Today's Front Pages

Yesterday at the opening meeting of “Media Lab” (a one-credit class that students take when they wish to get credit for working on the school paper), I told my students that I love print and I always will.

I held up a printed copy of the school paper, told them it was a good issue and that it represented a lot of hard work.

Then I tore it up.

Every class I run into a few students who can barely stand, or who are openly derisive of, the “new media” content in our “new media journalism” program. One even expressed a feeling of being “misled” by the content of a course — I assume the student wanted more traditional journalism.

The economic crisis has hit just about every industry, but many newspapers are cutting back their staff, switching to digital versions (all the time, or for those days of the week that don’t usually carry that many lucrative inserts), and otherwise changing their business plan.

So I would feel like I was doing them a disservice if I let them get through a journalism program hoping that their writing talent alone would be sufficient to get them hired.
The school paper isn’t going to stop printing the paper. I pointed out that the layout of the center spread allows the students to combine text and images on a large canvas of a fixed size, something that right now we can only do on paper. When visitors come to campus and pick a paper up off the rack, or when people who work on the paper see other people carrying the paper through the halls, all these things are valuable community building features.

But I told them the old story of the canal barge companies that went out of business when they tried to compete with the railways, and the railway companies that went out of business when they tried to compete with the trucking companies. The ones who succeeded were the ones who realized, all along, that they were in the transportation business.

I referred to Negroponte’s phrasing of the shift from the shifting of atoms (material goods) to the shifting of bits (information economy), and pointed out that we are missing something extremely important if we think of our job as student journalists as producing a print paper, and just shoveling all that print content online as an afterthought.  In reality, we should think of the printed newspaper as one of several possible ways to distribute our journalistic content.

This term, I’m including a new “online journalism portfolio” requirement, but I’m leaving the contents open for discussion, since I want to hear from the students what they think is desirable, and what they think is reasonable.

In penance for tearing up a copy of a physical newspaper, here’s a link to a resource that lets you browse the front page of newspapers around the world.
It’s a little bit like a feature that lets you browse through the stylized animal logos or animal references in the names of cars (mustang, pinto, the Dodge ram), or garage doors that have vertically squished half-round carriage house windows that evoke the horse and buggy. Nevertheless, it’s an intersting reminder of the materiality of newspapers, since a web page home page and the newspaper front page are very different creatures.
The Newseum displays these daily newspaper front pages in their original, unedited form.


Thanks for the link suggestion, Josh.