The Natives Aren’t Restless Enough


Derek Willis


October 1, 2013

A couple of points to start with, in the hopes of not wasting readers’ time and preparing for some reactions:

  1. This post could be named “Get Off My Lawn” or “In My Day, We Earned It!” or some other title that would demonstrate that I am, more than ever, a cranky old guy now.
  2. What follows obviously does not apply to everyone younger than I am (42, for the record). But it does apply to a distressingly large percentage of those who I have taught at the university level (undergraduate and graduate) over the past eight years.
  3. This post stems from one sentence in a Poynter summary of a MOOC I helped teach, but this is not about the author of that piece. It’s about a larger mindset that I see.
  4. Youth is wasted on the young. (See point #1, above.)

This post could be about how slow, feature-less and pathetic the Internet tools and sites I first encountered were compared to the ones we have now, but as we know too well, nostalgia isn’t a selling point. It could be a screed about how kids today don’t appreciate what they have, but I’ve tried that on our seven-year-old daughter with minimal results. Instead, this is about the very real situation I see in classrooms and among too many people who describe themselves as “digitally savvy” or “digital natives”.

I really enjoyed the data journalism MOOC itself and was glad to see the Poynter write-up. It was my first involvement with MOOCs and it was a fascinating experiment. But there was one line from the Poynter piece that brought to the surface a couple of thoughts I’ve been harboring for awhile about teaching journalism to people who have grown up with the Web. Here it is:

I’m a millennial and therefore digitally savvy, but I could feel sweat bead across my forehead while reading Matt Waite’s account of scraping government data to create Politifact.

The term “digitally savvy” (or, worse, “digital native”) is more flash than substance, but let me take a stab at what it is supposed to refer to: individuals who supposedly emerged from the womb with a facility for computing devices, the Internet and (especially) social media. They speak (type) an abbreviated language mystifying to their elders, have some different theories on the notions of sharing and privacy and have been exposed since an early age to what is surely much more information than any generation in humanity’s existence.

Let’s stipulate up front that the facility with devices thing is very real and very much worth paying attention to, for lots of reasons. That our then-three-year-old daughter could unlock and control an iPhone with greater ease than my parents could has broad implications for device manufacturers and those who write software for them. It is also an example of the accumulated baggage that learned habits and expectations can bring. Those are interesting, serious issues that deserve study. But that’s not the problem that bugs me.

This is: too many journalism students and journalists are native users rather than actual natives. The difference is enormous, and has real implications. Actual natives can build in addition to use digital tools, giving themselves many more opportunities to make better journalism. Users can only work within the constraints that other people set.

When I’m teaching classes or looking at resumes of journalism students, I see a lot of this kind of thing, usually on a hosted WordPress install:

Skills: WordPress, Microsoft Office, social media

Those are useful skills, to a point, but if you’re coming out of journalism school and those are your big technical skills, congratulations: you’ve just joined nearly all of your peers in almost every discipline. You can use TweetDeck? Great. Did you hand-code at least part of your “professional vanity site”? Do you actually know how the Internet works? I’ve come across too many journalism students who believe (or have been led to believe) that they are technologically adept, only to find that when it comes to how things online actually work, their knowledge is broad but very shallow. For example, I routinely find that most of my students are unaware of search engines’ advanced search capabilities, let alone that computers have powerful command-line interfaces.

Most of my students are not what I would call digital natives. They are more like users, and while journalism needs users, it desperately needs creators. Otherwise we all end up using what other people make, and we end up making fewer great things for our readers.

When people see themselves as users, they grow nervous at tinkering with the building blocks. They actually shy away from learning, because learning can be so much harder than just using a finished something handed to you. It’s ok to be nervous about new concepts, but what I’ve seen increasingly from journalism students is an incuriosity that borders on indifference. Part of this is the sweet lull of search results, something we all fall prey to. You know about this: you search for something and if it’s not in the first page or two of results, you presume it’s either a) unknowable or b) too hard to get at. The end result is a feeling of powerlessness, like this from the Poynter piece:

What I hated about week four (sorry Jeremy, you’re still amazing) was how paralyzed I felt. These data journalists and news developers seemed so far ahead. How were the rest of us with limited coding skills going to grapple with foreign languages like Ruby on Rails?

I’ve talked to journalism instructors who have experienced this and it seems to be one of the most frustrating things out there. Maybe the worst moment I’ve had as a journalism teacher is when a graduate student asked me, in the middle of class: “How are we expected to learn if you don’t teach us?” My first thought, which I safely kept unspoken, was: “How did you make it this far?” Because I don’t think that sort of approach is likely to lead to a journalism career that is successful or enjoyable. I’m pretty sure that if journalism ever needed incurious people, it surely cannot survive with them now.

The best journalists (and students) I know force themselves into uncomfortable situations when it comes to learning. They are not content to be handed information and just accept it. They want to explore, to figure things out, even when there’s some risk of failure there. There are examples from the “digital native” generation, folks like Greg Linch, who wasn’t content to use WordPress but dove into ways to extend it and fit it to journalism’s needs. Or Michelle Minkoff or Heather Brady, two former students of mine. I’ve never known any of them to say, “That looks hard and I don’t know anything about it, so I’ll just avoid it.” Paralysis ensures that you’ll stay where you are. The very worst that could happen if you choose to dive in is that you fail and, in failing, learn something.

Many journalism students might rightly point out that their curriculums didn’t exactly demand this kind of approach, and to the extent that’s the case, that’s not their fault. But it is still an excuse, in the sense that a flawed curriculum can’t literally stop you from learning. So what can you do? Try things. Some suggestions:

  1. If you use WordPress, try to write an extension. Or take a theme you like and build a flat HTML site of your own.
  2. If you know how to use Excel, try learning a database like SQLite (it’s in your phone and the Firefox browser).
  3. Open the Terminal on your Mac laptop. Learn some commands in order to do things like connect to the web. You can do much of the same stuff on Windows, believe it or not.
  4. Spend more time reading the source of web pages. Copy the parts you like or don’t understand, and study them.
  5. Download your Twitter archive and analyze it in Excel or SQLite.
  6. Learn how to connect to the Twitter or Facebook API and retrieve information from it, even in a web browser.
  7. Pick a journalism problem you have (maybe a site you check often doesn’t have an RSS feed) and try to solve it.

Notice that I didn’t say, “everyone must learn to code.” I don’t advocate learning to code for its own sake, or for everyone. Have a problem in mind, or a story you want to tell. If you need code to do that, then there’s your opening. For the sake of your own career, if not the state of the industry, what you should fear are points in the process of doing journalism where you have to say, “I don’t know how to do that” and hand your story - the story you care about - off to someone else with no understanding of what they are about to do. That fear should motivate you to learn, and learning is contagious. More importantly, you should want to learn, to be excited about learning. Be curious. Newsrooms are filled with restless people looking for great stories, wondering how to explain the world. How can someone be “digitally savvy” and yet filled with dread about exploring the digital world?

Building isn’t just more useful than being a user, it’s also more empowering. Of course there are times when building and creating is filled with frustration, but in most cases that frustration is your own. You have a better chance of resolving that feeling than if you sit around waiting for someone else to solve your problems for you. Journalism needs problem solvers and creators so that we can make users out of more people. Next time you encounter a new and unfamiliar technology or skill, take that nervous energy and use it to improve yourself. We’ll all be better off if you do.