Journalism textbooks have seen their future and it is digital

An animated, thickly illustrated website freckled with hyperlinks doesn’t say “textbook” the way a musty hardcover does. But Eric Newton wants you to see “Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes from the Digital Age of Journalism” as a model for what the textbooks of the future could be.

“There isn’t a name for what it is,” Newton, journalist and senior adviser to the Knight Foundation president, said in a phone interview. “It’s a digital book and a teaching tool – an HTML5 website designed in parallax so you have that 3D immersion. We call it a demonstration project.”

Eric Newton, journalist and senior adviser to the Knight Foundation president, leads a Poynter Institute/NewsU webinar, "Six Things Educators Can Do Right Now to Go Digital," on Oct. 28.

The combination of Newton’s observations about the state of journalism and journalism education (much of which has been previously published on the Knight Foundation’s blog and in various other places) and assignments, links, and discussion questions that make up the “learning layer” will be available free of charge starting today.

Newton’s central messages are that journalism and journalism educators must prioritize digital innovation not only in curricula but also in curricular delivery; that we must let go of those things we used to do and realize that, like a riding in a recliner on a rollercoaster, adapting to the digital age may be a little scary but we may as well get comfortable with it. Change is inevitable.

“Psychologically, it’s always been okay for the news to change every minute, that’s fine,” Newton said. “But when it comes to how we do it, that’s uncomfortable.”

“Searchlights and Sunglasses” is meant as a proof of concept. “How can you call for digital change in a printed book form?” Newton asked. “It didn’t seem right.”

For those who need or want a hard copy, the site offers three download options, and each page, save the videos and animations, of course, can be printed. Not everyone has access to the bandwidth or technology it takes to really explore “Searchlights and Sunglasses,” but printing the PDFs, including the “learning layer,” which is nearly a hundred pages longer than the core of the book, would result in a stack of over 500 pages.

The “learning layer” activities, assignments, vocabulary terms, discussion questions, examples and links were created and curated by the “team of graduate students, researchers and educators” selected by the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Institute for Journalism, according to the acknowledgments section of “Searchlights and Sunglasses.”

“Searchlights and Sunglasses” is revolutionary, Newton said, in that it is “designed to be able to be updated hourly or weekly or monthly rather than annually or every five years.”

For the time being, Newton and his team will update it, until PBS MediaShift takes it over, he said. PBS MediaShift will make sure that its links and resources stay up-to-date and connected to what’s going on in the social and mobile world of news and at the forefront of the movement to bring journalism education into the digital age.

Newton estimates that “maybe 20 percent” of schools have truly tried to innovate and in “Searchlights and Sunglasses” he pleads with those who haven’t changed the way they think to see the light.

“If the news community doesn’t adapt, we may lose an entire century of professional journalism development,” Newton warns in the text. “The watchdog tradition, the courage, the ethics — all of it — will be as useful as a flashlight in Miami’s bright summer sun.”

Calling the project a demonstration and a model doesn’t necessarily mean that Newton or Knight wants every textbook to be parallax-scrolling, HTML5, multi-layered, or 500-plus pages.

There are countless ways to publish content online and to make it interactive, Newton said, and “Searchlights and Sunglasses” is just one example of how it can be done. The platform and the programming aren’t miraculous, he said.

“The hard part is getting into people’s heads with an image, an idea, that sparks a different way of looking at things – when it’s suddenly okay to be uncertain about the future and it’s okay to be in a culture of continuous change.”

For someone looking to produce a tool like this for the first time, the key is to “surround yourself with talented digital natives who want to tell stories,” Newton said in an email. “In my case, that was our creative director, Eric Schoenborn, who took the idea and made it real.” Innovation for the digital age doesn’t have to be expensive and shouldn’t feel impossible, he added.

“Overcomplicating change is what people do to avoid change,” he said. “We did it in the easiest way that was available to us – for somebody else it will be even easier.”

“Searchlights and Sunglasses” is one of three digital initiatives unveiled by the Knight Foundation. Read more about today's announcements.

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