Bright Shiny Thing

Gary Kebbel, one of four candidates for the deanship at the J School at Nebraska, has a fetching idea. Since journalism is moving in the direction of the mobile device – with the iPad as the newest platform – why not turn our college into the national center for mobile media?

Kebbel’s vision is entrancing. He would bring together computer programming folks from other parts of the university with business-school folks and our faculty and student journalists to develop new apps so our budding reporters could serve readers on cell phones, iPhones, iPads and other yet-to-be-developed devices around the globe. Our student journalists would learn to write, film and photograph for such devices. And we could partner with newspapers, magazines, TV networks and other media outlets to commercialize the work we do (and hire our grads).

And Kebbel, who visited us yesterday, brings some street cred to the vision. He has reviewed and approved tens of millions of dollars in grants about such novel work in the journalism program at the grant-making Knight Foundation since January 2006 (program director since early 2008). He worked as news director at America Online, helped created and and was a home page editor at He got his start in small newspapers in upstate New York.

For us, he would bring a clear sense of what the cutting-edge folks in the field are doing to serve the journalism of the future – or, at least, what seems likely to be a big part of tomorrow’s media. He would also bring access to money through his foundation connections. And his outlook dovetails with that of the top administrators here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who are creating an entire campus, the Innovation Campus, on the longtime site of the state fair. Technology is key to the university’s future, our leaders rightly believe, and they would turn UNL into a beacon in the Silicon Prairie.

Kebbel, an energetic, likable and motivating sort, would turn the J School into the brightest bulb in that beacon. He would give our school national bragging rights to what could prove to be the key delivery systems for media in the future. And this, he believes, would attract bright students and faculty from around the country. It would put Nebraska on the map alongside schools such as Columbia and Missouri. (He’d like to beef up our master’s program, letting us compete better with such schools, with Berkeley, UNC, etc.)

For many of us who are steeped in the old media, however, the vision is as much as a challenge as an opportunity. We do a good job teaching students how to write, report, photograph and film for print and broadcast. We are used to magazines, newspapers, TV and radio. We each bring backgrounds in one or more of those arenas and a few of us have multi-media experience that brought those different platforms together. Still, we do tend to teach for those media as we know them (focusing on their traditional approaches even as we nod to the dabbles they make in the online world).

So how do we now get our heads around journalism for the mobile media? What skills will we need to add to our repertoires to push students into those areas? And what can we learn since we don’t know yet exactly what the mobile media will need? Some things seem obvious, such as teaching kids to write shorter and produce video that works well on the small screen. But we don’t even know yet what we don’t know.

To be sure, we’re all earning our multi-media spurs. I’m a lifetime print hound and was lucky enough to develop a touch of online sakel through I’m now honing my skills in doing slide shows, using still and video cameras, and putting material on the Net. (I must, since I team-teach two multi-media courses with broadcast veterans. In one, students create stories for our website, We all are laboring to integrate our schooling of the basics of journalism – clear writing, thorough reporting, fairness and accuracy – with technology in our classes.

Frankly, it’s a lot for us and for students to learn. Already, we grouse that students don’t get enough time and practice on the basics of reporting and writing. Those basics must be covered, whatever delivery system they use. We need to add more reporting and writing courses to the loads they carry, even if that conflicts with the rules that limit their journalism course-loads so they can study such areas as English, History, Science, etc., to get a well-rounded education.

If Kebbel does move into the corner office, he will surely bring an appealing focus to the school. His vision is almost certainly right about the delivery systems of the future (though I believe print and broadcast won’t disappear for a while yet, and skills such as compact writing, eye-catching layout and organization matter even more in the online world). But he must make room for the basics. If our students don’t master the essentials today, they won’t get the chance to serve up news on the beeping bright shiny things we’ll all be carrying around tomorrow.

Darndest Things

Kids say the darndest things.

If I mentioned that Linkletterism to the college juniors and seniors in my classes, I’d get a blank look or worse. First, they would have no clue who made the phrase famous. Worse, they wouldn’t want to be called kids, even by someone with three kids all a smidge older than they are. More to the point, they wouldn’t want me to treat their thoughts so offhandedly.

