This past semester, I flew a drone. I helped set up a virtual reality environment. And I helped print a cup out of thin air.
Nice work if you can get it.
Working as a research assistant to [Dan Pacheco](http://mediashift.org/idealab/dan_pacheco/) at the [Peter A. Horvitz Endowed Chair for Journalism Innovation](http://journovation.syr.edu/) at the [S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University](http://newhouse.syr.edu/), I helped run the Digital Edge Journalism Series in the spring semester. We held a series of four programs that highlighted the cutting edge of journalism technology. Pacheco ran a [session about drones in media](http://journovation.syr.edu/?p=373); we had Dan Schultz from the MIT Media Lab [talk about hacking journalism](http://storify.com/bpmoritz/punch-a-shark-in-the-face-hacking-journalism-with?utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter&utm_content=storify-pingback&utm_campaign=&awesm=sfy.co_gEer); we hosted [Nonny de la Peña and her immersive journalism experience](http://journovation.syr.edu/?p=562), and we had a [3D printer in our office](http://instagram.com/p/YNvtLvjveI/), on loan from the Syracuse University ITS department, showing what can be made.
For someone who spent 10 years in traditional media as a newspaper reporter, it was an eye-opening semester. Here are some of the lessons I learned after spending a semester on the digital edge. Maybe they can be useful for you as you navigate the new media waters.
1. The future is here
During our 3D printer session, as we watched a small globe and base print from almost out of thin air, I turned to Pacheco and said, “This is the Jetsons. We’re living the Jetsons.”
This stuff is all real. It sounds obvious to say, but in a way, it’s an important thing to remember. Drones, virtual reality, 3D printing all sound like stuff straight out of science fiction. But they’re here. And they’re being used. More saliently, the barrier to entry of these technologies is not as high as you’d think. You can fly a drone using an iPad. The coding used to create real-time fact-checking programs is accessible. 3D printers are becoming cheaper and more commercially available. And while creating a full-room 3D immersive experience still takes a whole lot of time, money and know-how (we spent the better part of two days putting the experience together, during which I added “using a glowing wand to calibrate a $100,000 PhaseSpace Motion Capture system, then guided students through an immersive 3D documentary experience” to my skill set), you can create your own 3D world using [Unity 3D software](http://Unity3d.com.), which has a free version.
The most important thing I learned is to get into the mindset that the future is here. The tools are here, they’re accessible, they can be easy and fun to learn. Instead of thinking of the future as something out there that’s going to happen to you, our seminar series showed me that the future is happening right now, and it’s something that we can create ourselves.
2. Get it first, ask questions later
One of the first questions we’d always get, whether it was from students, professors or professionals, was: “This is neat, but what application does it have for journalism?” It’s a natural question to ask of a new technology, and one that sparked a lot of good discussions. What would a news organization use a drone for? What would a journalist do with the coding capabilities Schultz showed us? What kind of stories could be told in an immersive, virtual-reality environment? What journalistic use can a 3D printer have?
These are great questions. But questions become problems when they are used as impediments to change. The notion that a technology is only useful if there’s a fully formed and tested journalistic use already in place for it is misguided. The smart strategy moving forward may be to get the new technologies and see what you can use them for. You won’t know how you can use a drone in news coverage until you have one. You won’t know how a 3D printer can be used in news coverage until you try it out.
There are potential uses. I worked in Binghamton, N.Y, for several years, and the city had several devastating floods. Instead of paying for an expensive helicopter to take overhead photos of the damage, maybe a drone could have been used more inexpensively and effectively (and locally). Maybe a newsroom could use a 3D printer to build models of buildings and landmarks that could be used in online videos. So when news breaks at, say, the local high school, instead of a 2D drawing, a 3D model could be used to walk the audience through the story. One student suggested that 3D printers could be made for storyboards for entertainment media. Another suggested advertising uses, particularly at trade shows. The possibilities aren’t endless, but they sure feel like it.
Like I said above, these things are already here. Media organizations can either wait to figure it out (which hasn’t exactly worked out for them so far in the digital age) or they can start now. Journalism organizations have never been hubs for research and development. Maybe this is a good time to start.
3. Real questions, real issues
This new technology is exciting, and empowering. But these technologies also raise some real, serious questions that call for real, serious discussion. The use of drones is something that sounds scary to people, and understandably so. (This is why the phrase “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV) is being used more often. It may not be elegant, but it does avoid some of the negative connotation the word “drone” has.) It’s not just the paparazzi question. With a drone, where’s the line between private and public life? How invasive will the drones be? And there is something undeniably unsettling about seeing an unmanned flying object hovering near you. 3D printers raise concerns, especially now that the first 3D printed guns have been made and fired.
To ignore these questions would be to put our heads in the sand, to ignore the real-world concerns. There aren’t easy answers. They’re going to require an honest dialogue among users, media organizations, and the academy.
4. Reporting still rules
Technology may get the headlines. But the technology is worthless without what the old-school journalists call shoe-leather reporting. At the heart of all these projects and all these technologies is the same kind of reporting that has been at the heart of journalism for decades.
Drones can provide video we can’t get anywhere else, but the pictures are meaningless without context. The heart of “hacking journalism” is truth telling, going past the spin and delivering real-time facts to our audience. An immersive journalism experience is pointless if the story, the details, and the message aren’t meticulously reported. Without a deeper purpose to inform the public, a 3D printer is just a cool gadget.
It’s the marriage of the two — of old-school reporting and new-school technology — that makes the digital edge such a powerful place to be.
Brian Moritz is a Ph.D. student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and co-editor of the Journovation Journal. A former award-winning sports reporter in Binghamton, N.Y. and Olean, N.Y., his research focuses on the evolution of journalists’ routines. His writing has appeared on the Huffington Post and in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has a masters’ degree from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure.