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Archive for January 16th, 2008

Does this make me a horrible journalist?

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Quick, can you identify all of the people Mindy McAdams names in her post, Do you know who this is?

  • Vannevar Bush
  • Ted Nelson
  • Alan Kay
  • Vint Cerf
  • Bob Metcalfe
  • Tim Berners-Lee
  • Ivan Sutherland

I can’t.

I’m going to take one for the team here — the young’uns that is — and admit I didn’t know most of those names even in passing.

And please don’t shoot me, but Mike Royko was only vaguely familiar. (That’s the subject of the original post over at Newsosaur, re: a journalism student who didn’t know Royko’s name.)

Does that make me a horrible journalist? Should I hand over my reporters notebook and pen now?!

I’m 22. I didn’t take a “journalism history” course in college. Those lessons were interspersed among my Intro to Mass Comm, Law, Ethics, Magazine Publishing, Beat Reporting, etc. courses. And the famous journalists I did and do know are probably more happenstance than concentrated effort.

So someone give me a list of the top 10-15 greatest journalists of all time, and I promise I’ll memorize those I don’t know at the risk of looking dumb and being chastised down the line by some high-brow editor. No, seriously.

But therein also lies the problem. I’ll memorize it. Like it’s for a test, which I guess it could be. But who knows if the names I’m given would be the right ones. It’s kind of subjective.

I understand the usefulness of having historical context to understand where you have been and how it leads to where you are and will figure into where you go from here.

But am I a worse journalist for not knowing those names? Well, am I?

Does it make your 30-year veteran a worse journalist that he’d look at me like I was from Mars if I asked him about Rob Curley or Adrian Holovaty? They’re paving the future as much as any journalists have paved the past. Is it better to look forward or behind?

Or is it more important that my classes in j-school taught me and emphasized tangible things. I remember and use every day the practical skills that allow me to do this job competently not necessarily the names of those journalists before me. I can understand knowing important rulings like Times v. Sullivan. I can understand needing to know when newspapers started to mass publish and the impact cable had on broadcast TV. I can even understand and appreciate reading great journalists of the past to make my own work stronger.

But in the end, if I had to choose, I choose real-world application over historical context. That’s just me.

Don’t dismiss good journalists who don’t ‘get’ online just yet

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

There’s been an awful lot of discussion of late, at least on the blogs I read, about whether you can — or should — teach journalists to be online journalists.

In one corner, we have those saying it can’t be done and shouldn’t. In the other, they contend it can and should be attempted at least. (And on and on. Read the comments on the posts, which are as enlightening as the posts themselves.)

Where do I stand? I’m torn. Though I find myself aligning with the cans and shoulds.

On one hand, I am the go-getter, I-want-to-know-more-faster type. On the other, I still see a role for the reluctant journalist. I’m also an optimist. I think you CAN teach an old dog new tricks, as long as they aren’t afraid to come out and play (even if it takes a shove to get them out there in the first place.)

Personally, just about everything I know about computers was learned by tinkering around. I taught myself HTML, CSS and everything that follows. I learned how layers work in Photoshop and how to edit audio with audacity without taking a formal class. I spent hours with my legs crossed and MacBook on my lap trying to figure out the movie editing functions the first time I used the software. The list goes on.

When I wanted to know, I sought out the answers or solutions. The very first tag of HTML I learned was the font tag because I wanted to make my comments stand out in the then HTML-based chat room (yeah that tells you how old-school I am). Then, I learned to put up images with my chats. Then I learned about links. Then, I learned about things like body and title and how to take all those other tags I learned and work them together into a .html site. Later on, I learned about tables and frames (yes, God help me, but I was the freaking QUEEN of frames). Eventually, I stumbled on CSS. The rest is well, history.

There are three things to note about my informal education in Web design/new media:

  1. I taught myself everything through a little bit of searching and a lot of guess and check/trial and error.

  2. Each thing I learned built upon things I had previously taught myself.
  3. I taught myself on a need to know basis.

That last item is the most important, though many would contend the first is. When I wanted to know how to make my chat stand out, I asked around and then looked up the font tags. When frames were all the rage (and they once were, trust me I was there), I actually used the AOL homepage creator to build a site with frames and then analyzed the code to figure out how it worked and changed so I could build my own from scratch. And later, when I wanted to know how to add layers so I could provide absolute positioning on my layouts and abandon frames? I spent weeks designing the perfect site and then figuring out how to get CSS to cooperate as it was supposed to (this was before most browsers were CSS friendly).

