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.