How do we teach the conversation?

I’m speaking briefly Friday at a symposium held at Columbia in honor of the late and legendary Prof. James Carey. I’m on a panel about the future of journalism education and I chose to talk about teaching the conversation. Here are my notes.

When I had the privilege of meeting Prof. Carey, at a conference in Philadelphia, the buzz du jour was “news as conversation.” After I contributed to that buzz, he chuckled and told me he’d been talking about news as conversation for much of his career. Please note that he didn’t say this in what I will admit can be the bloggish way – as in, ‘I said it first.’ Instead, he was visibly gratified. His idea had spread, his meme had propagated.

Prof. Carey was quite right: The idea is not new. But I do think it more widely accepted in my tribes of bloggers, journalists, and educators. And it is more apparent thanks to technology. The internet is less a medium filled with content than it is a platform that enables connections between people and information and each other. It enables the conversation.

So if news is conversation, then the question is, how do we teach the conversation?

How does the role of the journalist change? Journalists must now augment their traditional and valued roles of reporter, watchdog, questioner, vetter, investigator, editor. In the conversation, they need to take on new roles, as moderator, enabler, organizer, talent scout, even journalistic evangelist and educator.

The reality of technology and media today is that everyone can create. The reality of business and journalism is that we must find new ways to collaborate; as our institutions shrink, our strategic challenge in news is to produce less and gather more – and thus we need to encourage others to produce more so we can gather it. And our challenge as educators is to improve the journalism that all these people, professional and amateur, do.

Journalists can no longer see themselves merely as the protectors and beneficiaries of their institutions’ reputations. They need to see themselves as members of larger, looser, more open networks of collaborators. They must contribute value to those networks to gain value themselves.

Of course, journalists should retain – and propagate – the ethics, standards, and practices of journalism that our schools have taught during our lifetimes. But at the same time, they should understand the new ethics of these new networks, which I’ve learned online: the ethic of the link (which says, ‘don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself’), the ethic of permanence (which says that knowledge grows on knowledge, via the link), the ethic of the correction (which is only more immediate in new media), and the ethic of transparency.

So, how do we teach this? I’m not sure yet.

Our first challenge, I think, is to figure out how to teach interactivity – before our students have publics with whom to interact. Blogging would seem to be the perfect tool to explore this relationship. But in my first year teaching at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, I must confess, I did my worst job teaching weblogs. Oh, the irony. I made the assumption that these young people shared a common understanding of blogging when, in fact, they each brought widely different definitions and presumptions, some treacherous (that is, that blogging licenses and demands snarking). Many weren’t ready to serve a public, did not know how to, even feared doing so.

This year at CUNY, we are trying another tactic: having the students find a public, a community where the conversation is already underway. Their task is to figure out how to add journalism to that conversation in the form of facts, answers, corrections, reporting, context, balance, research. We’ll see how that works – and I will blog about what we learn.

Networked, collaborative, pro-am journalism – whether that’s practiced under the label hyperlocal or crowdsourcing or whatever buzzword comes next – also alters the relationship of journalist to the public. Our students will need to learn how to find not just experts to quote, but experts and witnesses who will report and publish themselves. Journalists may need to organize or wrangle this reporting public, as Jay Rosen has said. And, as Jay learned at his, they’ll need to craft the essential assignments and support the work of these willing citizens. They also need to learn to moderate discussion. So there is indeed a role for editing. I’m still not sure how to bring these skills into the classroom, but I believe it likely means that we need to turn our communities not just into subjects of coverage but also into laboratories for collaboration.

This stretches to institutional journalism as well. I argue that we should consider the idea of turning newsrooms into classrooms, where journalists help new practitioners accomplish their goals more effectively – improving their journalism – and where the journalists, too, learn from the community and also learn collaboration with their communities. So it follows that we need to teach our students to become teachers of journalism. That is a new skill for them. It is also keystone of a new culture: a generosity of professionalism, recognizing that the true value of the professional – especially in the networked economy – is not realized by owning and controlling one’s knowledge, practices, and standards, but by sharing them. Prof. Carey said in his AEJ address that the birth of professional journalism education is “a story of the creation of a new social class invested with enormous power and authority . . . and the enhancement of professional authority and mystique.” By turning newsrooms into classrooms, perhaps we can reverse that; we can break down the walls around journalists, deflate their mystique, and redefine the exclusivity of professionalism. Carey said that “status and prestige, not knowledge or ethics or rectitude, turn out to be the key to professionalism.” But in a network, authority and status are defined, instead, by participation and generosity. Those must be the new keystones of professionalism that we teach.

Next, I hope we teach the value of the link. It is the key architectural element supporting a new structure of media, the steel beam that enables journalism to build past prior physical limitations, to grow taller, wider, and stronger than before. Just recently, I have heard confusion from working journalists about the role of the link. They still think it is an endorsement rather than an extension or an FYI. They don’t always understand how links power the algorithms that organize knowledge today, and how links are the basis of media distribution from now on. Yes, today, journalists should learn the science of search-engine optimization just as we learned the artful marketing power of the catchy headline or the intriguing cover.

And, of course, we are all beginning to teach our students to work in any appropriate medium, to make the choice of how best to tell stories and distribute news – a choice that we could not make when we were prisoners of one medium or another. This is why students at CUNY learn and create work in all media. I hope we also teach students to experiment with new forms of storytelling, mixing media not on a page but in a narrative. The real lesson here is not in any single tool or technique: It is the imperative of change, of flexibility, and of innovation.

I want to emphasize that last point: Journalism has long been taught as an art of preservation – protecting age-old verities that do, indeed, require and deserve our armor. We were also taught to protect journalism from the business people and business interests that, in fact, supported our endeavors. As a result, we do not operate in a culture of change and innovation in journalism. And too many do not understand the economics that support or threaten the industry. An executive who works with many news organizations told me recently that he saw no innovation going on in news companies in this country. Even I thought that was strong. But he reiterated his point: “Zero,” he said. This is why I am teaching a course in journalistic entrepreneurialism at CUNY, where students are proposing to create new and sustainable journalistic enterprises. They are learning not only innovation but business – as well as journalistic value – as they compete not just for grades but for grants of seed money from the McCormick Tribune Foundation. The difficulty of starting a new enterprise from scratch, without the capital of a giant, monopoly media organzation, is also teaching them the need and value of working with partners in the communities they hope to serve. It is teaching them the value of the conversation.

Finally, I quote from Roy Peter Clark’s tribute to Prof. Carey at Poynter, in which he listened to David Shedden’s interview with the professor in 1991. Asking for final thoughts in their talk, Prof. Carey said: “There are no final thoughts. I quote all the time these wonderful words of Kenneth Burke: ‘Life is a conversation. When we enter it’s already going on. We try to catch the drift of it. We exit before it’s over.'”

I think Jim Carey teaches us to teach our students that larger lesson. Journalism is not a technical skill of mere observation that can sit to the side of society. It is inevitably part of society. And now that we do have the ability to have a conversation with the people formerly known as our audience (hat tip to Jay Rosen) we need to teach the students to learn from that and to be willing to reexamine their roles as journalists in the communities they serve. The essential skills of journalism – listening, understanding, organizing, sharing – are the same, but we have so many new ways to practice them.

News is a conversation. Life is a conversation. The question for us is, how do we teach our students to be great conversationalists?