlantic published a very cool excerpt from a book on video games as journalism by three Georgia Tech academics. I’m guessing you’ll be hearing a lot more about this in the next couple of years.

— Rafat Ali, who founded paidContent gave a kind of depressing interview to Poynter on his exit from the news-about-the-news industry. “I think there’s just too much talk about it, and to some extent it is just an echo chamber, people talking to each other. There’s more talk about the talk than actual action.” Well, shoot, I’d better find a different hobby. (Seriously, though, he’s right — demos, not memos.)

— Finally, a wonderful web literacy tool from Scott Rosenberg: A step-by-step guide to gauge the credibility of anything on the web. Read it, save it, use it.

August 31 2010

16:00

For extra revenue, and to shore up content, j-schools to turn to summer programs for high school students

Journalism schools are ripe for experimentation. They’ve got students excited about the future of the industry, professors free from the profit pressures of a newsroom, and all the resources of a university.

But at the same time, there are two obvious problems with running an online news project out of a j-school: the cost (nothing’s free, even if you don’t need to turn a profit) and the doldrums of summer (universities might go dark, but the Internet doesn’t.) A few journalism programs are taking on these problems with a surprising semi-solution: high school students.

New York University’s new hyperlocal news site, The Local East Village, run in partnership with The New York Times, is starting a summer 2011 program that will both shore up content and generate income for the young project. The students will pay tuition — around $4,000 a course when you look at cost-per-unit — to participate. If their work is good enough, it’ll appear on the site and help the void that comes from summertime on the academic calendar. Publication isn’t guaranteed.

“We have a lot of ambition for the site and it’s not free,” Brooke Kroeger, the director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, told me. “It’s not costless…What I find exciting about [the East Village site], rather than creating a center or a separate little institute, or something that is apart from what we do, this has been fully integrated into our curriculum — even the summer, which isn’t always the case,” Kroeger said.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University is also experimenting with a summer high school program. This summer they launched a two-week program for high schoolers interested in learning the craft of investigative reporting.

“It certainly fit our mission,” said Joe Bergantino, the director of the center, explaining that they are expected to not only produce investigative work for news outlets, but train the next generation of investigative journalists. “It’s an obvious thing to do and an important thing to do.”

This year 39 high school students participated, paying $900 per weeklong session. In the first week, students learned database reporting and other investigative techniques. In the optional second week, most students continued working on a story they selected, or did research work for the reporters at the Center. “That tuition is used to fund our work at the Center,” Bergantino said.

High school journalism programs aren’t new, although using profits from them to support news outlets is a twist. At Northwestern, Medill has long had a program called the National High School Institute that attracts top-tier high schoolers likely to pursue journalism in college. But the money raised from the program goes back to supporting it, rather than other Medill projects, according to Roger Boye, director of the program. The return comes in recruitment: Last year, 22 of the 83 participants, known as “Cherubs,” went on to enroll at Northwestern University after graduating high school.

“If the school benefits, that’s how they’re benefiting,” Boye said.

June 11 2010

15:24

Elizabeth Spiers’ media-entrepreneur summer school

This summer Elizabeth Spiers is teaching summer school, and you can apply for a seat in her class.

The media consultant, founding editor Gawker, and builder of DealBreaker, several Mediabistro blogs, and other sites is looking for a handful of people with smart ideas for a small business — but not experience launching one — to join her two college interns in a 90-day class. By the end of the summer, Spiers expects her students to have learned everything they need to get their media projects off the ground.

Here’s Spiers’ take on why you should apply:

What you get in return: dialogue with other beginning entrepreneurs, some good contacts for your project and what’s essentially free consulting from me (the latter of which would be price-prohibitive for most beginning entrepreneurs if I were charging.)

I spoke with Spiers about the project and why she decided to do it. Turns out she’s a kind-hearted boss: She didn’t want her two interns completing only menial tasks all summer. So she’s requiring them to spend at least 10 hours a week on their business idea and to meet weekly to discuss their progress. Her idea, she notes in her Tumblr post, is ripped off of a similar project Seth Godin ran that he called an alternative MBA.

