Learning from MSNBC.com (part 2)

Unlike that guy in the movie “The Graduate” who said just one word to Dustin Hoffman — “Plastics” — an MSNBC.com deputy editor had two words for journalism students:

Databases and Flash.

In fact, MSNBC.com’s Tom Brew told us he had been given those two words by Hal Straus, the interactivity and communities editor at Washingtonpost.com. Tom was so conscientious about having the opportunity to speak to students at his alma mater, he picked the brains of several notable professionals in online journalism before he came to visit us. Straus suggested that students should know how to make a mashup with Google Maps and a database, something like a peewee version of the late lamented Chicagocrime.org.

Tom’s boss, Jennifer Sizemore (VP and editor-in-chief), told him students need to understand that “digital is the new mainstream.” There’s no going back to some “Stop the presses!” world in which men wear fedoras with a press card stuck in the hat band (and women only work for “the women’s pages”), any more than we’d return to banging out stories on manual typewriters. At the same time, she noted, students still need to get solid grounding in traditional skills and ethics if they expect to make it in journalism.

“There is no nostalgia for the old media,” Tom told one class. “It’s like asking for horse-and-buggy days.”

Michael Rogers, who holds the title “resident futurist” at The New York Times, emphasized brevity.

“I do think writing is the only way to learn not just writing, but also the kind of organized thinking that underlies all journalism,” Rogers told Tom. “However, I think way too many kids get out of j-school optimized to write 1,500- to 2,000-word newspaper stories, when what we want on the Web is half that.” (I’m taking this from Tom’s notes, which he gave me permission to use.)

Rogers suggested that we teach students how to write “really rich 50- to 100-word capsules for things like photo essays, Q&A’s, and all the little textoids we make for the Web. … Then I’d also add a course on blogging — the fundamentals of reverse chronlogy, frequent updating, and linking out, as well as the various kinds of voices and journalistic standards …”

“I think brevity, frankly, works on the Web,” Tom said. “Editing and good journalism is a lot about brevity — and cutting things out.” (Man, I wanted to stand up and applaud when he said that! Hear, hear!)

“Writing crisply and cleanly” is the one thing that transitions well from print to online, he said. It’s not enough, though, to master the short, pithy blurb or teaser graph.

When students go out looking for jobs, they need to have some URLs to show, he said.

“It suggests to whoever is interviewing you that you’re comfortable online, that you took the time to build a site.” At the very least, journalism students should be able to hand-code a Web page, Tom said. “Even if you never need to do it on the job, you should learn how to do it.”

He also urged students to become comfortable with software and with technology in general. The specific software packages don’t matter (students are always asking me which software to learn — that’s the wrong question!) — you need to be completely at home with digital media and also be able to adapt quickly.

“Whatever you envision yourself doing in five years — you may be doing that, but chances are you won’t. And five years after that, you most definitely won’t,” Tom said.

He listed these qualities as “must haves” for journalists:

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Willingness to try out new story forms
  • Being prepared to change

Think about what the extension of a story would be. Which part(s) of the story need to be “told in multimedia” — and WHY? (I’ve heard this from at least a dozen editors — reporters today often push to have some multimedia element added to their story so that it plays better online, but when you ask them how that element would enhance or extend the story, they don’t have a clue. If you can’t explain WHY the story will be improved by a specific multimedia element, then you don’t know enough to be asking for that.)

In a job interview, Tom said, a journalist should be able to speak about how the news organization can extend its work online, whether it’s a TV news operation, a newspaper, or a magazine. Be familiar with their Web site, and be prepared to discuss it intelligently. (Remember, they’re always going to ask you what you would do to make it better!)

MSNBC.com’s Sizemore cautioned Tom against the idea of teaching students to become “mojos” (mobile journalists, or backpack journalists): She said cost-cutting is the only thing driving the trend toward mojos, and the big losers are the users — they end up being shortchanged by shortcut journalism.

On the other hand, Steve Capus, president of NBC News, told Tom that he’s looking for “people who can produce the story from beginning to end” — and that includes online! When Today Show anchor Ann Curry went to Antarctica last fall, she traveled with a crew of five people. Five. They could cut and encode video, write scripts, and get it on the Web, Tom told us — in the past, a TV network would have needed 20 people to do the same job.

“You don’t need a four-year college degree just to cut video,” Tom told the students. “What’s needed is people with ideas about how to present stuff in new ways online.”

Yesterday: Tom’s thoughts on where journalism is headed

About Tom Brew

At MSNBC.com, Tom Brew is responsible for the site’s distribution, community and blog strategies, including the integration of Newsvine.

In 1976, with a new master’s degree in mass communication from the University of Florida, he went to work for the Daily Herald-News as the Charlotte County reporter. A year later, he moved up to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, where he covered education. After two years as assistant city editor at the Bradenton Herald, he went to work at the San Jose Mercury News, where he started as Metro/night city editor.

Following 12 years at the Merc, in 1995 he moved to Redmond, Washington, and joined MSNBC.com as an editor.

11 Comments on “Learning from MSNBC.com (part 2)

  1. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » Learning from MSNBC.com (part 1)

  2. Pingback: Required reading. « Design for Publications

  3. “There is no nostalgia for the old media,” Tom told one class. “It’s like asking for horse-and-buggy days.”

    Um, that’s not what I hear. There’s actually a very great nostalgia for the old media – from students, professors, and editors – in small newspapers and even some big newspapers. Witness Paul Conley’s recent blog posts.

    I don’t think it’s right, necessarily, but it’s there – to ignore it is to ignore the elephant in the room. There are still a great number of people out there who don’t “get” this disruption.

    I don’t know the solution, but it’s something we can’t ignore.

  4. Two undisputed facts

    -brevity works on the web

    -award winning journalism means loooooooong articles.

    Looking at the award winning multimedia/web journalism I would have to say that faced with the dichotomy between what works on the web and winning awards there is no contest. We trade the future for a few shiny baubles.

    Want to improve newspapers future on the web – ban all awards for five years.

  5. Learn Flash and databases?

    If I walked into a job with those skills im afraid they’d slap me behind a computer and Id never move.


  6. Yeah, Sean, I hear that. I mentioned to Tom that some very talented people get stuck in a very drab copy-and-paste job, and he said that an entry-level reporter usually gets stuck with night cops — maybe not so different. Tom said people will recognize your talent and drive, and you won’t be stuck for very long. I’m not sure that’s always true!

    However, if you want to get out on the street and report, I think you can make that work, but you’re going to have to be proactive AND persistent.

    And if they don’t let you do it, then go work someplace else.

  7. But don’t I then become the arrogant young reporter who thinks he knows every thing?

    Not to whine, but these are the things that cross my mind in times like these…

  8. It depends on whether you come off as arrogant or not. Honest enthusiasm usually makes other people like you, not resent you. I’ve heard reports to that effect from journalists who work with a few of our graduates — their optimism and “Let’s do it!” attitude rubs off on others around them.

    Maybe this dark time is no time for cynics and curmudgeons …

  9. The problem is when you work for the chains that only care about profits. Then it doesn’t matter how much extra you do, web or print, they expect that and more. BTW night cops can be a good thing. It’s definitely a good way to learn to source a story. Mindy’s right, though, people like honest enthusiasm, and they can spot arrogance the instant it walks in the door.

  10. Sean and Mindy are right–I’ve worked in journalism since 1990, and with computers nearly as long. Guess which one got me the good job? And yes, I’m expected to be at the computer all day long. I only report when the others are out of the office and I’m the last one left to help.

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