Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Jayhawks

Last week I spoke to Doug Ward's advanced editing class at the University of Kansas. I did not acquit myself particularly well. I pride myself on being a good classroom presenter, but in this case I was stumbling. In part this is because of the uncertainty of times in general -- there is little newspapers can do when GM teeters on the edge of collapse -- but also because I have started to feel as if the time for my generation to lecture younger journalists is passing quickly.

If you look at the photos of so many people arguing about the future of newspapers -- the Jeff Jarvises and Ken Doctors of the world -- they look like me, even though I don't have a photo with this blog. They're white guys in their late 40s or 50s. They got into the traditional newspaper or magazine business, and personal computers came along and they were early adopters, and they saw an online future and got disgusted at the industry's glacial pace of change, and now they just want newspapers to get out of the way so that the New Jerusalem can appear on Earth. Think what a world in which print newspapers were again thriving would mean to those who have for years predicted their downfall. What it would mean primarily is that they were wrong. At the moment the argument is obviously in their favor, but they are not impartial judges. Many of them run blogs to promote their own businesses as guides to the glorious online future. This does not invalidate their counsel or advice; it just means they have a bet on a horse.

Younger journalists are not so down on newspapers. They like printed papers. They also like online journalism. They don't see the one replacing the other. They don't have to. They grew up with both. There was no need for them to be visionary prophets of an online future surrounded by money-grubbing philistines and stick-in-the-mud printies. It's simply their present. At the University Daily Kansan, their view is -- if we can get the paper into students' hands, make them acquainted with it, they will read it.

Because of that, they are much more realistic about the online world and journalism. I asked the class how many of its members used Twitter. Two hands out of about 18 went up. I asked, OK, how many of you REALLY use Twitter, not just have a Twitter account. One hand went up; the second sort of wavered. Yet there are many who will say that Twitter is the journalism of the future, with the implication that everyone uses it or will. The future, in terms of college students at one large journalism school, is not encompassed by Twitter. (I also have a Twitter account.)

So I feel that younger people, just as some voted for Obama not so much because he was a liberal Democrat as that he promised to do away with the interminable and irresolvable and increasingly irrelevant arguments of boomers -- those younger people are the ones we should be looking for to revive newspapers. They know what works with young people, because they are young people. Their complaints about newspapers are the same as younger people's complaints about newspapers were 10 years ago, before universal broadband -- newspapers don't speak to the concerns of younger people, they don't present things in an approachable manner, they are still designed as if it were the 1980s. Their complaint is not, "It's on paper." Because they have grown up with epochal change being their reality, the change did not sunder them from a world they knew, and thus they do not feel the need for jeremiads.

I'm not sure I would send a 26-year-old to a major newspaper's business operating committee, where snakes abound, but I've gotten to the point where I trust their instincts more than I trust my own generation's, because we still look at online in part as if it were Klaatu coming to shake the stood-still Earth instead of simply a tool you use with the same nonchalance with which you would use an oven. There's a Best Buy ad I saw this weekend in which a clearly 20ish clerk is saying how she helped an older man keep in touch with his grandchildren in Africa through Web cams and Skype. The older man appears to have been ignorant of Web cams, and again I can hear Sam Jaffe in the original "Day the Earth Stood Still" saying to Michael Rennie, "Such power exists?" (I wonder what will happen in the remake, where, from the trailers, Gort clearly makes the point more graphically.)

Yet Web cams have the same issue their predecessors had when presented at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair -- except for special occasions, such as calling the Central African Republic to see how your grandchildren have grown, why bother? Ninety percent of phone calls will never use Web cams, and that's probably a low estimate. The Best Buy clerk accepts the Web cam as a small part of reality, a useful tool in specific situations. To the grandfather, it is magic come down from heaven that has revolutionized the world. (The children's parents in the commercial are missionaries; Obama may have won, but Web cams to have Americans see actual African grandchildren are still too futuristic, apparently.) When she is older, the Best Buy clerk will simply expect to be able to see her own grandchildren by some sort of video if they are growing up anywhere in the world. The grandfather never expected this, and so his world has undergone revolution. But revolution offers a poor template for the stability that always seeks to follow it. The children of the revolution have a much better chance of finding the new normal because they do not have to defend their position as revolutionaries.

The KU class had a pretty good idea why students pick up the University Daily Kansan -- stories about them and people they know, plus Sudoku and the crossword. I terribly bobbled one student's question about: If I thought people just picked up the paper for Sudoku, why does it matter how things are written? I will try to answer her more concretely. People buy the paper (in the university sense, pick it up) for many reasons, not just journalism. Many of them buy it daily primarily for puzzles or comics or advertising. Most of those who do at least look at the headlines and ledes of many of the stories. Thus the stories need to be written and presented in such a way that they add to the positive effect of the decision to pick up the paper, so that it is reinforced.

A paper with Sudoku and discursive, pointless, self-indulgent stories will still draw the Sudoku fan, but a paper with Sudoku and effective, well-presented stories will add to the reader's pleasure and cement the view that a newspaper is something to be enjoyed in total. Too many journalists think the reader's pleasure is irrelevant, that the reader picks up the newspaper either to be instructed or to sit in awe of the literary talent being presented in it. In short, too many journalists are too full of themselves to succeed in the 21st century, when a newspaper needs to focus on what its readers want, since the readers' choices of what to do with their time seem limitless. That is the challenge for young journalists of the 21st century, who I hope will save us all. Doug's class seemed ready to rise to that challenge.

4 comments:

Martin Langeveld said...

From what I can tell, Twitter adoption is still pretty localized to larger cities, so I'm not surprised at the low usage at U. of Kansas. TwitterLocal.net has list of the (alleged) top 40 Twitter locations, of which the top 10 are Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, London, D.C., Chicago, Boston, Seattle and Sao Paulo. Some of those (Seattle?) are clearly hot spots where the activity is disproportional to population, while elsewhere, like U. Kansas, the adoption rate lags.

Anonymous said...

Some of what readers want may not even be writing -- I am extremely fond of editorial cartoons, and I'm baffled by the layoffs of so many cartoonists in the newspaper industry. When we lived in Kentucky, the Borgman cartoons in the Cincinnati Enquirer were one of the great pleasures in the newspaper. I don't have to agree with the cartoon to enjoy it.

We do need a better way to present information about municipalities so people who live in them are informed by presentations that convey information in a meaningful way without boring them. How much time should someone have to spend to find out the area zoned for 10-acre lots is going to go to 5-acre lots if the ordinance passes at the next meeting?

Also, I don't think newspapers have really figured out yet how to manage internet sites.

Barbara Phillips Long

Doug Fisher said...

David:

Excellent post. Would quibble with you on one thing -- while younger journalists may not be down on printed paper (gosh, no - in fact the problem I find may be the opposite -- too many still identify themselves by medium), their audiences are not necessarily of the same ilk. I am reminded of the focus groups the Washington Post did where the young professionals clearly wanted the news -- but the WaPo couldn't give the paper away. They clearly were down on the printed paper.

I don't yet think this is a majority, but we need to keep in mind that young journalists may be journalists first and young second and subject to the same disconnect that has afflicted those of us in the boomer generation.

Anonymous said...

Your presentation should have been entitled: "The History of the Future of Print Journalism." You must remember those University of Kansas students will someday be standing in front of a similiar classroom in twenty years feeling a little outdated the same way you did. What is cutting edge today will be outdated tomorrow, even for the most tech savey college journalism student in the last months of 2008.

Just remember the old French proverb, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana