On Saturday I sat on a panel at the Phillips Foundation’s fall retreat for recipients of its journalism fellowships (about which more below). My co-panelists were Jose Vargas from the Washington Post, Amy Schatz from the Wall Street Journal, and Abbi Tatton from CNN. I was a replacement fill-in, which is why I was the lone non-journalist — but hey, I was a licensed journalist not too long ago, so, close enough for (the discussion of) government work.The subject was how technology is changing politics — a mandate broad enough to take it in almost any direction. And if anything, I was the wet blanket of the panel. My opening comments focused on how the Internet is changing politics in ways not unique compared to previous technologies, techniques and politics. I didn’t get all the details out on Saturday, but the argument went something like:
Radio : FDR’s fireside chats :: Blogs : The Fred File* and ‘04/’06 predecessors Television : Nixon/Kennedy Debate :: YouTube/Internet video : “Macaca”
Direct mail/voter files : Richard Viguerie’s first claim to fame :: E-mail lists/subscribers : Why John Kerry matters in 2008
Radio and blogging both gave candidates ways to bypass established media channels and speak directly to supporters and voters. Television and online video can reframe the public’s perception of political events. Direct mail then as e-mail now communicate around the media as well as solicit campaign funds from an (ideally) opt-in crowd. · · ·Panels such as these are at their best when the most interesting comments come from the audience. One theme that emerged in discussion was how even print journalists are being asked to produce short video (and audio) segments for the Internet when reporting from the road.
To some extent, each of my fellow panelists had witnessed or dealt with this issue. It’s an interesting and even logical development, as online ad revenues rise compared to the dead tree edition. One also has to also wonder how thin it stretches their already-dwindling reportorial resources. At least in the Morissettean sense, it’s ironic that the migration of news content to the web coincides with layoffs owing to competition from the web.
My friend Robert Bluey, also present, volunteered that his alma mater, Ithaca College, is now offering a course it calls “Backpack Journalism.” He explains in an interesting post at his own blog:
Students are given a backpack with a MacBook, video camera, digital camera, a recording device and other instruments to produce a story. After receiving their assignments, the students are dispatched to cover the story using multiple media.
I find this new kind of journalism fascinating. However, I also sympathize with working journalists who are primarily writers, who may now find themselves needing to acquire new skills to adapt to a changing industry. My co-panelists are among the lucky ones — I suspect they’ll learn new tricks more quickly than some of their older colleagues.
If Backpack Journalism is about sending ONE person out into the field to report a story, than Backpack Journalism is a travesty. It’s an accountant’s dream but an editor’s nightmare. Accountants love it because you’re sending one person out into the field to produce the work of three people; it’s an editor’s nightmare because the quality of the work is diminished.
I submit that the true business model for New Media must be to send THREE people out into the field. Let one report, one produce, one shoot. Each skill is very important, each skill is very different, each skill has a professional value.
On the other hand, someone who could do all three well would be highly sought-after and accordingly compensated. If the job description caught on, it would presumably spur different kinds of students to enter journalism in the first place. Myself, I actually applied to film school out of high school, but instead pursued print journalism in-state, as I that proved more realistic. But if becoming a “backpack journalist” was an option at Allen Hall, I’d at least have given it the old college try. Heck, I might have even finished my Journalism double-major.
· · ·And you know, I bet we can fit this into a hastily-assembled anti-triumphalist SAT problem like the ones above:
Print Journalists : The Internet :: Pre-Internet Journalists, I.e. Mostly Print Journalists : Every New Media Before the Internet
Hmm… maybe a bit too simplistic. Got a better one?
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