Sitting in my Carroll Hall office, it’s not unusual for me to read about some new online news tool and wonder to myself how I’m going to keep up with all the changes that continue to happen in digital media. When I was in newsrooms, I had a pretty good sense about which technologies were solid and which were hype. But the one thing I don’t wonder is how I, or a school of journalism in general, is going to remain relevant. A journalist doesn’t stay relevant solely by keeping up with technology. A journalist stays relevant by keeping up with his audience — by following the social, political, economic and, yes, technological trends and then finding a way to get the audience interesting stories that the audience itself doesn’t even yet know that it wants.
When I talk with older journalists about my students, they often assume that the Millennials constant exposure to the Internet means that they will be the ones to figure out the future of news. And what I hate to tell those older journalists is that while young people today are voracious consumers of services that have good product design and high social utility, that that alone doesn’t make them curious or informed or creative. And technological proximity alone doesn’t provide vision and leadership for journalistic innovation that our nation needs. It’s up to professors like me to cultivate those things in as many students as we can.
On the other end of the chronological spectrum, I talk to young people whose ambition sometimes eclipses their ability. I’m drawn to their gung-ho attitude but often put off by their assumption that journalists who are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning have somehow used a limited lifetime allotment of creativity and curiosity that they’ve been given. And what I tell those young people is that just as youth doesn’t guarantee innovation, neither does age limit someone’s ability to seek a fresh approach to the industry’s problems.
That brings me to the answer that I give journalists who ask for my advice on how to stay fresh and relevant. It’s the same advice I try to heed myself. Keep an eye on your audience and stay one step ahead of them with story ideas as well as storytelling and delivery tools.