The message is familiar to anyone who’s ridden the London Underground, but the warning to “mind the gap” doesn’t just apply to trains and platforms any more. It’s also a useful reminder to journalists and educators of a certain age: Beware the growing knowledge gap in newsrooms and classrooms.
It hit me this spring, as I was leading a workshop for the Illinois Broadcast News Association. When I asked how many in the room use the instant-messaging service Twitter.com on the job, only two hands went up. Most of the 100-plus people in attendance had no clue what I was talking about.
Web producer Patrick O’Brien, then at KTVI-TV in St. Louis, says he was surprised to find that he and his girlfriend were the only Twitter-heads in the group. He’s used it to share news content, find story ideas and get a heads-up on breaking news, including the earthquakes in the Midwest earlier this year.
” I woke up the morning of the earthquake not knowing what had happened, scrolled through several tweets discussing what they were doing when they felt it,” Patrick told me later via email. “Then I turned on the TV to see what was going on, and they just started mentioning the quake, although the tweets were on it 10 minutes earlier.”
To those of us who started in the news business more than 35 years ago, “tweet” sounds like something out of Looney Tunes. Do we really need to know about this stuff? After all, we’ve seen so many dramatic changes already:
|Manual typewriters||Laptop computers|
|Film chains||Digital video|
|Pay phones||Smart phones|
|Three networks||100+ channels|
Heck, when I tell 20-somethings how my newsroom operated back then, they think I was living in some previous century. Oh, right. I was.
The trouble is that so many of us are still leading last-century lives at work. We’re online but we’re not really plugged in, unlike the “kids” we’re teaching, hiring and managing. And this lack of digital literacy at the leadership level is hurting both newsrooms and classrooms, by limiting the vision of what’s possible. As Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”
It’s time to start closing the gap. But how?
Howard Owens has a few good ideas. He’s director of digital publishing for GateHouse Media, a newspaper company, and author of the provocative blog HowardOwens.com. In addition to suggesting that “non-wired” journalists learn to Twitter, he has these recommendations:
- Start using RSS
- Join a social network
- Become a blogger
- Make digital photos and video and post them online
- Create a Google Map mashup
If that sounds overwhelming, it shouldn’t. Most of it takes virtually no technical knowledge and only as much time as you want to invest. And it’s worth the trouble, for lots of reasons.
Why bother with RSS (Really Simple Syndication)? Because it’s a quick, painless way of staying on top of the news, or the latest developments in journalism education, which you have to do anyway. All you need is a free account with Google or Yahoo! to set up a “reader” that monitors RSS feeds from Internet sites you select. Because it’s a Web-based system, it’s easy to check for updates anywhere, any time. And that helps you as a leader stay ahead of–or at least keep pace with–the troops.
Why join a social network? Because it’s useful for building connections, finding sources and getting free advice. WNBC-TV “tech guru” and dean of student affairs at Columbia University’s journalism school Sree Sreenivasan recommends LinkedIn as an indispensable tool for journalists, so that’s the one I joined. At first, I was skeptical. Sure, it was fun tracking down former colleagues and finding out what they’d been up to, but what exactly was the point? Six months later, I got it. LinkedIn doesn’t just connect you to people directly, it connects you indirectly. A contact list with 300 names links you to more than a million professionals with a wide range of expertise that you can tap into with the click of a mouse. Definitely worth it.
If you expect your students and staff to post to the Web, you should do it too. A blog is one of the easiest ways to put content online. Just sign up with WordPress or Blogger, both free services with simple, step-by-step directions for setting up your own blog. (No one has to know you’re doing this, by the way, unless you want them to.)
“One reason for writing a blog — it improves your writing,” says Chris Cobler, editor of the Victoria (Texas) Advocate, who’s been blogging since 2003 and says it helps him write more conversationally and shorter. “Here’s a second reason that’s just as important: Blogging helps you better understand your audience. The hallmark of any blog is the ability for readers to post comments to what you write. By having this regular conversation with readers, you learn what hits and what misses.” So what journalist or educator can afford not to blog in today’s media world?
Because the Web at its best is so much more than a repository for text, you also need to know how to post photos, video and audio. Finding source material shouldn’t be a challenge for anyone in electronic news. Just follow the instructions to post a digital photo on your new blog. To post video, the simplest approach is to create a free account with YouTube and follow the instructions.
We’ve almost exhausted Howard Owens’ list. His final suggestion, to create a Google Map mash-up, is actually fairly complicated. A true mash-up that links a data set to an online map requires working with developer-level code. But building a basic Google map with location markers–places you’ve worked, for example–is simple enough, and you can embed the map in your blog as well.
The Owens list is just a starting point. Tom Cheredar of NewAssignment.net has his own list of “silly Web applications” that belong in a journalist’s tool box. Summize [now simply search.Twitter]–a search engine that collects Twitter updates–is tops on his list. He also recommends Twellow.com, another Twitter-based service, that creates a directory of people by profession, ranked by number of “followers.”
Notice that none of this stuff involves learning a new language like HTML or CSS. If you want to go there, be my guest. Your staff and students may be way ahead of you. Newbie reporter Shannan Bowen, for instance, has a to-do list that includes learning Arcview, a computer mapping program, refreshing her statistics knowledge and producing more multimedia. Bowen’s been out of college less than two years and works for a small paper in North Carolina, the Wilmington Star-News.
It’s both inspiring and a little intimidating to read Bowen’s personal blog, where she shares her plans for “getting on track.” “It seems like I’m always working on something,” she writes. “If I’m not working for the paper, I’m working on learning new things and, well, just being a journalism nerd.” Bowen wants to master Flash, Python, Django, MySQL, Perl and PHP. And she intends to brush up on skills she learned in school, like using FinalCut Pro. That may not all be necessary, but Bowen clearly believes it’s worth the effort to be prepared for whatever the future might bring.
It’s almost impossible to predict what that will be. When I started out stripping wire machines and distributing rolls of copy around the newsroom, I certainly never envisioned anything like iNews or ENPS. Smart people who think they know best are often wrong.
Darryl F. Zanuck, for example, the head of the 20th Century Fox movie studio back in the 1940s, didn’t see any kind of future for the new kid on the block: television. “It won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after six months,” he said. “People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
But while it’s risky to make predictions, we can make some educated guesses. The future is going to be wireless and broadband. The future will include mobile devices that marry the portability of a Smartphone with the capability of a laptop. The future will allow people to be connected to media anytime, anywhere. In fact, we’re almost there already.
If we’re ever going to figure out how journalism can survive in this ocean of information, we first need to know how to stay afloat. Leaders who get their feet wet are in a better position to imagine the future and prepare young journalists for what might come next. There’s nothing charming or inspiring about a boss who’s a Luddite. It’s time to take the plunge.
Author Posting. (c) Deborah Potter, 2008.
This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Deborah Potter for personal use, not for redistribution.
The definitive version was published in Electronic News, Volume 2 Issue 4, October 2008.