A conversation with media professionals on multimedia journalism education

I want to share the conversations I had with two media professionals about my post, “What is a multimedia journalism course?” I shared this post on LinkedIn in the Online News Association group, and had an interesting and thought-provoking conversation with two professionals in the group. Below is a copy-and-paste of that thread.

The two professionals in this conversation are Peter Prengaman, multimedia editor at Associated Press, and Scott Edmonds, reporter/editor at the Canadian Press. Among other things, we all agree that no matter what, the “good old-fashioned” journalism should be the core of journalism education.

Peter Prengaman • Interesting analysis. It begs a larger question: in general, what are we talking about when we say “multimedia?” The term can mean just about anything, so it’s important to better define, in each case, what we are talking about. I think that is probably why the courses have so many different names.

For me, multimedia is alternative, visual storytelling, any attempt to tell stories differently, to innovate any and all aspects. Often this coincides with interactive journalism, the basic idea that the reader leads his or her experience with the news, and I as the journalist create the a la carte menu.

However, I usually refer to that as an interactive, or a compelling graphic as a strong visualization, or an innovative video as a motion graphic with animation or an annotated document with analysis as just that, a document with analysis by way of annotations.

As journalists, regardless of the format, we should be specific. Multimedia is a word that is anything but that.

Mu Lin • At its core, multimedia journalism education is, and should be, the good, old-fashioned journalism. But with the rapidly changing world of communication technology, everyone realizes that there needs to be a change in the way we produce and deliver the contents; it’s just that many educators, including me, don’t know how to proceed and make changes to the curriculum – that’s what prompted me to start this project analyzing the current state of multimedia journalism education.

And I agree with you that the word “multimedia” is not the best title for this purpose, as many people tend to view “multimedia” as a combination of audio/video/animation, which doesn’t catch the essence of the type of journalism practice we are talking about here.

Some people prefer to use “multi-platform,” yet the problem is: people not in this field don’t have much clue what “multi-platform” is; instead, “multimedia” is more understandable without too much extra explanations. It seems to be a dilemma here.

Peter Prengaman • Hi Mu. I really like your first sentence, that multimedia journalism should be, “the good, old-fashioned journalism.” No matter what you teach, journalism has to be, and I am sure is, the basis. I say that because I’ve worked with a lot of young people right out of graduate J-school, especially folks with great technical, coding skills, who don’t have a solid foundation in the basics of journalism.

I offered to teach a course at Emory on interactive journalism (their adjunct budget has been cut, so at least right now it isn’t going to happen). While I planned to go over many of the bells and whistles of interactive journalism, technical aspects, ways of thinking, presenting, etc., I know I would have spent much time really hammering that before anything can be built, you have to understand the story. That is good old fashioned journalism.

Mu Lin • Three years ago, when I first started blogging about multimedia journalism, I wrote a post asking this question: do we want our J-students to be a story specialist and multimedia generalist, or a story generalist and multimedia specialist? Ideally, we want the students to be a specialist in both areas; but that’s not always possible in the curriculum planning.

Today, I believe the answer should be the former, with some modifications: we want the students to be a storytelling specialist, and a multimedia delivery generalist.

Looking at the larger picture, I like the way University of Texas at Austin and Temple University name the multimedia journalism courses, e.g., “multimedia storytelling,” “digital storytelling.” Some J-students in my classes say that chances are they won’t work for a professional news media, and I say that “storytelling” is the essence of journalism education and that’s an expertise needed everywhere in this day and world.

Scott Edmonds • I agree with your split but it isn’t just technology we are talking about here. It’s often subtle but those of us who make a living in multi-platform or multi-media journalism, take your pick, and who actually embrace the concept, recognize that there are differences inherrent in the tool you use to deliver your story. If you work for a larger organization, there are editors who have specialized skills to ensure the video not only tells the story but looks good. However, it’s up to the reporter to ensure the raw material is there. The same goes for the kind of language you need for a quick short breaking item that will be used on a variety of platforms. But on-the-job training and experience seem to be the best teachers. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I find some of the more recent graduates have less grasp of the kind of changes needed to meet the needs of different clients and different platforms. Some actually undo the things I know should be in something I have prepared. They need to gain real-world experience to make up for what they didn’t get in school.

Mu Lin • That’s a good observation. On-job training is something I myself underwent when teaching courses I myself was not familiar with. On the other hand, to better “sell” our j-students to employers, we want to maximize their in-school training and minimize the need for on-job training. I think that’s where our problem arises: how do we best match our teaching with the changing needs out there.

Scott Edmonds • Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you. I just find it’s hard to stay with the curve because no one really knows where the curve is going. Teaching the ability not to let what you learned in school become a fence helps but it gets tiring always revising your skillset. Employers are as often at fault with rigid systems they like to enforce and then think, when they shout “change,” everyone will magically change. The right corporate climate will help with proper training, proper equipment and proper support. But that costs money. But can anyone hope to teach something today that will be perfect in 10 years? Teaching the basics as you know them today (making them as employment ready as possible for that first job) and the ability to adapt makes more sense. And to accept that if you want to succeed, you have to be ready to shape change when needed. The one constant, I hope, remains the story, the commitment to the reader, audience, you pick the name, and the desire to do it right.

Peter Prengaman • Scott, Great points. It’s all but impossible to teach specific things that will be perfect in 10 years, or even a year!

I just think of my own background. The journalism I do today _ interactive graphics and many types of video _ is radically different than what I did even five years ago and a world away from when I got into this business after graduating from college in 1998.

I think the key is an education that helps students be life-long learners. I can’t say enough about my liberal arts background. It is what makes it possible to keep learning new stuff, like Flash, or shooting and editing video, or lately, building interactives in HTML.

In terms of what to teach in journalism, whether a course is in basic print reporting and writing or something like how to animate in Cinema 4D, the students will be well served as long as journalism is the foundation.

That said, I never studied journalism. Like many out there, I just always did it and have learned along the way. That is an okay road, as well.

Mu Lin • Seems that the three of us all agree that the “good old-fashioned” journalism or storytelling should be the core of a journalism education. That’s why, in my view, a multimedia or multiplatform journalism program should have at least these two core or required courses: News Reporting and Writing, plus a dedicated course in multimedia or multiplatform journalism.

And that brings up another interesting observation I have about the “standalone” multimedia journalism concentrations (those with green markers on my map). Some standalone programs do not require basic journalism training. I’m worried these students are what Peter referred to as “young people right out of graduate J-school, especially folks with great technical, coding skills, who don’t have a solid foundation in the basics of journalism.”

As a journalism educator, I always eye on the short-term goal of “making them as employment ready as possible for that first job,” as in Scott’s words. Seems that the standalone multimedia journalism concentrations may better prepare students for the first job?

About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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One Response to A conversation with media professionals on multimedia journalism education

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