Recovering newspaper people get a little squeamish when you talk about things like click-through rates, page views and social reach. That's because most of us were raised on the belief that the best newspapers carried "all the news that's fit to print," not "all the news that's fit to share." We don't like admitting the school lunch menu and the latest update on Snooki's pregnancy get more eyeballs than the in-depth analysis of Congress's latest budget debate.
That conventional wisdom may explain some of the reasons for the telling data points the Pew State of the Media Report released Monday, which found the newspaper industry is still in a long, steady decline, and digital revenue gains are failing to keep pace with print advertising losses.
And here at the College Media Association's annual convention in New York, where student journalists and the advisers who are training them into the next generation of news reporters are gathered through Tuesday, there are plenty of casualties to comment on that slow decline -- and plenty of reasons to worry.
Students at the College Media Association's annual conference are encouraged to tweet updates to the #nyc12 Twitter hashtag, but the conference's program still puts a heavy emphasis on training them for print journalism careers.
Old Habits Die Hard
A college newspaper adviser was traditionally the person who could lead by example and give students the real-world models for them to base their work off of. There are more than a few traditional academics on the tenure track at a gathering like this, but, increasingly, ex-newspaper reporters and editors are losing jobs in their chosen profession and finding work as journalism instructors and college newspaper advisers.
I won't use CMA's use of a listserv as its primary means for advisers to discuss issues as Exhibit A in how the people training the next generation of journalists are out of touch with the latest content delivery methods. My own view of tech is that if something is working for you, there's no need to abandon it until you find something that works better.
Nor will I make fun of the conference app that didn't work as advertised, the fact that most of the new media sessions were hidden in basement conference rooms, and that several people think the best way to connect with young journalists is to pepper their talks with the phrase "badass."
That's because what is most troubling about a convention like this is that their instructors and advisers often just don't understand what is and is not working, if they understand new media at all. What happens here and across the industry is people cling to myths, including the feeling that having a print product is vital and that they can't make money online. They focus on soon-to-be-antiquated skills like print page design when they could be focusing on understanding Web site analytics.
If those myths continue to propagate with undergrads, they'll continue to propagate when the students go pro.
Start at the Bottom
"The half-formed question for the industry now seems to be whether organizations need to go all in for digital by installing top executives and editors who specialize in new media," Emily Guskin, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell of the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute wrote in the Pew report. "Another question is whether their organizations can weather another five years or more of transition if the effort takes that long."
No one is about to ask me to install top executives at any news organization. But where I can do my part is making sure I'm on top of all the changes in the field and learning all the multimedia skills my students need to know to succeed. I've spent the past five years transitioning from a print journalism career to an online journalism career, and I'm constantly trying to train my students to do the same. If I don't concede that I don't know everything, if I preach too many "when I was your age" war stories, they're doomed, and so is this profession.
When I started out as a journalist in the early 1990s, being a good writer or a good reporter or a good photographer was usually enough to land a good entry-level job in print. That model doesn't cut it anymore. Now students need to have all those skills, plus an ability to work in a range of content management systems. Being able to edit video and audio and being fast enough on your feet to file a broadcast from your smartphone doesn't hurt, either. Oh, and don't forget all those crucial social media skills that colleges are not stressing enough.
At the risk of talking myself out of my teaching job, can we really expect ex-newspaper guys who are still romanticizing print to be able to teach the next generation of journalists all those skills?
For more on the future of journalism and how to attract readers, continue reading this article on ReadWriteWeb.