Sunday, April 20, 2008

Some good observations from John Robinson

I don't get to read the blog of John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News & Record, as much as I'd like. All the RSS feeds and readers in the world still don't provide enough time some days. In fact, even as I write this I actually should be cooking up some evil lab for my editing class.

But I happened to wander by tonight while looking up something else and found a screen of things to recommend:
  • In "Advice from Retired Editors," read why he skipped a speech by legendary editor Gene Roberts. A sample: While good journalism has not changed markedly since the 1990s, technology has. So has the audience. So have people's habits. Not addressing those changes in discussions about journalism and newspapers is like talking about television as if there were still only three channels. (I see at the bottom he points to one of my posts. Thanks, John. I missed that on first reading.)
  • In "Piling on the ASNE Census," he has some solid thoughts on why ASNE's newsroom census is of limited value, especially when it comes to minorities. (He also references Alan Mutter, alas another great source that I read too seldom.)
  • Robinson also has some interesting thoughts about the perennial piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed or some other organ bemoaning how today's students don't know current affairs, couldn't tell you what the Holocaust was, etc. I thought his observation was thought provoking: We don't hire many journalists straight out of college, but the ones we do either are tuned in, or more important, know how to get up to speed quickly. And that, I think, is the key
Here, I will take some mild disagreement, though, like Robinson, I get a bit tired of the periodic hand-wringing. I do agree that with today's abundance of information, being able to corral it is a hugely important skill, more important than being able to spit back like a "Jeopardy" contestant, various obscure facts.

But I think there is twofold value in making students keep up with the dreaded "current events."

First, from the viewpoint of an editing professor (me), editors must have little bells go off in their brains when something doesn't quite match what they've heard or read -- or have experienced in life. From that perspective, then, I don't want them so much to memorize it but to develop that warning system, and that means they need to keep abreast (all my quizzes are open book for that reason).

Second goes to the idea of information instantly at our fingertips. It's a wonderful thing, right up there with permanent press shirts and stovetop stuffing. But there is a darker side to it, too -- the tendency to see facts and information in isolation. One hopes that by requiring students over the course of a semester to keep reading about what's happening both at City Hall and in the Middle East, they get the sense of a continuum and of context. And isn't that what we keep hearing that journalism lacks and needs more of?

While it is possible to do that to some extent while "getting up to speed," I think there is more to be gained by a journalist's (and I consider my students journalists) being plugged into, or at least taking note of, the course of events as they unfold.

(There's a third reason in my class -- fairness to the students. If I didn't set parameters, which in my case are all the section fronts and the World/Nation inside pages, I could test them on anything I thought was important, and that doesn't seem fair. So this way reading the paper provides some boundaries. Of course, if they are smart, they can do that without the "paper." The local paper has PDFs of its daily section fronts and .... well we'll let them figure that out themselves, won't we?)

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At 4/21/08, 8:52 AM, Anonymous John Robinson said...

Thanks for the kind words, Doug. Your ACES session got a good review from the person in our shop who attended.

At 4/21/08, 9:34 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Any time, John. As I said, I don't pay enough attention. Glad to hear the ACES session was useful.

A wire-story edit in our college daily today I think outpoints that balance between cramming their heads full of current events and trying to develop that sense of context and of what, for lack of a better term, I'll call "mental markers."

Here was the lede in the paper:
RALEIGH, N.C. -- The public school dropout rate didn't matter much in furniture factories.
Those jobs are long gone -- think Pillowtex and J.P. Stevens.

Here was the AP lede:
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ The public school dropout rate didn't much matter in North Carolina a generation or two ago, when students who quit could always find a decent job at the one of the state's many textile mills and furniture factories.
Those jobs are long gone -- think Pillowtex and J.P. Stevens.

An otherwise smart edit by the paper is marred by one thing -- the key difference between the two. J.P. Stevens and Pillowtex were textiles, not furniture. By the editor's not realizing that, apparently, and dropping the term, the paper created a lede that for more than a few Carolinians will make it look at best uninformed and at worst stupid.

That's the kind of knowledge that really only can be readily gleaned by keeping up and building the storehouse. (In such cases, unless there is that "mental marker" that rings a dim caution bell, would we even expect the editor to check such a thing, though it is readily available on the net?)

At 4/21/08, 9:54 AM, Anonymous John Robinson said...

Yes, I don't disagree with you on the need to stay abreast of current events. It is just low on my priority list of needs for new hires.

I would be surprised if the person who rewrote that lede at the N&O was someone right out of college who didn't know any better. My guess is that the person has a few years under his/her belt and just screwed up.

At 4/21/08, 10:42 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Oops...missed communication. That was in our college daily, not your paper. (I think I said that, but want to make very sure no one thinks I was commenting on the N&O).


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