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I'm an assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, where I teach and research how news sites can better reach their audiences. I received my Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri where I was one of the founding editors of MyMissourian.com, a citizen journalism site for Columbia, Mo. Before graduate school, I worked as a community newspaper editor in Southern Utah and Southern California.

#JCARN: Journalism innovation needs direction, not desperation

I should have let one of my students write this month’s response to the Carnival of Journalism. For Ian Bowman-Henderson, who developed an innovative way to use QR Codes to disseminate location-specific news with Nick Salontay,¬† technology does not drive innovation. Rather, innovation starts with a simple question and ends with an elegant solution. The more specific the question, he argues, the better the innovation can be. It’s a philosophy I know I need to learn and emulate, and it makes me wonder if educators and organizations, such as the Knight News Challenge and the Reynolds Journalism Institute, will drive more journalism innovation if they ask for solutions to more specific questions.

Ian’s philosophy and mine hit head-on when I asked for his advice on my proposal to buy a number of iPads for students at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. I assumed just giving them the tools would be enough. Many were already pounding down my door for advice on how to start an online publication. Some had already used tools such as MyVirtualPaper to create Web-based magazines.

What Ian told me was that while teaching students about tablets was a good idea, buying a bunch of iPads wouldn’t do it. In fact, I would be making the same mistake as the newspaper leaders I decried in my classes who approached the Web in desperation. Editors asked reporters to blog, Tweet, update Facebook pages and moderate¬† comments because they think it’s innovative.¬† It’s what everyone is doing. It’s the next big thing.

What those editors and I failed to consider is why. What makes Facebook valuable to the news? How can reporters use Twitter to do their jobs better? In the end, the big question is how does technology and the innovation it inspires really help us to fulfill the mission of journalism better?

Ian encouraged me to go back to the students and ask them what they really wanted to do. What kind of audience did they want to reach? What kind of journalism did they really want to create? The last question should be how technology can help, not the first.

Ian and I have resolved to develop a course that examines the key questions surrounding digital publishing while also teaching students how to use the tools. I’d like to see more organizations, such as the Knight News Challenge and the Reynolds Journalism Institute do the same. Too often, I think the calls for participation are vague. Organizations say they are looking for innovators without really defining what direction they want them to take.

I can understand why uncertainty is part of a process like this. It’s hard to know where innovation will come from. What journalism needs is not more blanket calls for something new. We need people who are willing to take a stand, who will go out on a limb and specifically identify the most important questions facing journalism today. Questions along the lines of how can journalists use social media won’t get the job done because they focus too much on technology. Instead, let’s ask how we can reach specific audiences.

Knight and Reynolds are in unique positions to drive innovation. Their focus on journalism as central to a democracy will ensure that whatever innovations they sponsor will serve communities. But they must go beyond simply funding projects. They need to drive innovation by drawing upon their vast experience and resources to suggest the course innovation will take.

I learned this lesson the hard way as an educator. It’s not enough for me to hand my students a toolbox without telling them what I expect them to build.

PhotoCredit: This is a screen capture of my using my iPad from WOUB’s NewsWatch Wednesday night. I was featured in a story about the New York Times’ paywall. It starts at about 6:40. Had to get a little plug in …

Editor’s Note: This is my third post as part of the Carnival of Journalism. I think I was a bit more obvious in this post than the last two, but again you can follow the discussion through the #jcarn hashtag on Twitter.

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4 Responses to “#JCARN: Journalism innovation needs direction, not desperation”

  1. Courtney Shove #

    Good post. These two lines stuck out to me:

    “The last question should be how technology can help, not the first.”

    “What journalism needs is not more blanket calls for something new.”

    I agree wholeheartedly on both counts.

    March 31, 2011 at 12:14 am
  2. Hans #

    Thanks Courtney. After reading the other posts this month, I’m thinking I just touched on the ideas that others developed better. I appreciate the feedback.

    April 1, 2011 at 7:00 pm
  3. Hi there, I discovered your blog by means of Google even as looking for a similar subject, your site came up, it appears to be like great. I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks

    May 23, 2013 at 7:41 am

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