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.

JW

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.

Journalism School?

For years, journalism school for undergrads seemed like a bad idea to me. Better to study English or History, if you were inclined toward the liberal arts, or Science or Business, if your rod bent that way. Journalism, after all, is a trade, not a discipline with a body of content, it seemed. You could pick up any needed skills by working on the school paper or, if you wanted the union card, by going to grad school in journalism at Columbia or Missouri or somesuch.

Now, with jobs in media disappearing by the thousands, the arguments against J-School are taking on a new force. Some critics even say it’s immoral that we teach students journalism when the field is shriveling. There will be no jobs for our grads, they say. A lawyer friend argues that J-School teachers ought to be sued for their perfidy (of course, as a lawyer he would say that).

After four months of teaching at Nebraska, however, it’s clear to me that J-School is every bit as worthwhile as any other academic pursuit and more useful than many. First, there is the content. I teach magazine-writing, for instance. Writing for mags is a particular skill that demands the ability to report thoroughly, using interviewing and documentary research techniques, as well as a talent for structuring a piece well. Do History instructors or even English teachers school students in how to develop ledes, nut grafs and kickers? None I ever had did so. Students who master such abilities will have an edge.

Then there are crucial writing elements that one learns only by repeated practice and through criticism. Focus, for instance. In each of my three classes, I’ve seen that students struggle to focus their writing. What is this story about? How can they boil it down to a nut graf that is both on point and moves the reader along? When I and other students edit the work, and discuss it in class, these budding writers learn just what focus means. It is through the criticism/self-criticism approach that they see what they need to do to put a piece on target, to nail down the dramatic tension.

Other disciplines rarely dwell on such writing skills. And they are useful whether students wind up in journalism or not. Must a lawyer focus and write clearly? Do physicians need to know how to identify problems and investigate alternatives to solve them? If we, by teaching sound writing skills, can help students think broadly and question thoroughly, are we not preparing them for just about any field? Is not journalism as useful a pursuit in school as English? (Indeed, since students are limited to a modest percentage of journalism classes and must take many outside the college, they do get rich exposure to other fields.)

“So is journalism school practical or just a nice bit of training for other things?” Well, it’s both. Despite the old-media meltdown, we see continuing demand for interns by news organizations. They show up to recruit our students on campus. They need the talent, especially young talent hip to the Net. Yes, jobs are disappearing in this transition to the new media, but others are being created. Our students are being recruited for them.

This raises another point. One of the skills we are teaching is multi-media journalism. We pair print and broadcast veterans to team-teach a major required course aimed at the delivery of news by the Net. I help my students write in the “light, tight and right” style needed on the Net. My broadcast partner teaches them how to do video and slide-shows to accompany the print pieces. They learn how to post material on a web site — NewsNetNebraska.org — as well as how to operate cameras, organize video and written presentations and appear on camera. They develop smart, technically competent pieces that new media demands.

Talk about skills. I have learned an enormous amount about such multi-media presentations in the last few months. These skills were simply not taught until the Net required them. The old-media outfits now demand such skills and rarely teach them to their old hands. Our kids will be experts in these needed skills.

There is still more content that our students get that is tough to come by in other fields. For instance, a colleague teaches science-writing. Students learn how to cover disparate fields, from medicine to alternative energy. They learn how to question sources well enough to develop a point of view on complex issues, how not to be intimidated by arcane areas that use their own peculiar lingo. Next year, I’ll teach a new course in business and economic journalism which similarly will equip students to write about how the economy and corporations function.

Could students get such skills by studying Science or Business? Yes, but they would also move into the weeds in such fields in ways that might be less useful to them. They will need some accounting, for instance, but may not need as much as the B-School provides. And if they focus on, say, biology, will they develop skills useful for other scientific fields? It won’t hurt them to study such things, of course, but with a more applied journalistic approach, they’ll get the broad sweep.

So, is journalism school worthwhile? As you can tell, I’m now sold on it. Indeed, as the media world changes, smart journalism education that changes with it will prove more necessary than ever. Times of tumult yield opportunities for those quick enough to grab for them. Our goal is to help our students see those openings and be ready to pursue them.

The Debut

This blogging business is all new to me. But then so much in my life now is all new, as well. New house, new town, new job. That’s why this effort at an Internet journal could be intriguing. Certainly, it will be novel.

In August, I left the world of working journalism for the world of the academy. After 22 years at BUSINESS WEEK and 13 years at other pubs, I put in my last day as a paid reporter — as chief of correspondents for that wonderful pub in the end — and joined the University of Nebraska as an associate professor. As I left Chicago for Lincoln, I took up the art of teaching journalism to fresh-faced undergrads. I did so all too well aware that my field is undergoing some of its most wrenching change ever.

I’ve learned a lot in just one semester already. For one thing, I’ve come to take a longer view, as academics are supposed to. That means seeing that change is actually the norm in journalism. All the Internet-driven and recession-pained ferment of late seems to many to be something terribly new (and terrible, in fact). And yet, newspapers and magazines have been rising and falling for decades, if one takes in the long sweep.

Evidence of that? Time was, not so long ago, when cities such as NYC and Chicago had a half-dozen dailies ferociously competing for readers. Along came radio and TV, and the numbers shrank. As for magazines, remember Look and Life? They soared and flamed out, like so many other pubs. Journalism, in fact, has been a field in tumult ever since print was put on paper and sounds and pictures thrust into the air.

Now, does the Internet change things even more? Well, it certainly accelerates change. I can’t recall a more unsettling year in the history of newspapers as this past one, for instance. So many gone. The change is certainly horrendous for people thrown out of work, as over 100 of my colleagues at BW were when Bloomberg bought the magazine a few weeks ago.

But, taking the long view, what the Net has wrought is not unprecedented. To cast things in a personal light, of the four media organizations I worked for since my college days, two were sold and continue to publish — The Home News in New Brunswick, N.J., now a Gannett newspaper, and BW. Two others died — Dun’s Business Month, which perished years ago, long before the Net, and, as of this year, the Rocky Mountain News. I personally have seen both Net-induced ruin and change that has nothing to do with the medium.

The Net seems to be doing for media (and information generally) what the printing press did when it debuted. Does the term “sea-change” get at it a bit? And yet, Gutenberg opened vast new opportunities. So, too, will the Net.

Over their careers, my students will be writing for both new and old media. My job now is to prepare them for that world, an already-fascinating realm and one that is rich in creativity. Over time, I believe, this world will prove at least as lucrative as print journalism was (never so much as other fields, but not bad. The compensation has always been such intangibles as access to all tiers of society and a heck of a lot of fun, adventure and, for some, even danger. The latter prospect is the kind of thing that gets a young person’s juices going; strange thing, isn’t it?)

So my purpose in this blog is to chart the changes I see. Along the way, I will share stories from my new life as an academic. For an ink-stained wretch, the world of leather elbow pads and chalkboards is wholly new and intriguing. (Actually, it’s more like a realm of rumpled sweaters, computer-aided visual displays with overhead projectors, and whiteboards). I aim to share this new world with whoever out there may stumble upon this space.

I hope this effort proves as entertaining and informative to readers as I expect it will prove to me.

JW