Kate and Sam are doing vulvas. Suzanne is documenting a premiere at Ballet B(ritish) C(olumbia). Mohamed is putting together an immigrant’s guide to performing arts in Vancouver, Vinnie a guide to Chinese food courts, introducing diners to unusual dishes and giving them a pronunciation guide, so they can order verbally instead of just pointing. (Where were you, Vinnie, when I needed you in Hunan?) Irina is interviewing members of a Russian theater troupe who came to Canada in the ’90s and stayed. Jennifer and Gudrun are following an early-music ensemble. Nichole and Golnaz covered Vancouver Fashion Week.
The end of the semester is inexplicably upon us — where did three months go? — and my Arts and Culture Journalism students are immersed in their final projects, due in two weeks. Or at least they will be once they’re over a big hurdle: their final exam.
When Steve Pratt of the CBC and I were inventing this course months ago, we received what I call “a gift from God”: teaching material that comes seemingly out of nowhere, requires next to no effort on the teacher’s part and is absolutely perfect. I’ve received several such gifts during the semester, notably the financial collapse of the Vancouver Playhouse’s resident theater company after 49 years (a running news story) and a right-wing TV interviewer’s rant against the respected choreographer Margie Gillis for accepting government support (which fit nicely into the lesson on the business side of the arts). Best of all was the fact that the Juno Awards, Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys, were scheduled for April 1, the night before our last class.
Et voila! A final exam!
None of the students had any experience doing live coverage of such an event, and initially they expressed some trepidation (An Education, Feb. 29). But they threw themselves into the task, meeting weekly before class to assign themselves roles and stories before, during and after the show, logged on multiple spreadsheets. By the time they set up camp in the newsroom on Sunday, not only did they have a plan, but they had also posted at least a dozen stories on the website they built, Junos by Journos.
This is not to imply that everything went smoothly; journalism rarely does. The first brainstorming session produced a plan that included the web page, Twitter feed, videos, background pieces, a Bieber watch – but no good old-fashioned news story summarizing the awards. “By the end of the night, I’d like to see one smooth narrative telling what happened,” said Old Lady Print Journalist. “Humor me.” Golnaz and Gudrun volunteered for what was probably the toughest job of the night, writing the story and updating constantly.
This year the awards were presented in Ottawa, on East Coast time. (The show rotates among the provincial capitals.) “Great!” I thought. “Here it’ll be in the afternoon, like the Oscars,” which started in Vancouver around 4 p.m. — in daylight! — and were over by a very civilized 8. I didn’t know the Junos were delayed until 8 for the West Coast, and there would apparently be no live streaming online. The journalism school had no East Coast TV feed. So how would we cover the show live?
We started discussing various Plan B’s: setting up shop at a sports bar with the right feed, for example, or splitting the class into one team to work with me in the newsroom and another to go to the CBC with Steve. If all else failed, I suggested doing our “live” coverage at 8 p.m. “I know that’s not technically ‘live’ coverage,” I wrote in e-mail, “but remember, this is primarily an exercise to give you experience in covering such an event, whenever it happens.” But Sam pointed out: “Covering the delayed broadcast would undermine most of the social media aspect of the event . . . Even listening on streaming radio, if possible, and writing the news of it before using the later TV feed to write performance reviews and such would give us a better experience.”
Social media. Of course. Old Lady Print Journalist strikes again.
I continue to be amazed at the degree to which news coverage has shifted to digital media. The “smooth narrative” I envisioned is barely needed anymore, since everyone who cares seems to be getting the news in real time, on one platform or another. For a morning newspaper, such a story — the kind I used to shepherd through four editions in four hours –now seems absurd.
In the end, Plan A was saved by the person who usually saves our necks in this journalism school, Barry Warne, who likes to think of his job description as “ethereal entity moving in mysterious ways rather than taking concrete form” — in short, the Ariel of the J-school. He arranged to have the appropriate cable box delivered on Friday, came in late that afternoon to install it and returned at the crack of dawn Sunday to let the cable guy in. Still in bed, I read his message on my iPad before 9: “JUNOS are GO!”
So here I am again, sitting in a newsroom, waiting for an awards show to begin. The students are doing exactly what I used to do at The New York Times — Kate in particular, editing with her right hand, updating the winners’ list with her left and running around the newsroom to put out small fires in her spare time — and so much more. They put about 10 times as much effort into the coverage as I ever anticipated. The beauty of it is, now I can sit back, relax and be the one putting on the pressure. I don’t have to do it myself anymore, or want to. They do.
“This must be a terrible time for young people to be going into journalism,” older people often say, many of them Times retirees. “Not at all!” I tell them. “It’s a great time for young people to go into journalism. It’s just not our journalism.”
Oh, and about those vulvas: Kate has a serious interest in the culture surrounding women’s sexuality. (In February she performed in a campus production of “The Vagina Monologues.”) She and Sam are producing a multimedia report on “artistic representations of women’s sexuality and/or bodies,” focusing on a Vancouver artist who has published “a photo study of female genitalia and a window into women’s experiences of their genitals.” OK, so maybe some of projects weren’t quite what I had in mind when I was dreaming up this course, but I decided to let people run with their passions — Laura’s for the comics world, for example, or Beth’s for K-pop. Isn’t that what journalism is all about?