How journalism schools can innovate by teaching tech reporting
Almost every journalism school either has or intends to revisit what they teach. Even before Knight Foundation's Eric Newton led the call for a reformation of journalism schools, the momentum was clear: there was going to be educational disruption, and every school needed to position itself as the J-school of the future.
In recent years, much of what has happened falls into two categories: bringing "entrepreneurship into the curriculum” or using the "teaching hospital" metaphor. Both have merits. And the recent Knight education challenge fund administered through ONA is a great way to continue to push boundaries. And in that vein, I want to offer a third option, one that I haven't seen widely adopted but that I think could bear fruit.
Your J-school should have a technology reporting class.
My personal story: I started out as a technology reporter. It was after the first dot-com bust and before the full rise of Web 2.0. Because I was reporting about new technologies, it was inevitable that I became engaged in online communities and tools. How can you report on an industry if you don't understand how people in that industry are communicating? How can you report on a cultural shift if you don't fully understand how it engages people?
When I started as a technology reporter I wasn't @Digidave. In fact, before 2003 I was not very tech-savvy. But if you're a motivated reporter you learn the nuances, the details. You study quickly. Creating my first blog was an occupational requirement.
When he taught new media at Columbia's J-school, Sree Sreenivasan would talk about "new media skill set, and new media mind set." The former can be taught: learning Photoshop, photography, video, etc. But the latter must be absorbed. That's the real trick of building technology journalism into a school's curriculum.
Technology isn't something students should learn because “it’s the future.” Students can learn about technology because it will be their beat and they want to be good reporters. When students aren't even paying attention, they'll begin to understand the power of technology, the richness of the industry and the culture of the community.
For the traditionalists: Have no fear, it’s still reporting! A tech reporting class isn't about gadgets and gizmos and "whosits and whatsits galore.” It's about reporting and writing. Unlike most “teaching hospital” classes, the topic is around an industry rather than a geography. But it's an exciting industry that has giants like Google/Facebook as well as new upstarts run by people not much older than your students.
Tech reporting requires desk reporting, but it is done best with old-fashioned boots on the ground, making sources, calling, following up, etc. You want students to learn how to report and write. They can do that while on the tech beat.
For the small J-school: You probably want to bring entrepreneurship and technology into your curriculum but maybe you haven’t been able to attract the high-profile journo-preneurs-coders. Maybe the multimillion-dollar foundation grant to fund the new innovation building is out of reach. Starting a technology beat class isn’t.
Tech beats aren't limited to San Francisco. There are hubs in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Boston, Charleston, Seattle and more. There are plenty of technology hubs beyond the obvious. Where's your J-school? Where's your closest tech hub?
Technology needs better coverage. Tech reporting for the most part is weak. There are great examples out there, but the preponderance of technology coverage stems from sources that are part of the industry itself. I'm not just talking about the fact that the major technology blogs take VC money. Those conflicts can be disclosed and navigated. Rather, it's the sense that the very existence of tech blogs depends on the success of the technology industry as a whole. If the tech industry doesn't have a massive consumer base of people buying gadgets or using web products, then the tech blogs have no market either.
A university tech reporting class is sheltered from market realities. It can do enterprise reporting from a unique angle. It's an angle I think could be refreshing.
David Cohn is director of news at Circa and a member of Poynter’s adjunct faculty. Previously he worked on some of the first endeavors exploring crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in journalism. You can find him on Twitter at @digidave.
Related training: Core Skills for the 21st Century Journalist