Dear college journalists,
Please innovate. Be the risk takers, the innovators, the iconoclasts that this industry so desperately needs. Journalism organizations are dying from an acute case of bad management and a lack of fresh ideas.
Our j-schools are spitting out people who celebrate the status quo. I’m here to tell you that if you try to emulate a dying industry, you will find yourself without an industry. We need you, all of you and your wildest ideas.
Journalism is largely an industry paralyzed by the past. Many of its leaders are the same people that drove our industry over the cliff. They cannot save journalism.
Much of the journalism industry is afflicted by a belief that what ails us and the industry is largely externalized, that’s it not something that we control. That it happened to us. That’s not true.
What ails us is us.
You have a much better chance of saving and transforming journalism than any of those executives that you look up to do. But you must not look outward for help. Forget what we’re doing.
We’re tied to the past. We can’t figure out how to make money online to support journalism. We can’t figure out how to make truly exceptional interactive products. We can’t figure out that people don’t want tablet apps that pretend they are newsprint.
We can’t get out of our own ways. And we can’t forget the past.
Ignore us. We don’t exist. Create the news organization that your campus users would want. Create a news organization that doesn’t acknowledge that print, radio or TV exist. Rethink everything.
While we have to keep our legacy products because many of our users want them and those products still produce the majority of our revenue, you don’t need to be tied to such thinking. The majority of your users aren’t reading print newspapers. And if they are, your website sucks more than you think.
We need you to be incubators for the future. We need you to make products that appeal to your generation, a generation that grew up with computers. Look to your classmates and understand what they want in a news organization.
You’ll learn a lot more about the future of journalism by observing and talking to your classmates about how they consume and want to consume journalism than by studying legacy media organizations. They are your users, not yourselves and especially not the ideas and users of the past.
You are not studying journalism and working for your college newspaper so that you can get a job at a dying institution. No, you are doing so so that you can help rescue this industry from mismanagement, poor ideas, a lack of risk taking. Maybe you can’t turn around a sinking ship, but you can come by with a life boat and rescue the survivors and help us regroup.
I believe in you where many other professional journalist do not, because I have lost faith in many established journalism organizations to turn it around. I’m watching a bunch of slow-motion publisher-assisted suicides. I believe in you because you have yet to be tainted by tradition, by what was, by a veneration for what no longer is. I believe in you because if you looked inside of yourselves and unleashed your wildest ideas, you could help us turn it around.
I’m also writing you this because of my own regrets. While I’ve never been one to color inside the lines or to pay my dues or to venerate the past over the future, I have largely failed. I was not aggressive enough as the editor in chief of my college newspaper, despite having more Web experience than journalism experience. I could not lead my student newspaper to the future, nor could I show a path forward.
We did new things online at the time that few had done, but we were not the true iconoclasts that professional news organizations could look to for innovation and new ideas. And since I’ve entered the work force, I hardly think I have changed much in the journalism status quo.
Once you enter legacy journalism, no one will really listen to your new ideas for years. Your more likely to assimilate than to change a news organization.
That’s why it is vital to take risks while you are a student journalist. When someone tells you that that no one has done that before or that won’t be successful, you can point to what you did in college at your news organization and show how it was successful. Look to your college media experience as an opportunity to build case studies for your professional career.
College media needs to be the linchpin of innovation, risk taking and sometimes all-out gambling in journalism. And I don’t mean little or petty risks. This isn’t about sensationalism or being edgy; it’s about finding new ways to present content, new ways to make money for journalism and even radically rethinking what your college news organization is.
If you think the inertia of changing a college publication is hard, wait until you get into the professional world. Wait until you have a paycheck and a career on the line. Or the careers of other people on the line.
Wait until you have a higher up editor shoot down your plan. Wait until you run into the way things have always been done. Wait until you run into your own professional self doubt as you try to lead people with much more experience than you forward.
You need evidence. You need proof. You need to create great, modern news organizations in college and bring those lessons to bear for news organizations. Gone are the days when college media was a training ground for future professional journalists. College media is now a training ground for professional journalism organizations.
In fairness to my peers and my colleagues, radical change is hard, no matter how necessary. It’s hard to institute radical change without proof that it could work. And where should that proof logically come from? It should come from college media, institutions that can afford to take risks and afford to make mistakes.
In other parts of academia, research and labs are used to test out ideas that industries aren’t ready to implement or don’t have the money to investigate themselves. Imagine the medical and healthcare industries without all the scientific researchers at universities. That’s the model that journalism departments and college media needs.
Forget the model of journalism departments and college media being a minor league for professional news organizations. You need to be our R&D departments.
You need to train us.