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Minding Our Business



September 2010

Journalism: R.I.P.?

"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.

Journalism graphic

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.

Learning OutcomesJournalism 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 journalism education.

Adapted from remarks to the Southern Municipal League, Hilton Head, S.C., on August 27, 2010.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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