Raising journalists’ expectations only to crush them

My colleague and compadre Jemima Kiss flagged up story making the rounds on journalism blogs that the University of Missouri School of Journalism is requiring new students to have an iPhone or an iPod touch.

Like Jemima, I speak to quite a few journalism classes as well. While everyone assumes that young people almost without exception embrace technology, it couldn’t be further from the truth. As Jemima writes:

Chatting to journalism students is always an eye-opener, because, despite the enthusiasm and the clear commitment to their career, there’s very often a rather romantic view of an industry that doesn’t really exist any more. It’s a world of smokey bars and clattering Fleet Street typewriters battling against a daily deadline, or, very often, a rather glamorous late night gig review by a wannabe music journo.

Sadly journalism students’ romantic notion of journalism is often 30 years out of step, and they are often even more resistant of new technology and new methods than those working in the industry.

I stopped off at the University of Missouri to visit my friend Clyde Bentley when I was traveling across the US last year for the elections, and it was great to see them thinking not just about the internet but also actively exploring mobile technology. The University of Missouri is a great institution, and it’s great to see them keeping ahead of the times. But the move to require an iPod Touch or an iPhone has not been welcomed by all.

Levi Sumagaysay at the San Jose Mercury News asked if the requirement was a conflict of interest. He questioned “what appears to be the school’s bias or endorsement of the aforementioned Apple products”.

However, I noticed something else that Levi wrote about, building up journalism students expectations. He writes:

An ironic side note: In most newsrooms I’ve worked, we’ve had to claw our way to “preferred equipment,” and we considered ourselves lucky if, in 1999, our work computers got upgraded to, say, Windows 95. If newspapers survive, future journalists being trained to work on the latest and greatest equipment are in for a huge letdown when they realize that that stuff is largely non-existent in the newsroom — we just write about them.

It’s actually more than moving journalism students from a world of shiny Apple engineering to a world of outdated, coffee-encrusted computers. It’s moving them from a world where they can install and run what they want to a world of locked-down, corporate machines.

I was talking to a friend this week who told me that she had to get a permission slip signed to get a piece of software installed on her work computer and another permission slip signed to actually use the piece of software. You would think she was a seven-year-old going on a field trip to an active volcano. When I was with the BBC, I traveled with two computers. My work computer, which I had to have to access certain work systems, and the computer that I actually got work done on.

I know that there are security issues. I know that IT administrators can tell stories of the senior manager’s kid downloading a virus via some Flash game and taking down the network. But a one-size fits all corporate IT policy is not only a soul-destroying experience for a technically proficient journalist, it’s also a productivity killer. There has to be a better way than this. Train staff in the basics of computer security. Allow them to try new things on a virtual machine that can be wiped if it gets infected with a virus. But we can’t expect journalists to explore and learn about digital tools if we lock all the doors ahead of them.

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