Friday, March 28, 2008

College Tour, Part 4: Show them the money

I recently had the opportunity to visit a number of universities and to attend two conventions for college journalists. This is the conclusion of a four-part series on my experiences. You can see part one here. You can read part two here. Check out part three here.

After a month of visiting with college students and teachers, I've reached two conclusions.
First, many journalism programs are doing a tremendous disservice to their students. Too many teachers are stuck firmly in the past. And they seem determined to drag their students back in time to an era they understood. For every gifted educator like Ralph Braseth at Ole Miss, Jacquie Lamer at Northwest Missouri State and Chris Carroll at Vanderbilt, there are at least two dinosaurs filling students' heads with nonsense.
Second, many journalism students are woefully unprepared to enter our business. Too many of them are preparing for careers that just won't exist in the near future. These students are naive. They seem to have little interest in studying the industry they are about to enter. They don't read the trade press. They don't follow the debates about the future of journalism. They seem unaware of the tremendous difficulties faced by most traditional publishers. Because they don't follow developments in the business, they have no idea of what the business wants from them.

Interestingly, the solution to both problems is the same.
It's time for journalism programs to start talking about, and teaching about, money.

Cut our losses
For a long time I was hopeful that journalism teachers would learn to embrace the future. I had this idea that the ability of the Web to reach people around the globe would enchant teachers. I believed that interactivity, feedback functions, user-generated content and all the other forms of conversational and democratic storytelling would appeal to people who dedicated their lives to telling stories and spreading information.
But I was wrong.
New media has brought out the worst in many teachers -- turning them defensive, bitter, cowardly and curmudgeonly. The rise of new media, in other words, has had the same effect on many teachers that it has had on many legacy editors.
But there is a difference between editors and teachers. And it's silly for us not to acknowledge it:
We can fire editors.

Many journalism programs are burdened with teachers who are poorly suited to teach a subject that changes as rapidly as does the media world.
But we're stuck with them. The rules of tenure and the traditions of academia mean that these folks ain't going anywhere.
So it's time for a "work around."

The Benjamins
One of the arguments I hear over and over again from legacy editors and dinosaur teachers goes something like this: "Newspapers/my company/publishers make plenty of money already. The profit margins are huge. There's no real problem. The owners/investors/suits just need to be less greedy and spend some of that money on training/preserving the publication/hiring reporters to cover Congress and buying me a cellphone/video camera/Internet connection for my house."
But that's the sort of argument that can only be made by someone who doesn't have a clue about business finance.
Profit margins aren't a forward-looking measurement. They are a backward-looking measurement. More important -- far, far, far more important -- is that profit margins in the publishing industry are often dictated by the banks and other institutions that lend money to publishing companies. Debt covenants set minimum performance levels on a wide variety of metrics -- particularly on net income, EBITDA and similar measurements of "profit." In fact, there's an argument to be made that publishers are being forced to cut expenses (lay off workers) in order to make the numbers required by the covenants. In other words, those high profit margins are the problem, not the solution. And they cannot be cut. Throw in the pressures of competing for capital in a world dominated by hedge funds and private equity, and it's easy for a publisher to fall into a death spiral.
(For a clearer discussion of this, check out this piece by Alan Mutter.)

Don't teach what you don't know
Almost every journalist and journalism teacher at one time or another has made a joke about his inability to do math. The math- and numbers-phobic journalist is a stereotype. But like all stereotypes, there is some truth to it.
So it's simply too much to ask that journalism teachers master the world of accounting and debt finance. There's probably no way to force them to learn. And as we've seen with new media, if you can't force teachers to learn something, then many of them won't learn.
Students, however, are a different matter.
We can force students to learn. Heck, that's what college is all about!