Indeed, there’s no way I could treat what they say lightly. Early each semester, I ask students in my magazine-writing class to do a short autobiography. I’d like to get to know them a bit and see how well they write. Usually, I get far more than I bargained for. These kids, it turns out, come with baggage.

“I was born in Bethlehem,” one young fellow writes. “Not the one you’re thinking of. Not the one with mangers, wise-men or Saviors. Rather, it’s a ratty industrial town in Pennsylvania whose sole claim to fame is the Philadelphia Eagles training camp at nearby Lehigh University.”

From there, my student says his chief desire is “to avoid the fate” of his parents. He doesn’t want “to be doomed to live decades with a person I don’t really like to simply avoid being alone.”

Then there’s the promising young lady who attended the same all-girls Catholic school as her mom, an Indian immigrant. “I was only 14 years old when my mother received a phone call from my principal telling her I was being expelled from school for being gay,” she writes. “It wasn’t my ideal ‘coming-out’ story, considering I had never brought up my sexuality with my family before, and equally, the repercussions were not ideal.”

And there’s the bright guy whose dad developed such severe obsessive-compulsive disorder that he lost his job, couldn’t drive for fear of killing someone and flipped light switches hundreds of times. “I couldn’t handle people thinking I was living in a comedy when in reality, I was listening to my mother cry herself to sleep in the spare bedroom,” the fellow writes. “I had to stop playing baseball because we couldn’t afford it and I didn’t have anybody who could drive me to practices.”

Whoa, brother. The pieces tear my heart out. I’m not sure whether to reach out to a school shrink to get in touch with the kids (or perhaps to counsel me on how best to take in such life issues). Certainly, Art Linkletter’s kids raised no such problems.

But, after talking with other faculty here – and listening to my own inner counsel – I do what I believe journalism instructors should do. I look at the revelatory work as pieces of writing. Does the writer make his or her points well? Does the piece hang together? Does it invite readers in, set a nice table for them and give them a solid meal? Are there good ledes, nut grafs and kickers? Painful as the accounts may be, do they paint a true and accurate picture? Does the writer do the job with grace and wit?

Today, I put parts of such pieces on the screen for the class to discuss. I read aloud or paraphrased some sections, praising them for their color or nice turn of phrase. I got excited about the anecdotes they sketched out. Unless I had their permission, I didn’t say who had written the more personal material. I kept that anonymous, or at least as anonymous as it can be since the students peer-edit each other’s work.

Like any reader, I prize an honest and thorough account of challenges someone has faced. I encourage the students to tell their stories well, of course, and I’m enormously pleased when they do. But I must admit that I’m pained by their tales, and grow to like them for their candor. It’s real life, folks, and that can be tough. I also wrestle with the temptation to grade them more for honesty than style or organization, something that takes a challenging dose of hard-headedness.

The fact is, as I tell my students, that everyone carries baggage. As we get older, we learn how to hide it better, I suppose, or it becomes less of a burden. It’s because they are kids, I suspect, that they are willing to share so much of what weighs them down now with a stranger, some guy at the front of the classroom who they barely know but who aims to make them better writers.

So is teaching an easy job? Not always. Is it worthwhile? Absolutely.

Kyrgyzstan, Here We Come

One perk academics enjoy is travel. Friends in the economics department at the University of Illinois, for instance, roam the globe for a half-dozen conferences each year with other economists. They go to places such as Paris, Stockholm, Berlin and Jerusalem.

So, this May, I’ll get to do the same thing, only my trip is to Kyrgyzstan.

Yes, Kyrgyzstan, a country I had barely heard of until a couple months ago. Even then, I thought it was the place that Sacha Baron Cohen had parodied in “Borat.” (That was neighboring Kazakhstan, it turned out.)

Another faculty member and I will take a group of eight undergrads to this former Soviet republic for about 10 days. We’ll rove about, looking for yurts and such that the students can photograph for an ongoing multi-year project documenting global poverty. One student will supply the words, reporting while the photographers capture the images. At the end, we’ll put this into a magazine that we’ll produce.

