Newly named “disruptive journalism” fellow Erik Palmer is proud of his title, noting it doesn’t mean what you think, but rather that he’s teaching students to deal with a huge sense of urgency in media, technology and culture that is changing (disrupting) the way news and other other communication is happening.
Palmer, an associate professor and chair of the SOU Communication Program at Southern Oregon University, is one of 17 disruptive journalism fellows who attended the City University of New York’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism's Online News Association 2017 Conference held in Washington D.C. Oct. 5-7.
Their goal, he said, is to recognize, encourage and be creative with the seemingly disruptive changes in communication, so much of which is becoming focused on our screens, especially phones.
Each fellow was assigned to champion an aspect of journalism and Palmer’s is “strategic thinking,” using SOU’s small, agile and responsive campus to “meet those needs deftly … understanding the experience of how we consume news” in the constant and shifting stream from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and myriad other platforms just coming into being.
“Not every university has kept up with that, but we have,” he says. “We’re oriented to visual storytelling, as well as to professional journalism.”
Instead of the time-honored process where journalists hand readers printed stories that are the final word on a topic, “the decisions people make are so rapid and frequent that journalism means being able to frame a story in ways that capture your attention — not with sensationalism,” he said, “but with what reader-viewers perceive as most important in their lives — then responding to that.”
What does the flow of useful information look like in our “disrupted” world? Well, you have only to look at your day on-screen, surfing from Facebook, laughing at some jokes, saying "hi" to friends, posting pics and video on Instagram, picking up a link on Twitter that takes you to a reliable and important story, linking to tweets about it — then crack a beer and kicking back to check out the coolest TV series of the day, streaming from Netflix or Hulu on a hand-held device.
Have you touched a TV during this digital flood? Have you bought a newspaper? Unlikely. Maybe you are in your own echo chamber, being logarithmically fed what they know you already like. What is journalism’s job in all this?
“Our obligation 30 years ago was to create content, take photos and layout the design," says Palmer, who earned a doctoral degree in communication and society at the University of Oregon. "Now, journalism is being asked to get involved in engaging our audiences and supporting the economic vitality of the media.”
As a teacher of journalism students in this age, Palmer “orients students to strategically reach audiences. Writing and photography still happen and they emerge from the agenda they set strategically.”
Here is the crux of it, which sounds different from “All The News That’s Fit To Print” on page one of the New York Times for many decades: “The challenge is right in front of us now. The most successful journalism comes from what audiences need and are willing to pay for — and meeting those needs with creative content.”
How does journalism determine you needs? “It’s understanding the experience of how they consume news, the stream of stuff on the internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. The decisions people are making so rapidly and frequently and being able to frame a story in ways that capture their attention in the stream of social media.”
Palmer picks up his phone from his desk, noting it’s always in front of us now, with the laptop becoming secondary — then he opens a slim, folding keyboard that talks to his phone wirelessly on Bluetooth, and that’s the whole system now, fitting in a large pocket. Also coming on line are voice-activated “bots” that run on Alexa and other web-enabled devices.
“It’s connected to Amazon and you tell it what to do.” Of course, any music comes through it and talks to your speakers. If you need soap, he says, you just say, “Get me soap” it knows your address and credit card number and a lot of other things about you —and can add it to your shopping list or FedEx can drop it at your door the next day. This has a big impact on the economy, advertising, local business and all facets of culture.
In digital media where he teaches, Palmer seeks to “realign the mindset, not to react but to be proactive, using technology in new ways,” he says, and one of the great demands in the field is finding employees who are technically competent, including being able to do coding.
“You have to have a good mindset (as a journalist) and understand traditional values, yet have robust tech skills.” Growth areas in the profession include “product manager — people who identify audiences that news organizations might serve and to lead creativity of specific digital products that engage that audience. It could be multi-media features on the net, new apps or many other wondrous avenues, many as yet unexplored.
The most rewarding part of the conference, he notes, is “seeing SOU is really engaged in a national conversation on (emerging) journalism.”
If all this sounds depersonalized and values-neutral, Palmer says quite the contrary. “In the future of journalism, social values are essential. If the industry is not able to sustain those values, it’s going to be a disaster. In some ways it already is, for example, the fake news. It’s smart, but not well-meaning. People have been effective at hijacking the platforms for their own political and economic benefit.
“What’s going on is a very real risk. There is optimism and very significant fear. My job here is to help students make a better life for themselves. It’s changing so fast that we have to make new courses in two-to-three year cycles.”
Classic examples in the three-dimensional world, he says, are Uber and Airbnb, which innovated over the “sleepy old institutions” of cabs and motels.
“We’re not in the world that used to be anymore … Disruptive is a metaphor to describe the radical change in existing institutions. We’re at the forefront here of how media are going to evolve and we should have pride about it.”
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.