Friday, June 21, 2013

Jumping on the Digital Journalism Train

Since the days I was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in the print sequence, I always viewed people in print, my tribe, as the actual journalists. We read. We produced documents. TV followed us. The wall separating print reporters from broadcasters had been in place in the industry for decades.

For the entire time I worked as a staff writer at the Tulsa World, The Salt Lake Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The San Diego Union-Tribune, I regarded our peers in broadcast with a certain amount of aloofness. They were beautiful empty shells reading 30, 60 and 90 second reports on tele-prompters or into recording devices. They were pretty mysterious to me.

Once was I was covering a school board meeting in Salt Lake City, I noticed a TV crew capturing footage of me interviewing a board member. This happened a lot. I asked the camera man why the TV folks always used print people as background roll for their pieces. "Because you print guys always look so smart."

We weren't too smart. For years there had been talk about an "Information Superhighway." No one fully knew what that would mean or how it would look. Suddenly there was the Internet. It's hard to know if newspapers were frozen by indifference or ignorance, either way the digital revolution forever altered the journalism landscape. Soon, being simply a print reporter with a notebook and pen wouldn't be enough. Layoffs ensued.

This week two big papers, The Oregonian in Portland and The Plain Dealer in Cleveland announced plans to trim their work force and reduce their print product to three times a week. Both organizations say they're increasing their focus on the online product.  There's a line in the The Plain Dealer story that would be terrifying to any worker.
 "Employees were reportedly told to go home and wait for a phone call telling them if their jobs have been eliminated."

The people who are always safest in this scenario are the digital journalists. By that I mean people who are fluent with new and essential ways of producing multimedia, visual storytelling, online design and actively measuring reader engagement. Journalists who are only able to take notes and write a story are being phased out. The digital journalists are in and it's not a fad. They're increasingly driving the industry.

For the first two weeks of June I was one of a handful of coaches brought to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky. Funded by the Dow Jones News Fund and AOL/Patch, our aim was to help train 40 up-and-coming digital journalists who will be working as summer interns. I was amazed at what the new journalists are required to learn. My part was narrative writing. In addition to going out and finding stories, they had to use the latest visual elements to enhance their work. They shot video. They created websites. They use Photoshop. They used social media. They took pictures, most of all, they were schooled in how to pull the reader into stories using multiple platforms. It was pretty incredible to see. All of the participants did strong work  Here are two of my favorites, "Gals With Guns" and "Beyond The Derby"  I learned quite a bit watching them put these together.

Visual storytelling has found me. Later this summer, a short piece of my writing called "A Walk through the Neighborhood," is being adapted as a short film by Chinonye Chukwu, a rising young filmmaker and a former student. In addition to my other writing projects, I'm taking a 3-day multimedia journalism training class for newspaper advisers in D.C. Later this summer, I'm buying a video camera and am inching toward writing and producing video essays, which will enhance my creative writing classes, too.

The thought of picking up a camera and learning to shoot and edit video is the last thing on earth I wanted to do.  I can see how skillfully mixing links, images and video can enhance storytelling, not detract. It's a little scary, I must admit, but the digital train has long left the station. If I can run fast enough, there's still time to catch it.