Journalism's Present and Future

By Barbara Melendez


TAMPA, Fla. (April 6, 2010) – Journalism – gathering and reporting the news – as a function has changed in style through time, but when it comes to delivery, technology has played the key role in who, what, when, where, why and how news reaches its audiences. From gossiping over the fence, conversing via smoke signal, drumbeat, and spreading the word via flyer, tabloid, radio, television or cable signal, each method has brought societal consequences. 


In this century, technology is changing so rapidly, today’s media outlets are scrambling to determine if and how they will exist as successful enterprises. The University of South Florida’s School of Mass Communications is grappling with how to prepare its students for careers in this unsettled industry.


The school’s undergraduate journalism program offers courses in beginning and advanced reporting, news editing, magazine article and feature writing, writing for the mass media, and mass communications and society, all required along with courses in communications law, ethics and research methods. The program also encourages students to take courses in critical thinking, government and basic economics. On the graduate level, students can earn advanced degrees in media studies, multimedia journalism and strategic communication management and a graduate certificate is available in multimedia journalism. Clearly solid preparation is not entirely at issue for budding and seasoned journalists looking to upgrade their skills, though where to use that preparation seems to be.


Mass Communication’s faculty boasts experience gained in highly accomplished careers. USF News asked Professors Edward Jay Friedlander, Gil Thelen, Ken Killebrew, Kristin Arnold Ruyle, Roxanne Watson and Rick Wilber to participate in a virtual roundtable to answer questions on how their school is handling these changes and their considered opinions about where the field is headed. They offer some of the best informed analysis available.


Friedlander has nearly a decade of newspaper, wire service, magazine, radio, television reporting and public relations experience and has taught at USF since 1995. With 22 years of teaching experience, he served as the school’s director for 15 years, and now teaches courses in photojournalism and oversees independent study. His specialty areas are newswriting, reporting, newspaper and magazine feature writing, photojournalism and mass communications and society.


Thelen is the eighth James A. Clendinen Professor in Editorial and Critical Writing. He has 40 years experience as a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher. He retired from the Tampa Tribune in 2006 where he served as executive editor from 1998 to 2003. He was named publisher in 2003. Thelen now teaches courses in critical writing and public affairs reporting. He also serves as executive director of the Florida Society of News Editors. 


Killebrew started out as a newspaper reporter and editor for three years, then spent eight years as a television reporter and anchor, and another 10 years working in public relations. He has taught at USF since 1996. His specialty areas are newspaper and television reporting and writing, public relations writing, media effects and agenda setting in public policy and opinion, and comparative studies in law and media effects.


Watson, the newest member of the department, is a lawyer and spent four years in legal practice. Before becoming an attorney, she worked in journalism as a reporter at the Daily Gleaner in Jamaica for one year and, then, for three years in public relations. She has taught mass communications law, and newspaper writing, reporting and editing since 2006.


Arnold-Ruyle’s teaching is based on two decades of continuing in-the-field experience. She currently works with Sunsport and ESPN as stage manager and assistant director for sports-based programming including Lightning Hockey and Rays Baseball. She has worked as a producer for MTV Networks and Time, Inc. New Media, producing stories for NY1 cable news, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and Bravo/Independent Film Channel.


Wilber has been a college journalism professor for thirty-five years, and in that time has frequently worked as a reporter or editor for a number of newspapers and magazines. He has also published several hundred newspaper and magazine news stories, reviews, personality profiles, travel articles and more. He is the author or co-author of half-a-dozen college textbooks on writing, editing and the media; and he has published several novels and dozens of short stories.



How are you changing your courses, if at all, in light of changes in the field of journalism?


Friedlander: Courses are changing at the macro level and at the micro level. At the macro level, the School of Mass Communications combined and changed the name of its Journalism sequence of courses and its Telecommunications sequence to a merged Multimedia Journalism and Production sequence.


Although cosmetic initially, the merger formally brings together television faculty and students with their print and online counterparts, and recognizes the role of multimedia in 21st century journalism.


The school also has been a national leader in creating multimedia journalism courses and course components. The school’s primary multimedia course, first offered in January 2001 at the converged newsroom of the Tampa Tribune and WFLA television, was the first converged, multimedia course taught in partnership with a major-market converged news organization. It begins its 10th year in 2010. The majority of other courses in the school now offer convergence components. TV students produce online stories as well as broadcast newscasts and stories. Journalism students learn how to write online stories and also increasingly take television news courses. Photography students work in a digital environment. Advertising and public relations students learn how to edit audio and video.


Thelen: In both Public Affairs Reporting and Critical Writing, I am emphasizing digital tools, especially blogging, to get students comfortable with the multimedia, converged world they are entering. I also talk with them, and have visiting journalists do the same, about the changed nature of making a living in journalism. We put the emphasis on entrepreneurial activities, a freelance world and having multiple outlets for creative work. I also spend several weeks examining how the explosion of digital information channels has undermined the credibility of documentary reporting.


Killebrew: Regarding the changes in the School of Mass Communications at USF, I think we need to understand that the notion of the overarching centrist media may be dissolving. The United States is and has been known as "a nation of shopkeepers." I see the role of media as shifting to identify the needs of those shopkeepers whose storefronts have now moved to the online world. We are the solution to the information overload in the world. We just need to figure out how the solution needs to be organized.


Watson: I have always included a session in my class on writing for the online media and how it differs from writing for print media. For the first time this semester I am introducing new topics for discussion that include issues my students will have to think about in the 21st Century. This includes a discussion on social media, its uses for networking and otherwise and ethical considerations in using it. It also includes a new session this semester on producing an online portfolio.


Wilber: The dramatic changes in the media have meant a major overhaul of almost every portion of our large “Mass Communications and Society” class. That introductory class gives some 300-400 students a semester a quick look at the history, the current status and the future of each medium, while also going into some depth about the major issues facing each medium. The arrival of the digital age has meant sweeping changes – and pretty much constant changes – in all of the media, and it has become a necessary task each semester to do major updates as we try to lead the students toward a critical understanding of the mass media generally and each medium specifically. These changes are so profound, and are happening so rapidly now, that I have contracted with Pearson Publishing (the world’s largest publisher) for a major digital textbook for this course nationwide and worldwide. It’s my thinking that only an e-book version of a textbook will allow for the constant content changes required to keep up with the media.


In other courses, like “Beginning Reporting” and “Magazine Feature Writing,” the core writing and reporting elements remain as essential techniques that need to be taught, but the pipelines that carry the messages are changing rapidly. This means helping the students acquire a working familiarity with online publications and that, in turn, means helping the students acquire a skill-set that includes work in video, web design, podcasts, blogs, and all the rest. It also means it has become important – especially in the magazine writing class – to emphasize the idea of the writer as an independent contractor, rather than as an employee of a large news-gathering organization. The great majority of our students will be taking part in a future where the opportunities for publication have broadened enormously, but the challenges have broadened, as well. The magazine writer of the near future will need to be a self-disciplined, well-organized reporter and writer who is able to work comfortably in all aspects of the digital media.



Would you hazard a prediction about how things will change in the next five years?


Friedlander: I see at least three changes.  First, newsrooms as places where large numbers of permanent employees work together will begin to disappear in favor of contract freelancers who work at multiple locations. By this, I mean that journalism will increasingly be out-sourced to independent contractors who will be unlikely to speak with one organizational voice.


Second, the concept of “mass communications” itself will change, and audiences will be smaller and not necessarily connected. Simply put, I will be exposed to different news than my next door neighbor, and we will have less shared knowledge.


Third, all of this is going to cost consumers more. Free television as a practical concept is dead in most communities.  Low-cost, subsidized newspapers will follow. And if you want home delivery of a paper product, the cost will become prohibitive for many people. That’s really the way it was 250 years ago in the United States: the “elite” could afford reliable intelligence. Others could not.


Thelen: The migration away from mass media to customized, personal media will accelerate. Portable, digital devices will command more consumer mindshare. The cost of producing content will decline as digital assistance to content providers increases. The pro-am combination of trained journalists working with community volunteers will be a staple of micro-local, digital news sites. Legacy news organizations will evolve into the structural pillars and support for startup communication ventures that are financially and administratively independent of the legacy organization.


