Day two of Journalism Interactive did not disappoint. I can honestly say I’m leaving this conference with exposure to new ideas and creative enhancements for old ones. Below, are six key themes from day two. Again, as with the first day blog, this isn’t an exhaustive list. Rather, it’s a simplified version of what I plan to share with students and colleagues.
It’s not about teaching skills, it’s about what students can do with them.
Teaching in communications and journalism programs can be stressful. As an educator, you’re never quite sure your students are graduating with precisely the skill sets they need to meet the ever-evolving changing market demand. As a result, many programs are filled with “skills” type courses which attempt to remedy the problem. Often, programs end up with countless hours of individualized skills courses and not enough academic, project-based scenarios courses that enable problem solving.
In a panel called, The Future of Journalism, moderator, NPR and University of Maryland Adjunct Professor Jamie McIntyre said plainly that it’s one thing to teach a student a skill, it’s another to have them show you what they can do with it. How wonderful that students know various software programs (ones that can often be self-taught online)–but what can they DO with them? What can they create of value for themselves and their community? Where does the real learning and dot-connecting take place? You get the idea. I’ll be asking myself these questions about courses I teach and reevaluating.
Look at things outside of journalism for inspiration.
The morning panel on Innovative Storytelling earns the award for being my favorite panel of the entire conference. I left with opened eyes. UC Berkeley Assistant Professor Richard Koci Hernandez lit up the room with this energy and ideas. No trouble staying awake here. When I could keep up, I took copious notes. One theme didn’t need much jotting down for me because it resonated as truthful. Hernandez explained that in order to find creative solutions to journalism issues, we have to look outside of the typical spheres of information.
He urges students to find something that inspires them, and then think of how they can apply it to journalism. Was it a new game they played? A moving tribute to Johnny Cash? Whatever it is, is inconsequential. It’s what they do with it that matters. This, he believes, is what stimulates innovation. As educators, we get caught up in training students to fit into newsrooms the way we remember them, not to “think outside the box” (hate that phrase but it’s an apt one here) about what jazzes them to make things better.
Data visualization is part of the news gathering process.
In at least two panels Saturday, speakers urged journalists to be knowledgable about computer programming. I’m going to admit, for a long time, I tuned out when I heard “programming” and “journalism” in the same sentence because this mountain seems insurmountable. It’s hard to wrap my head around. Also, I wondered if all the talk is a passing fad. After today, I don’t wonder anymore. I get it now. Here’s why…
The first thing I learned in the Innovative Storytelling panel from Shazna Nessa, Director of AP Interactive, was to change the way I thought about programming and data visualization. Compiling a bunch of data and saying look how cool this info graphic is, is fine, but at the heart of this process is where you find stories. She urged the audience not to think of data visualization as an afterthought. It’s where we look for patterns, see connections and find stories. There is power in this. We are living in a time now where large amounts of raw data surround us. What will we do with it? Who will organize it? What will we discover when we write the programs that read the data and arrange it visually, creating usable pieces of information from a previously overwhelming amorphous mass of information? See where this goes?
In afternoon panel on Computational Journalism, Medill Professor Rich Gordon discussed the concept of students being “bilingual” in journalism and programming. Even if they’ll never truly get paid to write programs, if they understand how they’re made, this is a good thing, fellow panelist Matt Waite echoed. This knowledge means they’ll be able to better function in a changing news environment and problem solve.
“But, I’m not good with computers.”
A myth exists that students in our classrooms are fearlessly tech-savvy. Well, if you’ve ever asked a student to do something software or Web-based, you’ll find out very quickly this is not true, with a few exceptions of course. While Millennials are excellent consumers of media, many freeze up and throw in the towel if they are unable to immediately figure something out. “I’m not good with computers,” they’ll say. This is something Matt Waite lamented about during the afternoon panel on Computational Journalism. Waite added that students aren’t alone. Many educators echo the same sentiment of failure when it comes to technology. “It’s the new I’m not good at math line, and we’ve got to put a stop to it,” Waite urged.
When I hear either of these statements about not being good with computers or with math, what I’m really hearing from students is, “I’m not good at problem solving.” Understood. Problem solving is hard sometimes. If an answer does immediately appear, keep trying. Often, that’s where you’ll learn something. We should encourage ourselves and our students to troubleshoot and to “fail” on this path. We should discourage the cop out lines about math and computers. Make it “uncool” to say those things.
With multimedia, avoid creating a cat toy.
What makes a story compelling? Is it multimedia elements in a “package” online what makes something sing? Starting out thinking “multimedia” with journalism often results in throwing every element into an online story just because we can. Add video! Let’s make a slide show! Look, it moves! Richard Koci Hernandez compared this over-zealousness to creating a cat toy, thereby illustrating the silliness of this thinking. He said innovative storytelling can involve a single photograph–if it makes you feel something–it’s innovative. We don’t need to get caught up in formulaic add everything because we can mentality of online journalism.
Change your syllabus.
For fellow faculty teaching in journalism and communications, distinguished panelists throughout this conference want you and I and everyone else to change our syllabi every semester. Yep. Every single semester. Thanks to our changing media landscape, we encounter so many new issues and concepts that standing still seems preposterous.
For conference resources, including video of each panel, visit www.journalisminteractive.com.