Social media: Evolving or devolving journalism?

Social media: Evolving or devolving journalism?

Here around the field hospital of journalism, a sheethail of shells is falling, and mists of phosgene gas are billowing closer with the fragrance of new-mown hay. But the generals have figured a way out.

Social and multimedia will save the traumatized and the maimed.

The orders already are issued: Every reporter henceforth will enlist Twitter, Facebook and other social media to gather and disseminate the news. Every reporter will know not just how to write, but also how to put together multimedia packages, craft audio and video, manipulate the Web, deploy Adobe InDesign and Photoshop and HTML and pepper his or her production with links to corridor after endless corridor of related material.

Doing this is the way for the vast army of unemployed or prospective journalists to find jobs. And social-multimedia is what news consumers want from them. It’s the salvation of once-traditional news organizations perishing in the digital age. It’s the new media’s best bet to make money. It’s the future of journalism.

Or not.

It’s always good to hope. But what leap at me are increasing signs that the new prescription – medicine that prospective working journalists supposedly have no choice but to take – threatens unintended consequences. The jack-of-all-digital-trades journalist does not seem like a sustainable proposition right now, and I don’t see how this approach, in current circumstances anyway, is going to improve the quality of journalism. It could add to journalism’s decline. And the young people I know are not buying into Twitter, for news or anything else.

Maybe one day, when news outfits are making more money, and they can afford to do social and multimedia right, and hire and pay enough employees to get all the extra work involved done, it will work. Maybe someone will come up with a radically new way to organize journalism ventures to make good digital journalism possible and sustainable and to treat employees decently. But what I see now makes my heart heavy. I see journalism continuing to spiral downward under the weight of increasing demands and declining resources. And I worry for the burdens that the young people I know who look forward to going into the profession are being asked to heft. 

Who am I to speak?

I am a journalist and a casualty of the Internet revolution. My beloved former newspaper, The Albuquerque Tribune, was folded by its owner, Scripps Howard, in February of 2008 – one of several newspapers of the once-mighty Scripps empire whose revenues were gutted by Web developments.

At the end, when we were down to under 10,000 paper subscribers, we were getting something like 100,000 hits a day on our Web site. Don’t hang me on that; it’s a figure I remember for some reason. In any case, it is accurate to say that many times more people were reading us on the Web than on paper, but we were not making money from the digital Trib to save ourselves.

Since then, I have sustained myself by teaching journalism – mostly online – and English writing classes as an adjunct instructor carrying a full load of classes at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque.

I also have been serving as the faculty adviser for the CNM Chronicle, the school’s student newspaper, which is staffed by students with a remarkable enthusiasm for journalism. They have deservedly been winning awards at national and international Associated Collegiate Press conventions – the latest a third place in Best of Show.

I am not a technophobe or a cyberdinosaur. I have over the past 31 years adapted to all sorts of new technologies and have used, on a daily basis, page-design and pagination software, Photoshop, Blackboard Learn, which is a multimedia online teaching platform, Web posting and many other forms of new or once-new stuff. I like multimedia and look forward to experimenting with multimedia packages here at the Merc.

What bugs me is the lack of thoughtful restraint and the great faith the industry and the education establishment seem to have in these ephemeral technologies – and the apparent lack of concern about the burdens they will place on prospective and actual journalists. In effect, the generals are asking their soldier-patients to fight destruction while carrying their own beds. Their do-more-with-less solution is not genuinely innovative.   

What I’m seeing

Lots of folks these days are looking at national trends involving social media, multimedia and the future of journalism.  I want to add to the mix a few of the current developments I have witnessed with my own eyes:

In successive Associated Collegiate Press conventions I’ve attended with my CNM Chronicle students – the latest Feb. 28-March 3 in San Francisco – I have noticed a growing insistence on multimedia and social media training for journalism students.

These conventions deal with the cutting edge of journalism education. In the many sessions on digital media in San Francisco, such as “#ThatAwkwardMomentWhenYouAren’tMultiplatform,” put on by an energetic Jeff Halliday of Longwood University, the message was some form of: Students serious about finding jobs when they graduate had better learn how to do more than just write. It was not even questioned in a panel titled “Best Practices in Social Media” whether Twitter is necessary or who, exactly, it is supposed to serve.

On the indeed.com and journalismjobs.com online job boards that I have checked regularly for myriad months, most of the writing or editing jobs available, not just in journalism but in most fields, have been for people who know social and multimedia and can wrangle the Web. One trend is to require prospective employees to have large Twitter followings already if they want to be considered. This tracks with what the folks at ACP are saying.

At the latest University of New Mexico Journalism Boot Camp in January – an annual event now for UNM and CNM journalism students, put together by former Tribune writers and editors, and in which I participate – much of the buzz also was about the coming ascendancy of social media and multimedia.

While not all journalism programs have adapted yet to teaching Twitter, Facebook and multimedia, it’s more and more clear to me that this is no longer regarded just as an interesting idea but is the tsunami of the future.

The latest edition of the respected textbook I use in my first-year journalism classes – “Reporting for the Media,” 10th edition, published by Oxford University Press in 2012 –for the first time has a chapter on “Writing for Digital Media.” I now do some introductory classes on digital media. It means I spend less time on something else.

“Bob Dylan,” says the textbook, “noted in one of his songs that ‘the times they are a-changin’,’ and for reporters that could be considered an understatement” – meaning that multimedia now is a change students must deal with. One session at the recent ACP convention stressed that the “story tree” approach to digital media – the one that happens to be presented in our new textbook edition – is already out of date as a main model for digital reporting. There are many other ways to do digital.

What the good news is   

These developments have good things to say about them.

A multimedia approach can engage people with different learning styles.  I understand this. I’ve been a college instructor on at least a part-time basis since the mid-1990s and have taken CNM courses on instructor development and online teaching and graduated from CNM’s Alternative Teacher Licensure Program, and I can, as a teacher, recognize the value of multimedia as a teaching tool. Truly.

The social-multimedia approach is cutting-edge, adventuresome, wide open, and apparently a lot of folks are interested in it for the time being.

This New Mexico Mercury Web site that you’re reading from is an online adventure that offers writers like me an immense opportunity to publish and to construct multimedia packages to do so, given the time and inclination. I plan to take advantage. I’m happy writing for the Merc. Not just saying this!
Note the important detail, though, that the Merc is not yet a paying gig for anybody. We’re writing for love, not money. Not many commercial digital news operations make a profit yet. It takes money to hire the folks needed to do digital journalism right.

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Jack Ehn

Jack Ehn is the former editorial page editor for the late Albuquerque Tribune and now teaches journalism and English writing classes at Central New Mexico Community College. He worked for newspapers for 31 years and before that in printing and production. He is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and St. John's College.

Contact Jack Ehn

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