"Journalism, as we knew it, began with the printing press. It ended with
the Internet," according to sportswriter Frank Deford, delivering the
2010 Red Smith lecture in journalism at Notre Dame. Too flippant? Too egotistical?
I can agree with Deford in the sense that a gifted and deft
journalist who prides himself on his writing may be completely
dismayed by the shorthand of texting and the abandonment of
grammar, spelling and punctuation that have evolved from the
digital degradation of the written language. If Dickens, Faulkner
or Twain took liberties with the language, they did so purposefully
and for literary effect. It's hard to grant that much
literary license to the texting, tweeting and blogging generation.
But, to borrow from Mark Twain, "the report of my death
was an exaggeration." So, let's try a differing
view from Deford's fatalism.
Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, was recently
quoted in the New York Times, saying: "Text is not going
away, nor is reading. Paper is going away." Negroponte
does not see how much I print from the Internet.
Negroponte is a technology futurist, cutting edge. So was
Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s. McLuhan is most remembered for
five words — less
than a tweet: "The medium is the message." McLuhan
was, of course, writing about television. There's a great
deal more to it than those five words. Hot and cool media.
Those that excite the senses and those that chill them. Television
was cool. Also passive. Sit. Watch. Eat. Drink. Interactive
television, you may recall, never fully engaged.
McLuhan's focus on the medium, rather than the message,
postulated that it was the medium that was changing society
and culture, regardless of the content. Television certainly
changed our lives. For one thing, it led to the invention of
TV trays and TV dinners. Talk about the collapse of civilization.
Now, take the quantum leap — a mere thirty-odd years — forward
from McLuhan to the arrival of the Internet. Has it changed
culture? Absolutely. It's the anywhere, anytime medium.
The world-wide web.
Is the medium the message? Yes … and no. Yes, because
of today's capacities. We are no longer place bound.
We are wireless. We are all thumbs, in the most dexterous sense
of the phrase. But, no, because of the universality, ubiquity
and multiplicity of devices that facilitate today's communication.
Ad strategists have adopted a three-screen strategy—PC,
TV and mobile — to reach you one way or another.
Well, that's so passé. "So 2007," brand
strategist Judy Shapiro writes in "Advertising Age" — the
online edition. She's thinking six screens. The three
we have today, plus three more tomorrow.
Screen 4: Mobile computing via 4G wireless. What you can't
quite do today. It's mostly about speed to handle the
volume of computing on the go.
Screen 5: Location aware digital TV. These are her descriptions.
Vastly advanced, go where you go, HD bandwidth.
Screen 6: Infinite "pull" screen of convergence.
In Shapiro's words, "This screen will not just
deliver content or connections, but it will be intelligent
to create custom information, advertisements, applications
with specialized services as individual as the user."
But three, six or nine screens, content remains central, regardless
of what McLuhan might have thought. Shapiro's screen
6 emphasizes pulling together custom content. Without it, all
you have is a high def test pattern. Try that term on your
20-something colleagues who have no idea that television stations
ever signed off, played the national anthem and threw a test
pattern on the screen.
Do I believe journalism is dead? By no means. Alive and well?
Alive and sustainable. I get my news on three screens and in
print. The medium is only a delivery system.
Journalism schools are themselves struggling with the changing
media paradigm. The University of Colorado at Boulder recently
announced that it would start the process of "program
discontinuance" for its School of Journalism and Mass
Communication. It would begin to explore what a new "information
and communication technology" program could look like.
The ensuing headlines, as you might imagine, read: "U
of Colorado Reviews Future of Journalism Program" and "CU-Boulder
Takes Steps to Close Journalism School." Alas, headlines
often omit the "and then…" step in the process.
But what if there is no "and then" step to follow?
Our school has been in the forefront of examining what media
convergence and multimedia mean for both the industry and consumer.
Our faculty members are currently wrestling with a curriculum
revision to address the rapid change. If we were only to say, "look,
new toys. How do we use them?" we would be missing the
point. There will always be new toys.
But there are times when even a child with the fanciest of
amusements still enjoys basic building blocks…or digging
in the mud. There's a journalistic analogy.
The building blocks — critical thinking, informed questioning,
lucid analysis, clear and evocative writing — are essentials
for effective journalism. Still, we cannot omit preparing students
to adapt and move with ease in the changing media environment.
In many instances, yesterday's jobs are gone; today's
may not be around when our students graduate. To avoid the
premature obituary, we need to continue to breathe life into
Adapted from remarks to the Southern Municipal
League, Hilton Head, S.C., on August 27, 2010.