Student to panel: “What’s in it for me?”

The journalism think tank at Ball State University began with demographer Hazel Reinhardt’s marvelous presentation on the “Perfect Storm” of demographic and technological changes occurring in our culture that pose significant challenges to professional journalism. She painted a scientific portrait of the shifting sands beneath us and pointed to handwriting on the wall that signified only one thing — change.

The session was put together by Ball State University’s Department of Journalism and was designed to come up with new ideas about teaching journalism in the wake of Ms. Reinhardt’s storm. We also talked about teaching mid-career journalists new skills. The think tank ended with an admission by the organizer, Mike Smith of Northwestern’s Media Management Center, that continuing the discussion might be better at this point than publishing a paper.

To be sure, this is a vastly complex matter, but I came away even more convinced that the mainstream press is in deep trouble and that fixing the problem is going to take more than thinking and talking and educating. There were two highlights for me. Near the end, we were talking about the idea of inviting mid-career journalists to the University for mentor/protégé sessions where students would be the mentors. It was felt that this might be a good way to bring experienced journalists — many of whom feel left behind — up to speed on new technologies and ways of thinking.

A very bright student present raised his hand and asked, “Why would I want to do that, when I’m essentially competing with these people for jobs?” Brilliant. Ouch!

This statement essentially said it all. It evidenced Hazel’s storm and the challenges to the mainstream, but it helped amplify a statement by Craig Newmark of Craigslist fame, who joined us via a live broadband stream (Oh my God, what’s that?). Craig pointed out that the citizens media or personal media revolution will leap forward in the next year or 18 months, because venture capitalists with lots of money have their eye on it and are putting money on the table.

I’m not sure the group fully appreciated what this means, that the competition for advertising dollars is about to get another serious player, and as Bob Papper, a smart former TV news guy and current professor of journalism at Ball State, noted early in the session (and I think it’s the quote of the whole thing):

Television didn’t kill magazines, because they took their readers; they killed magazines, because they took their advertising.
There was also a point at which I apparently offended one or more people in the room with my references to postmodernism and especially as it relates to the sticky notion of expertise and “reliable points of reference.” This, too, evidenced the perfect storm, because younger people tend to be more postmodern than their elders, and it doesn’t matter what I think or anybody in the room thought.

The matter of hierarchically-determined licenses and “position” will be one of the most gut-wrenching battles we face, as the world moves farther down the postmodern path. Obviously, this does not sit well with the status quo, and I would add that I’m only a messenger on this. There is no requirement that you accept any of it, but it is my experience and observation that the higher one ascends society’s pedestals, the less open-minded one becomes. In my belief, that is the most dangerous issue facing the professional journalism community.

The perfect storm cannot be stopped, according to Ms. Reinhardt. I would add that it’s not a slow-moving storm either, and it’s already upon us.

Ball State is a lovely campus and a University with an outstanding J‑school, both in terms of quality of faculty and staff and in facilities.

I‑65 between Indianapolis and Louisville is an awful stretch of road to be traveling on a Friday evening. Also, Indiana drivers seem to enjoy driving the speed limit in the passing lane. Ack!

I’ll have more to say about Hazel’s storm, including some of her slides, in subsequent posts. I also plan to offer an entry with some of the ideas we discussed.

For future events of this type, the University might consider providing a Website with purpose and attendees ahead of time, so that bloggers might be able to link to it prior to the event. This will raise its visibility manyfold.


  1. I agree with you about providing a website ahead of time. I’m a BSU grad (’97 TCOM) and the first thing I did when I read you were going to there was try to look it up on the department’s website. Couldn’t find anything. 🙁

    Thanks for the update. Interesting stuff.

    Oh, and I’ve never driven I‑65 on that end of Indiana but we have plenty of other roads that are just as crazy.

  2. Adam Cairns says

    Thanks, Terry, for recognizing my comment regarding the student-as-mentor concept. The notion just doesn’t make any sense unless there is a guaranteed job at the end of the training, which I doubt would happen. The larger problem at issue is the number of mid-career journalists in decision-making positions who haven’t maintained their tech skills and haven’t kept up with internet trends. Asking a student to give them the Cliffs Notes version of what has been happening in the world the past 10–15 years is sad. Rather than wasting time training editors and publishers about the benefits of the internet, mid-career journalists should start listening to their younger colleagues or interns and acting upon their youthful recommendations. Then maybe newspapers would be closer to where they should be by now.

  3. Very good point. I don’t work in journalism here in the UK (I work in politics) but I can sympathise. In the campaign group I work for myself and a few others have tried often to get our managers to recognise the benifits of new media and especially blogs. Unfortunetly they just don’t seem to get it and as a result are missing out on a very powerful form of communication…

  4. I don’t think Adam Cairns sounds like a “very bright student.” I think he’s a perfect example of the downside of democratization of the media — which allows people to become arrogant through isolation, to the extent that they can’t see the need for human interaction to even:
    1) develop opportunistic career links through mentoring
    2) enjoy the company of another person with mutual interests
    3) grow through teaching (or at least learn what other people don’t know to help position himself better)
    4) see that nobody knows everything.

    Yuck! I’ll take the warm fuzzies of real people living real lives with all our flaws to incessant banging on a machine (or whatever else Mr. Cairns chooses to do alone in his room) anyday.

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