So here's my modest proposal.
If you're a teacher or college administrator who "gets it," who understands the pressures upon the publishing world, sees the opportunities in digital media, and accepts that your students will work in a converged, new media world, this is what you should do:
1. Give up on trying to convert your peers.
2. Instead, push to give your students the tools that will allow them to see the world and the publishing industry clearly.
3. Fight to have a business finance and/or accounting course as a requirement for graduation.
4. Force every journalism student in your school to cover business. Invite business journalists to guest lecture on subjects like "reading an income statement" and "understanding SEC filings." Don't let anyone graduate who hasn't produced at least five multimedia pieces that focus on the world of business, investments and/or personal finance.
5. Distribute salary surveys whenever you can. Make sure your students know that new media pays more than old media.

(Sometimes the stars align. Today is one of those days. I wouldn't want to end my series on the College Tour without pointing readers toward Innovation in College Media, which is perhaps the best source of information for those looking to improve journalism education. Nor would I want to end this series without mentioning Angryjournalist, the site where thousands of our peers are whining, moaning and acting like spoiled children while hiding behind anonymous posts. College kids are reading that site. And it's teaching the wrong lessons. But as luck would have it, the founder of that site has written a guest post for Innovation in College Media. And it's a truly wonderful piece. I ask you to read it. And if you're a teacher, I beg you to share it with your students.)

tags: , , , , , , , journalism education

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

College Tour, Part 3: The war within

I recently had the opportunity to visit a number of universities and to attend two conventions for college journalists. This is the third in a four-part series on my experiences. You can see part one here. You can read part two here.

One of the best things about my annual college tour is that I get to be a little bit of a celebrity. Folks who know me well know that my ego is enormous. And I greatly enjoy doing things that feed my sense of grandiosity. So I like visiting campuses where students line up to meet me. I like standing on a stage and knowing that people are listening. I like to be an expert, an honored guest, a keynote speaker. And I really, really like applause.
At the same time, when I'm speaking about things that are important to me, I don't mind being controversial. I like to be direct and a little harsh. In other words, I'm a New Yorker. And I accept that one side effect of being a wee bit off-putting is that some people are put off.
That's fine. I'm OK with that.
I'm not bothered on a personal level when I learn that some journalism teachers just don't like me.
But I wonder if the way they display their dislike of what I have to say is symptomatic of what's wrong with journalism education.

First, let me give three examples of what I'm talking about:
  • After my keynote speech at the Southeast Journalism Conference, several students complained to me that they had difficulty following my remarks because teachers at their table grumbled and complained throughout my presentation.
  • Twice during my college tour I received embarrassed apologies from students who were upset that their teachers had declined opportunities to attend social functions with me, because, as one student said, "they hate people like you."
  • I met at least a dozen journalism teachers or advisers who said something like "I wish my dean/president/adviser/department head/peers had come to hear you. But they weren't interested."
The lines are drawn
Journalism education has divided into two factions. There are those who see digital media and convergence as positive. And there are those who see recent developments in the press as a catastrophe. The first group wants to use the universities to spread the new forms of storytelling. The second group believes universities are the place to draw the line against change.
The gap between the two is broad and deep. Most upsetting, disagreements between the two sides are uncivil. And since most journalism programs have members of both camps on the faculty, the atmosphere in many schools is toxic.
This isn't a reasoned disagreement among people who like and respect each other. (Certainly the students I met don't think so. The students use terms like "nasty," "ridiculous," "stupid" and "embarrassing' when describing the debates on their campuses.) This isn't an academic debate. Rather, this is a fight between people who have genuine animosity for the opposition.

Certainly I understand where such strong feelings originate. I, too, am passionate about journalism. And I tend to be dismissive of journalism educators I believe are either unwilling or unable to prepare their students for today's media. I suppose if I had been in a university these past few years I'd have grown positively vicious about any peer who failed to adapt.
I suppose too there are teachers who resist the changes in media because they believe these changes are detrimental to the profession. And it's to be expected that these last few years have left such teachers bitter and vicious too. I may believe they are wrong. Hell, I know they're wrong. But I understand how they can "hate" someone like me and refuse to attend a dinner in my honor.
I just wish it wasn't like this.
Because I'm convinced that amid the defensiveness, bitterness and contempt, educators are failing to teach students the single most important lesson that a journalist can learn -- keep an open mind.

