The biggest challenge facing the journalism industry today is not declining readership, the economy or even the Internet – it is the increased competition that the Internet has made possible.
People are reading, offline and on. People continue to demand information about the communities and their world. Despite the crashing housing market and turmoil in credit markets, billions of dollars are flowing through the American advertising and media industries. (See OJR’s link last week to the latest Pew Report on the state of the news media for support for those statements.)
So why are so many news companies in a panic? Competition.
It’s something almost no newspapers had to face just 10 years ago. Discussion communities, blogs, wikis and other websites are drawing readers’ attention from old media information sources. And advertising dollars are following them.
I teach at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, in addition to editing OJR for USC Annenberg. My job is to prepare our students for a career in journalism. But it is also clear to me that teaching them how to report, write, edit and produce news stories, even in multiple media, is not enough to do that.
These students need to learn how to compete, and it is not enough to teach them how to compete for internships, jobs and assignments, as we always have. Today’s students need to learn how to distinguish themselves not just in front of hiring editors, but in front of the reading and watching public in the information marketplace.
That’s what prompted me recently to write to a few journalist entrepreneurs I’ve met over the years. My question: What do journalism schools need to be doing to prepare their students for a more entrepreneurial industry?
One response changed the way that I approached this issue. It promoted me to trash what I had planned to write and instead simplify my advice to other journalism educators.
Blame Nick Denton. (And, I know, many of you probably have blamed the Gawker Media publisher for a great many things….) In a public response to my query on his Gawker blog, Denton replied: “I can think of no answer except this: close.”
Okay, that was a bit harsh.
But so is the industry.
I’m going to turn to Brian Storm, whose response I found most compelling: “A passion for the craft of journalism.”
Why? Passion fuels the desperation which prompts journalists, in this case, to find something, anything, that will allow them to keep doing that which they love to do. Without passion, journalists find it easier to give up and look for another way to make a living when jobs with impressive titles and solid wages are no longer easily available.
That makes passion the foundation upon which a career can be built, regardless of business environment. With passion, journalists look for new, less expensive ways to collect and publish information. And they look for topics and communities to serve for which their lesson passionate competitors have little demand.
I’ll take Storm’s answer one step farther. A successful writer in the new media era needs not only a passion for the craft of journalism, but a passion for the topics that he or she covers.
Take Markos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos, as an example. “I used my healthy disdain for the state of contemporary traditional media to motivate me to fill a market niche (‘strong progressive voices’) left completely empty by those media gatekeepers,” he wrote to me.
Kos, whom I interviewed for OJR once before, isn’t simply the partisan publisher of DailyKos. He’s founded a slew of websites driven by reader content, from a network of pro and college sports fan sites to one examining the role of faith in modern life.
I acknowledge that many veteran journalists, including many OJR readers, might blanch at the suggestion that Kos is a role model for young journalists. The respect for the industry’s tradition of objectivity and impartiality remains strong. But if objectivity leads us to disconnect from our readers, our communities and our personal interests, it leaves us in danger of losing the passion that we need to remain in the field and to innovate.
So Kos is a partisan. At least he gives a damn. He went to j-school, served in the Army and built a community, from nothing, that’s now swinging elections in the U.S. House and Senate. That is the type of passion, and influence within a community, that more journalists ought to exhibit.
So how do we bring that spirit into the classroom? Kos suggested that journalism “courses should make clear that in today’s world, capital is the last thing you need to build a successful news model. The tools are cheap and easy enough that anyone can create new ways of gathering and disseminating information with sweat equity and a little motivation.”
Storm wrote that we should teach students to be make better use of available tools in learning about and responding to our readers.
“With the Web, we have access to an incredible amount of data about how people use our publications,” he wrote. “Learning to mine that data to see what’s working and what isn’t is important. Looking for trends and trying to identify future opportunities is something that should be integrated into the educational process.”
And we must not forget to remind our students about the importance of balancing the books.
“Basic business classes would be a welcome addition to journalism education. Knowledge of supply and demand is as important as understanding copyright and emerging distribution opportunities,” Storm wrote.
Ultimately, though, we start and end with passion. In my class this semester at USC Annenberg, I have assigned my online journalism students to publish a blog on the topic of their choosing. I felt it was important to allow the students to choose their beats to help them retain their interest as I swamped them with a lot of tech work that, experience has shown me, intimidates some students.
Several students could not believe the assignment: “You mean we can cover whatever we want?” Yes, I replied, but they are expected to conform to the journalism standards they have learned. They will have to interview sources and examine and cite documents. They can’t just write whatever comes into their mind.
So my students are covering dance, fitness, cooking, gender identity and hockey. And I hope that, as they apply their emerging journalism skills to these topics for which they are passionate, some of that passion will rub off onto their practice of craft of journalism itself.
One of the frustrations inherent in teaching is that students often go away before you can find out how your instruction has influenced them. Sometimes, it can take years before a lesson makes a noticed effect upon a student’s life.
But, from time to time, one gets early feedback. Last week, during USC’s spring break, one of my students took time from her vacation to e-mail me that one of the videos she had shot for my class had been linked to from a much larger website in town. “I love blogging!” she wrote.
That’s the passion that people need to survive in what has become a brutally competitive industry.