ALERT: Journalism students are an indicator species.

Journalism is in crisis.

So it’s now time to realize that journalism students are an “indicator species.”

Wikipedia defines an indicator species in biology  this way:

An indicator species is any biological species that defines a trait or characteristic of the environment… Indicator species can be among the most sensitive species in a region, and sometimes act as an early warning to monitoring biologists.

Wikipedia goes on to give seven sub definitions  for indicator species.  In my view, in the current media environment journalism students fit sub definitions 6 and 7.

  • a species thought to be sensitive to and therefore to serve as an early warning indicator of environmental changes such as global warming or modified fire regimes (sometimes called a bioindicator species)
  • a management indicator species, which is a species that reflects the effects of a disturbance regime or the efficacy of efforts to mitigate disturbance effects.

(my emphasis)

For the past twenty years, journalism students have been serving as an early warning indicator of the changes coming in the media.  Those warnings have, for the most part,  been ignored by the faculty of most journalism schools, and more important, by the executives and managers of most media organizations.

 How journalism students have regarded the media, the newspapers, television, the web,  reflect in the effects of a disturbance regime in the media ecosystem– the rise of the World Wide Web and  the failure of the majority of media executives and managers to adapt realistically to a rapidly changing world.

Earlier today, a posting by a journalism professor at Carleton University in Ottawa  called  “My students don’t have TVs” triggered a lot of Tweets and interest

Marilyn Mercer, as is common among j-profs, assigned her broadcast news students to watch the major Canadian national network newscasts.

She says:

I began this course assigning weekly analysis of the flagship nightly newscasts at CTV and CBC.  At first, some students panicked. “I don’t have cable,” said one. “Nor TV,” said another. Knowing this was about marks, they went online to or and started watching stories that often begin with [CBC Anchor} Peter [Mansbridge] or [CTV anchor]  Lloyd [Robertson].

(Note I currently work for CBC News as a photo editor and in my career at both CBC and at CTV  I have worked with both Peter Mansbridge and Lloyd Robertson)

Mercer asked her students to take a look at the controversial relaunch of CBC news on October 26, including the change from CBC Newsworld to the new CBC News Network.
Mercer says:

None of them had yet watched CBC NN, but said they’d heard about “how people don’t like it.”

She is concerned in her post about the content of the news, which I won’t go into for the purpose of this post.

But on the medium itself, Mercer also says:

CBC’s The National can probably forget about getting my class demographic, even if they are j-school students. This generation wears the news in their clothing and won’t make an appointment to view it late in the evening. They monitor their hand-held devices throughout the day often after texts from friends to check out something, on YouTube, or like the boy in the balloon.

The first  reaction in online comments to Mercer’s post  is typical

So… these kids want to be broadcast journalists but don’t even own/watch TV?
This is a joke, right?

Claude Adams, another former CBC journalist, now a freelancer and teacher responded in the comments:

Alas, not a joke at all. I got the same general response a few years ago from a class of graduate-level broadcast journalism students here on the west coast. Many didn’t watch TV news unless it  was assigned.

A number of them said “it isn’t relevant” although they thought that [Comedy Central’s] Jon Stewart and  [CBC’s] George Stroumboulopoulos were cool.
Two weeks ago, I asked a class of 4th year communications students at the U of Windsor what they thought of The National’s new look. Not a single one had watched. “You are exactly the demographic that the CBC is courting,” I told them. They shrugged.

Here is proof that J-students are an indicator species.

That attitude is not limited to the journalism schools. Another study, also tweeted today, of American students, Alloy Media + Marketing’s 9th annual College Explorer Survey, projected annual technology spending among college students (ages 18-30), showed that

Students are spending twice as much time on their computers as compared to television viewing 33% of 18-24 year old students have increased their consumption of webisodes or user-generated videos since last year, and 30% of 18-30 year olds report frequent video viewing on social networking sites

Let’s turn the clock back about 15 years, when I began teaching (as a part -time instructor)  investigative reporting at Ryerson University School of Journalism.
In the winter semester of 1995, when I introduced final year and grad students to Computer-Assisted Reporting, I had to teach half the students a lot about computers.

 Two years later,  that sort of basic teaching was no longer necessary, the students were all computer wizards and so I could get right to the heart of Computer-Assisted Reporting.

That was the same time journalism faculty across the continent began to ring alarm bells.  “They’re not reading newspapers!”  

By that time of course, most major news organizations (but not all)  had created news websites and that was where many students were already getting their news.

The first reaction at most journalism schools was something like this: “So the little monsters aren’t  reading newspapers. Well, we’ll make them read newspapers by giving them news quizzes.”

Then there were the usual remarks about how bad, lazy, the younger generation was.  Of course,  older adults have been saying that at least since students in ancient Athens gathered to listen to Socrates. (It probably goes back at least to the first scribe schools in ancient Sumeria but so far as I know there wasn’t a Sumerian Plato to record the remarks).

When I was a grad student at Carleton (74-75) we did have a couple of  news quizzes,  but they were challenging scavenger hunts.

We devoured newspapers. 

First thing I did each morning was open the door of my old Ottawa apartment (if it was New York or Boston it would be probably be called brownstone)  and grab The Globe and Mail, which had a new investigative story almost every morning.