Arnold-Ruyle: Students coming out of school will be doing more by themselves. We always get a few students who think they are not going to need to shoot and edit because they are going to be "on camera." As we have more outlets and smaller budgets, I see the term "preditor," that is, the producer/editor incorporating “reporter” as well.


Watson: There will continue to be an erosion between the role of print and broadcast journalists. New journalists will need to be able to write across media, be Internet savvy and use social media as an alternative method for networking.


Wilber: My colleagues have expressed this really well. Independent, self-reliant freelancers who can report and write for a wide variety of media platforms will stand the best chance of success, and so we’re focusing on those things in the classroom, getting them ready for that future. One other interesting opportunity that I’ve seen recently is that businesses are increasingly hiring writers and editors to work with corporate personnel in producing clean, clear copy for corporate purposes, from internal memoranda to the typical online corporate presence and a wide range of material for presentations, corporate brochures and magazines, and much more. These kinds of corporate opportunities for writing comprise a growing opportunity for our graduates.


What are your greatest hopes and fears about journalism at the moment, and do you have any recommendations that might address the problems you foresee?


Friedlander: I believe that access to and consumption of high-quality journalism is a requirement for a functioning democracy. I also believe that all of those components are in danger: “access,” “consumption” and “high-quality journalism.” The costs associated with quality journalism will drive many audience members from the marketplace, and the fragmentation of national audiences into micro, Balkanized audiences will reduce broadly-held knowledge, and endanger democracy.


The question is how to get this “spinach journalism” – that’s code for information that audience members don’t particularly crave but need to know about – to broad audiences at low cost. This critical spinach journalism needs to be sustained by a new business model in some way: by foundations, by non-profit ownership, perhaps by university journalism programs.


Thelen:  I worry that the collapse of advertising revenue for mainstream media will deplete their capacity to help lead and guide new digital media. I am also concerned that the digital explosion of undocumented information will further undermine our national capacity to find consensus answers to urgent problems, such as health and education reform. I recommend that information literacy become a vital part of all education programs starting in middle school.


Watson: I am excited that the Internet and new technology has opened up new arenas which can serve as an area for journalists to do research – today's journalist has a lot more access than journalists did in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand, I fear that a lot of young journalists are being caught up in the informal style of journalism and are having a harder time relating to their continuing role to present their stories with accuracy and in a professional manner. Further, with the developments with social media more and more journalists are becoming part of the story. I don't know if this is a good direction for journalism.



What questions are not being asked that should be asked about the future of journalism?



Friedlander: These questions are probably being asked, but I have not heard anyone provide reasonable answers: 1) Will high-quality, mass journalism survive the tsunami of change flooding through major news organizations in 2010? 2) And if high quality mass journalism does not survive, is there a viable democracy somewhere in the world where most of the population is unable to – or unwilling to – access high-quality, reliable information? 3) Can such a country – a country where wealthy audiences get valuable information, but poorer, fragmented audiences get information of variable quality and reliability – maintain common values, and if so, through what existing community structures? 4) Will public schools, for example, take over the role of a platform for a broad community conversation now provided by major journalism organizations? 5) If not, who, or what, will do so?


Thelen:  What are consumers willing to pay for documentary journalism and how will they do it?  Do citizens really understand what is at stake for society with the depletion of investigative, enterprise reporting capacity?  Do they get that citizens can’t trust one another unless they agree on what’s really true, the vital role of journalism?  


Wilber: I can only echo what Jay and Gil have said and agree with both of them utterly. For me, when we lose the traditional print media we are in great danger of losing the “marketplace of ideas,” where in one place (typically the op-ed page of the daily newspaper) the reader could encounter opinions from the political right and the left and what remains of the political middle. This marketplace has been an important part of our democracy as a large portion of the citizenry encountered not only opinions they agreed with but also opinions from the other side. That was an important role that the traditional print newspaper medium played, and as newspaper decline I don’t see where that sort of opportunity for an important, honest conversation will exist. And that’s a shame.



The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.