Like it or not, news media are changing.
There used to be a clear division between print, radio and television. A self-respecting print reporter would never dream of making a video or – oh, the horror – actually appearing on TV, just like a broadcaster wouldn’t be caught dead with a byline in the paper.
Then this thing called the Internet arrived and mainstream media were thrown kicking and screaming into a period of huge change: videos popped up on newspaper websites, TV anchors suddenly wrote blogs, everyone had Facebook and now even the White House sends news releases on a Twitter account.
As their jobs changed, working journalists picked up new skills on the go, but journalism students sometimes had a hard time finding a program that would teach journalism the way it’s now practiced: using different media at the same time.
The journalism program at Spokane Falls Community College has just received a 2010 Pacemaker award for its newspaper the Communicator’s online presence, reaping the rewards of fundamentally changing its journalism curriculum.
“We decided we could compete against some of the bigger programs online, that we could do some things on our website while the Web was still pretty much the Wild West,” said Jason Nix, faculty adviser for SFCC’s Communicator. Nix has been at SFCC for five years, and he began challenging the journalism students by asking them to build the paper’s website from scratch.
“They hand-coded it and many of them didn’t have any experience with html code at all,” said Nix. “It let us build a website without ads, and it forced the students to learn coding at the same time.”
Front and center on the site is a multimedia section which includes videos and slide shows with sound, yet Nix is quick to point out that cute videos haven’t replaced story development and research.
“I tell them to first think about the story they want to do and how to do it as cheaply as possible,” said Nix. “I don’t want the students to develop what I call a fetish for all this fancy equipment and software. I want them to think of the story first.”
It’s the second year in a row the Communicator has won a Pacemaker award.
“It is the Pulitzer of collegiate journalism, so it’s quite an accomplishment,” said Nix.
At North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, the Sentinel won a 2010 Pacemaker award for general excellence, and editor Eli Francovich also won a Pacemaker Award as national reporter of the year. Yet journalism adviser Nils Rosdahl is the first to admit that all this new media stuff isn’t for him.
“This old dog has not learned a new trick,” said Rosdahl, laughing. “But I’m retiring in one month and I know the college is seeking to hire someone where new media would be one of their strengths.”
At NIC, new media learning has been left to the students.
“The students know a lot about this stuff, and the outgoing editors sit with the incoming editors and make sure they know what they do,” said Rosdahl. “We have won these awards continuously – the students are really proud of them.”
Eastern Washington University journalism director Bill Stimson said its Easterner has been online for years and the journalism program is incorporating some multimedia tools.
“We are going down the same road, there’s no doubt about it,” said Stimson. “We had a bunch of students at a conference in Louisville just two weeks ago to learn about new media.”
Stimson said he believes student newspapers face the same problems professional papers do.
“We are going through what happened at professional newspapers 10 years ago,” said Stimson. “The student staff knows they have this online thing, and they know they have the newspaper, they are just having problems coordinating the two.”
SFCC’s Nix is looking forward to the construction of what he calls “a fully converged” media lab next year, where photographers, Web designers and writers can work together in the same space.
“I really want to encourage the students to try some new things, even if some of them aren’t going to work out,” said Nix. “Doing it the same way as it was done 30 years ago is just not going to cut it.”
SFCC editor-in-chief Sarah Radmer said she began as a writer at the Communicator three years ago.
“Jason forces us to use cheap or free equipment when we start doing multimedia,” said Radmer. “He wants us to think of the story first. I’ve really come to like audio. I just think there are so many things you can do when you hear someone talk – things you can’t do just with writing.” She did a multi-media piece on the Salish language program at SFCC.
“It just added so much to the story that people could actually hear the language being spoken,” said Radmer, who hopes to become a travel journalist.
When it comes to social media, Radmer said Communicator staff is working on reaching students right away via Facebook or Twitter.
“By the time our paper comes out, many of the stories are old news,” said Radmer. “And then, if we reach the students right away, we need to find out what that does to the relationship between the newspaper and our website. It’s going to be interesting.”