UNLV File Photo
Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Some of the most exhaustive local coverage of November’s Democratic debate at UNLV came not from veteran reporters at Las Vegas newspapers and TV stations but from a band of young students wielding cell phones, digital recorders and, perhaps most important, an open mind about how journalists should gather and disseminate news.
These students in UNLV lecturer Charlotte-Anne Lucas’ class on digital storytelling posted thoughts, photographs and videos on a blog devoted to the event.
While hacks and hotshot pundits gabbed about the debate who would win and, later, who did win Lucas’ digital-era stringers were out in the field.
They grumbled about guests hogging the best parking spaces and security guards blocking some students from attending an invitation-only campus watch party.
One young woman, using her cell phone, sent live snapshots to the blog of members of the press corps frolicking at LAX, the nightclub where Paris Hilton celebrated the new year.
Though the students’ way of connecting with their audiences defied convention, “at the heart of it is still journalism,” said Lucas, who was content director for MySanAntonio.com in her previous incarnation and an ink-slinger for several publications before that. “Still rock-solid journalism.”
Administrators hired Lucas in 2006 to strengthen their school’s Web coursework. The push to teach the next generation of Walter Cronkites about the intricacies of the Internet as it relates to the newsroom is welcome, if belated, some students say.
In the past, media outlets were akin to silos specializing in print (newspapers), audio (radio) or video (TV). Today they can deliver all three types of material through one platform, the Internet.
Media professionals, for the most part, have been slow to adapt. But with editors placing increasing value on tech savvy, journalism programs are finding that they, too, have catching up to do.
“When I was working on the Web,” Lucas said, “I didn’t think that journalism schools were producing students with the skills that I needed.
“What I had a very difficult time finding were people that I could hire who were at least bilingual and at least trilingual. I’m not talking about Spanish I wanted people who spoke print and Web and hopefully broadcast, TV and video, and they just didn’t exist.”
Now Lucas trains young people to craft Web pages and produce online slide shows. Her students record and edit audio and video.
Lucas wants aspiring journalists to use the Internet effectively, to leverage technologies to tell stories better. What she doesn’t want to see: online graphics that spin and sparkle for no reason, random podcasts that add no information to a story.
The journalism school is scheduled to move by summer into a new building paid for partly by the Greenspun family, which owns the Las Vegas Sun. When that happens, students will have new software and equipment that will make it easier for them to produce online content.
But Lucas will still be the only full-time teacher with real-world journalism experience in new media. Bringing in more would be helpful, said Derek Schoen, a senior who plans to enter public relations once he graduates.
With Lucas teaching, he said, “it wasn’t just someone saying out of a textbook, ‘This is a blog, this is HTML.’ It was her coming in and saying, ‘This is what I do for a living and this is how I do it.’”
With the university preparing budget cuts, money for hiring is limited. And even better-funded programs have adjusted gradually to a new era in journalism too slowly, some in academia say.
“The whole digital revolution kind of crept up on us just as it did for a lot of the media,” said Paul Grabowicz, who runs the new media program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Instead of waiting to see how professionals treat emerging technologies, universities should be pushing students to study advances that grizzled news hounds have yet to tackle, he said.
What role reporters can play in social networking communities such as MySpace and how journalists can use cell phones to collect news are the types of issues professors should encourage students to ponder, Grabowicz said.
This year, for the first time, students entering Berkeley’s journalism program must complete an introductory multimedia course. A similar requirement at the University of Maryland will apply to incoming undergraduates in fall 2008 and after.
Journalism teachers at Northwestern University, near Chicago, have been more ambitious, rewriting their department’s curriculum to integrate new technologies through all reporting classes and double the amount of time freshmen spend developing core skills that now include using audio and video.
“You can’t have a magazine that’s not new media,” said Richard Roth, senior associate dean for Northwestern’s journalism school. “You can’t have a newspaper that’s not new media. Some of the Web sites for television, that’s how you watch it now.”
Considering how long the Internet has been around, the snailish pace at which journalists have moved to adapt to the Web might seem odd.
“It’s rather remarkable to me,” Lucas said, “that newspapers are such difficult beasts to change. Most newspapers are the opposite of nimble.”
And like the companies for which they train workers, universities can be, by nature, slugs when it comes to change.
Michael Williams, an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s college of journalism, noted that if administrators OK’d a new requirement today, the first students who would have to fulfill it would be next school year’s freshmen. Who knows what the world will look like when they graduate in 2012?
Sometimes, though, adapting slowly can be good.
“Occasionally when people try to get ahead of the industry, then their students can be very badly served,” said Tom Kunkel, Maryland’s journalism dean. “It’s kind of a balancing act for journalism education, to watch what’s going on in the industry and assess what might be the fad du jour and what is a substantive change.”
Faculty members should not prioritize technical skills over ethics and other core teachings, said Gary Larson, undergraduate coordinator for UNLV’s journalism school. The job of journalists is to make choices about what to include in stories and publications something they’ll have to do no matter how technology evolves, he said.
“I’ve been one of the curmudgeons at the journalism school,” he said. “My background in journalism has always been you teach the craft of storytelling, and the mechanics; the platform comes after that. If all you’re going to teach is a platform, you’re basically a trade school.”