It’s a fascinating undertaking, actually. It turns out that Kyrgyzstan is one of the world’s more beautiful spots, with stunning alpine vistas. It’s also a good example of how the Soviets sought to impose their values on an ancient people with very mixed results — some modernization, but sterility in architecture and, it seems, rigidity in thought. Nineteen years after the Soviets were encouraged to leave (as they mostly did) the place in many ways is now reverting to old ways, perhaps including such bizarre practices as bride-kidnapping.

The country is also one of the poorest in the world. This won’t make our visit a posh affair, but should make it exciting and interesting. If journalism were only about Paris, the work of scribes would be mighty boring and unimportant, no? Indeed, if by our work we wind up influencing in some small way public knowledge of the place, we will have done a good job.

We all are likely in coming years to hear more about Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek, the country’s capital and largest city, is home to a U.S. air base that is a chief launching point for our forces in Afghanistan. The base has been controversial, since the Russians aren’t enamored of the U.S. having such an important post in one of their former reaches. But it’s also central to the war effort, which means more U.S. resources are likely to flow into the country over time. This will be worth paying attention to.

I’m very psyched about this trip. The students and my colleague, Bruce Thorson, and I will learn a great deal about the country in coming weeks. We’ll be mapping out our strategy for telling its story. We’ll educate ourselves about its customs, history, geography and current challenges.

Already, we are reaching out to contacts. We just met a delightful exchange student from there who is living in Nebraska, for instance. Over pizza the other night, we talked about the best places for us to go and the customs we should take note of (the women students should not cover their hair to try to fit into the Muslim culture, our new friend said, because that will create false expectations about their religion. And, even though the place is fairly safe, we should all get pepper-spray and avoid roaming about after midnight.)

I expect this trip will broaden our view of the world. In some small way, we will also make a difference in how people here see a place most people don’t know. Paris will just have to wait.


Hiring the Boss

Do you get to choose your boss?

We don’t exactly get to do that in academia, but we get pretty close to it. This week, we had a candidate for the deanship at the J-School come by for a couple intensive days — an extraordinarily packed session that had her going from nearly sunup to well past sundown in meetings with top administrators, faculty and, I expect, students.

We on the news faculty got to see the candidate, Kristin Gilger of the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University, in action in two sessions. First, we had a private session in the morning with about 10 of us or so (all those who happened to be free from classes at that hour). Then, she met with a large group that included us and other folks at the college.

The words candid, free-wheeling and tough come to mind about the sessions. We talked about everything from strained financial resources in higher ed and grantsmanship to the tenure process. Gilger, an assistant dean now, was grilled on how she helped elevate ASU into a richly endowed journalism school that could attract such talents as former CNN anchor Aaron Brown and former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. We pressed her on her plans for working such magic at Nebraska to sustain and deepen its excellence, and build its national name. (Nebraska has already attracted stars from such top-flight places as the New York Times, ABC News, The Detroit News and the Miami Herald.)

The affair was fascinating on several counts. First, faculty views do matter in the selection of a dean. Already, faculty weighed in on the selection committee that winnowed an initial list down from 37 or so folks. And now our views on the candidates are being solicited before the final choice is made.

Such a democratic approach doesn’t hold, of course, for most of the commercial world. But it’s important in the academy that several constituencies be tapped. Top administrators at the university need to sign off, for sure, but it would hard to imagine a dean being selected over the faculty’s objection. Buy-in across the institution seems mandatory.

This all-in-on-the-choice approach may be something newspapers and magazines (and other fields based on intellectual capital) ought to emulate. After all, faculty members do work closely with deans but I recall working every bit as closely with my top editors at BUSINESS WEEK. And, if editors and publishers value the judgment of journalists as much as they say they do, why shouldn’t such staffers have a say?

Given how imperiled so many journalism organizations are these days, the judgments of lots of smart people ought to figure into the choices of leaders, no? Journalists, like journalism faculty members, are natural critics accustomed to weighing lots of factors in assessing the folks they report on (or teach about). Wouldn’t it be helpful to have those skills brought to bear in the selection of bosses?

Gilger, by the way, knocked the cover off the ball in her appearances. She’s smart, dynamic and brings lots of good ideas as well as a diverse resume with both industry and academic cred. We still have several top-notch folks to meet with — David Stoeffler of Touchstone News Consulting in Ferryville, Wis.; Gary Kebbel of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; and Alan Stavitsky of the University of Oregon. All bring substantial backgrounds and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top in the end.


