How’s this for a sitcom pitch? Old-Lady Print Journalist in a Multiplatform New-Media World!
That’s likely to become the theme of this blog when I travel to Vancouver this winter as a Canwest Global Visiting Professor in the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. (For the official announcement, click here.)
During my 35-year newspaper career, I assumed that when I came to the end of the line, I could always teach journalism, as I had on the side in the 1980s. But by the time I left The New York Times in 2008, the media landscape had so changed that nobody seemed to want to learn the print-based skills I could teach. (Good thing I had trained in teaching English to speakers of other languages, which has served me well.) Besides, I was moving away from the daily news cycle toward long-form writing, a career shift that has tempted more than one journalist. Meanwhile, the world around me was charging ahead into Facebook and Twitter and clouds.
I’ve never been much of an early adopter. I was the last kid on my block to own a CD player, then a DVD player, and I intend to be the last to be tethered to any form of cellphone, let alone one that takes pictures, surfs the web and knows what my “friends” ate for breakfast. I prefer to wait until the technology shakes down, along with the prices. The big exceptions have been e-mail, the Internet and my beloved DVR cable box.
Thus I froze when Steve Pratt of CBC Radio, my partner in this Vancouver adventure, sent me his feedback on my first stab at a syllabus. Mine was based on writing assignments that would gradually give way to multimedia projects; Steve was talking about plunging immediately into digital storytelling and metrics. In short, my syllabus would have been fine for a course in journalism as I had been taught it, circa 1975, not as pre-professionals need to learn it today.
Then I started reading one of the books on Steve’s recommended list: “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy,” by Lawrence Lessig. “Remix” addresses the transition from what Lessig calls “read only” culture, in which consumers pay their money and experience their media passively, to “read/write” culture, in which they sample and participate, advancing the dialogue. (Old-timers may be reminded of Marshall McLuhan on “hot” and “cold” media.) “Remix” showed me the future – my immediate future – but it also propelled me back into my past.
In January 1995, I was a New York Times Visiting Media Fellow at Duke University’s De Witt Wallace Center for Communications and Journalism. The program was an overworked journalist’s dream come true: four weeks on a university campus where we fellows could sit in on any classes we wanted, or none at all if we just wanted to use the time to read, write and think. The only requirement was that we attend a luncheon once a week, and even that was waived for my birthday. But it was strongly suggested that we take advantage of a computer lab that had been set up for our use. You see, there was this new thing called the World Wide Web that seemed likely to be important in the years ahead, and we were encouraged to become familiar with it.
In my free time, I sat down and experimented. I learned how a mouse click could take me on a ride from one page and topic to another, and another, and another. I explored innovations like Hypertext novels, which seemed to be the coming thing: they let the reader determine the order in which the story was told and took her on interesting tangents. It was predicted that reporters would one day file their copy by e-mail, but that sounded farfetched. I returned to The Times an evangelist for this new technology – which sparked little interest among my print-focused colleagues. I was the only one in my department who had a private e-mail account (on CompuServe!) outside The Times’ in-house messaging system, and only a few computers in the newsroom had Windows and Internet access. If I wanted to practice, I had to wait until someone went to lunch.
Fast-forward 17 years. Just think how much the world has changed in that very short time. Not necessarily as I might have expected back then — when was the last time anyone even thought about using Hypertext for a novel? Now we have Google and iTunes and and Flickr and Netflix and Skype, and those are just the icons and bookmarks on my own desktop. CompuServe and countless other forms of technology have come and gone, superseded by newer, sexier ones; AOL, which was just starting out then, is pretty much old hat. Reporters have been filing their stories by e-mail for years (including me; I’ve freelanced for a newspaper in Abu Dhabi for two years without ever having set foot there or even so much as spoken to an editor by phone). Not just their stories, but their video as well. And the readers talk back!
So how about that? I’ve been part of digital culture all along. Hello, everyone, my name is Carlotta Campion, and maybe one of these days Stephen Sondheim will update his lyrics to “I’m Still Here.” (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google it.) Now here I go again, into yet another growth spurt.
As Sondheim’s mentor Oscar Hammerstein II put it in “The King and I”: “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” I intend to give my students in Vancouver (and, apparently, one who’ll be joining us via Skype) the benefit of my four decades’ experience: a grounding in the arts; tools and thought patterns that will equip them to produce informed, intelligent coverage; an appreciation for the history of their craft, and its principles that still matter in the present and future. With luck, I may open their worlds and influence some of their lives in the way Philip Radcliffe at the University of Manchester (later a visiting professor at UBC himself) did for me.
In exchange, maybe they can educate me about Facebook and Twitter – for example, why it’s OK for a “friend” (actually a relative) to post on my wall, without my knowledge, a poll inviting people to speculate on my sex life and charitable contributions. Or maybe they’ll teach me something more useful, like how to use these digital tools for self-promotion. And that’s what it’s all about — isn’t it? – in the Multiplatform New-Media World.
I fly to Vancouver on Jan. 3. Stay tuned.