Monday, August 9, 2010

How A&M can turn out Web-skilled journalists - NOW

I asked Chris Hokanson '08 -- Editor in Chief of the Battalion in summer 2007, who also served as news editor, multimedia editor and new media editor -- to write up his thoughts on what A&M could do to educate programmer-journalists. Hokanson, who is currently a Genius at the Houston Galleria's Apple Store, responded extremely graciously with this article.

Read on and you'll learn:
  • Some of the Batt's new media efforts in recent years
  • One way Batt staffers could learn web technologies for free
  • Who to watch: Leaders of the digital news revolution
Here's Hokanson:

Why College Publisher is good, and why A&M needs to make it unnecessary

When I transitioned the Batt's radio desk - a daily, 3-minute news clip that did double duty as our podcast and a segment on the local public radio station - to the Multimedia / New Media desk, I learned something.

I learned that if you want to shoot video, develop for the web, and produce podcasts and radio shows, a little background in those areas goes a long way. Unfortunately, I had none of those things. My experience with "new media" consisted of some old home videos and a LiveJournal account. My introduction to social media was at least encouraged by the fact that Texas A&M was one of the first schools to get access to Facebook (with all the farming that happens on Facebook these days, you would have guessed A&M started the site).

The tasks given me were daunting for someone with so little experience: produce a daily radio show, weekly podcasts, video stories (both independent and complementary to print stories), and maintain and improve The Batt's website. Pretty big task for a guy who had no idea what a <div> tag was.

But thankfully, College Publisher was there to help. If you're not familiar with CP, it's a web-based content management system that the Batt and 600 other college papers utilize. Think of it as Blogger for college papers - a fairly strict template focused on content over design. CP makes money by providing its service free of charge in exchange for a large portion of ad revenue on the paper's site. In return, guys like me could record a podcast and post it into CP's system without knowing anything about creating RSS feeds or XML documents.

Today's web design world requires an alphabet soup of languages and systems to be present on one's resume. PHP, CSS, xHTML, Java, Flash - Comp Sci majors have tough times meeting the requirements of some newspaper job postings I've seen recently. CP's system is a tremendous resources at schools that simply don't have the resources to teach their students more than simple HTML. With CP, advisors and professors can spend time teaching their students about writing and reporting - not wasting away teaching them to be code monkeys.

But A&M has the resources to do both. I'm amazed at the strides the Batt's new media desk has taken since I graduated. The production quality of the videos make mine look downright childish. But sticking a YouTube embed into CP's standard article template is no longer compelling. It's a bad experience for the user and it makes for a huge headache for archiving (I started out using BrightCove because of YouTube's resolution and length restrictions, but BrightCove's non-Enterprise divisions folded - and so did all my videos). The tools are out there to make online news presentation compelling and engaging, but CP's system severely limits that.

So what can Aggie students and the student media department do?

First, make some friends in the Computer Science department. Those kids need jobs, too. Hiring from a pool of students learning those web technologies not only brings help in the form of direct experience, but their knowledge spreads like wildfire. I didn't learn Photoshop in a class. I learned it watching Stacy Reeves and Spencer Selvidge work magic with the lasso tool.

Second, learn from those leading the digital news revolution. Don't be content to simply look at chron.com and say, "Hey, let's do that!" Call up folks outside traditional newspaperdom that do work for sites like Wired or Engadget, Talking Points Memo or Popular Science. Heck, chat with the designers at The Onion - they've got one of the most engaging experiences when it comes to multimedia news (even if it is all fake). Subscribe to Smashing Magazine - probably the best continual resource in web design today.

Third and most importantly, be entrepreneurial. Don't be afraid to try new technologies and push the limits of College Publisher's system. Most of my time leading those first few years of the New Media desk was spent trying, implementing, and many times failing with systems and technologies that have become digital dodo birds. But the knowledge I gained was valuable. Innovate for innovation's sake - that's what a college paper is for! When you start pushing against College Publisher's walls, discuss whether or not it's right to break free. Talk to the staff at - heaven forbid - the Daily Texan. They're on their own now. And while their site has seen an obvious decline in usability (even just readability), their students are gaining valuable insight and knowledge by building and maintaining their own web presence. Those are skills that will allow students to succeed in the 21st century journalism - whether that means a job at the Washington Post or a career as a freelancer.