Archives for the month of: August, 2013

As I read the reflection papers my Reporting students wrote about the introduction and first chapter of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, I note that several students dwelt on the continual change in the definition of news since the Revolutionary War era. Several also noted change in the ways news is delivered.

Knowing the history of this craft and professional* practice we love points at the inevitability of change, yet American journalism frequently finds itself paralyzed concerning how to adapt to the rise of new technologies and changes in public taste. If we looked to the past for antecedents, we would be better equipped to cope and adapt. Examining journalism history should be a regular mental hygiene that inoculates us against the disease of inertia.

The fact is, the news industry grew complacent about hefty profit margins in the 30 percent and up range. Phillip Meyer’s essay “Saving Journalism” (2004) and book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Digital Age (2009) describe an industry that saw what was coming for it but was thrown for a loop as it struggled to evolve. Why do we find it so difficult to change?

The push to teach our students to code and to shoot multimedia stories and use content management systems isn’t so far removed from what happened to me as an undergraduate. I learned to type on a manual typewriter in junior high, upgraded to an electric typewriter in high school, and used my first PC in a lab in the William Alan White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas.

When the profession was new to me, so were all the technologies being introduced. While we used clunky, proprietary front-end systems to process copy and “H&J” (headline and justify) our display type in the newsroom of the University Daily Kansan, over in Les Polk’s editing and design class we students were beginning to figure out how to put Aldus Pagemaker and QuarkXPress to work to do this new thing called pagination.

Using those programs was a struggle, and we got a lot of stuff wrong in the beginning. But experimenting with Quark got us ready to be the generation that took daily newspapers first into area pagination, then full-page pagination to paste-up, then straight to film, then straight to plate. The rate of change, come to think of it, was astonishing. Given that background, it’s not so hard to make the leap into the online world. What html commands text to do is the same thing manual coding did in the era of area pagination.

These examples come from just the last 30 years. How did we get from Gutenberg to the Internet? Incrementally, of course, from Gutenberg press to Stanhope iron press to steampress, from hand-set type to stereotyping to electroplating to Linotype, and from mail carrier on horseback to delivery by steamship to the first “lightning” telegraph, to the Trans-Atlantic Cable, to radio to television to the Internet.

My generation of journalism professors joined the news industry during a time of rapid, incremental change in the computerized processing and display of news. I wrote my first news story in 1987, I joined the full-time journalism labor force in 1990, and worked in newspapers until I joined the professional-practice faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism and staff of faculty editors at the Columbia Missourian in 2002. The mid-twentieth century was an anomaly in that the technological routines of reporters were little changed. Change is the real normal state for journalism technology.

Those of us who worked on copy and design desks (myself included) in the 1990s and early 2000s got used to that change on a regular basis, while changes for reporters came more slowly and largely involved the technologies they could use to gather information (e.g., smaller and smaller tape recorders, suction cup mics for telephone receivers to record conversations, switching from typewriters to PCs to laptops, the ability to file by remote via telephone modem or satellite hookup).

But video remained so expensive it was out of the question for most newspaper newsrooms to adopt. Maybe that’s why the demand in the last decade to become backpack and mobile journalists capable of videography and video editing has come as such a shock. Videotaping and editing? Isn’t that what videographers and producers are for? We are all our own videographers and producers now in the converged world.

How to cure this future shock? The obvious answer for veteran reporters in future shock is training, a luxury news organizations might hesitate to provide even when veteran journalists step forward to request it. I have written elsewhere about the training I’ve sought to prepare myself to teach multimedia reporting and storytelling to my own students. While the opportunities are there, I know it remains challenging to carve out the time or come up with funds to pay for it. But do so we must to remain relevant.

The bigger answer for the news industry is to sound out hiring editors for what they need, revamp curricula, and do whatever it takes to train the next generation to be technologically savvy and adaptable while maintaining the enduring values of journalism. We’re doing that at Auburn University’s journalism program through a just-announced partnership with Raycom Media in which professionals, faculty, and students will collaborate in a convergent newsroom to produce local news stories for television, the Web, social media and digital devices.

While information technology lurches forward at a frantic pace, the traditional values of journalism remain largely the same. My students seem to embrace those values as sacred. This heartens me. They also raise questions about how to preserve those values amid technological and economic change. By assigning this reading to my students and encouraging discussion of it, I am sowing the idea that change in the news industry and evolving technologies are normal, but the core values of American journalism are worth preserving. Watch for my next post, in which I will discuss the ways journalists of the past have juggled journalistic values with economic pressures.

* Yes, there is debate about whether journalism is a “profession.” While we lack professional licensing, we do abide by codes of ethics and hold each other to standards that are characteristic of professions.

I’m Michael Fuhlhage, born in Missouri but brought up to learn the love of Larry Brown, Wilt Chamberlain and all things Kansas basketball while growing up in a small town north of Lawrence. A dozen years in the news industry raised Big Burning Questions that sent me back to grad school, which led me to my current position teaching journalism and mass communication courses at Auburn University.

Who am I? How did I get here? Back to my quest to answer those Big Burning Questions. About the end of my first year at the Missouri School of Journalism, the man who would become my thesis adviser, George Kennedy, asked when I was going to start my master’s. “In the fall” seemed like a pretty good response, and thus I was off and running, chipping away at the degree one or two courses a semester while serving as a professional practice track assistant professor and news editor at the Columbia Missourian.

I liked what I got to dig into during my master’s program so much that I went back for a second helping, this time at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I earned a Ph.D. in Mass Communication in 2010. Now I teach at Auburn University. Most of my work is in professional skills courses in journalism, but I also teach journalism history and the occasional grad seminar. The retooled version of the course I devised in fall 2011, Seminar in Propaganda and Public Opinion, is off the ground and running now.

I’ll use this blog to share my thinking about new directions for the study of propaganda (if you hadn’t noticed, domestic propaganda by the U.S. Information Agency is now legal again as of this summer, thanks to the National Defense Authorization Act). That opens some interesting new areas of inquiry for those like me who are interested in the overlaps between agenda-setting theory, framing, priming, and Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model. It’ll also be a place for showing you the back of the house on my research program.

Since my research concentrates on the ways mass media are used to project and correct injustice based on ethnic and racial difference, from time to time I’ll also share my work on the ways the image of Latinos has evolved in the news media. I approach this problem by two prongs: the prehistory of stereotypes about Latinos in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands during the mid-nineteenth century, and the ways news organizations in rural areas with largely Anglo populations have adapted to the demographic change brought by the arrival of Mexican and other Latin Americans drawn by jobs at industrial-scale meatpacking and processing plants.

Naturally, I keep myself open to targets of opportunity. Auburn’s libraries have fantastic resources for studying the Antebellum South and issues of race during Reconstruction. Those issues, largely involving black-white relations, profoundly influenced white-brown relations in ways that deserve deeper exploration. Changing populations bring challenges in media and other institutions, and it’s my my hope to shed light on the ways news media adjust and are affected by demographic, economic, and social change.

On the theme of change, I’ll also share insights about the shifting landscape of journalism and reporters’ and editors’ evolution into the exciting new digital world. Being a cultural historian/new media journalism teacher makes me kind of a rare hybrid. Yet this combination is not so strange. History holds lessons in adaptation and warnings about the failure to adapt. It gives us exemplars who innovated and whose logics of innovation we may emulate as we confront the challenges of a shifting news industry. I hope you’ll enjoy exploring these topics with me. On the shift from legacy media to digital media in particular, more heads are far better than one. Thus, I invite comments and conversation.

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