Building conceptual bridges to a new media world

When Ryan Sholin’s manifesto on the future of newspapers appeared the other day, the blogosphere cheered loudly. “Great summary,” said one commenter, “Too bad they’re not listening.”

“They” are the newspaper writers, editors, and journalists — and the J-school teachers — whose attitudes and skills require a major overhaul:

Get over the whole bloggers vs. journalists thing…

…you and Mr. Notebook need to make some new friends, like Mr. Microphone and Mr. Point & Shoot.

Although everything on Ryan’s 10-point list is devastatingly true, it’s important to consider all the reasons why “they’re not listening.” In an item linked from his manifesto, Ryan expounds on the new skillset. The list of desiderata includes:

  1. Can you code a Flash stage for chaptered Soundslides?
  2. Can you edit audio, photos, and video into a compelling multimedia presentation?
  3. Can you manage a community of users?
  4. Can you moderate comments and forums and reader-contributed stories and photos and video?
  5. Can you build a maps mashup that feeds itself with data scraped from public records?
  6. Can you design interactive graphics in Flash?

Most of these things I’m able to do by virtue of long experience in a variety of disciplines and much intensive self-training. A few (items 1 and 6) I’ve never done. Sure, the world would be a better place if more journalists — and indeed more professionals in all fields — possessed these and related skills. It’s precisely for that reason that those of us who do possess them ought to think carefully about how to help others come up to speed. Hitting them over the head with a bewildering list of new skills foreign to them seems more likely to alienate than to inspire. Perhaps we could use our vaunted new media storytelling ability to tell stories that demystify what we’ve learned to do. What we see as stubborn foot-dragging is, in many cases, just fear. It’s a scary chasm to cross. Among our new skills, we should include the ability to build conceptual bridges that help people cross it.

One approach that’s helpful in all situations, but perhaps especially so here, is to teach by analogy. I understand why we focus on the newness of new media. There’s a lot that really is new, and it’s natural to celebrate that. But much remains the same, and it’s important to point that out too.

In my case, for example, Mr. Microphone and Mr. Camcorder were new modes of expression that I adopted only recently. As I discussed in this interview for the IDG, it was (and still is) a challenge to become proficient with these tools. But I probably haven’t said enough about how comfortably my writing and editing skills transfer into these domains. Editing audio and video feels different in some ways, but very familiar in other ways. The literary experience I brought with me into the audiovisual realm counts for a lot.

It’s the same story with interactive and data-rich information display. True, I bring some programming chops to the table that many others would lack, but the core skills are common-sense numeracy and a good sense of composition.

In my interview with Bill Buxton I asked Bill how you can help people adopt unfamiliar user interfaces. He said the same thing I’m saying here: You rely on analogy. By way of example, he proposed a force-sensitive mouse button. The harder you press, the faster it makes things scroll. Nobody’s ever used one of those, but he suggests (and I agree) that everyone could, because everyone drives a car with an accelerator pedal.

If we want newspapers to reinvent themselves, we might want to tone down the paradigm-shift rhetoric and focus more on how the important skills can and will transfer.

11 thoughts on “Building conceptual bridges to a new media world

  1. Andrew Fry

    How true. Some other examples of just making analogical sense are the shopping cart and the online invitation. E-commerce sped up at a much greater rate when people could shop for multiple items at a time and be able to put things “back on the shelf” when they found something better or changed their minds. Sending out invitations through Evite is a very easy way to gather up RSVP’s and get a head count. Both are really just tapping into what the population is already familiar with, and they worked. I like your accelerator pedal example because it isn’t as blatant, but makes perfect sense.

    Reply
  2. Doug K

    this is a category error. Journalists don’t currently know how to run a printing press, or a TV station, and why should they ?
    The technology and the business is changing, but the trade of journalism is not. The problem is one of funding journalists, not one of journalists needing to become programmers (especially and particularly not Flash programmers).

