Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

What curriculum innovators can learn from 'Searchlights and Sunglasses'

Oct. 30, 2013, 7:28 a.m., Posted by Gary Kebbel

searchlightsandsunglasses

Knight Foundation asked the students, educators and professionals who beta tested our new digital teaching tool, "Searchlights and Sunglasses," for their five favorite lessons. The book explores the digital transformation of journalism, and with one click turns into a classroom tool, offering a learning layer with 1,000 lesson plans and resources for educators. We will be posting our beta testers responses over the coming weeks here on Knight Blog.

By Gary Kebbel, journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Eric Newton’s new book, “Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes From the Digital Age of Journalism,” tells why individuals and communities should care about the constant change and disruption in the field of journalism. It can improve their lives.

But for that to happen, he knows we need to focus on journalism education.

Newton, the senior adviser to the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and former vice president of Knight’s journalism and media innovation program, has observed journalism and its effects from a unique perspective. He has given hundreds of millions of dollars to fund journalism ideas and organizations. Over the years, he’s seen what works, and what doesn’t. He’s also seen why what used to work no longer does.

In this book, he’s not just providing more light, he’s also providing guidance and clarity, the sunglasses we need when there’s too much light and not enough filters.

Knight Foundation purposely has been funding risky, untested ideas since 2006, with the start of its Knight News Challenge. Some of those programs are now success stories, and all of them are teaching important lessons for future innovators.

Newton makes the point that educators have a chief role to play because they are training the people who will report the news of our communities. He says reporting the news isn’t enough, however. We knew how to do that pre-Internet. He makes it clear we have to do more in the Internet, digital, mobile age. We have to engage the audience.

How do we know the digital age requires us to teach and act differently? Newton sums it up easily. He says everything we thought we knew about journalism has changed: 1) Who is a reporter when anyone can report and publish? 2) What is the nature of the audience when one-to-many, source-to-audience communication is made obsolete by many-to-many networked communication? 3) What is a story when people are getting their news from Twitter, Facebook and instant messages?

The journalist’s task has become more complicated, but not less important. Newton points out, “Nearly 9 of every 10 newsroom hires graduated from journalism and mass communication programs."

But, the journalist’s task is accomplished with new tools in the mobile age, and educators and professionals need to face these challenges with new thinking. 

Engage the audience. I think Newton’s #1 lesson for journalism and communication innovators is engagement. Don’t just feed the audience and walk away. Stay to play with it, talk to it and learn from it. Engage it.

His other important points for those who want to innovate curricula are:

Redefine journalism. Think of journalism as an “intellectual activity in its own right. … If you teach journalism merely as a skill, it becomes nothing more than a skill. Teach journalism as the most exciting profession of this century, and it becomes that.”

Take risks. The biggest mistake any of us can make today is to be afraid of mistakes. Media innovation demands risk. Reinventing journalism requires mistakes. We need to try new things and get things wrong, fail quickly but learn quickly, and always explain what we are doing and why.”

Be of the web. “Using digital technology only to deliver the news is a horrible waste, sort of like using a space shuttle to drive to the corner store. We must stop sticking digital on the end of the industrial age mass media assembly line and calling it a day. It’s a totally different, interactive medium. To succeed, journalists can’t just be on the web; we must be of the web.”

Create innovation labs. The key to these labs is partnering with other disciplines on campus and with professionals. Northwestern University’s news innovation lab is one example.

Newton pulls all of these ideas together in his discussion of how journalism schools could use and benefit from a “teaching hospital model,” where “students, professors and professionals work together under one digital roof to inform and engage a community. They experiment with new tools and techniques, informed by research and studied by scholars, in a living laboratory.” An example of this type of education is the News21 project where college students from around America work with Arizona State University professors and with professionals like Len Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post, to produce high-quality journalism that informs and engages the audience.

All these innovations require the courage and vision of transformational leaders, “not folks who have played the survivor game at their news organizations and just don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Searchlights and Sunglasses” shines a light on new techniques and ideas for journalists and educators while filtering past behavior that won’t be adaptive in an era of disruption and constant change. I’m tempted to say it’s a great book for intro classes to mass communications, but it’s also a great book for faculty and professionals who know they need to be doing things differently, and don’t quite know how or where to start.

Gary Kebbel is a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a News 21 school. Disclaimer: Kebbel worked at Knight Foundation from 2006-2010, and headed the Knight News Challenge.