Spiers, who teaches at The School of Visual Arts Design Criticism program (and is off for the summer), also said she sees a lack of support for entrepreunerialism in journalism schools. Her current interns are writers with the editorial skills you need to run a new media project, but not the business savvy.

“That’s one thing that I think — in journalism programs, they don’t really equip people to start new media products,” Spiers explained. “They equip them to work within the context of an existing publication. I’m just trying to fill in the gap a little bit.”

There are, of course, j-school professors already teaching classes which require entrepreneurial spirit. Among them is our Lab colleague C.W. Anderson at CUNY, whose course Entrepreneurial Journalism requires students to cook up new media ideas. (He’s also working on a white paper on innovation in j-schools. If you know of a school working on something innovative, let him know.)

For j-schools wondering how much time to devote to more business-side coursework, consider Spiers’ 10-hours-a-week-for-90-days argument. “Starting a new company seems more intimidating than it is,” she told me. “I do think it’s the kind of thing you can transform and ramp up in 90 days. As long as you have a process in place, I don’t think it’s as difficult as people think it is.”

(If you need funding, though, then you’re looking at a longer timeframe. Tack on extra months to the process to get your project actually going.)

When I asked Spiers if she would keep readers posted on her students’ progress, she said (earnestly, no Gawker snark) she has high hopes for her students. ”I sort of expect that some people are actually going to go out and launch their projects, and I’d be happy to promote them. And intend to do that anyway,” Spiers said.

Photo by Robert S. Donovan used under a Creative Commons license.

February 05 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Google’s new features, what to do with the iPad, and Facebook’s rise as a news reader

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A gaggle of Google news items: Unlike the past several weeks with their paywall and iPad revelations, this week wasn’t dominated by one giant future-of-media story. But there were quite a few incremental happenings that proved to be interesting, and several of them involved Google. We’ll start with those.

— The Google story that could prove to be the biggest over the long term actually happened last week, in the midst of our iPad euphoria: Google unveiled a beta form of Social Search, which allows you to search your “social circle” in addition to the standard results served up for you by Google’s magic algorithm. (CNN has some more details.) I’m a bit surprised at how little chatter this rollout is getting (then again, given the timing, probably not), but tech pioneer Dave Winer loves the idea — not so much for its sociality but because it “puts all social services on the same open playing field”; you decide how important your contacts from Twitter or Facebook are, not Google’s algorithm.

— Also late last week, several media folks got some extended time with Google execs at Davos. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger posted his summary, focusing largely on Google’s faceoff with China. “What Would Google Do?” author Jeff Jarvis posted his summary, with lots of Google minutiae. (Jeff Sonderman also further summarized Jarvis’ summary.) Among the notable points from Jarvis: Google is “working on making news as compelling as possible” and CEO Eric Schmidt gets in a slam on the iPad in passing.

— Another Google feature was launched this week: Starring on Google News stories. The stars let you highlight stories (that’s story clusters, not individual articles) to save and return to them later. Two major tech blogs, ReadWriteWeb and TechCrunch, gave the feature their seal of approval, with ReadWriteWeb pointing to this development as the first of many ways Google can personalize its algorithm when it comes to news. It’s an intriguing concept, though woefully lacking in functionality at this point, as TechCrunch notes: I can’t even star individual stories to highlight or organize coverage of a particular issue. I sure hope at least that feature is coming.

Also in the Google-and-news department: Google economist Hal Varian expressed skepticism about news paywalls, arguing that reading news for many is a worktime distraction. And two Google folks, including Google News creator Krishna Bharat, give bunches of interesting details about Google News in a MediaShift interview, including some conciliatory words for publishers.

— Meanwhile billionaire tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban officially jumped on the Google-News-is-evil train, calling Google a “vampire” and urging news organizations not to index their content there. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t well-received in media-futurist circles: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, a former newspaperman himself, said Cuban and his anti-Google comrade, Rupert Murdoch, ignore the growing search traffic at news sites. Several other bloggers noted that Cuban has expressed a desire in the past to invest in other news aggregators and currently invests in Mahalo, which does some Google News-esque “sucking” of its own.