Everything I learned was because I reached a level where I wanted to try something new that I didn’t know how to do before, but that I knew was possible because I had seen or heard of other people doing it.

I think the same thing can be applied to journalism, especially online journalism. You look at other awesome packages or blogs or micro-sites or whatever it is you want to do and you see how they are doing it, what you like and what you don’t. This leads you down the road to your own possibilities. The thought process follows something like this:

They did it.
So that means it’s possible to do. Right?
I wonder if it would work here.
How did they do it?
Is that the best way or is anyone else doing it differently?
How?
What is the best method to achieve what we want?
Well, that didn’t work.
OK, that’s better.
Still needs tweaked, but let’s go with it.
That wasn’t so hard.
Holy s— it worked.
What else can we do with this?

In short, I think what it comes down to is the same thing that makes a good journalist: You have to be curious and You have to be brave enough to follow that curiosity.

On one hand, you have to have that inner “I want to try that” instinct, which makes you want to spend time analyzing video clips to see what works and what doesn’t, what left you in awe and what made you yawn. You have to be willing to take time to interact with different flash packages to understand how they work (or why they don’t) as a user before you ever sit down to compile your own. It’s like the writer who proclaims he isn’t a reader. It’s a waste of time. How can you be good at something when your exposure to the best of it is limited? I think you need something to aspire to and something to rise above. If that makes sense.

On the other hand, you have to have the courage to try and fail. This is the part that I think holds back many of those “dinosaurs.” When you’ve been doing something the same way for so long, it’s scary to be a beginner. You also have more to lose. If I, one year out of college, take on a new job or task and realize “This blows” I have less to lose than if I’d wagered my whole career on taking that chance. If that also makes sense.

I have so much yet to learn about all of these things. I’m not waiting for training, but I wouldn’t pass any up that was offered. I’m just waiting for an opportunity to teach myself.

I am very much a part of the Web culture. Nobody taught it to me, I’m just innately interested. But I know some damn good journalists who aren’t. They’ll come around, or I think, likely self-select themselves out when they realize they aren’t swimming in the same direction. I really don’t think they need to be forced out by my generation. I think we need them now more than ever to rein us in and show us what good journalism is. And we can repay them by teaching them about blogs and twitter and del.ico.us and YouTube and RSS feeds and everything that will one day be obsolete.

Do I think everyone is going to be as motivated as I am? Absolutely not. But their motivation might be different. Maybe they’re really hungry to dig into crime statistics or to tear through the city budget looking for extravagance? Maybe they’re a photojournalist or reporter honestly looking to report on the human condition and just tell the story of this time and place. I think those things are just as important as being willing to sit for hours trying to figure out why your video isn’t encoding properly or how to narrow down an hour long talk into a two-minute podcast. Should we likewise say to all these aspiring online journalists who would rather die than cover City Council that we have no room for you in our news organization? No. There is a place and a need for both sets. They can complement and learn from each other. And to some extent, as with my covering the education beat, they can even be one in the same. Someday, they all may be. We’re not there yet. I think that’s OK.

There is and will always be a place in this business for those journalists who have a desire to find and tell good stories. As demands on journalists grow, in fact, they will be the only ones for whom there is room.

But just because some of them aren’t the ones chomping at the bits to delve into new media doesn’t mean you should dismiss them as a lost cause. At least offer them the chance to prove you wrong. I’m not an advocate of forcing anything down someone’s throat. But reluctance or fear are not good enough reasons for a good journalist to be turned away. Hell, I’ve been afraid of and reluctant to do more stories than I’d like to admit. And each time I got over my fear. Each time, I became a little more confident, a little more comfortable. Should I have been fired because I wasn’t comfortable writing about a child molester? Should my boss have reassigned me when I didn’t know what to look for at my first bank robbery? The amazing thing about journalism, the thing that probably more than anything attracted me to this field, is every day is a learning experience. Why is online journalism any different? Sometimes the only way to learn is to jump in, and sometimes it takes a shove to get you to try something you end up loving. You never know if you give up on even trying.