Teaching Examples

Long-form writing belongs on paper
April 18, 2007, 4:08 am
Filed under: jobs, journalism, online

Paul Conley asks us to revisit the novel “The Great Gatsby” online.

What you’ll find is that even “Gatsby” cannot sing on a computer screen. Writing well is about choosing the right medium as much as it is choosing the right word. And the computer screen (or a PDA) is not the right medium for Fitzgerald.

So yes, when I think about hiring young people, I’m not very interested in their ability to write in long form. I care more about reporting ability. I care more about ambition and entrepreneurial spirit. I care more about multimedia skills than print skills because I accept that young journalists are entering a business where the page is not as important as the screen.

This prompts me to mention that a few people have recently written (in print and in blogs) about “basics.” That means know how to write correctly, grammatically, clearly, and without any embarrassing spelling errors.

I have no problem with that. I tell my students that if they use a possessive where they should have used a plural, they ain’t gettin’ no job. I wouldn’t hire them. I don’t care how great their ActionScript is. You don’t know how to use a freakin’ dictionary, I don’t want you touching stuff that needs to be accurate and fact-checked. You’ll bring in a libel suit. You’re a liability to the organization.

People who emphasize that all young journalists must know the “basics” also mean reporting skills, how to ask the right questions, how to listen well (really listen), and the ethics of the field, like “Don’t erase stuff from photos!”

Again, you’ll get no argument from me. It’s all good.

But what gets me feeling kind of angry is when they drop the other shoe. They like to follow all this with some total baloney about how the “basics” are so much more important than all that multimedia stuff.

Anyone who tells you that has not tried to get a journalism job in the past year or two. And people writing this misleading information in newspapers and trade journals clearly haven’t been making the hiring decisions. In short, they are out of touch. Well, either that, or their news organization is going down and they can’t even see it.

So beware the advice of people who might not see the full picture.

Basics are, in fact, very important. Necessary. Not to be neglected. But basics alone are not enough to carry you. You can’t do it without them. But you’re going to need more than basics now.

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2 Comments so far
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Seems to me the basics should be an essential part of a rubric. Obviously, they shouldn’t be neglected in favor of sexier skills (if scripting and CSS can be deemed sexy), but they shouldn’t they be the end-all be-all of a journalism education, either. Students go through journalism programs to become well-rounded professionals, and a portion of that well-roundedness is dedicated to basic language and writing skills, but other portions are also important. (And yes, I see the irony in employing a phrase like “well-roundedness” while discussing writing skills.)

These types of “we need to get back to basics” decrees always feel fluffy to me. Just because someone feels cranky doesn’t mean they’ve got a point.

Comment by Mac Slocum

Sometimes the lecture about “basics” includes an implication that people who do multimedia DON’T know the basics. Hey, in that case, I wouldn’t hire them.

But I dislike hearing that implication, because it seems to paint all the multimedia journalism people with the same brush. That’s just not accurate. I used to be a copy editor — I probably know more about AP style and when to use a comma than most of the editors out there.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

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