by Huntly Collins, Assistant Professor of Communication - LaSalle University, International Digital Media and Arts Association's 2007 conference
The following remarks are from Huntly Collins, an assistant professor of communication at LaSalle University, and were delivered at the 5th annual International Digital Media and Arts Association conference in Philadelphia, PA, on November 9, 2007.
Thank you for inviting me to join the discussion this morning.
It’s an honor to share the podium with digital gurus from two of the still great newspapers in America – The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Baltimore Sun – as well as with the online director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
Both the Inky and the Sun have long had a commitment to journalism in the public interest.
And the Committee of Concerned Journalists, founded by many of the same editors that I used to work with at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has fought to maintain the integrity of American journalism at a time when media owners are demanding ever-increasing profit margins, often at the expense of journalistic excellence.
Before I begin, I have some confessions to make.
Confession 1. I am, by experience and temperament, a card-carrying member of the “old media.”
Confession 2. At The Philadelphia Inquirer in the late 1990s, I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the digital age.
Confession 3. Like a lot of my former newspaper colleagues, I saw Web presentation of the news as the enemy, not as an important ally.
Confession 4. I was wrong.
Almost a decade later, it’s clear that news organizations that ignore the Web will not survive. And that news organizations that embrace the Web will have the best chance to thrive.
This is the message I now convey to my journalism students at La Salle University.
And when they graduate from our program, I can promise you that they will be trained to report not only for print or broadcast, but also for the Web.
With that as a backdrop, I’d like to outline what I see as both the promise and the problems of digital journalism.
Let’s begin on the positive side – the speed of digital communication. In the old days, we used to marvel at television’s ability to keep the public abreast of big breaking news stories. But how about the Web! It is warp-speed faster when it comes to breaking news.
Let me share one anecdote to illustrate the point.
On a chilly day last spring, I was standing in a La Salle classroom teaching a beginning reporting class.
The textbook I use, Writing and Reporting News: A Coaching Method (2007) is among the best of a new generation of texts designed to make use of multimedia to teach journalistic skills.
In order to learn how to cover disasters, for instance, students watch a hypothetical scenario on-line involving a tornado that hits a small town in the Midwest.
The program allows students to watch a video of a news conference held by emergency response officials, see video interviews with eyewitnesses and listen to audio of phone calls from a reporter stationed at the local hospital, which is receiving those who have been critically injured.
In the midst of this presentation, I noticed that one of my students was leaving the room on a regular basis for short intervals and then returning. I thought maybe she was ill.
But as this continued, the student finally raised her hand and interrupted my lecture. “Professor Collins, I’m sorry, but do you know what’s going on?”
No, I replied. “There’s a student with a gun at Virginia Tech and he’s killing other students,” she told the class.
As it turned out, my student had a cousin who was enrolled at Virginia Tech.
That morning, the cousin was among a group of students huddled in the basement of a campus building awaiting the end of Cho Seung-Hui’s killing spree. The cousin was on her cell phone, calling my student in Philadelphia, to find out more about what was going on.
My student, in turn, was trolling the Web on a computer in my classroom and picking up the early news reports, many of them filed by student journalists at Virginia Tech using their cell phone cameras.
Once she got a new snippet of news, my student relayed the information back to her cousin at Virginia Tech via cell phone, and the cousin, in turn, fed my student any new developments from her basement hideout.
Never one to miss a teaching moment, I stopped my lecture and got everyone on the Web.
Together we watched one of the worst school shootings in American history unfold – in real time – before our very eyes. And we began reporting our small piece of it – the view from a basement hideaway – through the information supplied by a Virginia Tech student on her cell phone.
It was a surreal experience – one that illustrates the incredible power of digital journalism to connect sources to reporters and reporters to the public with lightening speed.
In addition to the speed of information transfer, there’s another key advantage of digital journalism: It lets citizens in on the process.
Through the Internet, the audience can now interact directly with professional journalists and with the key players involved in the events that journalists cover.
Using the Internet, citizens can also instantaneously register their opinions on the issues of the day, and their opinions, in turn, can help inform decisions about what news organizations cover and how they cover it.
Some progressive newspapers have also used the Web to open up that most private of spaces – the daily news meeting. In Spokane, WA, for instance, anyone with a computer or a cell phone can tune into the daily news meeting of The Spokane Review.
This kind of transparency is important. It signals to the public that journalism is all about the public interest, and it helps citizens understand the complex decisions that reporters and editors have to make everyday.
A third advantage of digital journalism is the richness of its content.
Here in Philadelphia, our city was torn asunder this past week when a city police officer was shot and killed by a robber at a Dunkin’ Donuts shop. The killing was the third shooting of a police officer in a week and it came at a time when the city’s homicide rate is skyrocketing out of control.
In covering the story, The Philadelphia Inquirer did with its website what it could never do with print alone.
When police released a video of the robber entering and leaving the donut shop, it immediately went up on philly.com and stayed there so citizens could get a look at the assailant, who stooped to pick up the officer’s gun before fleeing from the scene.
When schools throughout that part of the city – including La Salle University – were put on lockdown as police mounted a massive manhunt for the killer, the list of closed institutions immediately went on-line.
And when more than 2,000 people filled a downtown cathedral for the funeral mass of the slain officer, philly.com had riveting video and interviews with perfect strangers who showed up to pay their respects.
On the Web, we saw ordinary citizens – black and white, rich and poor – coming together to speak out for an end to the insane violence that has turned the City of Brotherly Love into an urban killing field.
So digital journalism has much to offer. But it also faces enormous challenges.
A key challenge is funding. Good journalism can’t be done on the cheap. It takes time and it takes highly skilled reporters and editors. Both are costly. Will media owners be willing to put the resources into their Web operations in order to do it right?
The track record at the moment is decidedly mixed. Clearly, the biggest and most influential news organizations – The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC and National Public Radio – have committed enormous resources to their on-line operations.
Others have not been as far-sighted or as financially able. One disturbing trend is the attempt to cut corners by hiring Web-only reporters at sub-prime wages. This may be a way to “feed the beast” on a daily basis, but it is not the way to produce journalistic excellence.
Another challenge is making the most of the creative potential that the Web provides. Too often, in the rush to jump on the on-line bandwagon, news organizations simply put their written content on the Web.
That’s a first step, but we must go beyond that. We must use the Web to provide added-value to the printed word. We must make the most of video, audio, graphics and interactivity.
Finally, in order for digital journalism to succeed, we need to figure out ways to go deeper.
While the Web is great for breaking stories, it’s lousy for long, insightful reporting that explains complicated events or that exposes wrong-doing.
While news organizations are quick to put the latest video of breaking news on their Web sites, one often comes away from these short video clips saying, “So what?”
And while it’s nice to have interactive sites and provide a forum for citizen opinions, at what point do these public soundings become a Tower of Babel rather than a source for public understanding?
With all the creativity and talent in this room and at this conference, I’m confident that we can and will do better.
We in the academy, who are learning alongside you as we wrestle with how to train a new generation of journalists for a digital age, stand ready and eager to help.