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Sunday, June 19, 2005

A friend from the University of Illinois asked the Online News mailing list for "soundbites" or "pithy short answers" to this question: "What is the single most important thing that universities can do in terms of research, teaching or outreach to help society, journalists and/or news organizations adapt to profound changes that globalism and the information age are bringing to journalism?"

I guess I don't do soundbites (or follow instructions) very well. Here's my still-verbose-but edited 500-word, four-point answer to a request for the "single most important thing..."

Just jump to #4 if you're in a hurry.
  1. "The media" is the air our students breathe. "Media literacy" may still be part of the problem, but the larger one is "reality literacy." Fixing it is a university-wide (and secondary school) project, not just something for journalism schools, and not really a "globalism and the information age" issue. If students cared about government, economic, social and environmental issues, then they would demand -- and create -- better news media to inform their generation.

    The challenge is to somehow make government, international affairs, economics, ecology and ethics break into students' consciousness -- through the wall of video games, American Idol, reality TV, football and basketball. (I'm intrigued by David Mindich's suggestion that civics be added to the SATs, but I don't see that happening.)

  2. Before they get into choosing a major, require all students to read, research and write factually about government, business, economic, social and environmental issues, past, present or future. They should critique the performance of the mass media on those topics, preparing themselves to be more demanding "active news consumers" -- and reporters, if that's what they want.

  3. For undergraduate journalism majors, raise the bar. Requiring mastery of the differential and integral calculus, as Phil Meyer suggested, might weed out the wannabe poets and novelists (like me, c. 1967), as well as offering them the opportunity to discover a more lucrative calling in science or engineering. If not calculus, a demanding course in statistical analysis and practical math might be an alternative hurdle for journalism majors, and some might enjoy it so much they switch to business or the more quantitative social sciences.

    (If they flunk the quantitative test for J-school, they can remain "writing" majors as liberal arts undergrads. If they write well, but decide they have nothing fictional to say, then they can come back for the MSJ -- or a graduate degree in an area that needs clear and precise writers, like law, business, technical writing or comm studies.)

  4. The happy ending: With the well-prepared and motivated journalism majors who are left, create independent multi-campus and multimedia news organizations with a mixed staff of full-time journalists, students and faculty, both as a learning workshop/capstone course and -- equally important -- as a public service. 

    Collaborating with other colleges, begin to provide the state and local watchdog coverage that corporate media neglect while focused on the bottom line. (The funding and organization model might be worth investigating.)

    In cooperation with schools of information science, build a national Universities News Service using RSS text, "podcast" or "videoblog" BitTorrent feeds as a distribution channel;  provide digital audio, video, photos, graphics and text directly to subscribers, as well as websites, radio, television, newspapers and magazines.
If that's not enough reading for today, see the plans for the Knight-Carnegie journalism education project, these books by J.D. Lasica and Dan GillmorJay Rosen's weblog, or this eight-minute future video called EPIC 2014 -- oops, EPIC 2015 has already happened; the future sure is hard to keep up with. In fact, my net connection prefers the text version.

4:26:09 PM    comment []

Update: Monday apology  (It may make more sense if you read this older item before clicking that link.)

It sounds like a Batman sequel, but it's a drama written in hundreds of posts to an online discussion board, weblog and blog comments over the weekend.

Here's a digest version of this "old-media/new-media" soap opera so far (Sunday):

A local "alt-weekly" newspaper's publisher got in an online squabble with readers who thought last week's nightlife-review cover story about two Knoxville women touring Nashville was poorly written, poorly edited or insensitive.

Because the paper discontinued its own online "blab" forum last year, this discussion took place at a site run by a local blog publisher, who regularly points to stories in the local papers and invites comment. This time, the newspaper publisher says he thought the commenters, and their blogger host, were the ones really being insensitive -- to the feelings of the two young reporters who had written the first-person story. Some of the comments had gotten personal and heated.

So the newspaper publisher asked the blog publisher to remove the harsh comments. The blogger, who for years has kept his identity a secret from most readers, declined to censor his public forum, pointing out that the ongoing discussion included growing support for the reporters, too.

By e-mail, he replied that he felt the publisher, whose own alternate identity involves downtown Knoxville real estate development, was trying to manipulate him. (It's hardly the first time the blogger has written about the paper or the publisher's other business, sometimes satirically, sometimes critically, sometimes favorably.)

Result #1: The publisher, also by private e-mail, wrote back hinting that the blogger's real-life business could be hurt if the publisher ran a cover story combining excerpts from his "political rantings" with his identity, address, credit report and other private information, "But I wouldn't do that, now would I?" (At this point it becomes hard not to visualize someone in a black hat twirling a thin moustache.)

Result #2: The anonymous blogger, reacting like someone being blackmailed, "outed" himself, posting his name, his business and address to his weblog. So much for anonymity. He also posted the e-mail exchange, starting with the "If I wanted to manipulate you, I'd threaten to run a cover story..." item, then adding the earlier dialogue.

Result #3: Other bloggers (apparently there's a national readership for those liberal "political rantings" from E. Tennessee) spread the word... to the point that there are now a couple hundred messages in support of the formerly-caped crusader, including plenty of name-calling directed at the newspaper publisher. ("Napoleonic little twerp" was one of the gentler ones.) Others posted links to reports of the newspaper guy's (GOP) election campaign contributions. Several suggested that the blogger take him to court. A few gave the publisher's intentions the benefit of the doubt.

Sidebar: For a discussion of the tradition of anonymity (or pseudonymity) and free speech, here's a link to the Electronic Frontier Foundation position paper on the topic, which is also mentioned in the blogger's legal guide that I talked about last week.

Moral? The story does show some of the differences between bloggers and traditional reporters. The online version of that Nashville nightlife story was written in the first-person, like many blogs... and readers went after the authors the way they might do another blogger who invites feedback with a "comment" button. No holds barred. Journalism students, journalists, editors and publishers today should realize that can happen.

Alternative: I'm sorry these two publishers -- blog and print -- didn't come to an early agreement that e-mail is a lousy medium for conveying tone of voice in personal disagreements, if that's all it was. I've never met either of them, but I've enjoyed stuff they both publish. I continually present skb as an example of a civic-minded blogger with a local focus, a "transparent" political point of view (along with the even more widely read Instapundit), plus a sense of humor and a great eye behind a camera. I trust that will all continue.

3:21:49 PM    comment []

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