— Finally, after not carrying AP stories since December, Google struck some sort of quasi-deal that allows it to host AP content — but it’s still choosing not to do so. Search engine guru Danny Sullivan wonders what it might mean, given the AP and Google’s icy relations. Oh yeah, and Google demoed some ideas of what a Chrome OS tablet — read: iPad competitor — might look like.

What the iPad will do (and what to do with it): Commentary continued to trickle out this week about Apple’s newly announced iPad, with much of talk shifting from the device’s particulars to its implications on technology and how news organizations should develop for it.

Three most essential pieces all make similar points: Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver likens the iPad to the newspaper in its physical simplicity and thinks it “will enrich human beings by removing technological barriers.” In incredibly thoughtful posts, software developers Steven Frank and Fraser Speirs take a programming-oriented tack, arguing that the iPad simplifies computing, bringing it home for normal (non-geek) people.

Frank compares it to an automatic transmission vs. the traditional manual one, and Speirs says it frees people from tedious tasks like “formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS” to do the real work of living life. In another interesting debate, interaction designer Sarah G. Mitchell argues that without multitasking or a camera (maybe?), the iPad is an antisocial device, and developer Edd Dumbill counters that it’s “real-life social” — made for passing around with friends and family.

Plenty of folks have ideas about what news organizations should do with the iPad: Poynter’s Bill Mitchell and news designer Joe Zeff both propose that newspapers and magazines could partially or totally subsidize iPads with subscriptions. Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt says that wouldn’t work, and Zeff gives a rebuttal. Publish2’s Ryan Sholin has an idea for a newsstand app for the iPad, and Frederic Filloux at The Monday Note has a great picture of what the iPad experience could look like by next year if news orgs act quickly.

And of course, Robert Niles of The Online Journalism Review and BusinessWeek’s Rich Jaroslovsky remind us what several others said (rightly, I think) last week: The iPad is what content producers make of it.

Facebook as a news reader: Last Friday, Facebook encouraged its users to make their own personalized news channel by creating a list of all the news outlets of which they’ve become a fan. The tech blog ReadWriteWeb — which has been remarkably perceptive on the implications of Facebook’s statements lately — noted that while a Facebook news feed couldn’t hold up to a news junkie’s RSS feed, it has the potential to become a “world-changing subscription platform” for mainstream users because of its ubiquity, sociality and accessibility. (He makes a pretty compelling case.)

Then came the numbers from Hitwise to back ReadWriteWeb up: Facebook was the No. 4 source of visits to news sites last week, behind only Google, Yahoo and MSN. It also accounts for more than double the amount of news media traffic as Google News and more than 300 times that of the web’s largest RSS program, Google Reader. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick responded with a note that most news-site traffic still comes through search, and offered a challenge to Facebook to “encourage its giant nation of users to add subscriptions to diverse news sources to their news feeds of updates from friends and family.”

This week in (somewhat) depressing journalism statistics: Starting with the most cringe-inducing: Rick Edmonds of Poynter calculates that newspaper classified revenue is down 70 percent in the last decade. He does see one bright spot, though: Revenue from paid obituaries remains strong. Yup, people are still dying, and their families are still using the newspaper to tell people about it. In the magazine world, Advertising Age found that publishers are still reporting further declines in newsstand sales, though not as steep as last year.

In the world of web statistics, a Pew study found that blogging is steady among adults and significantly down among teens. In other words, “Blogging is for old people.” Of course, social media use was way up for both teens and adults.

A paywall step, and some suggestions: Steven Brill’s new Journalism Online paid-content service has its first newspaper, The Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania. In reporting the news, The New York Times noted that the folks behind both groups were trying to lower expectations for the service. The news business expert Alan Mutter didn’t interpret the news well, concluding that “newspapers lost their last chance to hang together when it became clear yesterday that the wheels seemingly have come off Journalism Online.”