Assigning a news quiz didn’t make the students of the late 1990s grab a newspapers first thing in the morning.

I stopped working at Ryerson in 2001.  I returned for one semester in 2004, to help teach first year students. By then the news quiz  had changed.  No longer a scavenger hunt for kids who devoured  newspapers (the carrot) nor a way of forcing them to read newspapers (the stick), instead the news quiz was now a time limited exercise in searching Google News.

If those students  from the mid-1990s are still lucky enough to have jobs in newspapers, they may read their own rag in print, but are highly unlikely to read the opposition in print, instead they are going online.

Their contemporaries are not reading newspapers. That’s why the business is in trouble.

Journalism students were and are an indicator species.

This is similar to what Mercer notes her post, “Knowing this was about marks….”  that made the students rush to their computers to watch the online versions of the network newscasts.

Now we see the same trend in broadcast and cable television, as we saw in newspapers a decade ago,  where the younger audience is drifting away.

It is the same argument I had with journalism profs (most weren’t listening)  when I attended conferences in the 90s.  If you can’t get journalism students to read your product, how to expect the rest of the generation to read it?

Broadcast executives around the world say they want the younger audience, the 18-34 or 40 demographic demanded by advertisers.  But they want that audience to fit into their metrics. They don’t want to give the audience what they want to see or hear.

Ask anyone of that age  and you quickly learn that broadcasting is not serving that audience.

Last summer, on Vancouver Island, I went to photograph some Canada Day fireworks with a friend who is in his 20s,  more than 30 years younger than me.   That evening I hung out with some of his friends (none of them in journalism).  They told me that they didn’t listen to the three private-sector radio stations in the area.

“They’re all the same,” one guy said.

Of course, they all sound  the same, the days of a individual DJ are decades dead. 

What those stations broadcast is “mix,”  play-list pap that comes out some consultant’s office, likely in Los Angeles. 

My friend who is a part time DJ,  says these days if anyone requests a tune that he doesn’t have in his system, he (honestly paying for it) downloads it from Itunes into his Iphone and then transfers it to his music system. Who needs playlist pap?

What I did find interesting was that these 20-odd year-olds liked and listened to CBC’s information radio at a time when the stereotype, even within the CBC, is that the audience consists of aging boomers.

Those guys also listened to the online CBC Radio 3.  I found the same thing last weekend at a session of a conference of student newspaper journalists at Wilfred Laurier University where I was one of the speakers.  Most of the students listened to Radio 3’s eclectic mix of largely Canadian original music.


Then New Democratic Party leader David Lewis (right) and political columnist Anthony Westell speak to Carleton University grad journalism students in the fall of 1975. (copyright Robin Rowland)

Back to Carleton for a moment.  It’s in Canada’s capital, blocks from Parliament Hill.  The Carleton Journalism program has a well-earned reputation for turning out political reporters.  In 74-75. we had guest speakers,  party leaders and top journalists, come to our class.  I am pretty sure people from the Hill  still show up at Carleton from time to time.

Now in 2009, you can’t get journalism students in the national capital to watch the major national newscasts?   If you can’t get journalism students in a political city to watch the major newscasts, how do you expect the rest of the generation to watch those shows?

There are reasons, of course, not just that the times they are a changing,  that the students don’t have TVs and cable.

Cable is too expensive, my Rogers bill is $71.72 a month. I wonder if it is worth it.
Cable certainly isn’t worth it for a student, likely overburdened by student loan debt, with not that many job prospects in the current economy, who can get specifically online what they want they want to watch.

 I  know more and more  friends actually in broadcasting, from people in their 20s, through boomers to retired folks, who are canceling their cable and relying on over-the-air HD antennas or HD USB antennas plugged into their laptops to watch broadcasts and who watch everything else online.

Enjoying their current multimillion dollar incomes, the cable companies aren’t noticing.  Yet

Just as newspapers didn’t notice a decade ago.

 The networks around the world are likely feeling a bit of a chill wind, but they prefer to continue on a consultant driven path to who knows where.

Journalism students are an indicator species.

I am not saying (yet) that journalism schools give up their mission.

But let’s get real.  The majority of students in journalism school or working on student newspapers these days are entering the profession knowing that the media is  in a big mess and they still want to be journalists.  That really is reason for optimism.

So J-schools, it’s time to stop worrying about the delivery system, the newspapers, the television, the web or whatever appears out of the silicon universe a year or two from now.

Do what you should be doing.   Teach strong story telling. No matter what the medium.

Did I say that journalism students are an indicator species?

Yes. I did.

That mean’s there’s good news for journalism.
From the young folks I know, from the ones I’ve met either in person or online, I have confidence that the new generation of journalism students and young working journalists will be remembered as “a greatest generation” and I will tell you why in my next post in a couple of days.

Journalism students ARE an indicator species.

How to survive as a visual journalist in the 21st century

On Nov. 6, 2009, I was invited to speak to student newspaper journalists at the PULSE conference at Wilfred Laurier University  in Waterloo, Ontario about how to survive the coming years as a visual journalist.

Here, as promised, is a PDF copy of my talk, with the appropriate web links.


(Large file, right click and save as appropriate to your software)