Posts about j-school

Journalism Inside®

I wonder whether we should be teaching journalists to embed themselves and their abilities into the world rather than always making the world come to them. Thinking out loud…

The other day, when Amazon peeved me by suddenly trying to sell me software — who has bought a box of software in years? — it occurred to me: After software left store shelves, demand for the programmers who make it has only grown. So why, as newspapers, magazines, and books leave shelves, is there not more demand for the journalists who make them?

Companies are clamoring to hire more programmers and investors are dying to back what they do. Everybody wants more code inside their endeavors. So imagine an economy in which companies and investors want journalism inside: “We need to get us some journalists!”

It’s not quite as insane as it sounds if we rethink what a journalist does. Journalists and programmers aren’t really so different. In the the research on innovation and news we commissioned at the Tow-Knight Center, Nick Diakopoulos notes their similarity: “One of journalism’s primary raisons d’être is in gathering, producing, and disseminating information and knowledge…. What is perhaps most interesting about these processes is that they can, in theory, all be executed either by people, or by computers.” Nick’s point is not that technology would replace journalists but instead that technology provides new opportunities for news.

Programmers and journalists create similar value — or they could. Each makes sense of information. Technology brings order to the flow of information; journalists ask the questions that aren’t answered in that flow. Each brings new abilities to people — functionality (in software terms) or empowerment (in journalistic terms). But programmers don’t produce products so much as they produce ability: your ability to get what you want. Shouldn’t journalism act like that? Shouldn’t we teach them to?

Imagine a perpendicular universe in which an organization or community says: “We need someone to help make sense of this information, who can add context to it or find and fill in missing pieces or present it in a way that will make sense to people — as a narrative or a visualization. We need to get us a journalist.”

It so happens that our entrepreneurial journalism students just had the treat of hearing from Shane Snow of the startup Contently. He is offering a service to companies — brands in particular — that are indeed asking the question above. Brands, haven’t you heard, are becoming media. Instead of placing their ads around others’ content, brands are putting content around their ads. Contently lets them search its 4,000 writers’ profiles and use its reputation system to find the right writer or community manager or video maker or infographic whiz. Contently also offers to manage these tasks.

Isn’t that just PR, working for a brand? No, Shane says, because Contently provides writers to make content an audience will value instead of a message a company wants to get out. Messaging is marketing. This is more analogous to the soap opera model — or the show Northern Exposure: P&G underwrote those shows so it would have a place to put its ads. Now more brands are doing that on the web. YouTube, too, is underwriting the creation of independent content — without owning it — just so more people will have more good stuff to watch there. Advertising still subsidizes content but the chicken and the egg are trading places.

But funny you should mention PR. Its role, too, changes. In What Would Google Do? I spoke with Rishad Tobaccowala, strategist for Publicis, and we thought of a reverse world in which public relations exists to represent the public to the company, not the other way around (a professionalization of Doc Searls’ Vendor Relationship Management). We now see companies looking for that skill. They call it community management but that’s a misnomer unless you mean it in Doc’s context: that the community manages the company (the company doesn’t manage the community).

As I wrote this, I got a lucky visit from Kevin Marks, now of Salesforce, ex of Apple, Google, and Technorati, who teaches me much about technology. He posed the programmer-v-journalist comparison another way, arguing that each models the world, one with algorithms, one with narrative (and each faces the problem of “imperfect mapping”). He called it the tension between the storyteller and the builder.

That’s a very telling contrast for journalism schools. Many of our students want to build things, which we encourage, but we constantly struggle with balancing technology and tools vs. journalism and its skills in the time we have to teach. There’s also a tension regarding what they build: journalists pride themselves on being storytellers but is that all they should build? They might build visualizations of data — which, yes tells a story, sans narrative — but shouldn’t they also build tools that enable the public to dig into its own information (see: Texas Tribune) and platforms that let them share their information?

These new opportunities have led some to believe we should turn out the mythical journalist-coder, the hacking hack who does it all. I am not so sure that unicorn lives in nature. Yes there are some; it’s possible they exist. But I don’t think that journalists must become coders to take advantage of new technologies. They need to know how to work with the coders, how to spec and modify and use these tools. They need to understand and exploit the opportunities.

