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 USAToday.com and Newsweek.com and was a home page editor at washingtonpost.com. 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 BUSINESSWEEK.com. 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, NewsNetNebraska.org.) 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.

4 Replies to “Bright Shiny Thing”

  1. Joe, fascinating post as usual. I would also just add: don't forget the readers. Or as people in other lines of work call them: the customers. Aiming journalism towards mobile devices isn't just about the technologies and formats and screen sizes.

    It's also about who is getting their news on a mobile device and what they might want to do with that news since there is a lot of additional capability compared to what you can do with a print magazine in your hands.

    Maybe shorter stories are better, but I would bet their are deeper preferences to be sussed out about how stories flow and what topics or angles are most appealing.

    Younger people used to a more interactive, connected lifestyle might want to follow up entertainment news by grabbing some related content. Or sports readers might want to make changes to their fantasy teams. Investors obviously might want to pull down further research or trade their portfolios.

  2. Aaron,
    Thanks. Your comment about readers grabbing related content is really intriguing. Linking stories to entertainment, sports or investment sites, or just using the right keywords to woo readers, may be a way to do this. Being able to steer readers to our products from other places may be one of the things that Kebbel (or others) will have to figure out what to do. I wonder if there are folks doing such things now in ways that can be adapted to journalism. Thanks much.
    JW

  3. This is the beginning of a great discussion that I hope we can continue. Joe is right that the delivery system, whatever it will be next year, is not everything. In fact, if we go down that path, we've helped weaken the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment. It's fair, accurate, contextual information, gathered and disseminated ethically, that forms the bedrock of information's vital role in a well-functioning democracy. Colleges of communications have a moral responsibility to make sure their students do their part in strengthening the democracy by giving people well-reported, clearly written information on which they can act. And that's where I also agree with Aaron's comment. Information needs to reach people where they are, whenever they want, on whatever device they're using at the moment. Young people are used to interacting with the information. They are active, not passive, information users and social networkers. We can't wring our hands because this generation doesn't read newspapers. We simply have to take that as our challenge.

  4. Gary,
    Kind of you to notice this blog! Put stuff out there and it finds its way to folks, I guess. (Bit scary, actually)
    It was a pleasure meeting you. I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of one another in coming months.
    JW

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