What they’re teaching at Harvard about the future of journalism

Janet Heard is a 2009/10 Nieman fellow of journalism, one of 23 fellows (11 Americans and 12 Internationals) selected to attend Harvard University for an academic year. The Nieman program is aimed at mid-career journalists, each of whom selects their own classes at any of the faculties/schools at Harvard. Heard audited classes in African American studies, African History, the Kennedy School of Government and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, among others.

In addition to Harvard, fellows attend classes through the Nieman Foundation. Memeburn spoke to her about her time at Harvard, and about what the pre-eminent American school is teaching about journalism in the 21st Century.

Memeburn: What was the focus of your programme at Harvard?

The key focus here was New Media, and assessing how journalism is adapting to the digital revolution. As a bit of a techno-phobe, I had basic training in a range of practical applications, from Twitter, blogging and social media to video and audio production. I also did an enriching fiction writing class with a former South African, Rose Moss. In addition, we had regular weekly seminars hosted by guest lecturers. Again, the focus here often gravitated to new media – especially the future of journalism, and also the ethical issues that have arisen in the shifting landscape.

MB: What is the general atmosphere at Harvard on the future of journalism?

JH: There is a considerable amount of panic about the future of journalism, and lots of experimentation taking place with regard to new media models. However, if you look back at the Nieman programme over the past 10 years, the debate is not new. We are in the midst of a digital revolution, and nobody knows exactly what models will be sustainable in the future.

Through the year there was a shift in tone from despair to optimism. We realised that the focus should be on the craft of journalism – irrespective of the medium. The real issue is finding ways to deliver on our goal to be accurate, truthful and trustworthy. A flourishing press is an essential tool in any democracy. We began to concentrate on ways to retain quality journalism. We also discussed at length ethical issues in the digital era – from plagiarism and attribution to accountability and fact-checking.

MB: How important is social media to the future of journalism?

JH: Social media is relevant to the future of journalism, both as a tool for reporters to access information about people they are writing about, but also as a tool for traditional media to use to broaden their readership and to remain relevant to their communities.

I don’t think social media should replace what newspapers are doing, rather they should complement each other, and add value to the journalistic process/package. Newspapers can use social media in creative ways to build a dynamic forum for readers, and to build on story ideas that communities care about.

MB: Did you notice any trends emerging that SA journalists should be aware of?

JH: Integrated newsrooms are the norm in the US, not the exception. Both web operations and print operations work together. Reporters have been trained in online media, and breaking news is posted online immediately – in word form, audio or visually, or a mix. Local newsrooms need to constantly adapt to the changing environment, and come up with new ways of disseminating news.

MB: What is the status of blogging at the moment in US journalism?

JH: Everybody seems to have a blog in the US, not just freelancers. Journalists working for traditional media often have their own personal blogs, but many are linked to the newspaper’s web sites. One of the first things people ask you during an introduction is “What is your blog address?” Also, citizen journalism, via blogging, has broadened the scope of reporting, and widened the range of voices available to the public.

But a big debate was how to discern between credible field reporting and unsourced, aggregated information, and also between hysterical ranting and considered opinion. The reality is there are a lot of shocking blogs in the US that do a disservice to journalism.

MB: The publisher of the New York Times publisher is quoted as saying that some time in the future they will stop publishing on paper. Do you think that’s inevitable for all papers?

JH: I got a huge wakeup call when I started my fellowship last August. There has been a sea change in the way that the media operates in the US. The “death of newspapers” is much more advanced than in SA, aggravated of course by the economic meltdown. A lot of people have switched to online media as a sole source of news information. Aggregated online news has proliferated.

It can be terribly depressing to monitor the slow death of newspapers on the Romanesko blog (via the Poynter Institute ), which tracks shifts in the industry.

Every US journalist whom I met had personal experience with layoffs and culling at newspapers. But the market in the US – the most developed capitalist country in the world – is very different from SA and other countries. For instance, in many Asian countries, newspapers are flourishing.

We can’t copy the US. We need to investigate the use of mobile phone technology. This is no time for complacency. We need to take bold steps because one thing is for sure: Newspapers will not dominate journalism forever.

MB: Did you come across any good ideas for how journalism will be monetised in the future?

JH: There are various models, some working better than others. The Nieman lab is a great source of information about emerging trends in new media. A lot of experimentation is taking place in order to secure revenue streams. Websites are constantly looking at ways to monetize their information, though many are cautious to introduce paywalls.

Regarding advertising, the reality is that commercial media have struggled to find a way to secure online the lucrative advertising they generated in print media. Media ownership is undergoing a huge revolution as a result. Hyper-local web sites are the new buzzword, building local websites and local advertising for niche communities.

I visited the offices of the Roanoke Times in Virginia, to see how the paper has adapted to the shifting landscape. The paper has a feisty online editor, who interacts continually with the newsroom. The paper works on special online multi-media projects, and makes great use of social media to build loyalty among print readers. They are careful not to sabotage the print edition.

MB: Is Africa on the radar at all in major US institutions?

JH: At Harvard, there is an African graduate studies network, run by African history professor Caroline Elkins. This is helping to raise the profile of African studies on campus. There are regular social networking gatherings, and also seminars on Africa. The president of Harvard, Drew Faust, is very interested in Africa, and made her first visit to the continent last year, visiting both SA and Botswana. Also, a number of South African students are selected on scholarship to Harvard each year. This is encouraging. However, overall, Africa’s footprint at Harvard is sorely lacking.

MB: What is your sense of the local journalism landscape in SA, having had these experiences?

JH: I am upbeat about the shifts taking place. I no longer fear the digital revolution; rather I see it as a time of opportunity. Of course journalists cannot make the shifts alone, unless they initiate their own start-up multi-media models online, which they are doing. Significant developments will come from media owners who need to invest in new technology and train employees to steer the industry into a new era.

Janet Heard is the Assistant Editor and Head of News at the Cape Times.



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