In a comically profane post, Silicon Valley veteran Dave McClure makes the strangely persuasive argument that the fundamental business model of the web is about to switch from cost-per-click ads to subscriptions and transactions, and that because people have trouble remembering passwords, they’ll login and pay through Gmail, iTunes or Facebook. (Mathew Ingram says McClure’s got a point.) Crowdfunding advocate David Cohn proposes a crowdfunded twist on micropayments at news sites.

Reading roundup: Two interesting discussions, and then three quick thought-provoking pieces. First, here at the Lab, future Minnesota j-prof Seth Lewis asks for input about what the journalism school of the future should look like, adding that he believes its core value should be adaptability. Citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor gave a remarkably thorough, well-thought-out picture of his ideal j-school. His piece and Steve Buttry’s proposal in November are must-reads if you’re thinking about media education or involved in j-school.

Second, the discussion about objectivity in journalism continues to smolder several weeks after it was triggered by journalists’ behavior in Haiti. This week, two broadsides against objectivity — one by Publish2’s Paul Korr calling it pathological, and another by former foreign correspondent Chris Hedges saying it “killed the news.” Both arguments are certainly strident ones, but thoughtful and worth considering.

Finally, two interesting concepts: At the Huffington Post, MTV’s Maya Baratz calls for newspapers to think of themselves as apps, commanding them to “Be fruitful and multiply. Elsewhere.” And at the National Sports Journalism Center, former Wall Street Journal journalist Jason Fry has a sharp piece on long-form journalism, including a dirty little secret (“most of it doesn’t work in any medium”) and giving some tips to make it work anyway.

February 01 2010

17:00

What is journalism school for? A call for input

[I've asked Seth Lewis, a former Miami Herald editor and smart journalism professor-in-training at the University of Texas, to join our cast of occasional commentators here at the Lab. One of his primary focuses will be looking at the changing world of journalism schools. Here's an introduction. —Josh]

Last year saw no shortage of future-of-journalism conferences. But if 2009 was dominated with talk about business models for news, perhaps 2010 will be the year we hear more about education models for news.

The ongoing discussion of pay models has led us to think more critically about forms of press subsidy — to recognize that all journalism is subsidized to some extent, that each type of subsidy comes with its own kind of strings attached, and that journalists of the future will have to be more proactive in understanding sources of funding or finding ways to innovate their own. All of that talk is healthy for journalism.

Likewise, a wider debate about journalism education might lead us to ask some soul-searching questions, beginning with the existential one: What is journalism school for, anyway? If j-schools historically looked to the industry for leadership and jobs for their graduates, how should they orient themselves now? What happens when much of our journalism education has been built up around the “newsroom paradigm” of training 20-somethings to operate in a traditional organizational setting — at a time when media work (of all kinds, not just journalism) is increasingly individualized, temporary, and precarious? Even more, at a time when the future of higher education itself is in major flux, what becomes of journalism education’s place in the university and society at large?

These questions have been on my mind lately since I was invited to join the Lab as a contributor covering the evolution of the j-school. I won’t profess any more expertise than my own experience in j-schools (as an undergrad, and now as a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas), as well as the perspective I’ve gained recently after touring several major j-schools as a candidate on the academic job market. I had intensive two-day interviews at three schools, all major programs in different parts of the United States, and also engaged in half-hour phone interviews with another four programs, most of them of the Big J-School variety.

In each case, my interviewers posed a question that went like this: “What should we be teaching today?” This wasn’t a loaded question, a guess-what-the-teacher-is-thinking sort of test. They sincerely wanted some fresh ideas, as it was clear that just about every school is grappling with curriculum reform.

So, what do we teach?

After fielding that question at least a dozen times, I finally settled on this talking point: It’s about adaptability. We’re never going to find the silver bullet, so instead let’s teach students to be flexible — to work in unpredictable settings, to generate their own funding as needed, and otherwise learn as they go. We can do that by using a curriculum that is similarly flexible, adaptive to technological and cultural trends in society even while it retains bedrock values of truth-seeking and fairness.