If you'd like to get a sense of what it is I tell journalism students, you should read how journalism students react to me. Take a look at students' blog posts here and here.
If you'd like to see some of the more interesting work being done by journalism students, check out the converged model of Connect Mason (created by Whitney Rhodes, a student who was frustrated by the silos at her school) and all the winners of the first online journalism contest of the Center for Innovation in College Media.

tags: , , , , , , , journalism education

Monday, March 24, 2008

College Tour: The very young are the future

I recently had the opportunity to visit a number of universities and to attend two conventions for college journalists. This is the second in a four-part series on my experiences. You can see part one here.

My annual college tour is over, and unlike years past, I'm feeling pretty confident about the next generation of journalists.
Certainly the current crop of journalism students isn't perfect. But nor is it as bad as it was just last year.
Something has changed. And I think I know what it is.
College journalists seem to be split into two distinct camps. There are those who understand online media and look forward to a career in digital media. Then there are the delusional others who have their hearts set on a print-based job. (There's also a smaller group of students who have their hearts set on a "television" career rather than a "video" career.")
And as remarkable as it seems to an old guy like me who finds it increasingly difficult to tell at a glance if someone is 16-years old or 26-years old, it is the age of the student that makes all the difference.

As a general rule, I met very few seniors who are ready for the working world. The juniors weren't much better. On the other hand, I found the sophomores and freshmen in today's journalism programs to be a truly remarkable bunch.

It's the very young students -- just 18- to 19-years old in most cases -- who have familiarity with online culture and have mastered new-media storytelling techniques. It's the freshmen and sophomores that understand, accept and celebrate the idea of working and living on the Web.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that there's no one worth hiring in the class of 2008. I met three seniors that any publisher would be lucky to have on board. But it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that two of them already have job offers and the third expects an offer from the publication where she works now on a part-time basis.
But those students were the exception.
On the other hand, I met a bunch of seniors who hope to become print designers. They know Quark. They know InDesign. They have printouts of pages that they want you to see. What they don't have are job offers. And what they don't seem to know is that print design jobs grow rarer by the minute.
I also met a bunch of seniors who want to be newspaper reporters. They have clips. They have some basic reporting skills. What they don't have are job offers. And what they don't seem to know is that newspapers are in very tough shape.
The seniors seemed to be stuck in a fantasy about working in a 1970s-style newsroom. While nearly every time I met a kid who was a new-media "superstar," they turned out to be several years away from graduation.
But that's OK.
I'm willing to accept that our profession might have to write off a few years worth of journalism graduates. Because for the first time I feel confident that there is a next generation of journalists coming that will make us all proud.

My friend Rex also had a positive experience earlier this month when he met with a group of college journalists. You can read his thoughts here.
I shouldn't be surprised by the skills of the very young. Just a few months ago I noted that high school kids were doing some interesting work, while established journalists continued to resist change. Now it turns out that the high school publication I mentioned in that post is winning national attention.

tags: , , , , , , , journalism education

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Running late ...

I've finished my annual college tour, in which I spend several weeks visiting universities and journalism-education events. It was, as always, both illuminating and fun. I've already published some preliminary thoughts on the state of journalism education. I'll share more about the next generation of journalists within a few days.

In the meantime, I'm scrambling to catch up on my paying gigs. And perhaps more importantly, I'm scrambling to digest some of the recent news in the world of B2B media.

The top development during my hiatus was the annual Neal Awards from American Business Media. CSO took home the Grand Neal Award this year for its work on "Red Gold Rush," an article that linked rising demand for copper in China to a surge in copper theft here in the U.S.
CSO is published by CXO/IDG. And longtime readers of this blog know that IDG is a client of mine, as well as one of my all-time favorite B2B companies.
Another IDG product, Computerworld, picked up three Neal awards, including best web site.
And as I noted a few weeks ago, it was IDG's Harry McCracken who won this year's Timothy White Award for editorial integrity from ABM.
So I want to offer my belated congratulations to all the folks at IDG.
You can read coverage of this year's awards here and here.

tags: , , , , , , , journalism education