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Teaching Online Journalism

Nobody cares what you think

An earnest young student described his plans to me last week: He wants to write a series of humor columns. Or maybe they would be entertainment columns. They might really be movie reviews. In any case, he would be telling us what he thinks about popular culture, you see? And if he puts these columns on the Web, it would be online journalism. Wouldn’t it?

Jonathan Last wrote:

Bloggers are forever telling us how easy journalism is, yet very few of them have ever really practiced it. Sure, they may have written opinion pieces that compare favorably to the work of Molly Ivins or Ann Coulter, but opinion writing is a tiny — and let’s be honest, inconsequential — corner of the journalism world. Real journalism — the practice of adding to the store of public knowledge by reporting news — is a difficult, thankless, and often unpleasant task. Bloggers want no part of it. Everyone wants E.J. Dionne’s job; no one wants to be Michael Dobbs … (The Philadephia Inquirer, April 23, 2006)

(In my blog, I don’t have to link to Ann Coulter if I don’t want to. And I can add that while I wouldn’t want to be Michael Dobbs myself, I sure would be proud if I could be Robert O’Harrow.)

Journalism professors like to joke around about how nine out of 10 students want to be Dave Barry. Only we’re not really joking … it sort of makes us feel sick, as in nauseated. It’s not that we don’t like Dave Barry. Who doesn’t like Dave Barry? It’s the idea that a 22-year-old who has never worked a day in his life and has never lived outside the state of Florida would think he could be Dave Barry, like, next week.

I think I should send all these kids a link to this essay about journalism by Dave Barry, so that perhaps they will realize that not even Dave Barry started his career as Dave Barry. My favorite little-known fact about Dave Barry’s journalistic chops is that he wrote and filed the first story about the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. I am not kidding. The guy is a real journalist, and that’s the point: You can’t be like Dave Barry unless you trek along a twisty path to get there. You can’t get there by writing. You get there by living and working and seeing the world.

And no, it isn’t “online journalism” to write on the Web! No, no, no. It’s not.

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7 Comments

  1. Anna says:

    > And no, it isn’t “online journalism” to write on the Web! No, no, no. It’s not.

    It isn’t? Why not?
    Please cite your sources and your reasoning.
    :-}

  2. Anna says:

    Mindy, on 2nd reading I’m realizing I may have misinterpreted your meaning – if what you meant was “just typing opinions, online, doesn’t constitute journalism” then I agree; if you meant “To be online journalism it must be done using Flash or other multimedia tools”) then I disagree.
    (I’d initially read your post as arguing the latter)

  3. Mindy McAdams says:

    Hi, Anna. If you link and write in a Web-appropriate manner (short posts, short paragraphs, etc.), then it may be “online” journalism.

    If you write exactly the same kind of op-ed column that you would see in any newspaper, how is it “online” journalism? That is just journalism (if it is even that, being opinion-based) plopped onto a Web page.

    I don’t mean you need to use Flash or anything other than text (and hyperlinks, of course!). But it doesn’t become “online journalism” just because it appears on a Web page.

  4. DJ Lam says:

    I find a few things troubling here. First, it seems that the definition of ‘online journalism’ is still very fluid — let alone the very meaning of media.

    Media and journalism, much like society, evolves. And online journalism is subsumed within both media and the society it serves.

    Do short paragraphs and good links make online viewing (is it still reading?) easier? According to what I’ve read, the answer is ‘yes’. However, does a short paragraph online journalism make? No.

    Journalism is a deliberate process. Whether it’s online, in dead-tree format, or in the airwaves, it’s how we accumulate information, and how we disseminate it, defines whether we’re committing journalism. If opinion pieces are solid in foundation, and if they attract attention, they begin to engage an audience. And, if we can agree that engagement is one of the commonly accepted end-games of the craft, why can’t a young journalist become a newsleader?

    Also, that journalism professors treat j-students aspirations as any joke — kidding, ironic, or otherwise — is a bad appeal to the masses (in this case it’s j-professors). And doesn’t it make sense that our future professionally-trained (my emphasis for caution) journalists would want to excel in an increasingly interconnected world? It’s more fair to claim that, in the current state of mainstream media as we know it, the likelihood stardom from most students is slim.

