School of Journalism Technology Reflects Changing Industry

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Stony Brook University Newsroom

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31412485@N02/3379911978/in/set-72157608505691860/

For those of you pursuing a career in journalism, you might want to check out this recent piece courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Worried that talented young writers are collectively ditching their dreams of producing Pulitzer Prize-winning press-stoppers en masse in exchange for…I don’t know, an M.B.A. (or some other heinously boring degree)? Luckily, the Chronicle of Higher Education would like to assuage your apprehensions with some simple, yet bluntly comprehensive advice: just STOP.

Or, as the irritatingly optimistic a capella song suggests, “don’t worry, be happy.” However, I suppose I should mention that this particular song debuted years before the era of private equity.

But, hey…everything’s going to be fine, right? I mean, according to this, throngs of J-schoolers are flooding major programs in dozens of colleges and universities nationwide…despite the thinning job market of which they are constantly-and I do mean pretty near constantly-reminded.

This actually doesn’t surprise me. I mean, you see it here all the time at Stony Brook-we’re expanding. You see it in increased campus media participation, in growing class sizes…even in the fact that we now have our own official School of Journalism sweatshirt!

Even if the campus bookstore refuses to believe it, (I’m sure you’re already aware of the abrupt fashion in which they ship back journalism textbooks during the first week of classes) the journalism school is growing. We even have our own ice cream social.

Oh, yes. We’ve gone form not even having a major program here at Stony Brook to growing large enough over the course of three years to warrant our own supply of frozen deliciousness.

Now, this is the part I found particularly interesting: the author actually goes so far as to attribute the enrollment surge, at least in part, to added emphasis on the application of new interactive technology. Several times, Mangan cites several universities-lauding seemingly every journalism program except for our own-as blaring examples of revolutionary change. Stony Brook journalism students, pay attention.

University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism: “Lessons in multimedia storytelling are reinforced in a required class in Web publishing skills that runs parallel to one in basic reporting.”

Temple University: “In addition to multimedia skills, Temple also teaches an elective undergraduate course on “entrepreneurial journalism,” which, according to the syllabus, helps students “understand the changing media landscape and recognize underserved niches.” Students study why the field is changing so fast, anticipate which direction it will go, design business models, and begin the process of creating new journalistic outlets.”

Does any of that sound familiar? How about all of it?

The fact of the matter is that the journalism program, though young, is already actively changing with changing times.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure that the major program had to evolve all that much since its birth-like my generation, the newsroom was sort of a baby that grew up with the backdrop of technology. By the time of its unveiling in 2006, it was already decked out floor to ceiling with flashy tech goodies that flooded the room like expensive birthday gifts. Let’s do a quick inventory check here: 30 double-monitor Macs, news tickers, a high-tech projection system, 30 copies of both Final Cut Pro and Adobe Photoshop and not one, but FOUR flat screen television sets???

Seems like it must have been quite a birthday.

Here’s a virtual tour of our newsroom.

“Pretty extraordinary stuff,” indeed.

Since my first day of News Literacy, I’ve slowly begun to notice the changes the school has made to ease the transition into a thoroughly amorphous industry. I will certainly agree that the focus on the one-man band approach to journalism has become greater and greater even in the short two years that I’ve been here.

But, do I agree with the author’s premise that more students are enrolling in journalism schools because of the shiny new toys they get to handle?

Well, I have to say, not entirely.

Personally, I sort of got suckered into this major on the basis of the whole ‘writing’ thing. Blindly unaware of the changing face of the industry (to be honest, I’d barely even picked up a newspaper before enrolling), I imagined that I would be deadest on fulfilling the requirements of the print track from beginning to end, never straying far from a set-in-stone curriculum of print-specific classes that were, in my mind, likely to be as rigid in subject matter as railroad tracks.

I have to say, until the spring semester of my sophomore year, that is essentially the path that I followed. The closest I’d come to exploring the concept of multimedia in journalism was that one News Literacy class in which Marcy McGuiness (yes, the same Marcy McGuiness from the newsroom video) lectured about the potential dangers of news consumption on the Web.

During the spring semester of my sophomore year, I photographed my way through JRN 211. Quite frankly, I have to say that got lucky here-I’ve heard from a few seniors that the class actually used to be some kind of quantitative lab not too long ago. The objective: working in the realm of statistical analysis and percent conversions. Ah, journalists and math…a match made in the part of hell well below ‘C-level.’ Now, much to the relief of mathematically challenged J-schoolers like myself, that class has since evolved into a digital photojournalism lab.

Since then, the changes have fully engulfed me.

This semester, I’m interning at an online newspaper, taking two classes that require me to post biweekly on two separate WordPress blogs, studying the field from a business angle and fumbling with expensive broadcast equipment to which, in all honesty, my clumsy, awkward self should never have been entrusted (release forms or no release forms).

You see how things are evolving here? In a matter of one semester, I have gone from print quasi-elitist to news photog, (see how well I’m already picking up the language of the business?) broadcast journalist and freelance blogger.

However, like several professors in Mangan’s article, I share the concern that new interactive multimedia features, particularly when thrown at students in abundance, may eclipse a necessary focus on learning to write coherently, develop a narrative voice and craft a story that people will legitimately want to read. Simply put, I am vaguely fearful that when students are blatantly told that flashy tech features represent the future of journalism, they will begin to believe that that’s all there is to good journalism, or that old journalistic practices are no longer relevant to today’s fast-paced Web environment.

What will the future of journalism look like if students begin to assume that all good journalism looks like technologically advanced ways of presenting opinion at the mercy of original reporting?

I have not, by any means, been in the business long enough to make an educated judgment call on this particular issue. However, I do believe that journalism professors, however chanted they may be with Twitter, iReport or Web-based news-sharing applications, must ensure that the basics still sink in.

They must, bluntly put, teach the basics more extensively and dim the spotlight on the shiniest technology. Students really need to understand that to write accurately and effectively, to break ground, one actually needs to work for it. It is not a matter of simply pulling information and quotes from a Washington Post article, writing a few snarky comments and calling it a day. The line between news and opinion is already fragile enough as it now stands-let’s not weaken it.

I also have to wonder if this new emphasis on the wonders of the Web reflects that the news product itself is gradually changing. I just finished a pretty exhaustive Web site analysis project for JRN 320, (at around six or seven o’clock in the morning, sadly) and after spending nearly two hours staring at the Huffington Post, I found myself praying that this is not the direction in which major news organizations are headed (if I ever have to attempt to navigate that sloppy, opinion-cluttered homepage again, my iMac will probably end up somewhere on the front lawn).

I do, however, wonder how the terse, informal tone of the Web will impact narrative journalism? Can narrative journalism or lengthy investigative pieces work effectively on the Web, or do they lose their appeal the second the material appears on a computer screen? At Stony Brook, for example, I know that Intro to Narrative Journalism (JRN 337) is a pre-requisite for Magazine Writing, which falls into the print concentration. I have to wonder if the journalism school is trying to suggest something here. Is narrative journalism is exclusively shackled to the print medium? Is it ill-suited for the Web? While I am broadly speculating, I have to conclude that the message is a major hint to those of us seeking careers in the type of journalism that used to characterize the Wall Street Journal (pre-Murdoch).

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