Archives for posts with tag: Gebrauchsgeschichte

Change is not the new normal. Change has always been normal.  That applies to the ways we gather information, process it, disseminate it, and make sense of the information others have reported for us. Technologies change, and with them, so do we. That doesn’t mean we must betray our values as journalists. Journalism values endure.

Mike Szvetitz, sports editor for the Opelika-Auburn News and one of the news professionals who teaches in Auburn University’s journalism program, told the Auburn Society of Professional Journalists chapter tonight about his life as a sports journalist. He emphasized the enduring values of journalism, the need to be accurate and accountable, to report without fear or favor, and his belief that it is better to be second and right than first and wrong. Of course, he said, it’s best to be both first AND right. But you can’t have everything sometimes.

Szvetitz said these values hold up even amid rapid changes in the technologies of reporting and storytelling. It is vital for all reporters to be able to do multimedia reporting as well write stories for print. The demand for these competencies is a response to audience demand, and it’s a delicate balancing act.

Yes, he said, audiences still want long-form features. Yes, they want to hear sound bites from the players, at least to a degree. People will listen to as much of Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn as you put online, but not everybody is as interesting as he is. What online audiences really want, though, is to see what the quarterback looks like calling the play, taking the snap, fading back and passing the ball, and they will click on that 10-second clip again and again and again so they have ammunition with which to argue about the QB’s technique.

What’s going on with that? As I see it, the written report gives the audience knowledge and understanding and a good story. The multimedia clip gives them something to get involved with, something to get angry or overjoyed about, something to react to viscerally. Marshall McLuhan had it right when he wrote in the 1960s that these new media are extensions of the human nervous system that mimic the function of our senses.

New media inform us, they entertain us, and they can evoke emotional responses. They reach in through our eyes and ears and touch our emotions, conjuring joy, fear, jealousy, anger, compassion, satisfaction, and so on. The power of multimedia is the power to help us sense what it’s like to be where the news is, and to feel what the people in the story are feeling. What we feel in a story, we remember.

When multimedia and online systems emerged in newsrooms, many rank-and-file journalists regarded them as risky because they were unproven. There was no rulebook, and that was a problem to the risk-averse who had been steeped in a culture in which the best way to keep your job was to not risk surprising one’s editor and publisher. We’ve gotten over our aversion to this “new” medium after a decade and a half of dithering, and journalists are finally learning to love it. Perhaps we wouldn’t have dragged our feet if we just remembered that even if the field was different, we could still apply our journalism values to it.

The last great technological disruption before the Internet came from television, a risky medium in which Edward R. Murrow saw great potential. The previous great disruption came from radio, a medium Walter Cronkite embraced with gusto. Incidentally, why did he lose his job at KCMO-AM in Kansas City, Mo.? Journalism values. He was fired because he refused to follow his boss’s orders and air a story before he could check out the facts. He landed on his feet, joined United Press (which became UPI), became a star reporter during World War II, and was recruited to work for Murrow at CBS.

What does that historical antecedent teach the postmodern journalist? Though no rulebook exists for this newly invented game of online and multimedia journalism we now play, we can always fall back on principles and journalism values. In the long run, being right and second will serve you better than being first and wrong — regardless of the medium.

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.

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