    See Lance Mannion’s cogent analysis on how the business is changing,
    http://lancemannion.typepad.com/lance_mannion/2007/06/one_and_a_half_.html

    We need journalists’ skills more than ever before. From the BLS description:
    “News analysts, reporters, and correspondents gather information, prepare stories, and make broadcasts that inform us about local, State, national, and international events; present points of view on current issues; and report on the actions of public officials, corporate executives, interest groups, and others who exercise power.”
    The watchdogs of power have been co-opted into the power structures in Washington, with a few honorable exceptions. What’s needed is to extricate them and let them do their jobs: whether in print, video, or online doesn’t really matter as much as addressing the fundamental corruption.

    Reply
  3. Ryan Sholin

    Hi Jon –

    Here’s my response to everyone who has asked “But who’s listening”: I work at newspaper. I have friends who work at newspapers. We get it. We’re working on it.

    Not everyone in the business gets it. Not everyone in the business is working on it.

    Plenty of people are getting hit over the head with layoffs these days, but complaining about it doesn’t change facts. The layoffs are going to continue. Things are going to get worse before they get better.

    But if you look at the work I point to in the 10th point on my list, you’ll see that the training and the change and the adoption of new technologies is underway. There’s good work out there, and there’s good work to be done. Now is not the time for further handwringing; it’s the time to accept a few facts and get back to the business of informing the public and changing the world.

    Reply
  4. Jon Udell Post author

    “The layoffs are going to continue. Things are going to get worse before they get better.”

    Agreed.

    “Now is not the time for further handwringing; it’s the time to accept a few facts and get back to the business of informing the public…”

    Agreed.

    All I’m suggesting is that since there is, in fact, a major disruption associated with the acquisition of new skills and some very different ways of thinking, it will be helpful to find ways to identify and emphasize continuity where we can.

    Reply
  5. Ryan Sholin

    Of course. When it comes down to what we’re moving forward with online, a lot of it is what I would call complementary content. It’s medium-appropriate stuff, multimedia and interactive. Web teases print, print teases Web. The paradigm-shift is here, but no one is talking about burning Mr. Notebook on a ceremonial altar. We’re going to be partying around bonfires and all, but the time for singing Kumbaya and holding hands about it has come and gone. We’re bleeding revenue and staff.

    Reply
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  8. Brian Cubbison

    Right now, when a reporter posts directly to a blog, the reporter is taking care of the layout, paginating and headline writing. The reporter is absorbing many duties that copy editors absorbed from composing rooms.

    The newsroom will have general assignment reporters, where general assignment means being on the scene with digitial photos, video or web skills. And there will be a projects desk, where someone with a great visual sense will work with a writer and a database expert to produce long-form journalism. And there will be a technicians desk, where Friday night sports video is filed and edited, but I hope there is still room for the spontaneity of an individual journalist who sees something and can report on it in the best medium available without waiting for the next video editing clerk to get free.

    Reply
  9. leMel

    Mr. Udell says:
    “Hitting them over the head with a bewildering list of new skills foreign to them seems more likely to alienate than to inspire…It’s a scary chasm to cross. Among our new skills, we should include the ability to build conceptual bridges that help people cross it.”

    Not buying it [with all respect, puts money back in pocket].

    Technical skills not learned in service OF something else (in this example journalism) will only end up in service TO something else (in this example, a foot-dragging community of practice).

    Why should Mr/Ms. Uberskillz ‘share’ what makes them valuable with foot-draggers? I see the benefit to the foot-draggers, but what’s the benefit Ms. Uberskillz? It would be much better to give the technically skilled folks a better conceptual grounding, which technical training apparently doesn’t. This puts them in the marketplace, which does much more to ‘bring people along’ than any soapboxing or conceptual bridging ever could.

    What do I mean?

    Example: graphic design in the 1980s. There was a time when many highly succesful and well-respected design studios looked on the computer with disdain. “Not a serious tool for design” they said. They pointed to desktop publishing as an example of the mediocrity and lack of professionalism the PC seemed to spawn at that time. But as soon as a community of practitioners who were both technically skilled *and* conceptually grounded appeared in the late 80s/early 90s, the new landscape could no longer be derided.

    I see the pattern repeated here (and in many other fields).

    Reply

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