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

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  • http://mindymcadams.com/tojou/ Mindy McAdams

    I shunned the business reporting course at my j-school, but I learned to appreciate business reporting skills in a hurry (in 1984) when I got a job with a high-quality trade newspaper, MIS Week, that covered the computer and telecom industries. Learning to read quarterly and annual financials, as well as white papers from companies such as IBM, turned out to be tough but fascinating. (I also learned a lot about dealing with p.r. people, both good and bad.)

    So in support of what Dave has proposed, I would add that a technology reporting course could easily replace a standard business reporting course, and it might be more rigorous. Why? Because the strategies and products of even a small technology firm are complex and require a lot of due diligence from the person writing about them.

  • jeffreyjaicks

    I agree with you. There needs to be constantly changes to be always on the same line with actuality. Very good your enthusiasm. Good luck in the future.

    __________________

    DrJaicks

  • http://www.futureforecast.com pachecod

    I totally agree with this. In fact, we just got a grant at Syracuse University to do some local tech-ecosystem reporting that involves student in the “teaching hospital” model.

    There are so many new startups emerging in Syracuse and so many new programs that people are walking around saying, “All this great stuff is happening, but nobody outside knows about it. And we don’t know about it all. How do we solve this problem?” Journalism and smart curation to the rescue!

    I will share more in my own blog post when we kick off the project.

  • DavidDG

    The wider point is that tech shares with its twin, science, the characteristic of being poorly served in journalism. It’s historical. In the UK, a newly qualified science grad recruited to write tech in the 90s would get 13k. A general journo eared 21k. So with my chem/maths degree I became a general reporter. Another issue, which business and economics have wrestled with is how to make the text accessible for non-techies, and should they? Every so often a specialist subject fades in and out of vogue. Tech may have prominence now, because anyone, it’s believed can be a reviewer ( c.f. YouTube, though not all necessarily good ones), so the thinking perhaps is for Tech writers to mark and establish a hold on this specialisms. Irrespective of the subject, it boils down to what David Bordwell calls “meaning making”. Being immersed in the subject (as a reflective practitioner) and understanding its langue, and the schema of critiquing, reviewing and who the exemplars are. Without diminishing your claim, we need more econs writers to reveal hidden money trails, or more climatologist writers to investigate weather, or semioticians to indicate when a politicians says no, when they’re explicitly saying yes. As journos, being curious, possessing a huge appetite for info, being nosey and stubborn is but one answer.

  • http://rtberner.com R Thomas Berner

    And I am very interested in technology, just not in privileging it as a course in journalism.

  • Jake Smith (US News Editor)

    I’ve been doing tech reporting for about three years, under four top 100 Techmeme publications and working with some of the best in the industry.

    Tech reporting is completely different from any other reporting. It’s such a closed off industry, access to anything early is nearly impossible. Employees are under NDA/companies are extremely secretive. It’s not companies or employees who will just open up and spill everything (maybe sometimes) like other sectors and industries. There’s jobs, promotion, and legality at stake for many sources.

    That leaves just a lot of covering product announcements. That New York Times piece you cited was great, but that’s a once in a three year story. They’re just not that prevalent given the industry.

    Engadget actually does a lot of journalistic work.. like I said, they have to cover updates, blog posts from companies, etc, because if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be content hitting the pages. But they still break a lot of ground.

  • http://blog.digidave.org/ digidave

    Small distinction. It’s not that the reporting isn’t good. It’s that the reporting is “weak.” By which I mean – it lacks teeth. Most tech reporting is about a consumer experience/product etc. But companies like Apple, Facebook, etc. deserve stronger reporting. When the NYT broke the story about FoxConn, for example, that was some strong and fantastic work. I would love to see more like that and less like Engadget.

  • Jake Smith (US News Editor)

    I think the notion that the majority of tech reporting isn’t good is wrong.

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  • Bryan M.

    Interestingly, one of our alumni is now with the Des Moines paper, and he got the tech beat precisely because he’d shown strong skills as a general assignment reporter.

  • http://rtberner.com R Thomas Berner

    Journalism students should minor in at least one subject and maybe two. One of those subjects could be technology. But incorporating such a course into the journalism curriculum privileges one subject over many other important subjects. Frankly, I’m more interested in business news.