That plan is imperfect, of course, but it’s a start. Looking ahead, I hope to draw on the wisdom of others in blogging about what j-schools large and small are doing for 2010 and the uncertain future beyond. For starters, I’m reaching out to the deans and directors at the 12 schools funded by a multimillion-dollar Carnegie-Knight initiative on journalism education to see how these schools — arguably the biggest players in the field — are responding both to the contractions among legacy media and the opportunities for growth elsewhere.

But, in the meantime, I would also like to hear from all of you, readers of the Lab: What should the 21st century journalism school look like? Would it have a more DIY focus to prep students for freelance careers? Take a more project orientation, as in Jay Rosen’s Studio 20? Focus on teaching the right mix of analog and digital skills, as Ryan Sholin suggests? Or try to become part of the wider academic curriculum — a sort of “journalism school for all” general-education requirement, as Dave Winer recommends?

What are your ideas? Drop them in the comments, or if you think there’s something I should cover in a future post, e-mail me directly at sethclewis@gmail.com.

Photo by Fabrice Florin used under a Creative Commons license.

January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

December 10 2009

15:39

Next year’s news about the news: What we’ll be fighting about in 2010

I’ve helped organize a lot of future of journalism conferences this year, and have done some research for a few policy-oriented “future of journalism” white papers. And let’s face it: as Alan Mutter told On the Media this weekend, we’re edging close to the point of extreme rehash.

This isn’t to say there won’t be more such confabs, or that I won’t be attending most of them; journalists (blue-collar and shoe-leather types that they are) may not realize that such “talking” is actually the lifeblood of academia, for better or worse. However, as 2009 winds down, I do think that it might be worthwhile to try to summarize a few of the things we’ve more or less figured out this year, and point towards a few of the newer topics I see looming on the horizon. In other words, maybe there are some new things we should be having conferences about in 2010.

In the first section of this post, I summarize what I think we “kinda-sorta” learned over the past year. In the next, I want to point us towards some of the questions we should be asking in 2010.

To summarize, I think were reaching consensus on (1) the role of professional and amateur journalists in the new media ecosystem, (2) the question of what kind of news people will and won’t “pay” for, and (3) the inevitable shrinking and nicheification of news organizations. And I think the questions we should be asking next year include (1) the way changes in journalism are changing our politics, (2) the relationship between journalism, law, and public policy, (3) what kind of news networks we’ll see develop in this new ecosystem, (4) the future of j-school, and (5) the role of journalists, developers, data, and “the algorithm.”

But first, here’s what we know.

What we kinda-sorta know

As Jay Rosen has tweeted a number of times over the past few months, what’s remarkable about the recent wave of industry and academic reports on journalism is the degree to which they consolidate the “new conventional wisdom” in ways that would have seemed insane even a few years ago. In other words, we now kinda-sorta know things now that we didn’t before, and maybe we’re even close to putting some old arguments to bed. Here are some (big) fights that may be tottering toward their expiration date.

1. “Bloggers” versus “journalists” is (really, really) over. Yes yes. We’ve been saying it for years. But maybe this time it’s actually true. One of the funny thing’s about recent pieces like this one in Digital Journalist or this one from Fast Company is just how old-fashioned they seem, how concerned they are with fighting yesterday’s battles. The two pieces, of course, show that the fighting won’t actually ever go away…but maybe we need to start ignoring most of it.

2. Some information won’t be free, but probably not enough to save big news organizations. If “bloggers vs. journalists” was the battle of 2006, the battle of 2009 was over that old canard, “information wants to be free.” We can expect this fight to go on for a while, too, but even here there seems to be an emerging, rough consensus. In short: Most people won’t pay anything for traditional journalism, but a few people will pay something, most likely for content they (1) care about and (2) can’t get anywhere else. Whether or not this kind of money will be capable of sustaining journalism as we’ve known it isn’t clear, but it doesn’t seem likely. All of the current battles — Microsoft vs. Google, micropayments vs. metered paywalls, and so on — are probably just skirmishes around this basic point.

