Thursday, June 05, 2008

Medium of the new journalist

'We all perceive online journalism as the future ? What we're waiting for is for online advertising to become a serious revenue source'

Famous 20th-century newspaperman Ernest Hemingway once described a good day's work as "wearing down seven number-two pencils." How would the writer measure a journalist's success in the 21st century, when recruiters look for reporters with "a proven track record of journalistic excellence, both digital and in print," as a recent job posting emphasized?

"If the medium of a different generation of journalism students was the newspaper or the six o'clock newscast, for this generation it's online," says Mike Gasher, director and associate professor in the department of journalism at Concordia University in Montreal.

As industry demands change, it's time to bid farewell to the image of a pencil and pad-toting reporter, he says.

"We all perceive online journalism as the future … What we're all waiting for is people, especially in Canada, to start making money off of their online news operations, for online advertising to become a serious revenue source, and I think you're going to see an explosion."

The expansion of the Internet as a platform for journalism is a mixed blessing for those in the media industry -- on one hand, it provides a wider audience and easier access to information (where would today's reporter be without Google's search engine?), yet forging into the new online world also increases pressure for professionals to be more versatile and resourceful.

As long as young journalism graduates realize that demand, they will find a whole new set of opportunities, says Joyce Smith, associate professor and director of online curriculum at Ryerson University's School of Journalism.

"What online has done is it's shaken everything else out of complacency," she says.

"I've had many more job offers and internship possibilities in the last two years than I've ever had for people who have had some sort of online or multimedia background of training."

Journalism schools across Canada are acknowledging the shift, giving Web journalism more emphasis in their curriculum to better prepare the next generation.

After a couple of years offering an online specialization in both Ryerson's undergraduate and graduate (now a Master's) programs, the school is in the midst of de-streaming to allow more choices for students. Ms. Smith says the change reflects the fact employers are looking for graduates who are competent in many areas -- which will be helpful when working online. "It'll just be: Do you know how to take pictures, are you a really good editor, can you write well, can you report well? And the actual medium is going to become less and less important," Ms. Smith says of employer demands.

Alfred Hermida, a pioneer of the BBC news Web site, was recruited by the University of British Columbia, which offers a Master of Journalism degree, two years ago to beef up the program's online content. "That was an element that was missing from the curriculum here... Journalism education has to change to take account of the impact that new technologies are having on the social, cultural, economic practices," he says.

Compared to media outlets in the United States and Europe, Canadian media are playing catchup with the value they give the Internet as a platform for journalism, Mr. Hermida notes.

"If you are in the news business now, you should be investing in these digital platforms and you should be paying journalists who work there more because you are trying to attract the audiences of the future," he says. " It's still very much that the Internet is being considered as an add-on."

Recent journalism graduate Kristina Jarvis says it was while on an exchange program in Denmark that her online skills were finely tuned. When she returned to finish her undergraduate degree at Ryerson, she switched her focus from traditional print media to online journalism. "I've always been interested in the Internet, I've always been interested in online and to me it seemed like the natural place to take my career."

Ms. Jarvis, who was hired for the summer to work on the Regina Leader-Post's Web site, hopes her online skills will take her "anywhere and everywhere."

Clement-Meoni Poon, who graduated last year from UBC's journalism program, had worked for a newspaper in his native Hong-Kong and as a radio reporter in Vancouver. "I was introduced to online journalism and I thought 'hey, it was sort of combining the two platforms that I worked for,' " he says.

He is now a news writer for CBC. ca's regional site in British Columbia. "I understand people don't read newspapers as much as they used to, so it's the direction to go. I believe there are more opportunities coming up in the coming years."

Like Ryerson and UBC, journalism programs at Carleton University in Ottawa and Concordia University are adapting curriculum to provide students with online skills. Mr. Gasher says Concordia faculty have been going through the curriculum with a fine-toothed comb to evaluate what skills students need: "Our students, they're very much of the online generation. There's no doubt about it, they are ready to go."



Alfred Hermida, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia's graduate school of journalism, sees more opportunities for journalists as newspapers become obsolete. "I get all my news online. I can't remember the last time I actually touched a newspaper," he says.

But his colleague David Beers, founder of online news magazine, veteran journalist and sessional instructor at UBC, warns journalism graduates: "If you take the Web as just a place to go, it's sort of like walking through a loud, buzzy and bright arcade. It's very distracting and there's no sort of rigour or standards necessarily announcing themselves," he says. "But once you know that, there are places to hang out... It's a wonderful showcase for what you can do." When job hunting, he recommends keeping the following pointers in mind: - Research [the job] ahead of time. Some postings can be misleading: Job-seekers have hopes of putting a variety of journalism skills to use online and "instead, you get there and they say 'We need you to aggregate links all day, everyday.' " - Make sure the site uses a content management system that's in wide use (such as Drupal). - Ask if you will be creating some content, as well as posting it. - Make sure there are seasoned journalists in the room. "Old-fashioned, dinosaur-type entities, who can get information out of somebody, not get sued," he says. - Don't confuse the online world with the real one: "You have to be very careful with what's on the Web," he says. Be sure to continue using real people and real-life interactions as inspiration for story ideas and double-check facts. - It's just another medium for storytelling, technical skills are still secondary.

Eva Salinas, Financial Post

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