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Inside the Fourth Estate

What skills will journalists need in the electronic age?

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs
Posted April 26, 2000

The Internet is rapidly transforming the ways in which news is packaged and exchanged.

How is that changing the profession, which has been bombarded by the likes of cable, online news services, Web phones, chat rooms and Palm Pilots?

And how can academicians train the next generation of journalists when so much in the electronic age is just now coming to fruition?

"It seems to me you have to do two things at once," said Katherine Fulton of Global Business Network, who joined 30 print, broadcast and Internet news professionals April 19 in an informal discussion of the Internet's impact on the industry. The gathering was co-hosted by Berkeley and the Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center, a nonpartisan, international foundation for educational, research and media training.

"You have to get much better at teaching people to do the things that traditionally we know they need to do," she said. "Critical thinking skills, reporting skills, the knowledge, the writing skills, those are never going to go out of fashion.

"And yet we're moving into a situation in which none of that is going to be sufficient," she said. "Increasingly the world will be organized around customers and what they want; why the home page will be my own personal news."

The discussion was organized by Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, and Laura Tyson, dean of the Haas School of Business. Also in attendance were representatives of the university's Multimedia Research Center, School of Information Management and Systems, and Computer Science Department.

New job roles in the Internet age are emerging in academia as well, said Tyson.

"We're working in a world in which traditional industry lines don't matter anymore," she said. "What is journalism, what is media, what is news in this financial onslaught [of Internet activity]? For example, in creating a course on multimedia," Tyson said, "how do you create a course in multimedia that's actually going to anticipate what's needed five years from now?"

Participants explored a variety of issues in information management systems, technology, business and computer sciences that are central to education in the new Internet culture. "We should be addressing those aspects we know about how people learn, about traditional story-telling, about technology and how it is coming together to create a completely new form [of information dissemination]," Tyson said.

To prepare journalists for this brave new world, reporters stressed that the practical skills of news reporting aren't likely to change.

"Journalism will always depend on traditional news-gathering skills, critical thinking and fairness," said Larry Kramer, chief executive officer of CBS's Marketwatch, an online financial news wire. "But the presentation of news has changed. We need to deal with the tools, the video, the sound, the ways in which stories can be packaged."

The concept of traditional beats also is changing, noted George Shirk, editor-in-chief of Wired News.

"The Internet experience has become my local turf rather than a geographic region," he said. "The Internet explosion is a cultural phenomenon, not just a technological phenomenon, that is happening everywhere. There are no boundaries to a story now and it's changing the way we define stories."

Kramer noted that he is struggling to understand what people are trying to learn during the day and how they get their information.

"One person will come to our site four different times and four different ways. They'll come to our front page [to see how editors rank the significance of stories]. At a glance, some editorial judgment has entered into the picture. At the second level, they go to the stories they're interested in. It had better be good and well written.

"The same person will come back two hours later and, because they work in the Silicon Valley, will call up a column called Silicon Stocks and look at 50 items that are about things going on in their world," he said. "And then at the end of the day, the same person goes back a fourth time and calls up the stocks they own. They want to know if they're going up or down and why. And the same person now is sending us requests for e-mail alerts."

But there are six million people out there now reading their news on cell phones, Carl Kawaja of Capital Group Companies pointed out. "Part of how you appreciate the media is [based on] the media through which it is conducted."

"The key is getting students to understand what great journalism is, and great reporting," said Chris Boskin of Capital Publishing. "That's the key. We're talking about wireless right now. There's a whole new language that's evolving, but it still gets down to the basic premise of good reporting."

News organizations will have to come up with more inventive and creative ways of packing the news in order to keep their audiences coming back, others said. With increasing use of the Internet, the public has become accustomed to instant news in lively, highly visual formats.

"We define journalism as all about writing," said Nick Denton of "What we're talking about here is the presentation, the repackaging of the information, the aggregation of information.

"It's hard to hire people out of journalism school. Journalism school graduates want to write," he said. "Writing and reporting are the pinnacle of all journalistic achievement. They're incredibly difficult to hire because they get unhappy after about three months, because editing skills, packaging and ... encyclopedic knowledge of sources is not something elevated by journalism schools.

"If there was one way you could respond to the market," Denton said, "it would be to recognize that a lot of it is about aggregation and repackaging."

To keep up with the latest developments, Berkeley's journalism and business schools introduced a joint class last year to examine online publications from a business and journalism perspective. In addition, faculty and staff are partnering with industry representatives to maintain an ongoing exchange of ideas. This continuing dialogue is building a valuable experience base and helping staff with preliminary efforts to design a new interdisciplinary multimedia curriculum.

"Between communications and journalism, you've got plenty of curriculum around," said Srinija Srinivasan of Yahoo. "Different kinds of communication, interviewing in one-on-one situations, moderating, poll-taking and that kind of collaborative information-gathering.

"Maybe the challenge is to take a look at the elements that you have and throw in a few more, like hypertext or something the Internet brings," she said. "Think about what you could do if you could exercise all those things simultaneously... Folks who do good journalism with the new media are the ones who are going to figure that out."



April 26 - May 3, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 30)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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