I became a big fan of NPR’s Planet Money show during the financial crisis. I think it does a really good job of explaining financial news in a layman-friendly way. It’s very easy to appreciate the difficulty of this feat if you’ve ever attempted it yourself, as I did as a newspaper reporter. The show, which I listen to via a podcast subscription, also strikes a nice balance of (a) making big breaking stories that everyone else is covering more digestible, and (b) tackling off-the-beaten-path features.
The staff is also very conscientious about following up on past stories. In that vein, they did a great update this week about a school that’s being rebuilt in Haiti following last year’s devastating earthquake. Aside from being a great human-interest story, this one also struck me as another great example of journalistic storytelling as a craft on the Internet, how it might be different from doing so in a legacy format, et cetera.
Planet Money started covering this school awhile back to illustrate the economic realities of trying to rebuild Haiti. Thing is, when the story aired, listeners started calling in asking how they could donate to the cause. This sort of thing has always happened to good journalists, but I think it’s safe to say, it’s increasingly happening now because the Internet has changed the audience’s expectations. By default, they expect to interact deeply with stories as a community. It’s more of a natural leap for more people now to say, after being told a heart-wrenching story about kids in need, “OK, how do I help?”
This put Planet Money in a bit of a weird spot, considering the traditional journalistic imperative not to get involved in stories, especially anything involving financial gain to sources. But the show’s producers came up with an inventive workaround: They created an account in the name of the principal of the school and then just told people about it. The producers spent basically no money on this, and they weren’t nudging people to donate, as if the show had “an agenda.” (Another big journalistic no-no.) Rather, the listeners set the agenda — they asked for an outlet — and the staff just responded to it. The show rightly figured that if the move was audience-driven, how could it erode trust with the audience — which is the ultimate point of the old standards anyway? The listeners were free to donate, and the principal was free to spend the money after the account was set up. Planet Money got out of the way at that point.
Where the story went from there got even more interesting. I won’t spoil it here; I’ll just encourage you to click through the link earlier in this post and listen to the whole thing. Suffice it to say, Planet Money deftly kept doing what it does particularly well — tell stories — while also realizing that it’s part of a community in which a two-way conversation is taking place. Bravo.
The release of President Obama’s birth certificate has me thinking, mostly because it never should have been necessary in the first place. The trope that he isn’t a natural-born American was so ridiculous from the beginning.
Specifically, the Web’s role in sustaining birtherism nags me a bit. How can a tool so fundamentally good for democracy, as we’ve seen in “the Arab Spring,” also feed such a racist distraction? How could we make the Web better as a community in this regard without abridging anyone’s free-speech rights?
Best thing I’ve read about this problem so far was this post a few weeks back from developer Dave Winer on his Scripting News blog. Dave makes a great comparison of bogus political talking points to computer viruses. (He also hilariously refers to Donald Trump as a walking virus. Bonus points!)
I’m curious to hear other folks’ ideas as well in the comments. This topic is a big one — as big and complicated as the Web itself, really. I think it also touches on things like anonymity, moderation, and curation. Probably a bunch of other side issues I haven’t even thought of as well.
Seems the journalism school at my alma mater, Florida A&M University, is up for its regular reaccreditation review. As part of that process, they’ve been nagging alumni to fill out a survey about their campus experience, even if they’re relative old-heads like me. (Class of ’97, represent!)
Most of the questions are rote strongly agree/agree/disagree stuff. But after I filled those out — and gave the school generally favorable marks — there was a great open-ended question that I don’t recall seeing on the last few of these I did in previous review cycles.
“If you had the power and money to improve the Journalism Division programs, what would you do?”
Below is my answer in full. I’m posting it here because 95 percent of it could apply to any j-school, really.
Any change I would make would sharpen the program’s focus on new media.
If I had a vast sum of money and power, I would create a large permanent endowment to fund SJGC’s operations into perpetuity, thus alleviating the lion’s share of pressure on the dean, faculty, and senior administration to raise money from legacy news orgs. I believe that most of these orgs fundamentally don’t “get” the Internet, and so their influence as a de facto constituency is a malignancy on journalism schools everywhere that want to prepare students for the future.
With a somewhat less massive sum of money and power, I’d build a fast, reliable, totally open wi-fi blanket covering the whole FAMU campus, including satellite facilities like the shared engineering school and the law school. Functionality would be akin to what a shopper experiences in an Apple store, but covering a much wider area. This constant and pervasive connectivity would greatly encourage innovation, I believe.
If I had a small sum of money and power, I’d make sure each SJGC grad learned HTML and CSS, the basic languages for building websites, before graduating. I believe both of these could be covered in a single three-credit course complemented by a one-credit lab, akin to the way students study basic biology and physical science now. I estimate the intellectual challenge would be comparable as well — a little difficult but doable for the program’s students. Their employment prospects would skyrocket after such a course, including a much higher percentage that would end up working in media.