How I Went from Web Opponent to Online Journalist

The Web and I haven’t always had the best relationship.

When I was 9 or 10, my mom bought me a Smith Corona typewriter around the same time that other kids my age were starting to get computers. When I asked her why she didn’t buy a computer, Mom laughed. Computers and the Web, she told me, were just a “passing phase.” She grew up with typewriters and wasn’t yet ready for a change.

I could see the excitement in her eyes when, shortly after she bought the typewriter, she handed me a book that she used as a young girl when learning how to type.

“Every good journalist,” she would say, “should know how to type.”

She’d open up to a page and, looking at her watch, would say, “1, 2, 3 … go!” I’d type out all the lines on the page, trying to type as fast as I could while making as few mistakes as possible. The more I typed, the more I grew to like the clickety-clack sound of the keys and the closer I felt to Mom. I began to think that maybe she was right when she said I didn’t need a computer.

I was especially convinced of this after my mom died of breast cancer when I was 11. In trying to hold on to her memory, I tried to hold on to her every belief and make them my own. Computers and the Web, I told myself, were just a passing phase.

Once I got to high school, I discovered AIM and slowly began to peek over the wall I had built between myself and the Web. But as excited as I was about the opportunity to virtually connect with friends, I still wasn’t convinced of the Web’s importance in journalism. As an aspiring journalist, I viewed it as a threat to the profession I had always wanted to pursue.

I mentioned this during a speech I gave last weekend at an event celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Cowl, my alma mater‘s student newspaper. I explained that the Web kept creeping into my life, especially when I started writing for The Cowl.

During my first week as a freshman reporter at Providence College, I learned that the editors had just launched the paper’s website, thecowl.com. They hung promotional posters around campus, serving as a constant reminder that the new website had launched. Then, my first assignment was about — you guessed it — the Internet. My editor asked me to cover the Internet problems students were having due to a series of viruses.

There was no denying that the Internet would become something I’d both cover and use as a student reporter. But part of me still wanted to believe that the Web would never be an integral part of the future of journalism. I wrote an editorial for my hometown newspaper suggesting as much.

Newspapers, I wrote, are “the wave of the future.” The need to tell stories, I went on to say, “is about as necessary as having a newspaper in hand while drinking your morning coffee.” Reading the story now, I realize how attached I was to the way things were, to a past that I tried too hard to hold on to.

It wasn’t until I became editor-in-chief of The Cowl that I started to let go. While I was editor, we began uploading the paper electronically — a process that proved far more efficient than printing off each page of the paper for the printing company to pick up. As editor of the paper, I was also editor of the paper’s website, which I tried to cultivate and grow. Still, the website was in many ways an afterthought, in part because students seemed to prefer the print product to the online product. As Poynter recently reported, this remains true at many college campuses.
 
During my speech I told current and former Cowl staffers that the popularity of the print campus newspaper in many ways reflects the “bubble” of college life. “In the journalism industry at large, the print product is suffering,” I said. “This reality makes that little thing called change all the more important.”

Being editor of The Cowl, I told the audience, gave me the confidence I needed to avoid getting trapped by antiquated conventions. It was this confidence that led me to move 1,400 miles away from home after graduating so I could pursue a career not in print, but on the Web at Poynter.

At Poynter, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this month, I have been free to explore and experiment with new online tools. I came upon Twitter, for instance, and decided to find out how it could be used as a tool for journalists. My reporting led to a September 2007 story with a telling lead sentence: “I never thought I’d become a twitterer who twittered tweets.” Some readers at the time criticized me for suggesting that journalists should use a tool that had “no journalistic purpose.” News organizations have since realized that by using social media, they can find story ideas, share content and reach new audiences in ways that they couldn’t before.

Now as an online journalist covering the intersection of media and technology, I see the Web not as a threat, but as an opportunity. The Web has hurt the print product in some respects, but it has also paved the way for change and innovation.

A couple of editors recently shared promising thoughts about how the Web has shaped their view of print for the better. Financial Times Editor Lionel Barber, for instance, said this week that “newspapers still account for a large amount of revenue and rates are higher in print than online. You don’t give up on the newspaper. But you have to adapt it to make it complementary with the Web.”

As you adapt, you realize that changes can foster new connections and opportunities. If I were still typing away on my Smith Corona, I’d be missing out on so many of the things that connect me to both the past and the present.

The Internet, for instance, helps connect me to The Cowl and the students who write for it. While I couldn’t pick up the 75th anniversary issue on campus when it first came out, I could look it up on the Web and feel like I was a part of those 75 years of history. And In writing personal essays about my mom on my blog, I’ve found a new way to keep her memory alive online.

As for that Smith Corona typewriter, it’s in the attic of the house where I grew up, dusty but still there.

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