    I may perhaps understand your frustration. There are generally few prodigies in any pedigree. But this is the point: the state of journalism as we know it is changing rapidly. Blogs are making publishers out of kids and octogenarians alike, though neither group may commit so-called solid journalism.

    Another troubling issue for me is your ad hominem attack against your student or his age. Diversity is the word of the day here. That your student “has never worked a day in his life and has never lived outside the state of Florida” demonstrates an inherent and perhaps unintentional bias. Perhaps the student’s perspective demonstrates simmering base questions we’ll find within a new generation (disclosure, that’s my generation). Ultimately, your student’s perspective is as diverse as experiences of non-working or homeless people.

    Here in Canada, for example, the unstoppable ageing process is felt by all demographics (how about those Boomer types?). Mainstream media questions, and thus its output, appears framed primarily from middle-aged and middle-income — though more multicultural — perspectives.

    Ultimately, online journalism should include more than the process and the experience behind it. It must include the perspective and the deliberate intention behind the publishing act.

  5. Anna says:

    > “If you write exactly the same … that you would see in any newspaper, how is it “online” journalism? That is just journalism …plopped onto a Web page.”

    ok…I _did_ interpret you correctly then. You’re using “online” here as meaning “optimized in certain ways for online readers”.

    And I have a problem with that usage, since it carries the assumptional baggage that the only real added value of “online” journalism (as opposed to on-paper) is that it can look and behave differently from paper.

    (whereas I think “online”‘s added value is (99%) that it hugely expands the resources(even if only text and long paragraphs!) available to the reader.)

  6. Mindy McAdams says:

    DJ Lam wrote: “does a short paragraph online journalism make?” You’re right to say no. Journalism is committed in various media, and can be defined as accurate reports that help people understand the world they live in. What makes it different from other factual material? That’s harder to pin down. Rather than compare styles of writing, we might think about video. Do we call a 60-minute documentary video “journalism”? Some do, some don’t. Some people would argue about a particular documentary, with some critics lining up on the “No, it’s not” side, and the rest on the other side.

    DJ Lam wrote: “if we can agree that engagement is one of the commonly accepted end-games of the craft, why can’t a young journalist become a newsleader?” There’s no rule saying that a young journalist can’t become great. Sometimes a young scientist makes a great discovery. In most cases, though, a person who’s new to a profession or field must work at certain mundane tasks for a while before he or she knows enough to attain greatness. (And some people learn faster than others.)

    My skepticism comes from speaking with dozens of students each semester who want to “write online” or “write for Slate,” etc. Why are they not saying “write for Harper’s?” Well, most of them have never read Harper’s … but apart from that, what they desire to write has nothing to do with working in the online medium.

    So I was trying to address two issues in this post, and maybe I made a mess of it. The two issues are: (1) Young and new journalists need substantial experience with the nuts and bolts of reporting and digging up facts and interviewing sources BEFORE they devote a lot of time to trying to be great essayists; and (2) Online writing that is substantially the same as writing for print media fails to take advantage of the strengths of (and accommodate the users’ practices in) the digital medium — and thus it might as well just stay in print, other than for purposes of dissemination and distribution.

    You’re also right to think that a young person with little experience in the world has a valid perspective, and I completely agree that there are far too many older folks — especially white and male older folks — controlling the media and their contents in both your country and mine.

  7. Mindy McAdams says:

    Addressing both Anna and DJ Lam: I have no complaint about any student wanting to produce work online. But I do believe that if what you produce can appear just as easily in another medium, then you’re not taking advantage of the online medium. If someone wants to produce work online, then first I want that person to learn HOW to work here.

    Maybe an analogy could be sending a reporter off to another country (especially a country at war). As an editor, I would really want to be convinced that the reporter knows enough about the milieu in which he or she will be working. How do things get done there? Who talks to whom? What greases the wheels of commerce and conversation? What do you need to know to avoid getting killed?

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