As I watched the latest Spielberg movie this week with my wide-eyed 7-year-old son, I could not help thinking that the brave new world of journalism, both virtual and real, still holds cosmic power for millions of young people.
This dream is shared by Tintin, the intrepid boy reporter whose never-say-quit gumption keeps him digging deeper for the truth even when all hope appears lost. Heroes Tintin and his dog Snowy must find three puzzle pieces to uncover a buried treasure. The fantastical story was adapted from the work of Belgian artist Georges Rémi, who had the pen name Herge.
As a journalism educator, I know the future of journalism is incredibly strong and filled with opportunity, even as the news and publishing industries undergo reinvention online. Of course, there is some Tintin-like relentless optimism involved here.
Yet it is clear journalists need even more training and clarity than they ever did. Stories need to be carefully crafted, edited and studied because there is almost limitless space on the Internet, but no room for more junk.
Amid the glut of information, the risk is always that media literacy will be lost if the public fails to find trusted sources of information. An ill-informed public dooms democracy.
National University, based in San Diego, will begin its first-ever MA degree in digital journalism in March, bringing together journalists nationally and internationally. The 13-month program is entirely online. The launch of this WASC-accredited program is exciting. Even the first class, the New News, will focus on the way the Internet has truly changed the way news is delivered, a change so dramatic as to redefine the nature of news itself.
Like its sister B.A. program, the MA will not be all flash and technological dash, but stories can only be tracked down by aggressive shoe leather reporting. Virtual reporting is not a replacement for what's real. Even in this period where anyone can become a journalist and all have the power of the printing press with a global reach, journalists need greater professional knowledge and skills. There's a lot more to learn about presentation, display of information and search engine optimization, of course. but content will always remain king, meaning that nothing will replace Ben Bradlee's proverbial "Holy Shit" story in viral potential. Reporters must learn about investigative methods as well as about ethics and law.
Yes, news is still what people are most interested in knowing. And news about important events and politics often pales in popularity to the latest fads and fashions. That's always been the case. But the people now have the power to generate and disseminate news. The Web makes the journalist's job both easier and harder. The public needs the media's help deciding story play and impact.
The old idea that people don't want to read just is not true. They want more -- to read, to watch, to listen and to surf. They expect it. They want better material -- faster. That period in the 80s and 90s where Gannett Co. went crazy cutting news hole and making stories shorter entirely missed the point about the public's sophistication and intelligence. People need news and journalists to dig it up. They just read differently and prefer greater control over what, when and how they read. There are still audiences for every kind of story but now technology is helping journalists find sources and reach audiences better. The readers are in Facebook passion groups. They are joining Linked In. They are contributing to CNN's I-report. They tweet constantly. They have taken the reins of what gets published.
Hacks and lightweights beware. It won't matter that the new journalists are adults with blogs. It won't matter where journalism gets practiced, whether on home PC, I phone or Blackberry. It only will matter that it does get practiced. Because our democratic freedoms are not safe without it.
Students will not need to learn about reporting in buildings but in apartments and coffeehouses, in kitchens and living rooms. It won't matter either where students get their journalism education, from the Ivy League or a virtual location. Just that they do.
So never fear, young Tintin. The business model for the news industry, more decentralized than ever, will fit together just like the pieces of a puzzle.