Phillip Smith
commentary

Young journalists don't seem to care about the Web: Why not? #hackshackers #hhto

Continuing on the theme of the recent MagNet panel “The New Normal: Writing Strategies for a Converged Media World,” I wanted to gut check another challenge that I see confronting publishers as they move into the digital era, and journalism in general: In my experience, young journalists are not interested in the Web.

There are exceptions, obviously, but – for the most part – when I meet folks fresh out of journalism school, they are focused almost exclusively on print-centric accomplishments, i.e., the coveted byline in the national daily newspaper, or feature in the monthly intellectual magazine. This is as true now when I meet people at Hacks/Hackers Toronto or Press Pass, as it was six years ago while working on CopyCamp, as it was sixteen years ago when I was shooting photographs for the The Varsity.

How many have a blog or personal Website to chronicle and promote their work? Very few. Something simpler like a Tumblr or a Twitter account, perhaps? Maybe if they’ve taken a “multimedia” course along the way where setting up an account was part of the curriculum. Are those accounts active? Not often. However, every one them has a Facebook account – not a page to promote their writing, but a personal account – and they manage to update it with surprising frequency. To me, this is a huge disconnect! And I wonder how Facebook has succeeded, and how the Web has failed, in convincing these capable individuals of the power of personal publishing – yet, more often than not, they are unaware that they are publishing in a corporate blogging silo.

Moving beyond the basics: How many have even a rudimentary understanding of how the Web works? How many can compose even a simple HTML page from scratch, or mark-up a basic table to present some data in tabular format? In my experience, a very small number. How about the presentation or manipulation layers of the Web, CSS and JavaScript, e.g., making that table easier to read and making it sortable? If I’ve met anyone at all who has these skills in the first few years of their post-school career I’m drawing a blank (with the notable exception of those folks that have graduated from one of the newer specialty journalism plus computer science programs at places like NYU’s Studio 20, Northwestern, etc.).

There are many initiatives underway to address these last two concerns – convincing writers about the benefits of personal publishing, and teaching non-technical people about the basics of how the Web works – but how can the first concern – young writers prioritizing print experience over Web – be addressed? This is the question I’m most curious about.

Organizations like Poynter and IRE are delivering great trainings for everything from the basics of data journalism, to multi-day “boot camps” that aim to teach journalists how to program basic Web applications, but those are all targeting “the choir:” the tip of the iceberg of people who are already convinced that the Web is an inevitably part of the future of journalism, and – somewhat sadly – these are mostly older and wiser journalists who probably see the writing on the wall and want to upgrade their skills before it’s too late.

At the entry-level end of the spectrum, initiatives like Mozilla’s Thimbl and Codecademy might finally break through the conceptual barrier to learning basic Web skills like HTML and JavaScript, while tools like JSFiddle are making it much easier to literally SEE how all of the pieces fit together, which might also be part of the puzzle that has been missing all of these years. There are new tools being developed all of the time, which is great, but also presents the challenge of keeping learning materials and efforts up-to-date.

During the recent workshop I delivered on “Telling stories with data” only a handful of participants had experience with Google Spreadsheets, one or two with Google Fusion Tables, and none had used Google Refine. This is not to say that these participants – mostly journalists, academic researchers, and concerned citizens – should be up-to-date on the latest-and-greatest data tools, but just to point out that – of those that are interested enough in the topic to invest a weekend of their time and a non-trivial amount of money – tools that are freely available and have been around for years are still relatively unknown even to those with an interest.

But I digress…

So, how can the first challenge – an observed lack of interest in the Web – be addressed? Or, more importantly, does it actually need to be addressed? Perhaps I’m wrong and I’ve just met an unrepresentative sample of young journos and writers over the years? Perhaps I’m wrong that the Web is changing the way that people interact with writing, journalism, and news? And perhaps the New York Times will continue to print a newspaper forever (even though Sulzberge has said “We Will Stop Printing The New York Times Sometime In The Future”)? Perhaps the Huffington Post will solve the issue for us! They seem to be signing up a surprising number of young journalists.

When I met with Chris Boutet, Kim Fox, and Dana Lacey last week to discuss the reboot of Hacks/Hackers Toronto, I put this question on the table. We know that part of the recipe for successful convening is putting together those journalists that already “get it” and want to “make the Web” with the people that can help them learn through building and experimenting. The other part, I would propose, is helping newer journalists see the possibilities that the Web provides, i.e., new ways to investigate, new ways to communicate, new way to tell the story.

It’s ambitious, but we’re determined.

Feedback welcome.

About

Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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