Steve Jobs and business of inspiration: A lesson for journalists

When was the last time you inspired someone?

I thought of that question while reading the many tributes to the last Steve Jobs this week. Those recollections prompted me to tweet:

“Steve Jobs’ greatest accomplishment was inspiring the kids who one day will make stuff 1000x better than anything Apple has done so far.”

Steve Jobs’ Apple products help inspire my son to fall in love with computers, photography and filmmaking. The elegance and ease of use of Apple products helped my son to see past the technical hassles that frustrated so many others’ attempts at digital creation in the past and to focus instead on the joy of expressing himself in communication with others.

I know toddlers who play and explore with iPads, even before they can walk, and elementary students who think nothing of creating sophisticated digital cartoons and short films. I know grown-ups who listen to more music and read more stories (yes, including news!) that they did before, thanks to Apple products developed under Jobs’ stewardship.

With all those people reading, shooting, thinking and creating, I believe that it is inevitable that some of them, one day, will create new digital technology that will surpass anything Apple created under Jobs. Perhaps it will be current Apple engineers who carry on Jobs’ legacy. Perhaps it will be some toddler with an iPad. But inspiration cultivates creative expression. It cultivates engagement and advancement. Jobs’ ultimate legacy therefore, is not a collection of cool consumer products, the iTunes store, or even Pixar Studios (yeah, he founded that, too). Jobs’ legacy is inspiring a digital generation to connect and to create.

So what about you? Journalism can be an inspirational craft. Are you inspiring anyone with your work?

I’m not talking about getting grateful notes from a source or advocate, thanking you for publicizing their cause. I’m talking about writing words or shooting images that grab someone who didn’t care about something, and by doing so, making them care. Making them care enough to connect with others and to create something positive in response – whether it be a change their own behavior, jumping into a political campaign or even making some inspirational creative work of their own.

Don’t let work cripple your vision, leaving you focused only on filling space on a page, cranking out a certain number of blog posts or booking a budgeted amount of income. All those are important, sure, but if you really are inspiring people with your work, the words, the audience and the income will follow. Jobs didn’t just create inspirational products; he built Apple into one of the world’s largest and most lucrative companies by doing so.

That’s a lesson too many journalism managers have forgotten. I’ve been re-reading several Carl Hiaasen novels over the past weeks. A passage in “Sick Puppy” stands out:

Five years ago most of those kids would have jumped at the chance to return here after college and join the paper at a humiliating salary, just to get in on the action…. [But] they know the people who run most newspapers no longer seek out renegades and wild spirits, but rather climbers and careerists who understand the big corporate picture and appreciate its practical constraints. Kids… know that most papers are no longer bold or ballsy enough to be on the cutting edge of anything, and consequently are no damned fun.

Are you having fun?

If not, make a change. It’s time to go inspire someone.

Learning by doing: Seeking best practices for immersive journalism

Ernest Wilson, the dean of the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, put it like this: What if, after receiving the home and garden section in the morning, the reader could walk right into the section and visit a garden? This bucolic vision reflects one potential scenario for what we are calling at Annenberg “immersive journalism,” a new genre that utilizes gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories. As a senior research fellow, I am prototyping immersive journalism stories, hoping to discover and create best practices for a burgeoning filed that can capture audiences increasingly accustomed to experiencing digital worlds.

The fundamental idea of immersive journalism is to allow the audience to actually enter a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story. The pieces can be built in online virtual worlds, such as Second Life, or produced using a head-tracked head-mounted display system, or HMD. An HMD is a lightweight helmet that has screens covering the eyes and tracks head movement so ensure digital imagery on the screens stays in perspective to create a sensation of having a virtual body in a virtual location. Immersive journalism can also be constructed in a Cave, which uses full body-tracking technologies in a small room so that individuals can move their bodies around the space.

Visual and audio primary source material from the physical world reinforce the concept that participants are experiencing a nonfiction story, with the video, sounds or photographs acting on the narrative. For example, video triggers at key points in the virtual landscape to remind a participant that the computer generated environment is grounded in the physical world. Scripted events that create a first person interaction with the reportage can also help create a feeling of “being there.” Also, participants can query or interact with the elements around them to learn more about the details or context of the news story.

In general, participants travel through the story as a digital representation of themselves, or as one of the subjects in the news piece. Whether visiting the space as oneself or as a subject in the narrative, immersive journalism aims to afford the participant unprecedented access to the sights and sounds, and possibly, the feelings and emotions that accompany the news.

