The kids are alright

4 Oct

Some of them, anyway.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been plowing through an extensive stack of resumes to fill some openings on my new team at PBS.

Many of the resumes were sort of sad – those of journalists with impeccable traditional credentials, and no clue what I meant when I asked for work samples that showed creative use of different digital story forms in service of the content.

Call ‘em The Lifeboaters:  “This digital thing is going to be huge, and I’d be proud to learn it from your team!”  Umm, sorry. The ship that you want left 15 years ago. The good news: New ships leave everyday if you’re willing to swim out to the meet them. WordPress.com offers blogs for free. Start there, keep playing, and we’ll talk in a year.

A second pile included people who are incredibly good … at a singular thing. Call ‘em the The One-Skill Wonders: Very adept at slideshows. Or digital video. Or shoveling existing text onto a page. Yes, those are useful skills (and, candidly, they’ve been enough to get very good production jobs at many shops for a long time.) But that’s not what my team is trying to do.

Happily, however, there was a third pile of those resumes: Digital natives (or digital immigrants who work hard to remain conversant) who understand the whiz-bang toys are only useful if they serve the story. They also understand there will be a new whiz-bang tool next year.

My favorite example: One of the candidates is a wizard at a certain vector-graphics program that’s hideously expensive, ridiculously proprietary, notoriously hard to learn – and incredibly useful. Which, of course, leads some to treat it as the Universal Truth to all journalism questions, and to treat themselves as priests.

Not this guy. He wouldn’t bite on my trick question (something about whether this program was the most useful skill he’d ever learned): “The technology is always changing, so I just feel like the ability and willingness to adapt is the best skill someone can have.”

Guess what? He got an interview. So did most of the others in the third pile. They’ll be the ones making up our new team.

It was hard not to notice a few commonalities among them. An awful lot of them passed through Medill at Northwestern, American University in D.C., or Cal-Berkeley. Several also received one of the fabulous summer-long News 21 fellowships.

I’d be horribly remiss if didn’t mention the excellent program at CUNY; as it happens, none of its kids choose to apply. I’d be equally remiss if I didn’t point out that some name-brand journalism schools aren’t on this list – and that’s not an oversight.

The kids in that third stack are solid reporters and great storytellers. When pressed, they talk about technologies as means to an end – tools they can use in service of the story, not as a flashy adornment to it. They also used overly long sentences to offer variations on a motto a longtime colleague used to have on his blog: Semper Gumby – always flexible.)

Of course, one of the people I hired said it far better than I can.

I hope this forms an optimistic riposte to a discerning entry from Wayne MacPhail on PBS’ Media Shift blog. MacPhail makes an impassioned observation that J-schools are failing their students by defaulting to traditional story forms, taught by traditional professors, with barely a mention of the information revolution occurring around us. He’s right.

Too many of my friends – the first-generation digital pioneers now in academe – talk privately about the battles they fight with tenured colleagues who insist that circa-1994 curricula are just fine¸thank you and have served generations of graduates with distinction!

Fortunately for our craft – and for my project – a few schools are taking another path. Some of their grads are going to help us at PBS.

2 Responses to “The kids are alright”

  1. Sherry October 4, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    Semper gumby — still as relevant today as when SBA coined it way back when.

  2. Sam October 4, 2010 at 7:46 pm #

    I came here through a retweet and will definitely be following this blog from now on.

    The idea of technology as a means to an end really spoke to me. As a CS student surrounded by naked technologists, I realize the end goal of technology is to enrich our lives, not to create and use tech for tech’s sake. I’m glad you and some of your applicants do too.

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