3. The news will be increasingly be produced by smaller, de-institutionalized organizations. If “bloggers vs. journalists” is over, and if consumers won’t ever fully subsidize the costs of old-style news production, and if online journalism advertising won’t ever fully equal its pulp and airwaves predecessors, than the journalism will still get produced. It will just get produced differently, most likely by smaller news organizations focusing more on niche products. Indeed, I think this is the third takeaway from 2009. Omnibus is going away. Something different — something smaller– is taking its place.

What we might be fighting about next year

So that’s what we’ve (kinda sorta) learned. If we pretend (just for a moment) that all those fights are settled, what might be some new, useful things to argue about in 2010? I’ve come up with a list of five, though I’m sure there are others.

1. What kind of politics will be facilitated by this new world? In the old world, the relationship between journalism and politics was fairly clear, and expressed in an endless series of (occasionally meaningful) cliches. But changes on one side of the equation inevitably mean changes on the other. The most optimistic amongst us argue that we might be headed for a new era of citizen participation. Pessimists see the angry town halls unleashed this summer and lament the days when the passions of the multitude could be moderated by large informational institutions. Others, like my colleague Rasmus Kleis Nielsen at Columbia, take a more nuanced view. Whatever the eventual answer, this is a question we should be trying to articulate.

2. What kind of public policies and laws will govern this new world? Law and public policy usually move a few steps “behind” reality, often to the frustration of those on the ground floor of big, social changes. There’s a reason why people have been frustrated with the endless congressional debates over the journalism shield law, and with the FTC hearings on journalism — we’re frustrated because, as far as we’re concerned (and as I noted above), we think we have it all figured out. But our government and legal system don’t work that way. Instead, they act as “consolidating institutions,” institutions that both ratify a social consensus that’s already been achieved and also tilt the playing field in one direction or another — towards incumbent newspapers, for example. So the FTC, the FCC, the Congress, the Supreme Court — all these bodies will eventually be weighing in on what they want this new journalistic world to look like. We should be paying attention to that conversation.

3. What kind of networks will emerge in this new media ecosystem? It’s a strong tenet amongst most journalism futurists that “the future of news is networked,” that the new media ecosystem will be the kind of collaborative, do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest model most recently analyzed by the CUNY “New Business Models” project. But what if the future of news lies in networks of a different kind? What if the news networks we’re starting to see emerge are basically the surviving media companies (or big portals) diversifying and branding themselves locally? This is already going on with the Huffington Post local initiative, and we can see national newspapers like The New York Times trying out variations of this local strategy. A series of “local networks,” ultimately accountable to larger, centralized, branded organizations may not be what “networked news” theorists have in mind when they talk about networks, but it seems just as likely to happen as more “ecosystem-esque” approach.

4. What’s the future of journalism school? This one’s fairly self-explanatory. But as the profession it serves mutates, what’s in store for the venerable institution of j-school? Dave Winer thinks we might see the emergence of journalism school for all; Cody Brown thinks j-school might someday look like the MIT Center For Collective Intelligence. Either way, though, j-school probably won’t look like it does now. Even more profoundly, perhaps, the question of j-school’s future is inseparable from questions about the future of the university in general, which, much like the news and music industries, might be on the verge of its own massive shake-up.

5. Human beings, data, and “the algorithm.” This one fascinates me, and it seems more important every day. In a world of Demand Media, computational journalism, and AOL’s news production strategy, questions about the lines between quantitative, qualitative, and human journalism seem ever more pressing. If we are moving towards some kind of semantic web, what does that mean for the future of news? What role are programmers and developers playing? How will they interact with journalists? Is journalism about data, about narrative, or both? Is journalism moving from a liberal art to an information science? And so on.

These are all big, big questions. They get to the heart of democracy, public policy, law, organizations, economics, education, and even what it means to be a human being. They may not be the same questions we’ve been debating these past several years, but maybe its time to start pondering something new.

Photo by Kate Gardiner used under a Creative Commons license.

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