Manic Over Multimedia

Manic Over Multimedia

Having technical skills is a plus, but editors and recruiters say “traditional” journalists are still in demand.

By Pearl Stewart

Shannon Pittman-Price graduated from North Carolina A&T State University in May 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. In past years, her degree may have been enough to set her on a career path in journalism.

But Pittman-Price, after completing an internship with Black College Wire, realized that journalism was headed in the direction of multimedia, and she wasn’t prepared.

So she applied to Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she was accepted into the graduate program in new media.

“I think grad school was very important to me in order to pursue my career goals,” Pittman-Price says, adding that while she “learned a lot about journalism,” at N.C. A&T, “I did not learn anything about new media.”

The Newhouse new media program states in its online promotion that “by blending content and technology with analysis of current industry regulations, students prepare to be new media producers and managers for projects such as news Web sites and disk-based ventures.”

This summer, having completed the one-year coursework for her master’s, Pittman-Price is an online intern at the Roanoke Times in Virginia. When the internship ends, she hopes to find a permanent job as an online or multimedia producer for a news organization.

Her story exemplifies the experiences of many students graduating from journalism programs that are not preparing them for the positions in highest demand in today’s newsrooms. However, not all of those students are willing or able to attend a top graduate school before beginning their careers.

So what’s the holdup at the undergraduate level?

“There are very, very few journalism educators who know how to do much of anything online. And many of those who act like they know something are in fact using techniques and approaches that are far, far out of date,” says Mindy McAdams, the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of Florida and author of Flash Journalism: How to Create Multimedia News Packages.

Al Tompkins, broadcast/online group leader at the Poynter Institute, conducts training seminars for college educators. He agrees with McAdams’ assessment of journalism faculty.

“The greatest need is for faculty to become far more literate and far more skilled in this area,” he says. One contributing factor, he adds, is that the institutions are either unable or unwilling to commit resources for faculty development.

“It’s not in the budget, there’s no money,” he says. “It’s not unusual for me to have teachers come here on their own dime.”

That “dime” equals $1,000 for a week of training.

“The people I see are the most motivated, and they’re worried that they don’t know enough; they’re worried that they need to get sharper; and they’re worried that their students will graduate without getting what they need,” Tompkins says.

Pittman-Price was one of those students. She says undergraduate journalism programs can enhance their curriculums so students don’t feel compelled to attend grad school to get basic multimedia training.

“I don’t think students have to know hardcore code to break into online media,” she says, “but I do think [undergrad programs] should add into their curriculums how to write for the Web and the basics of HTML, Flash and CSS. And, since most media outlets are pushing video, I think it would be good if video classes were in journalism curriculums, too.”

Although some news organizations are specifically recruiting journalists with multimedia backgrounds, not all are.

“I don’t look for folks with online experience,” says Sherrel Wheeler Stewart, a recruiter and assistant metro editor for the Birmingham (Ala.) News. “I see it coming in the future, but we’re just heading in that direction now.” Wheeler Stewart is also editor of the paper’s news blog, for which she says “some training, but not a lot” was necessary.

She says traditional journalists are still in demand at her paper. “I look for a smart person with a great attitude and strong work ethic who can learn whatever new skill or technology is necessary.”

The Birmingham News is one of many papers with an online partner that takes content from the print edition and posts it online. In this case, three Alabama newspapers have content on Al.com. Wheeler Stewart says that although they are not required, Web skills and multimedia abilities are definite pluses, but only if a prospect also has the other qualities. “It’s like it was in the early ’80s when I started in journalism and I wanted people to know I had computer skills because that was impressive,” she says.

“Now, if they have a multimedia package, it shows they’re looking to the future.

That’s impressive.”

Walter Middlebrook, the director of recruiting for the Detroit News, concurs, calling new media skills “a plus.” But, he adds, “I think we’re putting too much emphasis on multimedia. It should be a minor piece of the package. The point is, can you write a lead and do you know what a nut graf is?”

Out of seven interns he recruited for the paper this summer, one was hired specifically as a multimedia intern. “The problem is, we see a lot of people with multimedia skills who lack the journalism skills,” he says. “They still need to be taught journalism.”

Middlebrook also says the size of the news organization makes a difference. “A smaller operation loves the well-rounded multimedia candidate. But at bigger organizations the print and online operations are split.”

Another recruiter, Denise Bridges of the Virginian-Pilot, also weighs in on the side of good journalism.

“We still need great journalists to find and tell interesting stories,” she says. “Having a lot of technical wonks is not going to accomplish great journalism online.”

Out of 14 summer interns at her paper, one was hired for multimedia reporting. That intern, she points out, had “optimum skills” as a sound journalist with audio and
video capabilities.

But Bridges and Middlebrook agree that such a combination is still rare, and the key ingredient is journalism. “It’s like sprinkles on an ice cream cone,” Middlebrook says. “You need the ice cream.”

It’s fortunate that all news organizations aren’t demanding multimedia skills, Tomkins says, because most college curriculums simply aren’t ready yet. “An awful lot of people who need to change simply aren’t changing at this point,” he says. “It’s also true in my experience that schools are very slow to change for a lot of reasons.”

Some of those reasons, he points out, are valid.

For example, “When to change?” Tompkins says timing is critical. “They don’t want to jump on some fad. There was a fad a few years ago that somehow newspaper and TV stations were going to be able to heal decades of cultural divisiveness and somehow start working together. There are a few examples, but it’s mighty few.”

Another reason for inaction is lack of resources. “There are some schools that really shouldn’t try to do everything because they don’t have the faculty or the infrastructure,” he says. “They are not going to be everything to everybody.”

And McAdams says money is sometimes a huge obstacle.

“Resources and finances figure in, big-time. You need some gear, even if it’s cheap gear — and you certainly need software.” She says that even with discount education pricing on software, it’s prohibitive for many institutions.

Nonetheless, McAdams sees some educators, with or without support from their institutions, moving forward. “I have had several e-mails in the past month from college journalism educators who are writing a syllabus for a new online journalism course at their school. So the positive thing is, the courses are being started up. The worrisome thing is that I think a lot of these educators should really go sit on the online desk at a mid-size newspaper for a month or two before they craft the course — but that’s not going to happen.”

At Pittman-Price’s undergraduate alma mater, N.C. A&T, Dr. Teresa Styles, a professor and former chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, envisions industry and academia working together to better prepare the students for multimedia newsrooms. Styles, who has been a vocal proponent of new media and hosted a bloggers’ conference at N.C. A&T, suggests that media and academia team up.

“Media organizations can provide funding for their trained personnel to instruct faculty,” she says, adding that “tensions between faculty and practicing journalists must end.”

She acknowledges, however, that such partnerships may not be available as media companies continue facing cutbacks
and layoffs.

So ultimately, McAdams and Tompkins suggest, it may be up to the institutions or the educators themselves to at least get away from the “silo approach” of teaching journalism as separate print, broadcast and online entities.

“Journalism is one of those disciplines that is constantly changing,” Tompkins says. “Teachers need to constantly update their materials and skills; the old ways of doing things often have to be reshaped.”


Resources For Multimedia Journalism

Seminars and online training opportunities are offered by various institutions and organizations including:
 
Poynter Institute (poynter.org and newsu.org)

American Press Institute (api.org)

University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (journalism.berkeley.edu)

The Freedom Forum (freedomforum.org) is offering an online and multimedia training seminar in August for graduates of its various programs



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