Content Ninja's Weblog

An exploratory journey on the edge of newspaper evolution

Journalism education is dated February 9, 2009

Filed under: innovation — contentninja @ 2:45 pm
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Math in the afternoon
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Some colleagues and I sat on a panel last week at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.  We were there ostensibly to talk about online reporting, but we spent a lot of time talking about how journalism is changing on a large scale.

Instructor Jane Nesmith and her students were most welcoming, but I suspect that I got  more out of the hour than they did. Here’s why.

I faced up to the fact that formal journalism programs are even farther behind the innovation curve than newspapers and media companies, and that’s a huge disservice to the next generation of journalists.

The media companies that make it will need skill sets that today’s journalism graduates aren’t getting, and while companies will train current staff to adapt, new hires will be expected to bring requisite skills to the table. And the journalism grads that stick with this business need skill sets that no one is advising them to pick up. So let me be one of the first.

As I told the students at Coe, would-be journalists should be blogging. If it’s not required for school, do it on your own. Take some business and marketing classes, to help you manage your career like the entrepreneurial business that it will be some day.  Does your college of choice have a formal journalism program? If so, take a hard look at it. Does it have photography, videography, multimedia classes in addition to the writing courses? How about those marketing and business courses, especially change management? How about graphic design? How about basic web coding? If it doesn’t have those things in the core curriculum, is the program flexible enough that you could pick up the classes in other departments? If it’s not that flexible, is there an all-purpose liberal arts degree that you could get instead and shape the appropriate program for yourself?

I’m serious about this. Classes on the inverted pyramid don’t cut it anymore (not that they did when I was in school, either), and Hunter S. Thompson‘s style of writing hasn’t been cutting edge for  a long time.

Yes, this stuff is being talked about in academia. There may even be J-schools that are thinking, “Gosh, we have to change, too.” The problem is that schools change reactively, not proactively. Don’t I and my colleagues wish that our educations included business courses?

In the meantime, current journalism students are flailing, and they shouldn’t bank on the fleeting advantages of youth. Once more grown-ups figure out it takes only 5 minutes to set up a Facebook account or learn to use nearly any social network, they’ll be less likely to hand over the keys to the kingdom merely because a new hire is younger than 30.

Coe, a small, private liberal arts college, doesn’t have a formal journalism program. Students can, however, craft their education to fit their needs. If I were Coe, I’d put together a “suggested” curriculum for journalists. Then I’d market Coe to would-be journos everywhere.  “See all the courses we have to prep you better than the big guys’ J-schools can? Survive the journalism revolution. Craft yourself a degree that will carry you through the 21st century of journalism.”

Yep, that’s what today’s students need, because that’s what media companies need, too.

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Crunchberry Project rolls forward November 18, 2008

Filed under: innovation — contentninja @ 1:35 pm
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Drawing of an early Pelton wheel (also known a...

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Word came Friday that the Crunchberry Project application for a Knight Foundation News Challenge grant is moving forward to the next step in the application process.

This doesn’t mean that we get a grant. It means I get to fill out a longer application. :) Due date is Nov. 30. Winners won’t be announced, however, until summer 2009. When you consider that more than 2,300 applications were made for $5 million in grants, we’re incredibly lucky to still be in the race.

Crunchberry is, of course, the name given to the project by professor Rich Gordon‘s master’s students at Medill, the J-school at Northwestern University. We partnered with them this semester for Gordon’s innovation class.

The students are Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark, recipients of Knight scholarships for programmer-journalists; Kayla Webley; Angela Nitzke; Joshua Pollock; and Stuart Tiffen. Pay attention to those names; they’re gonna go places.

What’s the project (besides cleverly named after one of Cedar Rapids’ signature scents)? The students have been exploring how news Web sites can improve upon community conversation around content. By the final presentation in early December, they will have prototyped three new styles of commenting, all using  Facebook integration via the developers’ beta Facebook Connect. Those comment structures are, in highly simplified terms, Q&A, short-form and letters to the editor.

One semester isn’t much time, actually, and while the project is off to a kick-butt start, it won’t be finished. That’s why we asked for a grant — to help fund the next phase of development. Things like bug fixing and integration with our clunky, er, fantabulous legacy systems. Even without the grant, though, we’ll test the features in some way on our content and collect user feedback.

I’ll be learning a handful about grant-writing in this application process, and our friends at Northwestern — Gordon and Medill Associate Dean Mary Nesbitt — will be helping. (To prevent me from messing it up too badly, thankfully.)

It’s important to note at this point that we (read: Gazette Communications Inc.) do not “own” this project. We sponsored the class and we’re applying for the grant, but the project is the result of the students’ hard work. We gave input that helped them determine a direction and focus for the project, but the ideas are theirs.  And the project is built on the promise that the end result is open source, meaning anybody can have the code.

I think the results of the Crunchberry Project will be impressive, and I admire the students’ entrepreneurial efforts. The speed at which they are delivering is enviable. (If only companies could be this nimble, eh?)

So keep your fingers crossed for the Crunchberry Project and the grant app.

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Frontier optimism November 12, 2008

Filed under: innovation,journalism,social media — contentninja @ 7:00 am
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Winter scene in Yellowstone

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Is the vision just crazy talk? We talk about being digital first, separating content from product and fostering relationships with and among our communities, but c’mon. Can we really change the world from Cedar Rapids-Iowa City, Iowa? Can one little ol’ regional paper stumble upon a solution to the newspaper industry’s woes?

Maybe we can’t find a solution that fits the entire industry, but I believe we can find the solution that fits us and that serves as an example for companies like us.