Making the Grade

It ain’t rocket science.

But a few friends — BUSINESS WEEK veterans Rob Hof, Rick Melcher, Bill Symonds and Lauren Young — graciously helped to keep me and my students flying this past semester. They provided reality-checks on one of the toughest chores a journalism teacher faces — grading.

Grading is a knotty affair. What’s the difference between an A- and a B+ piece of work? More to the point, does anybody give a C in these painfully grade-inflated days? One student came to me all wide-eyed and indignant saying she had never gotten a B+ before, wondering why I would do such a terrible thing to her (turned out she was not telling the truth, as another prof advised me).

The problem is that judging journalistic work, like any piece of writing or creative effort, is subjective. A friend used to say there are three things no man can to do to another’s satisfaction: poke a fire, make love to a woman, and edit a newspaper. With rockets, they go up or they don’t. With journalism, the measures are less tangible.

So, we at Nebraska ask outside colleagues to evaluate samples of student work. Sometimes, the real-world folks agree with our judgments. Often, they don’t. In either case, it’s good for us and the students. For me, the outside comments have been a bracing slap in the face, a helpful sense of how smart readers and editors will treat the student work. (The outsiders review the work samples after we have graded the papers, after the course is over and the student grades are in. The reviews serve chiefly to keep my perspective straight.)

A few pieces I graded highly came in for some helpful heat. One, about the rise of homelessness among families in Lincoln, Neb., buried the nut graf atop page four, Rick Melcher said. And he complained that the story “loses focus” despite the “great, moving examples.” He rated it only satisfactory in reflecting news judgment and use of interviewing skills and said the
writing needed improvement.

Interestingly, Bill Symonds agreed that the piece would “benefit from a good editor.” He said the writing “needs to be cleaned up.” But Bill rated the news judgment as outstanding and gave satisfactory ratings on interviewing and writing. His summary: “I liked this story a lot.” He said it was “well-researched and generally well-written.”

So, even the outsiders will often view things differently. Smartly, it turns out, but differently.

Like the others, Rob Hof warned that he was using BUSINESS WEEK standards to judge the undergrad work, fretting that he may have been overly critical. But high standards — real-world standards — are just what I wanted. One of the problems in academics is we lose touch with what the field demands. Euphoric at what seems like good work compared to some really poor stuff, we give A grades to pieces that in the outside world may be mediocre.

Rob was tough on a piece that compared recruitment of athletes with recruitment of grad students. He said it needed improvement in news judgment and focus, as well as writing. He rated it satisfactory on interviewing and research skills. “Overall, the issue of academics vs. sports in universities seems a little tired, and the arguments presented by the academics seemed especially old and not very sophisticated.” Ouch!

Lauren Young, too, took a strict line on a news story about a controversial downtown development effort. She gave satisfactory ratings on news judgment and interviewing skills, but said the writing needed improvement. “Everything is in the piece, but the articles needs stronger, more active language to sing,” she said.

A couple other colleagues are still mulling the student work. I’m eager to see what they have to say.

These outside judgments, which at first struck me as a strange and repetitive thing to pursue, are hugely helpful. If nothing else, they’ll stiffen my spine to give out more Cs when appropriate. It’s better that students know what the world would really think, even if that means awkward conversation with those who’ve never earned anything less than an A.

My thanks to those who helped out, and I hope I can call on you again.


Ethics and the Net

A friend, Steve Wildstrom, raises some important questions. Do the Net and the creative destruction under way in journalism change our traditional journalistic ethics? Are new business arrangements journalists are making with sponsors crushing the tenet of independence that reporters have long lived by? At times we have taken up this question in classes and I suspect we’ll do so far more.

Steve, a former BUSINESS WEEK columnist who wrote expertly about new technology each week for many years, will be writing about emerging technology again next week at the Consumer Electronics Show. Instead of doing so for BW or another pub, however, he’ll write for a blog run by Nvidia, a big chipmaker.

Steve says the company is putting no constraints on him but requiring only that he keep the posts relevant to Nvidia’s areas of interest. He’s comfortable with the arrangement, he says, but adds that “it sure is different.”

