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Sara-Ellen Amster, Ph.D. Headshot

Journalism Students Take on Role of Digital Pioneers

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In the age of Twitter, Facebook and mobile media, time and space are even more of a commodity. Those fellow journalists who used to gripe in the newsroom about Gannett Corp.'s meager newshole failed to see the digital revolution coming. They were so last century.

Most of those who were sure print newspapers would last forever got wiped out like monks who hand-painted Bibles. Flexibility and the need to train in more than just words proved more important than they knew. As a former daily newspaper reporter, I still believe that fundamentally clever students who can read and write can succeed in journalism. I still believe writing can change the world.

Mostly this is because doing everything else on the Internet is becoming so much simpler than in past times. For those things still difficult, someone somewhere is working on an iPad app that will simplify the entire process.

Presentation has become more important in Web journalism, but there is still the "holy shit" story, to invoke Ben Bradlee, that can bring down a president or more recently, a general. Journalism itself has gotten easier and more challenging simultaneously because of research methods that can locate people in cyberspace to serve as excellent sources in a matter of seconds.

While business takes advantage of people's Web routines for online marketing, journalists can find appropriate sources to speak just from using search methods on social networking sites. There is less separation between the people and the press and more participatory journalism.
In a time when journalism is often given bleak pronouncements, there are those, myself included, who understand that there is actually more opportunity in journalism than ever. Entering journalism takes courage, knowledge of journalistic methods and an entrepreneurial spirit.

In the Bay Area, Spot.us founder David Cohn points to the success of a promising method of supporting civic journalism through community contributors, a form of crowdfunding. "Even if the marketplace says we don't need newspapers, we still need journalism," says Cohn.

Through such Internet-based methods as crowdfunding, the future of journalism is going to be strong, he says, adding, "It's going to look radically different from what were used to."

Spot.us has a grant from Knight Foundation and keeps expanding beyond the Bay Area, says Cohn. It's very transparent where your money goes. Internet users contribute to specific projects and may get their money back if the story that's produced sells. Newspapers serve a vital function in our democracy, and Cohn is trying to hit on a new economic model that will sustain important stories. Interested reporters are asked to send a video of themselves and fill out a profile "so we can see what else they've done."

Cohn believes in the survival of journalism "A big part of my drive is to figure out how."
Similarly, the Voice of San Diego also serves as a successful nonprofit model for doing journalism and is located right in National University's backyard. Its recent hire of Engagement Editor Grant Barrett, who will continue to host his KPBS news program while assuming the new position. His job entails working to make sure that people see what the organization is producing and use the material in discussions.

For National, newsman Joe Little at 10 News, whose one-man-band journalism caught the attention of Al Tompkins of Poynter.org, may help teach our online classes depending on his busy schedule and wife's forebearance. Our goal is to get working professionals into the classroom to assist students in learning today's realities of the journalism marketplace and the skills they need to absorb.

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There are few who can do online journalism well without particular training and education. At National University, we work mainly with adults who came to their calling of journalism later than most. Yet their life experience makes them better reporters. Our undergraduate all-online digital journalism program begins in October and the all-online MA awaits accreditation. My hope is to hire the best faculty nationally to teach our students because the process of investigative journalism - the persistence and focus necessary has not really changed. Only the arsenal of potential places the public can be reached has changed dramatically, but the need for posing the right questions to the right people, ferreting out the right documents, approaching diverse sources - the skills of sorting, ordering and packaging information are key concepts that won't disappear. Real journalism that includes actually communicating with people - shoeleather reporting - cannot easily be farmed out to global journalists.

True journalism is local. Our undergraduate classes are informed by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg and the MA courses will go by such names as the New News, the Business of Journalism, Digital Audio & Video, and Producing Online Publications, among others. Colleges of media and communication will help students negotiate their options in the world of new media.

Of courseo ther terrific programs and boot camps have cropped up everywhere. See Retha Hll's work at Arizona State U. http://vimeo.com/12542837

At National, we hope to succeed by building on traditions and latching on to new ones.

Sara-Ellen Amster, Ph.D., is lead faculty member for Digital Journalism at National University, based in San Diego.