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Sunday, January 14, 2007

My headline's just silly and sensational, but at least you're still reading. Of course Mindy McAdams' essay on "Getting (and keeping) a job in journalism," where I got that line, doesn't mean it literally... She just wants to be sure administrators get the message: Journalism school graduates shouldn't leave the building without 21st century skills in their backpacks.

My guess is that plenty of deans, department heads and such have gotten the message by now. The question is whether they can convince chancellors, presidents, legislators, alumni and industry executives to support new courses and new facilities in the journalism schools, instead of turning over everything called "new media" to possibly more profitable programs in marketing, advertising, commercial design, computer science... or some other academic fiefdoms.

I also agree with Mindy that some students are just as trapped in old mental models of journalism careers as any tweed-jacketed professor. They may be a bigger problem than the administrators or faculty. Says Mindy, "If a student in a j-school today thinks it is okay NOT to learn how to make Web pages, NOT to shoot video, NOT to gather audio, NOT to read and write blogs -- then that student is not getting a message that is very, very necessary."

On my first visit to this campus, in 2003, I was amazed that a room full of journalism students had never heard of Instapundit or his alter-ego, law professor Glenn Reynolds, probably the best-known person on campus to people around the world. (At least those who don't follow Tennessee sports. His law school isn't far from the journalism school. It's right up the hill at the end of a street named after the football coach.)

More students and faculty seem to have discovered blogs since I got here, perhaps more thanks to MySpace and Facebook than to me. But I try.

Anyhow, Mindy's examples of recent journalism trends include an Atlanta Constitution editor's description of its new "online first, print second" format, a New York Times company statement exempting its from recent staff cutbacks at the Boston Globe, and a column by Washington Post photo editor Keith Jenkins recommending that papers talk to -- even hire -- bloggers and video bloggers.

I added that essay to my bookmarks list yesterday, along with Jenkins' own blog and Chris Lydon's Radio Open Source interview with him. I planned to make those sites the focus of today's blog entry until Mindy's thoughts added themselves to my RSS aggregation. Read her whole essay for the details...

When you come back, here's my riff on the list of things she says students, educators and journalists should do:
  • Go beyond MySpace and Facebook to making Web sites from scratch. Yes! At least those fill-in-the-blanks Web publishing tools show the current college generation some of what's possible online. I think the next step is to convince them to peek under the hood and see that this stuff is not rocket science. I hope that will help them look deeper and imagine new things that they might invent -- ways to go beyond "online social networks" to serve civic networks made up of conversations between journalists and what we used to call "the audience."

  • Install RSS aggregators and using them to subscribe to --and read-- blogs and news summaries. The amount of news online is overwhelming. Really Simple Syndication is one way to streamline it -- and maybe save a student reporter enough time to write.

  • Start making videos... and sharing them with YouTube. (Still not rocket science... more like Rocketboom science.) Ditto for learning to use digital audio for interviews, narrations of slide shows and more.

  • I'll add some older technology to Mindy's list: Get reporters to use computers as computers -- for data collection, number-crunching and analysis, not just as on-screen typewriters. Maybe Mindy didn't mention it because it goes without saying that today's journalists need to know about databases of public records and how to extract untold stories from them.

The good news is that, within the available funds and facilities, we're trying to do most of those things here at the University of Tennessee... And not just in two new courses with "online" in the names.

(Disclaimer: I teach one of them, and I wish I had more time to sit in on the other.)

We also rolled out a many-featured news website last semester,, now being run by some enthusiastic students. Meanwhile, faculty members are weaving the Web and multimedia approaches into everything from introductory writing classes to broadcast news and sportswriting.

Actually, as a long time sports agnostic (which is probably heresy at Tennessee), I'm trying to inspire students to look into more civic-minded reporting careers by hinting that sports-bloggers may cut down the career possibilities for professional game-watchers.

When we talk about bloggers taking on the job of "citizen journalist," it's usually in the sense of writing about local politics, school board meetings, waterfront development plans and things the pros' call "community news" or "public affairs." My reaction is always to cheer on fact-hunting citizen journalists or reality-based bloggers, but to remind anyone who'll listen that we also need the resources of professional news organizations -- outfits big enough to pay language-savvy copy editors, fact-checkers and watchdog reporters employed to keep an eye on things for the public. Volunteers can't do it all.

But what about sports? What happens to sportswriting careers when every sports fan in town is capable of starting a bright orange blog and posting text and video live from the stadium? (Does the university already frisk people for WiFi Palm Pilots and iPhones? I don't know.) Would that kind of saturation "coverage" be the death of professional sportswriting? I'll leave that question hanging in the air long enough for someone to adopt it as master's thesis research, if it hasn't been done 20 times already.

But I think the answer to "will sports blogs replace professionals?" is "probably not." There's still the matter of credentialing some writers to hang out in the locker room, talk to players, attend multimillionaire coaches' press conferences... and once in a great while find a moving human interest story about personal triumph or teamwork... or even a hard-news story, or just a new angle.

5:22:32 PM    

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