Giving Future Journalists Perspectives to Consider
I had the privilege earlier this week to address two classes of journalism students at UNC-Chapel Hill.
I did so at the invitation of Pilot Opinion Editor Steve Bouser, an adjunct faculty member.
Steve asked me to talk to these students — many 19 or 20 years old and trying to determine their majors — on the topic “What is News?”
I spent the last couple of weeks mulling over that, reflecting on how much that subject has changed in my own career these past 25 years. The answer I would have given to that question back then would be very different from the one I delivered on Monday.
I started by projecting two pictures on the screen. The first was a picture of the actor Hugh Beaumont, in his role as Ward Cleaver, sitting on a sofa, tie undone, reading his evening newspaper.
“Anyone know this guy?” I asked the students. My point to them was that the image represented the “old-school” traditional newspaper reader, the person who would spend more than 30 minutes with a paper.
Then I flashed up an image of Walter Cronkite delivering the “CBS Evening News.” This, I said, was the full extent of how we used to receive our news of the world: a 30-minute chunk one time a day.
The following slide was a picture of the late Steve Jobs, holding an iPhone. “This man, and the device he’s holding, have done more to revolutionize and disrupt the media industry than any other,” I said.
In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that news was:
— Scarce. If you didn’t read it in your local paper or catch the network evening news, you didn’t have any other place to turn.
— Professionally curated by journalists who considered themselves “gatekeepers” and told you what was news.
— Available on others’ schedules. You didn’t dictate when you consumed news, just as you didn’t decide what time to watch your favorite TV shows.
— Consumed over long periods of time. It was nothing for people to spend an hour reading the newspaper front to back.
Then I projected a slide of a chaotic traffic circle with traffic flowing into it from all directions. This I titled “What News is Today.”
There is virtually no end to the number of sources bombarding us and vying for our attention to provide up-to-the-minute updates of the news of the moment.
I asked how many students had checked the headlines, their Twitter streams or Facebook feeds before they even got out of bed that morning. Hands flew up.
I then asked how many of them felt overwhelmed by the fire-hose pressure of news being blasted at them daily. Hands flew up.
Precisely. This is where we then talked about news in the new age. To combat the oversaturation of media, folks are turning to new means of adapting “smart” personal filters to their news on the Internet. They’re putting greater stock in community, connecting more to things that are personally recommended by friends, co-workers, family. And they’re narrowing where they go for specific news.
In this new age, news will be intensely local, much like what you see in The Pilot. We don’t supply West Coast box scores or news from the national campaigns or latest euro crisis. We do supply high school sports, local zoning battles, recruitment of new businesses, church celebrations. Media must do what they are uniquely positioned to do and stop repeating what can be found everywhere else.
Also in the new age, news will be a community partnership, much like what we practice at The Pilot. Media will rely on community members to produce content — stories, photos, sports scores — to cover what matters. Dialogues will occur between media and the people, where those conversations never occurred in the past.
Lastly, I said, news will be “multiplatform.” While traditional sources like newspaper, radio and cable TV will continue to exist, media will be broadening their reach through new technologies.
This last comment sparked an interesting question in the afternoon class. One student raised her hand and asked me how much longer we’ll keep printing a paper.
At this, I couldn’t help but give them something to think about. “I’ll keep putting out a paper in my career,” I said. “But you sitting here today will be the decision-makers in my position 20 years from now who will ultimately decide whether to stop printing on paper.”
And when that day comes, that too will be news.
Contact Editor John Nagy at john@the pilot.com or (910) 693-2507.
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