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Journalism education and the rise of infomatics

Panel discussion on the future of journalism at the Wells Memorial Key Centennial Celebration on Saturday, June 1, 2013 in Madison, Wis. Panelists from left to right: Steve Geimann, Lauren Fuhrmann, Amanda Theisen, Gordon “Mac” McKerrel, and moderator Robert Leger. Malory Goldin/ University of Wisconsin-Madison student

By Amelia Rufer

With the Internet increasingly becoming a central platform for news, journalism needs to update its revenue model…fast. But between an experienced, older generation of reporters and tech-savvy, j-school graduates is a chasm of competing worldviews that can leave little space-or funding-for new hires and new ideas.

Social media moguls like Facebook and Twitter are increasingly controlling the digital marketplace, all founded by Millennials-a generation that’s innovative and resourceful in technological endeavors.

According to Gordon McKerral, associate professor and news-editorial sequence coordinator in the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University, some college journalism schools are moving away from journalism and more towards “informatics,” the study and application of information technology to enhance journalism and other fields of study.

“A lot of schools are concentrating a lot more energy on how to move information rather than journalism. I think there’s a big distinction between those two,” said McKerral, who sat on a panel at an event hosted by the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). The panel discussion regarded future issues facing journalism. The two-day celebration marked the 100th anniversary of SPJ’s Wells Memorial Key award.

I agree with McKerral’s assessment that moving information and creating it are two distinct endeavors, the former of which not necessarily constituting as journalism. But couldn’t developing new ways of moving information allow news organizations to earn a profit that would support their journalism efforts?

“Yes, moving it is where you make money. I think the problem is when you’re making a lot of money moving that information, supporting the journalism side? I don’t see that happening,” answered McKerral.

According to McKerral, “They’re making a lot of money moving the information, but that money they’re making isn’t going back into developing and improving making more quality content. It goes into making more money moving information. That’s just a business decision, not much we can do about that.”

As a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism & Mass Communication, I can attest that the job market for the majority of my peers is rough. That is, if we want to work for a newspaper.

I believe journalism is becoming a more entrepreneurial endeavor because it gives younger journalists with technology skills a space to contribute to journalism in new ways with different revenue models.

If news organizations were open to hiring staff to specifically design ways of moving information, the organization itself would profit from its success. The problem is that news organizations are not always willing to pay new staff to do something that’s not journalism in the traditional sense of the word.

Throughout my college career as a student journalist, I have come to understand methods of moving information-perhaps not journalistic on their own-as very journalistic endeavors when combined with original reporting.

At UW-Madison, we have a hyperlocal class where we learn the business model to support our own hyperlocal site, in addition to learning hyperlocal reporting. Most students ended up with long form investigative pieces that uncovered stories untold in local media.

The hyperlocal model provides a very modest living and it’s predicated on a smaller staff to allow for low break-even costs. Local businesses are more open to advertising because the audience is local and thus highly targeted. The hyperlocal markets for reporting and advertising are merging, so there is additional business in managing people’s advertisements. Hyperlocal journalism business owners often take partial roles as community organizers of sorts for additional monetary support from hosting forums, events and concerts.

The West Seattle Blog produces $100,000 of annual revenue that supports founder Tracy Record, her husband and her child—all of whom contribute the majority of the reporting. Record essentially serves as a hyperlocal ad agency. Other sites have modeled revenue options that include philanthropy, subscriptions, and receiving money to pursue specific stories of interest.

The City University of New York hosts an entrepreneurial journalism program for recent j-school graduates or mid-career journalists. The school is one semester long, and pairs 13 journalists with 13 computer software programmers and the students launch their own businesses.

Homicide Watch is a site created by journalists Laura Amico and her husband Chris, who studied computer programming and developed software that aggregates homicide information onto one platform. In addition, they go to the courtrooms and visit the victims’ families to provide original reporting. How do they profit? They sell the “Homicide Watch” software to news organizations.

There are new journalists who are capable at both creating and moving information and who are deeply passionate about the future of journalism and its role in this nation. But if these movers and shakers don’t get the industry support they need to collaborate, they will find another way.

View more Wells Memorial Key Centennial Celebration coverage here.

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