Driving to work last week, where I teach graduate and undergraduate students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a news story perked me up a bit.
“ABC News President David Westin announced Tuesday what he is calling a ‘fundamental transformation’ of his network’s news division that will slash the payroll and re-engineer the way ABC produces news in the digital age. The network is seeking to shed several hundred jobs in the news division, or up to a quarter of the 1,400-person workforce.”
No, I do not have a ghoulish view of someone else’s unemployment. I am sorry 25 percent of ABC journalists are getting fired. But, it has long been the time for all of old media from newspapers to broadast companies to change tactics. David Folkenflick of NPR goes on to write:
“But Westin says he finds hope in the same nimble approach that helped to ensure the survival of Nightline by keeping costs in check and enabling ABC journalists to get to stories more quickly.
“Much of the work that we do on Nightline today is shot by reporters and producers and edited by them and transmitted by the Internet by the field by them,” Westin said. “Anyone watching Nightline would never think, ‘Oh, they’re gathering their news differently or producing it differently.'”
This should not be news to a news organization. At least not in this century. Since 2003 in some classes and since 2006 in all classes, we have been teaching cross-platform multimedia vigorously across the curriculum, from freshmen clear up to the grad students. Anyone who follows the listserv or local blogs knows just how much grief we as a faculty and school have endured because of that key move. We were damned for abandoning solid, investigative journalism, becoming button pushers. Criticism was fast and fierce and relentless: It’s nothing but technology and software you teach. Stick to the old way. The old way was best. Who needs to know Soundslides? Why care about Premiere Elements as an investigative reporter? Where is the journalism? The journalism is in it all.
The reality is to stay alive, a journalism organization has to be nimble. And journalists moreso. That translates to the necessity for reporters to be equipped with a toolkit of marketable skills, all upheld by strong journalism traditions steeped in ethics, accuracy and transparency.
In the first year at Medill, students learn the fundamentals of news judgment, interviewing, sourcing, writing, fact-checking, database reporting, design, photography, audio and video storytelling and a splash of Flash. They end up producing audio and video stories that stand alone, audio slideshows, as well as strong short and longer form text stories complemented by a barrage of relevant alternative story styles. What that means is they are employable.
To have considered journalism as a sacrosanct estate immune from the consequences of the economy was myopic, archaic and arrogant. And to resist the possibility that any journalist should be able to perform on at least two or more platforms with proficiency– if not mastery– is professional suicide.
I have the pleasure of teaching 15 marvelous grad students this quarter. Those are their smiling faces above. They are smart, they are engaged and three days a week they are reporting and producing stories on specific beats in the community–from text to audio and video, slideshows and graphics. They will find jobs, they will produce journalism and they will hopefully not complain.
On a recent American flight, I flipped through American Way magazine and read Carlton Stower’s February 2010 column, “Read All About It” concerning his take on the death of newspapers. He wrote:
“That printed paper you folded into your briefcase and carried on the plane with you is a tried old dinosaur sadly limping away to its dying place. All to which I say, “Balderdash!'”
OK, so I have not ever used balderdash in a a sentence, written or spoken, but I agree. It is the content that is important and an audience will arrive if the content is valuable. That means solid reporting and vetted, authentic good journalism readers cannot get somewhere else faster. Good writing, insightful reporting, fresh ideas played out in a variety of formats. What we teach.
The ABC story reminded me of a Christian Science Monitor column last May, “Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay,” by Robert C. Picard that initially made me angry at the headline, but then made me agree. Picard wrote:
“Journalists like to think of their work in moral or even sacred terms. With each new layoff or paper closing, they tell themselves that no business model could adequately compensate the holy work of enriching democratic society, speaking truth to power, and comforting the afflicted.”
Picard continues: “If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable and relevant to the audiences.”
They will have to transform. Before it is too late. Our students have until graduation. They will be fine.