Monday, April 24, 2006

Columbia Graduate School of Journalism -- or How Old Hacks Change Their Spots

Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism apparently is regarded in the blogosphere as the Temple of Mainstream Journalism, the sacred pool from where the secrets of the old guard flow.

The pride of old-fashioned, pound-the-pavement journalism was everywhere April 21 and 22, when the school hosted its annual Alumni Weekend. But there was a surprising emphasis on new forms of media – proof, in my mind, that journalists around the country are adapting to shrinking newspapers, readership, and budgets with imagination and determination.

It’s been 20 years since I graduated from the J-School and I haven’t really kept up with my classmates, except by noticing their bylines and newscasts. I wasn’t planning on going to the reunion until I read the flurry of e-mails that described what everyone was doing. It ranged from working on budgets at the New York Times to covering the Middle East to running a music club in the south. I was curious to learn more about how people were navigating this transitional time in journalism.

The centerpiece of the alumni weekend was the lunch, held Saturday under the classic dome of Low Library. With Corinthian columns behind him and a row of marble statues above, Time Managing editor Jim Kelly talked about the fallout from the government’s pursuit of their reporter Matthew Cooper. Karl Rove leaked to Cooper that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent.

Kelly talked about how Time was compelled by the courts to turn over Cooper’s e-mail. The entire case has prompted Time to create a two-tier system of confidentiality. A reporter can offer anonymity to a source but must then check with his or her editor, who will then determine just how far Time will go to protect that source’s identity. The reporter will then go back to the source and say whether the magazine is willing to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to protect the source, or not. Clearly there are some anonymous sources who are so valuable that the fight is warranted, said Kelly. Others are not worth the effort. In the past, the assumption was that all anonymous sources were created equal and that all were worth defending in court. That will no longer be the case.

That was the traditional Mainstream Media part of the weekend. Much of the rest was devoted to showing alumni tricks of the web and how to use blogs as reporting tools. Nick Lemann, Columbia’s dean, talked about how blogs can work as great tip sheets. Some students are working on a huge exercise on Hurricane Katrina, and have to develop new stories by reading through blogs and government reports. The blogs act as tip sheets, a view of the thoughts of the common man, a place to get a pulse of a locale without doing man-in-the-street interviews.

New media professor Sreenath Sreenivasan gave two lively lectures on web tools. I thought I knew my way around the web, but I learned many new methods of collecting information and using maps in reporting. Sree has a web site that contains these tips and it is worth spending time clicking through.

There was also a fair bit of discussion about the plight of older reporters. Many newspapers or television outfits value these reporters’ experience, but only want to hire younger journalists and pay them smaller salaries. There were no clear answers on how to keep working in this fluid time, but there was a consensus that older reporters should learn new platforms, like blogging, podcasting, and HTML code.

Some aspects of journalism never change, despite the new technological revolution. Suffice it to say, we spent a lot of time drinking.

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