Dan Gillmor’s recent blog post about the future of journalism education — particularly collegiate schools of journalism — is highlighting once again what is perhaps the most popular debate in our field. The question revolves basically around this: How much technology do journalists need to know?The question is important because time is a scarce resource. Students can never take all the classes they want and all the classes they need. Some see a journalism degree as being a great capstone to a broad liberal arts undergraduate education. Others see journalism as a trade school that helps students get a job (most likely in PR or lawyering, but jobs nonetheless.)
There has long been a debate in newsrooms and academia about how useful a journalism degree in hunting for newsroom jobs. Now the debate is not only over whether prospective hires should have a journalism degree, but what type of journalism degree. Did the student cover the fundamentals of reporting and ethics? Did the student pick of fundamental tool skills such as video editing and shooting?
This debate is manifesting itself as a conversation about whether we should teach programming in journalism schools, or whether we should train people as journalists who work with programmers.
But this is the wrong debate. It focuses on the high end of very cool projects that are being done in the very best newsrooms. Our attention instead — or, also — needs to be focused on how we can create a basic fluency with information technology among all our students, even the ones who are still looking for jobs at the Saturday Evening Post.
Journalism will not be reinvented solely by the winners of the Knight News Challenge, but by copyeditors and producers and reporters and photographers in every small town in America. Not all of them need to be Adrian Holovaty. But they all need basic fluency with information technology appropriate to the field of journalism.
For whatever reason, basic IT literacy isn’t really a part of the journalism education conversation. That may be partially due to professors who see students constantly jacked in to laptops, iPods and smart phones and wrongly assume that those students know how to create and thoughtfully consume messages constructed for those media. In my brief experience, every student uses the Web but very, very few have even the most basic understanding about how it works.
I learned about the idea of IT fluency when I Googled across a 1999 report by the National Research Council title Being Fluent with Information Technology. It asked the question: “What should every citizen know about Information Technology?” The report noted correctly that education about computers often centers around the acquisition of some immediately employable skill, so the report proposed that IT fluency also incorporate the concepts and capabilities that will help people think about the world in a different way and use old tools in new ways, and even invent tools to solve problems and realize opportunities we can’t yet imagine.
The report yielded a textbook and a fantastic — and free — online course. But, ironically, the only place I’ve been able to find the book being used at UNC is in the introductory courses in the computer science department.
IT Fluency for Journalists
So, what does IT fluency for journalist look like? I like to think of it in terms of a set of exercises. Each of those exercises not only teaches a practical skill, but illustrates a broader concept. For example:
|Students create resume in HTML||HTML||Content can be separated from presentation|
|Add links to resume, or write an FAQ on your beat||HTML||Basics of non-linear story telling|
|Students upload resume to the Web||FTP||Basic understandings of networks and client-server technology|
|While reading news, students tag and save articles to a social bookmarking site like Delicious||tagging and social bookmarking||Keywords, search engine optimization and taxonomies|
|Have students report a story using only Google, Twitter, Wikipedia and amateur Web sites||Google, Twitter, Wikipedia and WhoIs||Finding and assessing information in decentralized media|
|Create a photo slideshow with audio for a story on your beat||Digital photography and editing. Digital audio recording and editing.||Choosing the right medium for the story content|
|Fix a broken Web page||HTML||Debugging: Solving problems through scientific method|
|Write a “how it works” piece explaining some process on your beat that has multiple possible outcomes. For example, “how a bill becomes a law.”||Basic reporting||Algorithmic thinking|
|Create a phone list of all the contacts on your beat||Excel spreedsheets||Structured data best practices|
In other words, it’s great if someone who knows PHP and MySQL wants to work in journalism, but they can frankly make a lot more money elsewhere. If we want to prepare students to change journalism, then we need to teach them the language that programmers speak and foster the creativity to employ programmers to do interesting things. As it stands now, far too many journalism students have far too little technical fluency to lead — or even participate casually — a field that is undergoing historic change.
Even if they never use it, let’s stop graduating students who can’t code basic HTML, use Excel, upload files to a server, or shoot and edit digital audio and video.