Well-crafted journalism always aims to elicit a connection between the audience and the news story. Creating that connection via different kinds of ‘immersion’ has long been considered ideal. Describing her reporting during World War II, Martha Gellhorn called it “the view from the ground.” Writer George Plimpton famously joined the Detroit Lions American football team in order to give his readers the most intimate sense of playing on this team. Television news correspondent Walter Cronkite made a series of documentaries recreating historical events in which he would offer a brief introduction before an announcer would give the date and the event, proclaiming, “You Are There!” More recently, attempts to combine audio, video and photographs on the Internet have created what some journalists call “immersive storytelling.” As technology editor at MSNBC, Jonathan Dube (now Vice President at said that he believes this can bring the reader or viewer “closer to the truth.”

In collaboration with digital media designer Peggy Weil, we have built several prototypes which reflect my interest in covering human rights issues. Gone Gitmo, a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison built in Second Life, allows participants to explore a place that is inaccessible to the average American citizen and press. (In fact, the Pentagon just expelled four reporters who have been covering the prison for years.) Gone Gitmo includes an experience on what it might be like to be detained, hooded and then imprisoned in Camp X-Ray. It also examines the ramifications of losing habeas corpus rights.

Another Second Life prototype, Cap & Trade, is a news report on the carbon market that sends people on a journey to follow the money in order to try to better understand the complexities and human consequences of trading carbon credits. Cap & Trade was built in partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting and Frontline World and is particularly reliant on the excellent reporting by Mark Schapiro that appears on Frontline and in Mother Jones and Harpers Magazine.

A third prototype is based on the interrogation logs of Detainee 063, Mohammed Al Qahtani, who had been declared tortured by the Bush administration. Built at the Event Lab in Barcelona with Mel Slater and his team, we use an HMD to put participants into the virtual body of a detainee who is held in what is referred to as a “stress position.” When participants look around, they see a virtual mirror with a digital figure in that mirror who looks like a detainee and moves in unison with the participant. Participants also wear a breathing strap that programs the avatar to breathe at the same time as they do, further enhancing the sense of virtual body ownership. Throughout, the sounds of the Al Qahtani interrogation play as if coming from the next room. While research data was not collected on this particular prototype, every participant anecdotally reported that their body was hunched over in a stress position when in fact they were sitting upright.

Immersive journalism is distinct from news games in that news games embrace gaming protocols. With news games, the player undertakes a task or pursues a goal, voluntarily constrained by agreed upon rules, and must take action to advance position. Progress is often measured by indicators such as levels or points.  In contrast, a participant in immersive journalism isn’t playing a game, but is put into an experience where she is participating and affected by events but may or may not have agency to change a situation. Immersive journalism also parallels a news narrative playing out in the physical world much like a piece in a newspaper or segment on television and while one might experience the story from different starting points, the story itself should not shift.

When the record industry refused to consider experience, i.e. how their audience was going to interact with music, they gave Apple the right of way to build iTunes. The result was an extremely successful and robust environment that offers an entertaining, multilayered way to access music while also supporting Apple’s iPod music device. No doubt immersive journalism is nascent, but we hope to learn from the mistakes of the music industry which, unfortunately, legacy media seems well on its way to repeating. With iTunes as our model, we are concentrating on experience, and hope that in the near future we will support an offline platform as well.

You can see videos about the prototypes mentioned in this piece and learn more about this burgeoning avenue of journalism at

Reinventing arts journalism… by starting with a virtual summit

Sasha Anawalt is director of Arts Journalism Programs at USC Annenberg School for Communication and co-director of A National Summit on Arts Journalism.

National Summit on Arts Journalism I’m told by people who know such things that I am lousy at the elevator pitch. But the question: “Hey, Sasha, what is this National Summit on Arts Journalism?” is a natural for people to ask, especially when trying to figure out if they should pay it any attention. With the Summit only two days away, I’ve now ridden a bank of elevators.

The Summit will showcase 10 innovative online projects chosen by a dozen judges that allow us to peek into arts journalism’s future — like a TED conference, but just about journalism. We hope to explore ideas and issues that have taken unpredictable and fascinating forms by looking into these diverse digital models for keeping arts journalism alive.

