The New Old Journalism

Adam L. Penenberg
Wired News, 04.28.05

We’ve been having a spirited discussion in the journalism department at New York University. With newspapers hemorrhaging readers and people migrating to the web for their daily news fix, should we consider changing the way we teach journalism?

For as far back as anyone can remember, New York University has used introductory courses to drill students on the basics: “ledes,” “nut grafs,” the “inverted pyramid” and the “five Ws” ??- who, what, where, when, why (and No. 6: how). But at a time when the vast majority of our students who enter the job market will never work for a newspaper, does it make sense to stick with tradition?

Should we raze our curriculum to the ground and start over, perhaps, and look to the web for inspiration? Could it be beneficial to jettison “objectivity” and “balance” in favor of transparent bias, much like bloggers (and online columnists) do? Would it be wise to encourage our students to exchange fact-based narrative for edgy commentary and digital trash talk? And if we were to banish the inverted pyramid to the scrapheap of history, what could we replace it with?

Or do the basics of newspaper writing and reporting offer students the necessary foundation for them to succeed in any medium, whether it be print, online, broadcast, wire service, blogs or any other information-distribution system that may be coming down the pike?

Of course, we aren’t the only ones mulling journalism’s future. Far from the pedagogical front, media monarch Rupert Murdoch warned the American Society of Newspaper Editors that many in the industry have become “remarkably, unaccountably, complacent.”

In an April 13 speech about the role of newspapers in the modern age, Murdoch cited a Carnegie study that found young Americans between 18 and 34 prefer to get their news from the web, and that their favored destinations were internet portals. Forty-four percent of respondents claimed to use a portal at least once a day for news, compared to 19 percent who didn’t mind getting inky hands from a newspaper.

What Murdoch found particularly disturbing was younger readers’ attitude toward newspapers: “Only 9 percent describe us as trustworthy, a scant 8 percent find us useful, and only 4 percent of respondents think we’re entertaining. Among major news sources, our beloved newspaper is the least likely to be the preferred choice for local, national or international news going forward.”

Then again, perhaps Murdoch was thinking of the way many Americans view the decidedly unhip New York Post, a tabloid he owns.

Yes, it’s true that newspapers are steadily losing readers and that younger people will undoubtedly choose the web. Ultimately, the printed word will die off. Not tomorrow or the next day, but in the coming decades. It’s inevitable since it will be more cost-effective (not to mention better for the environment) to distribute news over the web and via cell phones and PDAs than by printing it on paper and relying on trucks to deliver it to newsstands and subscribers’ doorsteps.

What is not true, however, is the notion that newspapers are dying. They aren’t. In fact, more people read traditional news outlets today than ever before. But they are doing it on a screen.

Look at the most popular sites on the internet — not just news sites but all sites — and what do you get? NBC/MSNBC, Yahoo News, CNN, BBC, Google News, The Drudge Report, USA Today, ABC, Reuters and Forbes. They come from all over the country: The Arizona Republic, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And all over the world: The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald and The Times of India. Some are solely web-based and cater to specific niches: Wired News, CNET. Then there’s The Onion, a category unto itself.

Nowadays, news consumers have an almost unlimited choice. They don’t sit down with a newspaper for an hour to read it cover to cover. Instead, they bounce from site to site, story to story, link to link, customizing their newsgathering experience, clicking on whatever stories from whatever publications appeal to them. They don’t stick around long, but they do visit. It may be difficult for newspapers to figure out how to make money on them, but that doesn’t mean that consumers don’t find the product appealing.

People haven’t been abandoning newspapers (and magazines). They have been abandoning the print medium.

And that’s why I think that NYU should continue to teach the basics but also experiment with novel ways to approach reporting and writing. There will always be a market for young reporters who know how to gather facts and write them up in a clear, convincing manner. For that, you can’t do much better than showing students in our introductory classes how to craft a killer lede, a well-honed nut graf and an airtight structure.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t harness the power of the digital medium. I assigned blogs to my graduate students this past semester so they could cover a business beat. Other professors have also jumped fingers-first into digital journalism, most notably Jay Rosen, founder of the media blog PressThink.

In our classes, we discuss wikis and Wi-Fi, and invite bloggers and online reporters to share their experiences with us. We debate “citizen journalism” and journalistic ethics. We encourage creativity, but not at the expense of clarity.

But when all is said and done, I still expect that each student will know how to craft a hard news lede on a tight deadline.

Because whether we’re talking today or 10 years ago, it’s not the medium, it’s the reporter.

Copyright 2005 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)