How Journalism Teachers are Failing, and How to Stop It

    by Wayne MacPhail
    September 29, 2010
    Journalism profs need to play more with new news applications and formats, such as Flipboard

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    Looking to most newsrooms for best online practice is like visiting a glue factory to learn about race horses."

    Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.


    I am writing this article on an iPad which is tapped wirelessly into a coffee shop’s WiFi. The device knows where it is in space and, if I allow it, will broadcast that information to any application I choose. Nearby, a young man browses the web on his iPhone. A woman is using a Blackberry. We are all online, all wireless and all capable of sending video, audio or text anywhere in the world.

    In an instant, I could convert my iPad into a magazine-style newsreader using one of a dozen applications such as Flipboard, River of News, Early Edition or FLUD. Beautifully formatted pages, filled with images and videos which my social media friends have flagged, will flow and slide across the screen.

    The young man could do the same using applications like Reeder or The Pulse on his mobile phone. Our news packages would be culled, collated and laid out not by editors and graphic designers, but by crowds and CPUs.


    This is neither new nor uncommon. It is becoming the norm as millions of people snap up iPads and smartphones and a dozen new tablets wait in the wings — a new one from RIM being just the latest offering.

    But, despite that, much of the fundamental (and sometimes final) training we offer journalism students is dished out as if none of it were happening. As if the boulder-sized granularity of the news cycle had not melted in a quicksilver stream. As if the line between author and audience has not been smudged to grey and as if, really, nothing much had changed about the fundamentals of journalistic narrative, despite a wholesale remaking of the information landscape.

    They Know What They’ve Been Taught

    Many journalism profs, I’d wager, have never used Flipboard, done a podcast, played with Foursquare or Gowalla or have really seriously engaged in an online social community. Nor have they paid attention to the video blogs and online networks that bear as much resemblance to a traditional television studio as a unicycle does to a Hummer.

    How do I know this? I teach third and fourth year and post-grad level online journalism courses at two universities in Ontario, Canada. Over the course of the past 15 years, I’ve done the same at a handful more.


    I have seen fourth year students who, when I show them examples from the This Week in Tech Network, Rocketboom or Buzz Out Loud, say they’ve never seen them before.

    I have third year students who have never edited digital audio. Who write heads and leads with no thought to how they will be atomized and abstracted in RSS feeds and on the screens of mobile phones and tablets. I have a class of MA journalism students, the majority of whom don’t even know what an RSS feed is.

    And, I have to ask: How can that be? How can intelligent students go through semester after semester or even year after year of modern journalistic training and be so ignorant of some of the fundamental concepts, tools and shows that are shaping the way
    citizens ingest and participate in journalism and content? How can it be that they only seem to (maybe) know the basics of radio, television, magazine and newspapers? How can it be that they often treat online with some derision and fear, and as if it were
    nothing more than a place to shovel, unaltered, the products of other media?

    Rhetorical questions. They know and repeat what they have been taught. And their basic training, in my experience, does not have folded into its DNA an understanding that not all audio ends up on time-constrained, broadcast, appointment radio.

    That not all news has to be produced in cumbersome, equipment-laden studios with business-suited and scripted anchors.

    That not all words will wind up on paper first, nestled luxuriously in a contextual bed of carefully laid-out cousin stories on crafted, immutable pages.

    That not all acts of journalism have to be committed by journalists. And that not all audiences are passive.

    That not all video needs to be shot with unwieldy, obtrusive cameras. Nor with cameras at all, but rather with smartphones tethered timelessly to social networks and embedded players.

    No. The students I see know little if anything of the online world or of emerging media. Their own personal experience extends to Facebook and texting, for the most part. And their journalistic training reaches only a tentative few feet beyond the same traditional media and means it always has. What little exposure they do get is often provided by itinerant lecturers or faculty with little real practical experience who have to rely on technical teaching assistants to show students fundamentals.

    Basic online training often extends only as far as how to use content management systems (CMS) that treat online only as digital Tupperware for other more traditional forms. The argument for this is that these are systems that are used in newsrooms today. But learning a CMS isn’t a course; it’s an uninteresting class. And, frankly, looking to most newsrooms for best online practice is like visiting a glue factory to learn about race horses.

    A Different Approach

    All this needs to change now, and in first year. Why? Because the nature of story and storytelling has been altered forever. Instructors who teach basic print need to acknowledge that not only will headlines, subheads and other microcontent be torn apart and scattered to tiny screens and tablets; but it must also survive the dissection and distribution of Twitter and other microblogging services.

    More importantly, they need to acknowledge and explore how the very nature of an ongoing narrative — which is at the core of much news reporting — changes when you factor in real-time audience participation, distribution and creation. They need to discuss layout, not as static (print) nor somewhat unpredictable (web) processes, but rather as a user or CPU choice. Witness apps like Flipboard that seize and transform feeds, text and graphics on the fly.