This Summit is a virtual summit. Yes, there will be a live audience on Oct. 2, settled into its seats by 8:30 a.m. at USC’s Annenberg Auditorium. But the main audience is the one watching online during and after the event. How could it be otherwise? A field that’s been so deeply affected by technology must reflect that technology. The Summit is itself an experiment in form. Because the Internet allows journalists to generate, gather and distribute information and opinion from a universe of sources, shouldn’t our conference extend as far?

For the first time at USC Annenberg School for Communication, and for the first time at USC at large, online interactivity will be defined and shaped by the taping, production and editing of speakers’ presentations before the conference or summit actually begins.

We want to show the journalists’ work, their sites, their cool Flash projects, and illustrate what these 10 are talking about while they are talking. We wish to keep all presentations below the 10-minute mark. Talk about art has to be artistic; talk about journalism and financial viability should be focused and precise. The audience? A Clay Shirky here-comes-everybody one. The whole Summit? YouTube-able.

How to do all this? The solution that Summit co-director and editor of Douglas McLennan and I came up with — in concert with Jackie Kain, executive producer, and Holly Willis and her team at USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy — is what you will see on Oct. 2 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (PDT), streamed live on the National Arts Journalism Program website.

Doug will moderate the live event, which will include two roundtable discussions in the flesh: “The Art of Arts Journalism,” hosted by Laura Sydell of National Public Radio, with guests Jeff Chang (author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop) and New York Times reporter Seth Schiesel; and “The Business of Arts Journalism,” hosted by Andras Szanto, director of the NEA Classical Music Institute, with Richard Gingras, CEO, and Deborah Marrow, director of The Getty Foundation.

But why do we need a National Summit on Arts Journalism? This question quickly gets personal, and each participant will have a telling answer. I heartily invite you to log on, tune in and submit your questions, answers and ideas via Twitter (hashtag: #artsj09) and to text-message on the day-of.

Yet the same question also gets professional.

In 2008, USC Annenberg School for Communication (in partnership with the five arts schools) launched a nine-month Master’s degree program in Specialized Journalism. The program, designed for arts specialists and other kinds of journalists, this year nearly quadrupled in size — defying all expectations. We all know traditional journalism is in crisis; everything is changing. Is it possible to sustain a living as a journalist? What is journalism now, and who exactly are journalists? At this frightening, exhilarating juncture, what’s the role of the arts-and-culture critic?

These questions fill the air, and they are legitimate. Change means we can all play a role, if we care to, in reinventing the field of journalism. A university, of course, affords the possibility for time dedicated to lab work, experimentation and surrounding ourselves with experts. It also provides a space for the kind of imaginative, idealistic vision that writing about the arts requires. Yet we know, in the words of Los Angeles Poverty Department theater director John Malpede, that you cannot have change without exchange. You must give something up and exchange it; you have to engage in conversations with others who are doing something utterly unlike what you are doing, if you want to move forward.

Doug McLennan has spent the past decade surveying the arts-journalism scene; his celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this month. The site aggregates “must-reads” in arts and culture every day, and Doug knows first-hand and better than most how many astonishing forms digital journalism takes: not only in traditional and new media, but within arts organizations and government groups, both national and municipal, grassroots and mainstream. Yet worried that too many wheels were being reinvented, he wondered what would happen if we brought new arts journalists together so they could show and share what they are doing, and hoping to do. Wouldn’t that accelerate progress in the field?

This Summit is the result. The National Endowment for the Arts, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and many schools and leaders at USC are on board (including – full disclosure – Online Journalism Review). Hewlett agreed to underwrite a competitive element of the Summit, offering awards of upwards of $2000 to five journalism “Public Projects,” ultimately chosen by 12 judges from a pool of 109 submissions.

I can’t tell you what the five “Public Projects” are (that would ruin the suspense), but I can say that I’ve seen all ten presentations (which includes five “Showcase Projects”) and from them have learned a few things. Social media, though not yet figured out and fully tapped, is central to our journalistic future. Some are making a living at this, but too few — yet in a capitalist society this will soon be figured out. Some very smart and even magnificent ideas and executions are out there. Still, critics and their future are the biggest unknowns.

I am sure that on Friday, I will have more epiphanies and puzzlements. But with each later viewing of the projects — available as separate entities at and — something more will certainly come to light. That is the may be the most valuable virtue of a virtual Summit.

Check back on OJR this Friday, when editor Robert Niles reports from the ONA conference in San Francisco.