They also need a different culture. Rather than seeing ourselves as the creators (and owners) of products (content), shouldn’t journalists — like coders — see themselves as the providers of services, as the builders of platforms, as the agents of empowerment for others? That’s how developers see themselves. They build things, yes, but no longer shrink-wrapped. They build tools people use; they add value to information they produce. Journalists, in addition, have seen themselves speaking for the little guy but as Kevin Marks put it to me, that role becomes subsumed by the network when the little guys can speak for themselves. Still, there’s value in using new tools to help them do that. Is that a new journalism or is that a new PR? Gulp! Depends on who gets there first.

So where do journalists fit in in the world? And what do we teach them?

Well, we still start by teaching what my dean calls the eternal verities: accuracy, fairness, completeness. Implicit in that is a sense of service and given the rise of the network we need to consider what our fundamental service is.

We teach them to gather, make sense of, present, and most importantly supplement information through reporting — but there are now so many new ways to do that, so now we don’t just teach reporting but also data skills.

We teach them to build — yes, stories, but now in more forms, and also more than stories: tools and platforms.

We also teach them to build businesses. We teach them sustainability.

We teach them to go out into their communities, but now I say we need to make them see that they are a part of and not separate from those communities, no longer envisioning ourselves at the center, gathering everyone’s attention, but instead at the edge, serving their needs, providing communities elegant organization. This is a difficult skill to teach. Since starting what we call interactive journalism (not “new media”) at CUNY, I’ve struggled with finding ways for the students to have a public with whom to interact. One way we’ve done it is The Local with The New York Times, but we need more ways.

If we consider the programmer worldview, then we need to teach journalists how to fit in to the world differently, to spread their skills and value (and values) out into other enterprises, institutions, and communities rather than making the world come to us for journalism: Need some reporting, some editing, some sense-making, some empowerment, some organization, some storytelling, some media making…? “We need to get us some journalism!”

Now, of course, the journalists will worry that when working in the employ of others, they lose the independence that their journalistic institutions afforded them (so long as those companies were rich monopolies). That is well worth the worry. But again, consider the programmer who brings her skills to an enterprise but still must decide whether the enterprise is worthy of them. Consider, too, how programmers work in open-source to spread their value — and grow it — among anyone who sees fit to use it. They don’t own coding the way we thought we owned the news. They spread it.

Shouldn’t we spread journalism out beyond our walls as not only a skill set but also a worldview, getting more people to see and create a demand for the value of accurate and reliable information (“trust is the new black,” says Craig Newmark), organized information, context, and so on? Shouldn’t we want to embed journalism the way programmers embed code? Then we wouldn’t just teach journalists to go to work for news organizations — or, for that matter, start them — but also to organize news everywhere? Whether and how to do that, I’m just beginning to wonder….

/thinkingoutloud

A new M.A. in entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY

We got some big news at CUNY this week: We are approved to offer what we believe is the first MA in entrepreneurial journalism.

Last spring, we already taught our first class of full-time entrepreneurial journalism students, awarding certificates. But now we also have the ability to award MA degrees to students who complete the CUNY J-school program plus a fourth entrepreneurial semester. This comes under the auspices of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY.

My colleague Jeremy Caplan and I teach four courses: MBA in a box in the media context (Jeremy’s qualified to teach that; I’m not); a course in disruption in media (that’s what I teach); the incubator as a course (the core of the curriculum is the students’ development of their own businesses and for that we the faculty and mentors meet individually with them and meet as a group to compare issues, problems, and solutions); and a technology course (this semester, we plan to work closely with General Assembly for some of that curriculum and are bringing in Nancy Wang and Jeff Mignon to work with students). In addition, the students do a project as an apprenticeship with a New York startup.

We are about to admit our 15+ students for the spring term, most of them professionals seeking the certificate (and in some cases a second career) with some students from our regular journalism program (they’ll be the first to earn the MA in entrepreneurial journalism).

This comes right after the fifth annual jurying for our regular entrepreneurial course, offered in the MA in journalism, in which a dozen students created their own business plans and a jury awarded seed funding from a Tow-Knight grant.

At CUNY, we are constantly changing our curriculum, updating it as reality in media shifts, as we learn new lessons, and as we see what works and doesn’t work in helping students reach their goals. That can be unsettling for both students and faculty but there’s no choice about change.

This week, coincidentally, I was contacted by two searches for journalism school deans (it appears to be open season on the species as there are even more of these jobs open). I’m not going for and certainly doubt I would be offered either, but I did offer recommendations to one of them and that caused me to take a look at the curricula for various journalism programs in the nation. There are some neat new courses and methods (e.g., via @underoak, UNC’s master’s in technology and communication). But what struck me about journalism curricula is how little some of the courses appeared to have changed, even now. What does it mean to teach magazines these days?

