“Just to make sure we’re on the same page, what’s the biggest breaking news story in the arts this week?”

“WHITNEY HOUSTON!”

“Right! What makes it the biggest story of the week?”

It was the day after the Grammy Awards, and not quite 48 hours since Houston was found dead. Normally the Grammys would have been the story, but the demise of a bona fide pop superstar, even one past her prime, had upstaged Adele’s big win. The students in my arts journalism class thought for a moment.

“She was a big star.”

“It was unexpected.”

“She was going to perform at a party that night.”

“What else?” What I meant was, what makes this a great story? “She died the day before the Grammys! Now that’s a story!” To someone like me, steeped in literature full of fate and foreshadowing, it was all but Shakespearean, the exit of an arguably tragic figure on the eve of her art form/industry’s biggest night of the year.

The newsroom at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism, off deadline.

One of the perks of teaching, or practicing, arts journalism is that you can do things you would enjoy doing anyway, things that people are likely to be talking about at the water cooler the next day, and turn them into a plausible career. The Whitney Houston story was what I call “a gift from God” – an out-of-the-blue piece of teaching material from real life. This was a classic case study of breaking news coverage, and Multiplatform Journalism Professor decided to illustrate it with a timeline.

The starting point was Saturday just before 5:30 Pacific time, when I first heard the news in e-mail from my teaching partner, Steve Pratt of CBC Radio.  I immediately started monitoring the television networks and newspaper websites. ABC led its newscast at 5:30 Pacific time with the initial report, adding the few known details closer to 6. The CBS and NBC newscasts — clearly reruns of East Coast broadcasts – made no mention of Houston for 15 minutes before breaking in with brief live reports. The New York Times, whose early Sunday editions had closed hours earlier, had nothing at all for well over an hour, then an Associated Press report and finally, some hours later, its own story. I could just see the skeleton crew in the office on a Saturday night chasing down the pop music staff, some of whom were already out in Los Angeles for the Grammys.

“What can you add?” I asked the class.

“I heard it around 5 on Twitter,” Sam said. “Then Twitter just exploded.” Within 20 minutes, someone added, the inevitable sick jokes were already surfacing.

Multiplatform Journalism Professor instantly deflated into Old Lady Print Journalist. Of course. The water cooler is now electronic, and it is immediate.

Just past the midpoint of my semester at UBC, I’m still learning  – not least, just what an OLPJ I am. (None of my students would ever think of going to a network or a newspaper web site, let alone a printed paper, for breaking news.) Still, I’m trying.

Social media are (and yes, I still insist that the word “media” is plural) still not my fach, as we say in the classical music world. I’ve attended a social media workshop and started fresh on my Facebook page; I’ve amped up my LinkedIn profile by adding skills, requesting recommendations and joining a new group, the Adjunctpreneurs. During this week’s Oscar post-mortem, I even quoted a snarky tweet – something to the effect of “Who’s that guy with a face like a sponge?” (Billy Crystal). But I found it in The Times’s exhaustive Oscar night coverage, not on Twitter. OLPJs evolve slowly. We are all products of our time, and one day these students, too, will find themselves falling behind. Trust me on this.

It’s been, incredibly, five years since I ran Oscar night at The Times, and this year’s reminded me how much and how fast the media landscape has changed. Not so long ago – maybe 1995 – The Times staffed the Oscars with one reporter, two copy editors and the culture news editor to make the executive decisions, all sitting in the New York newsroom with a TV and a pizza. By 2007 we had a team of reporters and photographers in Hollywood, and at least a dozen people in New York; I turned around four print editions in four hours and coordinated with the digital people. This year’s coverage was overwhelming, and not only in The Times. (Canada’s Globe and Mail had dozens of treatments on various platforms.) Instead of one smooth narrative accompanied by a list of winners, the story is told in bits and pieces –Tweets, blogs, polls and infinite red-carpet photo galleries. How can anyone digest all this? “They don’t,” Steve said. Instead, audiences pick and choose.

We don’t talk about the Oscars and Grammys just for fun, like normal people. In less than five weeks comes the class’s final exam: live coverage of the Juno Awards, Canada’s Grammy-equivalent. Working  in the journalism school’s newsroom or outside, the class will produce the most complete coverage it  can, on as many platforms as possible. Most important, the students will plan that coverage themselves. “We’re not going to tell you how to do it,” I warned on Monday. “I can tell you how I used to do it, and Steve can tell you how he does it at the CBC. But we’re not going to do it for you.”

A word about these students: they strike me as extremely capable pre-professionals, more like junior colleagues than students. At least three have already published work produced for this class in local media, and most have posted on their own blogs. They are at various stages of training, and all have strengths and weaknesses, each one’s different. Six come from other cultures and thus may have arrived on campus less familiar with North American forms of journalism.  Some struggled with hard-news and feature assignments, not yet imbued with those formulas; the blog seems to be the natural form of their generation, although I was pleasantly surprised by their reviews. This being a multiplatform program, four chose audio for the first assignment; by the fourth, all had reverted to writing, which Steve tells me is less work. At least half had trouble meeting the first deadline, and some still do, indicating that they need to learn how to better manage schedules and workloads.

Above all, they are willing to learn. When Mohamed asked at the first class, “Will we be able to re-do these assignments?” for a higher grade, I was taken aback; did I look like some kind of pushover?  Wasn’t the idea to get it right the first time, on deadline? On reflection, I realized that, no, editors send stories back for rewrites all the time, and that what mattered here was learning. Since then a number of students have taken advantage of the rewrite process, transforming not only their grades but their stories as well.

Some have expressed uneasiness about Juno night. “I still can’t quite understand how it’s going to work,” one wrote on a midterm course evaluation. But after our Oscar discussion and my assurance that we would all work on the planning, together, in the weeks ahead, they seemed relieved, and energized. When Steve and I left that day, most of the class stayed behind, apparently to start forming strategy teams. There was a definite buzz in the air.

On April 1, Steve will be working the Junos for CBC in Ottawa; OLPJ will be in the newsroom at UBC, supervising. But right now, she’s going to cook dinner with the 6 o’clock news playing in the background.

One thought on “An education

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