The new journalistic frontier

As journalism textbooks from 1993 collect dust in my classroom and more news organizations close their doors, I am left wondering what’s next for journalism in America.

While reading articles on my iPad, I decided to take a survey offered at the bottom of the AP News app about how I acquire my news. I realized that I had not subscribed to a newspaper in about a decade, and that I retrieve all my news almost exclusively from reputable news organizations that offer their stories online. And I doubt that I’m alone here.

The new generation of readers knows virtually nothing of print publications. And for proof, I offer you a little anecdote. I asked middle school students, ages 10-13, what their favorite comic strip was. Peanuts, Shoe, Calvin & Hobbs, Fox Trot…those are my favorites. I spent Sunday mornings with my Cheerios and the Sunday comics and dreaded the moment when I felt compelled to read that stupid Family Circle.

“What’s a comic strip?” they all asked me. They did not know what one even LOOKED like.

Whoa. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Good grief, Charlie Brown, someone ripped the ball away from me when I was about to punt.

Fortunately, the iPod and iPad can come to my rescue.

Students leap at the opportunity to whip out their iPods and iPhones to research materials and look up articles. A cart of iPads or iPod Touches would provide all students access to thousands of articles. News outlets such as AP News, NPR, USA Today, NY Times, and Guardian Eyewitness all offer their apps for free. And other apps such as Fluent News and News Pro are aggregate apps that pull news feeds from dozens of news outlets. Low-cost paid versions are emerging that allow consumers to select what news feeds they want, and the app creates a customized virtual newspaper complete with pictures, articles, and video. Gone are the days when a person had to purchase their local newspaper or pay for a costly subscription to the New York Times.

News Circulation

A fellow teacher of mine had a newspaper route as a young teen. He said about 85 percent of the houses on his bicycle route received the paper. Forty years later, papers are delivered by car because about 15 percent of households might have the paper delivered. That’s not to imply that no one is reading news anymore. According to the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper Web sites reached almost two-thirds of U.S. Internet users in Sept. 2010.

Teaching journalism

How might the reporting of information change to accomodate a digital package? The basic foundations of reporting don’t change, only the speed by which news must be assembled and disseminated. Feedback is instantaneous, as readers leave comments that take on social functions of their own. Readers are more impatient than ever, and just because reporters have unlimited writing space doesn’t mean they should use it. What makes information newsworthy remains the same: proximity, magnitude, relevance, timeliness, prominence, oddity, human interest … they all still pique the interest of readers.

Students still need to learn the basic tenets of interviewing, reporting, writing, and editing. The instructional paradigm shift occurs in publishing and infusing social media. With an iPod Touch, a student could record an interview, either by typing notes, recording an audio version, or videotaping the interview. They could type the story on the device, snap pictures, and upload them to a Web site. They could also create a podcast or edit a short video segment and upload them to a Web site. A whole classroom of students could do this simultaneously, then publish feedback on each other’s work. They could also upload articles and revise them collaboratively in real time.

Newspaper design has not changed much over the past 30 years, but online news design has. Early Web site builders experimented with tacky colors and confusing layouts. News media sites are much more streamlined, and the more user-friendly a page displays, the more readers it draws. Studies have shown readers in the 30+ age group read in a Z pattern, meaning they read left to right, on a diagonal, then left to right again. Teenagers read in an F pattern, meaning they scan the top and primarily the left side. The result: Look at a Facebook page and you’ll notice that the ads are on the right, and people rarely view those. Also, user menus are frequently found on the left and top portions of Web pages.

Should newspapers alter their design based on reading patterns? That’s tough to say, but instructors should show how to design a clean, organized Web page that caters to readers’ interests and viewing tendencies. Teachers should have discussions about when to create a video to tell the story rather than writing one. Top news stories belong in slots high up on a page, however, whether on a printed or digital page.

A teacher-centered approach might not be the best route with students at all times. Teens are shaping the way that news is being disseminated, and their knowledge matters, too.

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