Jeremy and our colleagues Peter Hauck and Jennifer McFadden sat down last week and played the game of 52-card-pickup we regularly play at CUNY, rethinking what we’re teaching and how. For example, we are going to emphasize prototyping and project management more than we had. In the admissions process for this spring, we not only wanted a diverse group of students and perspectives but also of businesses, from hyperlocal content businesses to disruptive platforms. In the other arms of the Tow-Knight center, we are supporting research in new opportunities and needs in journalism to help guide students and the industry as they propose new ideas to fit new needs. And with our growing incubator, we are bringing in new services to help both students’ and outside entrepreneurial ventures.

Of course, elsewhere at CUNY, change continues apace. For example, my interactive colleague Sandeep Junnarkar and others have been shepherding into the curriculum new courses on data visualization and a modular course in coding for journalism. We find ourselves constantly managing tension between journalism and tools (always fighting to make sure the former is not overcome by the latter).

Getting a new degree in entrepreneurial journalism is just one milepost in a constant process of trying to stay an inch ahead of the snowball. I’m proud and grateful to work with an administration — Deans Steve Shepard, Judy Watson, and Steve Dougherty — and with a faculty who support this endless creative tsuris.

We teach change.

What’s a medium?

At CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism we just told the students that they no longer need to commit to a media track – print, broadcast, or interactive. We believe this is the next step in convergence. All media become one.

Since the day we opened our doors, CUNY has taught all students all media. In the first of three semesters (plus an internship), everyone takes the fundamental of interactive course and (as of this year’s class) a fundamentals of broadcast course. They all learn how to gather news and tell stories in audio, video, blogs, live blogs, wikis, Twitter, social tools, and whatever comes next. Of course, they also learn the eternal verities of journalism and techniques of reporting and writing. They are now exposed to the fundamentals of the business of journalism. As they progress through other classes in their subject specialties, they are required to create stories in various media.

We had still required our students to pick a track and I’ll confess that many people asked us why we did that. My answer was that employers would expect this specialization. It was, in truth, a dash of caution. But then we heard – particularly from adjunct faculty still working in the field – that this wasn’t necessarily so. We also watched our students from any track work in any track. And we’re getting better (and still need to get better) at requiring work in many media throughout the program.

From the day the school started, various faculty members – including, notably, the head of broadcast – wanted to find the way to tear down the walls between the tracks. Now we thought it was time.

So what we’ve really done is simply give students more choice. We still have the same media courses and department. We still have prerequisites for the ultimate course in each medium (you can’t take interactive III without having taken interactive II). But now we will advise students to select courses based on what they want to do professionally as well as what they already know (because many students enter the school proficient in various new media).

We’ve given the students various scenarios: Someone who wants to work in broadcast or online will likely take the courses they would have taken anyway. But now a student can take the full track in both electronic media. Or a student who comes in with good skills in those electronic media may choose to strengthen skills in what we used to call print (we’re not sure what to call it now so we’re calling that core). Electives that used to be offered mainly to students in a track – like my entrepreneurial journalism course – will now be open to all.

We also offer many workshops during our January academy between semesters and through the year: in photojournalism, Flash, copy-editing, VJ video storytelling, and so on. We’ll add more, especially as we also offer our graduates refresher courses as part of our 100,000-mile guarantee to keep them up to date.

Those are the details. The bigger point is that media is becoming singular. Especially as newspapers die and more people watch what we used to call TV online or on mobile, it will be absurd to separate the forms. In my day (picture me blogging that from a rocking chair), we had to pick our medium once for a career. Now, every time a journalist goes out to cover news, she must be equipped and prepared to gather and share it in any and all media. That’s what we mean when we say convergence.

We’re very lucky at CUNY that we’re new and don’t have the legacy of old media practices and turfs to deal with. I don’t say that to pile on other journalism schools that are struggling with how to change as fast as the media world around them, reflecting the same struggle in newsrooms (more than once, I heard the cry, “fuck new media”). Nor do I want to pretend for a second that we’ve solved the problem; we are constantly updating our thinking and our curriculum. It’s a never-ending discussion that we have in faculty meetings and training sessions on RSS, mobile, blogging, wikis, Twitter, new media architecture, new news business models, and so on. As Rich Gordon at Northwestern’s Medill J-school has long said, the most important skill we need to teach is change. And we can’t teach it fast enough.