“The purpose of journalism is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in The Elements of Journalism. Instead, “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”
It is inarguably true that journalism exists to educate the masses about the events that happen throughout — both in their own backyard and half way across the world — so that they can make the best possible decisions about all aspects of their lives: what concert they should go to, why they should start recycling, and who they should elect to their government.
However just because journalism is not defined by technology does not mean it does not need to adapt with it. People are constantly moving online in many or all aspects of their lives, and getting the news online is no different. Journalists themselves love to proclaim that “journalism is dead,” but this could not be any further from the truth. Journalism is not dead, it’s evolving. Jeff Bezos purchase of The Washington Post and Warren Buffett’s newspaper shopping spree easily show this; who would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on companies that are dying off?
Traditionally news was only broadcast on the television set which looked much different than digital news: it was a one way street, with no place for the viewer to voice their opinion, or for the news organization to be held accountable for their reporting. Digital news is not necessarily easier to access throughout the world, but it does allow the reader to comment either directly on the post or on social media, and opens up a new world of tools for journalists to use in their storytelling.
“What this means is that the traditional media monoliths no longer have a monopoly over their readers,” Alex Walters, Financial Times digital developer and freelance journalist says. “People can sample from all over the news spectrum because there is so much content out there to choose from. Thus journalists now have to pay attention to how their readers are reacting to their content and engage with them to justify their attention.”
With the rise of digital journalism, engaging an audience isn’t overly hard either. Tools like Storify, Knight Lab’s timeline.js and Tableau, alongside new forms of publishing such as live video and podcasts, make it more easier than ever to grab a reader’s attention.
How Canada's institutions stack up
Journalism is without a doubt adapting to remain a part of people’s lives as they read, watch and listen to the news on the internet rather than the traditional television set. I sat down with several past and present journalism students to talk about how their programs have prepared them for the digital age.
Emily recently completed an internship at the Marilyn Denis show in Toronto, and hopes to work on a television studio set once she’s completed her schooling. Though traditionally television is watched on a box-top set through a satellite feed, she makes sure to remind me that “lot of the time if it’s on television it’s online as well."
“I think not just journalism is changing, but the world in general, like people’s opinions on certain issues make people more open minded, or we’re wanting people to be more open minded and that sort of thing. Journalism has to go in that direction but also maintain their unbiased [opinion]. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but it’s hard as a journalist to be unbiased in this new changing world.”
The purpose of these interviews was to figure out if journalism schools are really doing enough to prepare and expose their students to different online tools and mediums of publishing. As more and more people are moving to their cell phones to get the news, their attention spans become shorter because they expect to digest the news in a smaller, easy-to-read format. Interactive tools are one way that media companies are fighting to retain users on their websites for longer.
“I find that there’s a lot more that you can do with journalism stories now,” Emily explained. “Live streaming has become a big thing in the last two years so there’s lots of that going on. Jus the technology mostly ... new technology keeps coming, the 360 [degree] cameras. But I think just the technology that we’re able to use to tell the story has been changing and helps us tell the story.”
Finally, I asked her how she feels that her program prepared her for the journalist occupation. “I don’t feel super prepared but I feel like that’s how a lot of people in their fourth year feel until they get out there and they realize that they did learn those stills that they think they didn’t learn. I can’t really say for sure until I get there.”
Owen Maxwell recently graduated from Carleton University, which many people have called the best school for journalists in Canada. However, he explained to me that their curriculum wasn’t on par with the technology that was available at the time.
“At Carleton specifically, they got us the basics of WordPress [...] but I felt as though they weren’t as technologically forward so we never used anything like Periscope,” Owen said. "I mean they thought podcasting was super interesting [...] I would personally say on a lot of the online tools, they were pretty behind."
“In certain aspects I feel print-wise, they somewhat prepared [us] ... in terms of writing and learning to write, I was adequately prepared. What I did feel the program didn’t do a great job of was teaching people to properly freelance. Freelance stories to somewhere like Post Media because obviously they’re never going to hire students out of the gate.”
Freelancing is generally a large part of a journalist’s life once they’ve completed their schooling. Full-time or well paid job openings are scarce, and many companies chose to utilize freelance work so they can skip out on paying for things like healthcare, vacation pay, and so they can be more choosy in the work they publish.
Freelancing can also benefit a journalist, however, because they have more opportunities to be paid to publish on the internet and sometimes are able to repurpose their content and publish it with different media outlets.
Adam St’Pierre attended University of King’s College in Halifax, NS, and is currently a writer at a professional resume company.
I asked him if he thought that his program at King’s had prepared him enough for the field of journalism, and he explained that “for digital journalism, there’s a certain method or way to lay out a story, and what photos to have with it. All those little details that really go unnoticed a lot of the times are kind of what we touched on so I would definitely say it prepared us well. I think maybe in the future journalism programs should offer more of a focus on getting into that role and finding the jobs.”
“We got training in Storify, a bunch of different phone apps to use. I don’t know if I’d used Periscope specifically [...] we worked with WordPress for online journalism, for example. Just a bunch of different software programs like that. Digital journalism these days, it’s not so much just writing a story. Sometimes now they want you to do the photography for the story and the video editing and the sound clips.”
Institutions aren't updating fast enough
Canada is home to many different journalism schools, which are evidently devoting an increasing amount of resources and time towards preparing students for writing on the web. “Our role isn’t to be a vocational school; to be slavishly responsive to everything the industry wants,” Sam Freedman, a Columbia J-school professor, said. “But there’s a technological revolution and a new way readers want to consume journalism that we need to be responsive to, while hanging on to the most important of our traditions.”
In Canada (and throughout the world), institutions are struggling to keep up with the technology that people are adapting. The Knight Foundation took a look into the future of journalism and released a six-part report on its findings, titled “Above & Beyond”.