Further, Steve writes:

I do have one suggestion for journalism schools as a consequence of my ongoing career exploration. The old rules of journalism have to change if anyone is going to make a living in this business. We’re all turning into entrepreneurs of one sort or another. What are the ethical rules for this new world? No one seems to know. They sure can’t be the old world, where we lived off advertising support and pretended that it had no relationship to what we did. Now we have to get up close and personal with the people who pay the bills. The old rules don’t work and it’s everyone for [himself] figuring out the new ones.”

Other friends, such as Howard Wolinsky, a long-time veteran of the Chicago Sun-Times, have similarly struck out on their own now and are writing for various outlets. Howard is doing some interesting work for Ancestry magazine, for instance.

For those of us who long labored at arm’s length from the advertisers, getting so “up close and personal” with sponsors is a challenging idea. On its face, it seems the “church and state” separation that governed at such mags as BW is eroded by personal sponsorship arrangements. Do we censor ourselves in such deals? Do we not write critically, for instance, about the sponsor? Or, do we not write at all about the sponsor’s competitors (or do so only damningly)? Just how long is the leash the sponsor puts us on, and that we put ourselves?

It would be naive to think that a writer’s independence is not curtailed by such arrangements. To a larger degree than was the case at a place such as BW, it seems the one who pays the piper will call the tune. Certainly, a sponsor might deem some topics inappropriate, such as glowing references to competitors. So, too, will writers deem topics inappropriate or too risky to address in such columns. No one will want to bite the hand that feeds them.

But the new one-on-one sponsorship arrangements need not be corrupting or unethical. So long as the work that does appear is untainted by the sponsor and reflects a writer’s best reporting and judgment, how is that any different from work we would have done for the old pubs? Certain topics or organizations may be taboo, but if the writer remains free to praise or damn those he writes about, is he not serving readers well?

At big pubs such as BW, such concerns were rarely an issue. For most of the time I was there, the magazine had so many advertisers that if one pulled its pages in a huff over a critical piece, the magazine could rely on others to fill the space. Reporters were told simply to do their best work, without fear or favor. In fact, some reporters would joke that they were members of a “million-dollar club,” a club filled by those whose critical reporting had cost the magazine a million dollars in ad revenues.

Over 22 years, I was involved in only two incidents where deference to advertisers affected our coverage. Many years ago, soon after I joined BW, we ran a critical story about an advertiser and used its logo to make a point — instead of a healthy tree, the company’s symbol, we ran an image of one that was half-shriveled. The advertiser’s execs said they could live with the story, but they were so furious about the logo-tampering that they pulled their ads. We also had a high-level lunch at which they made their case to me and my editors about why they were not doing as poorly as we suggested in the text. (Such meetings were not unusual and in fact helped our coverage). My editor ruled that in the future we would not satirize or otherwise demean company logos, arguing that the companies had invested too much in them for us to take cheap shots. (Struck me as arguable at the time, but so long as the words were untainted, that was fine).

In the second case, during the hard-pressed last couple years, an advertiser had signed on as a sponsor for a recurring feature. When I alluded to one of the sponsor’s rivals in a piece for that space, an editor quashed the piece. We were free to write about competitors in other parts of the magazine, she said, but not in that recurring feature. This struck me as tolerable, since it is akin to the issue of “adjacencies,” where we wouldn’t want to write about an advertiser in a space next to the ad (something that raises obvious questions).

I am sure that Steve’s work for the Nvidia blog, or wherever else it appears, will be straightforward, ethical and useful to his readers. That’s the sort of guy he is. I don’t believe he would tolerate meddling, and he’s talented enough that he’ll find another outlet if it occurs. Readers will learn a lot by checking his work out. Same goes for Howard, who did some remarkable investigative work for the Sun-Times.

Still, the new one-on-one sponsorship arrangements do put new demands on readers and writers alike. Readers, for instance, need to be aware of who is paying the freight and stay alert for bias. And writers, of course, need to be cautious about muzzling themselves to the readers’ detriment. The Net is forcing us into a brave new world, but the deal we make with readers still must hold true — we will tell the truth as we see it. If that changes, we’re lost.