    Instructors need, in my opinion, to reconsider how stories are brainstormed, sourced, researched and even edited, given a public with an increasing desire and ability to be talked to, engaged with, crowdsourced and mined in a collaborative dance of narrative creation.

    Acting as if nothing has changed, or, that what has changed can be layered on like a parka in the winter season of a student’s learning doesn’t work anymore. I see the fruits of that kind of thinking term after term. It breeds scared students who feel unprepared for the
    emerging world and resentful of educational opportunities missed.

    “Fine, great,” I hear critics say. “That’s all well and good in theory, but we have students who come to us knowing nothing about the craft. How can we possibly teach them more stuff?”

    But I’m not advocating for more. I’m advocating for acknowledgement and change. And, a second note: Along with that honest concern I hear an undertone, a dark counterpoint that thrums, “I fear, I fear, I fear.” Many instructors don’t teach differently because they don’t
    know what is different. They know something has shifted, some foreign refraction by an unseen lens, but its nature eludes them, scares them or leaves them cold. Or all three. They resist changing because they have so little experience of the changed world.

    Radio instructors, from day one, need to consider that the idea of appointment radio is becoming quaint. Students who listen to podcasts or have downloaded the NPR, BBC or CBC app to their mobile device don’t really understand that there was a time when you

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    heard a show once and once only. They have unpinned audio from time. Surely the
    teaching of even the basics has to account for that. Surely the inexorable shift from broadcast to IP delivery of audio alters how we think about story telling for the ear and mind’s eye. After all, our audiences are now traversing our acoustic work more like Doctor Who than like a steadfast hiker.

    Television instructors must show students not just the evening news and documentaries, but also the small, entrepreneurial, web-based news and entertainment productions that fill Vimeo, You Tube, Daily Motion and set top box offerings. Surely the TWiT Network, which produces over a dozen high quality, and extremely profitable, videocasts a week is a model worthy of consideration when larger, more traditional television newsrooms are folding in on themselves.

    Surely webisode entrepreneurs like the highly articulate Amber MacArthur are equally if not more valid role models for young men and women than vapid weather people, boisterous sports hosts and always-standing television personalities and reporters who ask silly questions of ignorant people on busy street corners.

    Surely smartphones and streaming applications are viable tools that have a place beside larger and more labour intensive processes and hardware.

    And, surely, we need to step back even further than that and consider what we must bake into our most basic instruction when our audience members are geo-locatable with breathtaking precision; and when they can share what they see, hear and think with the facility that, ten years ago, was only afforded a remote van or a satellite uplink.

    We need to understand how our audiences relate to and use news when they are not reading it on paper, but instead, multitouching it, exploring it with their hands and playing with media as if it were so much fingerpaint just below the surface of their portable glass
    tablets. Touch is the new click. The hand is the new desk. Where is the new when and glass is rapidly becoming the new paper. They have to change how we teach our news. From the beginning, from the core. From now on.

    Time to Play, To Experiment

    But, how do we do that? By playing. By living in the present, if not the future. If you teach magazines and haven’t used Flipboard on a tablet, you don’t really know what’s going to happen to your industry. If you teach television and haven’t shot, edited and published a news item from your smartphone, you’re missing an important part of on-the-ground news coverage by journalists and citizens. And, more importantly, you’re unable to think creatively about how to use that skill to tell great stories new ways and how to weave that
    understanding into what you teach every day. We can’t teach skills we lack, offer wisdom about tools we’ve never used nor provide even the most rudimentary opinions of social media experiences we’ve never had.

    And we can’t think creatively, generatively, about how to weave online journalism into the fabric we cloak our students with from the first day they fall to our care. They expect that of us, and they are right to do so.

    Wayne MacPhail began in the industry as a magazine photographer, feature writer and editor. In 1983, he moved to the Hamilton Spectator where was a health, science and social services columnist, feature writer and editor. In 1991, he founded Southam InfoLab, a research and development lablooking into future information products for this Canadian national newspaper chain. After leaving Southam, he developed online content for most Canadian online networks. Wayne now heads up w8nc inc., helping non-profit organizations, colleges and universities, charitable organizations and associations develop and implement technology-based, marketing driven communications strategies. He also teaches online journalism at the University of Western Ontario and Ryerson University. He serves on the board of rabble.ca where he founded the rabble podcast network and rabbletv. He’s a regular tech columnist for the website and for mondoville.com.

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    Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.


    This article was originally published on J-Source. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.

    Tagged: amber mac flipboard ipad ipad apps journalism education journalism educators this week in technology

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