Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sorry state -- part two

Here's another side of the story about the sorry state of newspapers and journalism today. We had some excellent comments to the initial rant about why newspapers are to blame. This is a different take. I'll probably not have friends on either side of the issue before this is over.

I read a list-serve e-mail last night late (mistake) from a person in the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications about a Twitter chat this weekend where students vow they will be – in their words – setting us straight about what we're doing wrong as teachers.

Now, I'm all for listening to students. In truth, listening is three-fourths of my job. I learn from students. Sometimes I show them how to run a piece of technology, sometimes they show me. In class, they often make discoveries that take whatever material we are working on to a new level. But the tone of this -- one phrase I recall was "teaches reporting as any old print/newspaper prof would typically teach it," from one of the blogs -- is disturbing.

Question: Why can things like Twitter be given adult names? Do you Twitter? No, not after I've had my morning coffee...

These are students somewhere in the blogosphere that I don't know and I don’t know the specific teachers they plan to "give it to." I do know some of the faculty involved in this on-going discussion are among the brightest and most innovative in the nation. And, it is obvious from the discussion that the students really are worried about being left behind. Much of what they argue is right on, but I don't think they realize many of the best (small) programs responded to the same concerns when these students were in junior high.

One thing the students seem to be mad about, however, is all this stupid emphasis on writing in the journalism curricula at their schools. My guess is this extends to many other fundamental "skills" they find hopelessly old fashioned. They need to know how to run the new tools instead, and we -- of course -- are behind the times.

"A group of students and some professionals have been meeting for Sunday night chats. One common theme seems to be the students' dissatisfaction with journalism curriculum, which they feel is dragging behind and hasn't incorporated enough digital media or business courses. There are also the questionable complaints about too much focus on writing. So, they're doing something about it. They're planning a chat for Sunday night and hoping to lure more profs to, as one of the organizers says, "set them straight". They really want to get some of the curmudgeons there."

So instead of sleeping last night I'm lying awake in bed composing this:

Do you know how to make images with a 1940s/1950s Speed Graphic 4x5 film camera? No? Well, if you know about f-stops and shutter speeds from using your $3,000 Nikon D3, and you know how to read a light meter, like the one in your Nikon D3, all I have to teach you is where the focus dial is, where the shutter speeds and f-stops are (you have to set them with your fingers, just as you do with the Nikon D3 in manual mode), and how to push a film holder into the back of the camera, remove the dark slide, push the shutter button (just like the Nikon D3) and push the dark slide back in before you turn the film holder over to make another image. That should take us 10 minutes, maybe 15 if you have dexterity issues.

What then, is between you and a great image with this 1940s technology?

The answer, in addition to talent, is this: Your ability to compose on the fly, your understanding of how light falls on subjects, your sense of what a photographic image is and how it conveys thought and emotion, your ability socially to get close and bring out the best in your subject, your ability to improvise, your ability to strategize (think) before you make the image, your will to get the image, the breadth of your familiarity with great photographic images of the past plus the art you've seen and inculcated into your intuition, your awareness of news and what news demands, and, oh yes... your heart and soul.

Why is it more difficult to learn the new tools than it was for us old profs to learn the old tools once upon a time, and why is learning either more important than learning the skills of the profession and learning to think through the problems that make the difference between good and great in the profession? What makes these tools special? If you're bright, you should be able to read the directions on the box the new tools came in and master the buttons in a few hours of study. Then your development as a journalist, artist and thinker, are all that stands between you and great work. I say “all” with tongue in cheek.

As a teacher, I'd be pleased if my only job for 16 weeks was to teach students how to file to the Web or to encourage them to figure out how to use Twitter for reporting. That would be a piece of cake. I'd still have 14 weeks to fill.

Teaching students to write gracefully? Now that is a puzzle most of us struggle long and hard to accomplish, both writers and teachers.

--Lofflin, curmudgeonly shoveling content


  1. This will be an interesting discussion, but I doubt it will spark a revolution. Aside from their tone being all wrong, the students’ argument doesn’t hold up. If you want to learn how to play electric guitar, do you really need to know how the amplifier or speakers work? No, not necessarily. The virtuosos do because they are consumed with the instrument and they’ve mastered playing the instrument … so they move on to the equipment in hopes of discovering new sounds (and they never quit practicing). In the journalism realm, it would seem that being a solid reporter and writer should come before you begin to concern yourself with the medium in which your work appears. Yes, the techniques in writing for print and the web are different, but the fundamentals in the writing practice – and the similarities between the two mediums – is what they’ll need to rely on to carry them through the profession. Today’s students want a different instrument. They want to play lead on the electric guitar, but instead they feel they are being asked to strum an acoustic. The professors on this call need to show them that an acoustic guitar can brilliant it doesn’t even need to be plugged in.

    Kevin Kuzma

  2. I am a believer in modern journalistic technology as anyone. In the real world, if you strive to reach an audience that matters, you have to. However, tweeting without first learning the fine craft of writing and wanting to call it "journalism," or for that matter shooting a state of the art digital camera without first learning the shear panic of rolling film in the like serving your summer guests microwave barbeque. I will pass, and I definitely will not HIRE anyone who cannot write their way out of a paper bag, real or virtual. Maybe some folks are hiring tweeters for that seemingly hollow skill set, but it seems to be a task that us old fogies who CAN WRITE are picking up with amazing acuity in less than a week or two. Listen kids, don't give me that crappy, plastic tub barbeque. Spend some time with real chunk charcoal and a Weber kettle and then give me a call, or heck, shoot me a tweet. I am wired.