Guardian column: Teaching journalism

Here’s my Guardian column this week, about teaching journalism at CUNY:

As a journalism professor, I’m asked two questions these days: first, why teach journalism? Aren’t newspapers and news doomed? Why ensnare young people in a dying profession? I respond with an article of faith: journalism is evolving – at long last – and actually growing, and that’s what makes this an exciting time to get into the news business. Second, I’m asked, how should you teach journalism today? Ah, that’s the tough one. I’m still in search of the answer as I finish my first term at the new City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

Others in our faculty teach the craft of journalism: the essential skills and verities of the profession. A few students did question the continuing need for the tricks of our trade, but I’ve argued that even a blog post or a podcast requires a good intro and headline – not to mention accuracy, clarity, and fairness – just as a news story does. So pay attention to the craft, I say. And they soon came to agree.

As the guy who teaches the future, I then take students through audio, video, photos, slideshows, blogs, wikis, web pages, and more (after my teenage son instructs me, of course). What’s wonderful is that students can create things immediately – without relying on the old priesthood of the tools, whether those wizards were typesetters or cameramen – and so they learn from making.

I asked Edward Roussel, head of digital at the Telegraph, what skills he expects journalists to have in his converged newsroom and he said he wants them to have at the ready the complete toolset of media and thus the ability to choose the best means to tell any story. That is a choice we print or radio or TV people never had. So we prepare our students to feel comfortable with all the new ways of journalism by requiring them to tell stories in many media. We call that a converged curriculum.

But my course is about more than tools. It is also about blowing up preconceptions, rules and minds. We catalogued the problems facing the news business – and, yes, for a moment, some wondered whether they had made the wrong career move. But they quickly rose out of the slough of despond that still ensnares so many in the industry and realised that they face exciting new ways to practise journalism. And many were energised by the knowledge that they can – and in many cases must – work independently (this is why I will later teach a course in entrepreneurial journalism).

So one student and I sat down and reviewed all the tools she can now use to better tell the story of a changing neighbourhood: Google maps, photos, slideshows, video, audio, blogs, interactive forums, databases – oh, and text. Another student immediately began plotting the creation of her own media property to cover the stories professional media are not covering in her ‘hood. This is why I decided to teach journalism: to be a witness at the dawn of invention.

But I also failed in some areas. The irony is that as a blogger, I did a terrible job teaching blogging. I didn’t dissect the form with the students so we could understand its proper tone and value; I wasn’t aware enough of their preconceptions and my assumptions. Most important, I couldn’t find the means to teach the fundamental lesson of our new world: interacting and working cooperatively with the public we serve. After all, I teach “interactive journalism”. But this requires having a public with whom to interact and means students must do their learning openly, though some wonder whether they are ready. With the students’ help, we’ve hatched plans for group blogs covering topics of journalistic merit and public interest.

The real lesson in all this, I think, is not about tools, skills or business forecasting. It is about embracing change, instilling a culture of innovation and experimentation and a willingness to question and try and fail. That is what the news business needs most today. It’s not about establishing a new orthodoxy of a new media priesthood; I hope we never reach that. Whether they work in old or new institutions or independently, journalists must be ready to think and act in new ways, to take advantage of new opportunities, to generously reshape their relationships with the public, to rearchitect how news and information can work, to operate without the old constraints of time and medium – and to bring to all this those enduring skills, ethics and verities of journalism that still make them valuable. That’s how I hope to teach. Whether I succeed, you’ll need to ask my students in a year, when they are out reinventing the trade we’re teaching.