College is the time to take risks, especially as far as journalism is concerned. So naturally, I’m feeling a little bit guilty that I advised the independent student newspaper at Ohio University to play it safe when upgrading their website. Instead of designing their own space, I encouraged the editors to work with an established content management system. My reasoning was entirely practical. They’ve got a product to put out and they shouldn’t have to worry about the website not working.
But when I think about the biggest piece of advice I’d give a student publication looking to reinvent itself for the digital age, I don’t think it has anything to do with structure. You can take risks with an established CMS. Heck, you can even take risks with a basic HTML page that looks like it was created in the late ’90s. You can publish great content on a free iPhone app from Widgetbox.
The difference maker is passion. What the journalism world needs now more than ever aren’t new apps, forms, or business models. It needs professionals dedicated to the ideals of journalism who would do anything to tell the stories they know people need to hear. Legacy media traditions, such as deadlines, print schedules, and even objectivity, won’t hinder those with this drive, and they’ll also be the most capable and qualified to create journalism innovations.
One key to helping students and student publications embrace this passion is understanding what Jay Rosen recently called old and new testament journalism. I agree both forms have their virtues, but I want to underscore his point that old testament journalism, the kind practiced by some of this nation’s Founding Fathers and exemplified recently by Glenn Greenwald, represents one of the best ways of engaging an audience that no longer sees legacy media as the only forms for news.
Students, I think, get this better than anyone else. They are the ones introducing me to people such as Hank and John Green, Jenna Marbles, and Chris Hardwick. While none of those are traditional journalists in the sense of Bartlett and Steele, Woodward and Bernstein or Wallace and Bergman, they have all found ways to engage with audiences and create the kinds of online communities that old testament journalism seeks. New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, himself an example of old testament journalism, once said journalists could learn something from Marbles. John Green added context to the health care debate I haven’t seen in any other media simply by filming himself applying for Obamacare.
Thanks to my students I can rattle off a dozen other examples of what I’d call advocacy journalism but they just call news, such as the Planet Money blog, Freakonomics, Talking Points Memo, and even Buzzfeed, which was the first site to interview the man responsible for falsely identifying a Scripps J School student as the victim of an alleged public sexual assault during Ohio University’s homecoming weekend. I can also recall a few examples of old testament journalism on campus, from the Athens Scanner, a Twitter account that follows police scanners in the area, to the New Political, which, while it does a good factual job of covering politics, could do more to make students care about the topic by sharing a factually supported point of view.
Old testament, personality-driven journalism, as Rosen points out, has its pitfalls, but we as journalists need to do more to ensure our content stands out. We need to do more to ensure the ideals of journalism — verification, fairness, balance, accountability, and public comment and compromise — persist in a sea of information. With students, I think we need to do a better job teaching them that journalism doesn’t require robotic reporting of facts. In fact, we’d be better educators if we presented the old and new testaments of journalists and allowed them to choose for themselves, while at the same time enabling them to practice whatever form they choose.
Author’s Note: This post was written as a response to the Carnival of Journalism. Visit Patrick Thornton’s blog to read what other professionals and educators had to say about this topic or join the conversation on Twitter with the #jcarn hashtag.