Still skeptical? Find inspiration in this guest post by Shelli Johnson from YellowstonePark.com on Chris Brogan’s blog.

She has a small, independent company in Wyoming — a Western state that’s still classified by the Census Bureau as “frontier” and that boasts an average population of five people per square mile.  She and her colleagues were smart enough to recognize back in the mid-’90s the importance of the Internet and, later, the importance of Web 2.0. They embraced the disruptive technologies and built a successful tourism company “in the middle of nowhere.”

“It was mid-2006” she writes, “when we realized that the customer would be increasingly in charge and that they would be all that mattered in the new landscape.”

Most of the news industry has yet to figure that out, but I’m thinking that if a ’90s start-up in Wyoming can make it, so can we.

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Embrace the disruption and win the war November 11, 2008

Filed under: innovation,journalism,video — contentninja @ 1:56 pm
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My New Video Camera

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Brit Paul Bradshaw attended the Society of Editors 08 meeting in the United Kingdom recently and posted at his Online Journalism Blog video of Michael Rosenblum’s presentation.

Rosenblum is a former CBS news producer turned independent video journalist.  Bradshaw presents Rosenblum in three videos, totalling roughly 20 minutes. Yes, it’s linear video, and it’s worth every minute. (There is some blue language about halfway through first video.)

Rosenblum rocks the boat, and it’s a wonderful ride.

I’ve been chided for not exploring the future of TV news enough in this blog. Rosenblum takes it on, no holds barred. His point is that TV news, as it’s always been done, is ridiculously overpriced. You no longer need all those editors, producers and $500,000 editing bays, he says. Hire six quality journalists,  outfit them each with an $800 point-n-shoot video camera, teach them to edit on a Mac laptop and send them out the door to find stories in their communities. Heck, they can even work from home. It’s not just talk; he’s doing these things.

Are you listening, newspapers? Rosenblum says newspapers need to stop fighting that disruptive technology known as the Internet and start doing this, too — because the Web demands video, that’s why. “You are not in the newspaper business!” he says, explaining that we’re in the business of delivering stories to our communities and charging advertisers for the eyeballs. And we can still do that on the Internet, he says, and save money, too.

And lest we get all dismissive and elitist about those less-expensive VJs — as we journos are wont to do with experimental stuff (see mainstream media’s hypercritical response to David Cohn’s crowd-funded Spot.us) — Rosenblum points out that there are talented journalists who can be tapped for these jobs and that mainstream media companies will attract them.

“Journalists aren’t made; they’re born,” Rosenblum says, quoting a colleague. Damn right we are, and we can do this.

Still have doubts? Rosenblum points out that embracing disruptive technology has been a winning strategy since 1356. Listen to his Edward III story in second video for details.

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Shameless begging October 30, 2008

Filed under: innovation — contentninja @ 4:45 pm
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A Crunchberry Donut. Yes, That's Right.

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Please pardon me for being needy.

I’ve been awfully quiet this week, and when I show up it’s to ask you for something. We’re applying for a Knight News Challenge grant to help fund Phase II of the Crunchberry Project. The Medill students graduate in December, and there isn’t time for them to do everything they have in mind.

Thing is, competition for the grant money is steep. The Knight Foundation is giving away $5 mil total, and hundreds of journalists worldwide will apply. Some folks say that ratings can help a project’s application.

So I’m asking you to please go to http://tinyurl.com/5k5kcv. Read our application and rate it. If you haven’t been following the project to date on Twitter and related blogs, the application does a good job of explaining what’s going on and what will still need doing.

Thanks, and one more thing. Cross your fingers!

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A vote for progress October 23, 2008

Filed under: innovation — contentninja @ 11:34 am
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vote yes on bubble-girl

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I voted today.

Some people see voting, especially for the empire’s next leader, as an event. I hold no romantic notions, though, about standing in line on Election Day, rubbing elbows with my fellow citizens and trying to chat up the cranky senior citizens at the front table. (And believe me, by the time I would get there in the evening, they are cranky.) Absentee ballots have been my MO for years, but today I decided to try a satellite voting station.

During the five-minute wait in line and another five minutes at the registration table, while the young man behind it struggled with an unstable Wi-Fi connection, I caught up with e-mail via my BlackBerry.

Finally, after verifying my home address in two places and signing off (in pencil?!) in two places, I was handed three pieces of paper and directed to a cubby to vote with that pencil.

All told, it took me 25 minutes to vote. Not bad for such a momentous decision, eh? Wrong. I think the voting process would benefit from a little digital disruption, too. I want voting to be faster and more convenient. I want it plunked in front of me, at my convenience.

I want a ballot e-mailed to me, and I want to vote from by BlackBerry while standing in line for coffee. THAT’s what I want.

B-but, Ninja, you say, there are security issues and control issues in voting that way. I don’t care. I want voting to join the 21st century. Don’t tell me no. Tell me when we’ll get there.

It’s not unlike what’s happening to the media business. A lot of people no longer want the old model, and they’re not interested in sputtered excuses. Yep, change is a lot of work and it’s hard work, but we need to get over it and make faster progress toward what comes next.

Just imagine what digital change could do for turnout — voters’ and media consumers’.

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One with the machine, or resistance is futile September 5, 2008

Filed under: innovation — contentninja @ 1:23 pm
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TED is a really cool think-tank conference that you may have heard of. This is a 20-minute TED video of Kevin Kelly’s presentation on what’s coming in the next 5,000 days of the Web. He points out that the Web is only 5,000 days old and look how far we’ve come.

Now, this will either amaze you or scare the socks off you. (There’s a really good science-fiction novel in Kelly’s theory, I think.) It also does a good job of putting “semantic Web” and “the cloud” into English.