At Kenyon College in Ohio, Emily Huigens had high-speed Internet access from classrooms, the library, computer lounges, her dorm room and everywhere else on campus. So it was a “rude awakening” when she took a reporting job in the Georgia bureau of the Anderson, S.C., Independent-Mail last year.
The bureau didn’t have access to the Internet, e-mail or the newspaper’s archives. Huigens said she felt like a “Peace Corps volunteer, immersed in a world without the Internet.” To do online research, she had to use the computers at the local public library and “sit next to kids downloading songs and IM’ing with friends after school.”
Rachel Brown experienced a similar disconnect after graduating from the University of Maryland at College Park in 2000 and joining the Merced, Calif., Sun-Star.
“At Maryland, I was spoiled with easy access to the Internet, Lexis-Nexis, Microsoft Access and great archiving systems,” Brown said. “When I got to the Sun-Star, I was shocked at the poor equipment.” The computers were so old and the dial-up Internet connection so slow that Brown said it was useless to try to go online.
Such experiences reveal the gap between the expansive technology that journalism students often enjoy in college and the limited technology they likely will encounter in the real newspaper world.
On campus, students take for granted that computers have fast processors, plenty of memory and disk space, high-speed Internet access, connections to Lexis-Nexis and other proprietary databases, and the latest word-processing, spreadsheet and other software. Many schools even have wireless networks.
But when students land that first job, especially on a weekly paper or a small daily, they’re liable to drop sharply on the tech-o-meter.
And the problem isn’t limited to small newspapers.
Paula Lavigne Sullivan encountered it while interning at The Baltimore Sun after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1998. “I was amazed that I used better computers, all with Internet access, at my student newspaper than I used at the Sun,” said Sullivan, now at the Tacoma, Wash., News Tribune. “It was quite a shock for me at the time.”
Students must brace themselves for this harsh reality, says Steve Crane, Washington bureau director for the University of Maryland’s student-staffed Capital News Service.
“I try to warn my students that they should enjoy our campus computers and the tubes in the Capital News Service bureaus while they can,” Crane said. “They look at me like I have two heads.”
Some veteran journalists say the real problem isn’t newsroom technology but graduates’ attitudes.
“They think they are owed a job at the likes of The New York Times or Kansas City Star. They forget all about paying their dues,” said Mike Corn, managing editor of The Hays, Kan., Daily News.
Students have bashed his 13,000-circulation paper, “saying they didn’t want to work for us because we lacked the technology that they could find at bigger papers. They said they didn’t want old clunky computers and sharing Internet connections,” Corn said.
“The ultimate irony is that most college students want the high tech, but few actually know what to do with it,” he said. “Give them a spreadsheet, and they return a blank stare.”
Graduates must realize that campus life is not the real world. “They don’t understand that newspapers don’t get that nice student discount on software,” said Christine Stapleton, database editor at The Palm Beach Post in Florida. “They have a problem realizing that the SPSS [statistical analysis software] that cost them $100 costs the newsroom $1,200.”
Many journalists were quick to point out that graduates can learn valuable lessons in low-tech newsrooms.
“Journalism isn’t just about technology – the latest, hottest toys or techniques,” said Craig Matsuda, senior editor for development at The Los Angeles Times. “Asking great questions, possessing tenacity, common sense, integrity – all those old verities – those are as important as knowing your head from a gigabyte.”
Limited technology in newsrooms will teach graduates to be resourceful and attack stories without making excuses, said Ernie Slone, systems editor at The Orange County Register.
“Many students will take a step or two down on the technology ladder. … But the rub is, so what? So what if they have to live with (shudder) Atex keyboards?” he said. “If you are dissuaded from pursuing an important story because you don’t have that snazzy Pentium 5 back at Terabyte U. and can’t figure out how to get by without it, you need job counseling.”
Lack of technology can be a blessing in disguise, said Zach Mider, who graduated from Harvard last year and now works at the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn. When he started, the paper did not have Internet access or e-mail. “No one here has heard of Lexis-Nexis, which I used daily at college. Our morgue consists of a room full of manila folders full of yellow newspaper clips, in no particular order, and the last six months have not yet been catalogued.”
But limited technology is not a drawback, Mider says.
“For the most part, small local newspapers don’t need such fripperies,” he said. “We write stories based on interviewing local people about local issues. … Internet access helps a lot, but the meat and potatoes of journalism still comes down to asking questions and getting answers.”
From her bureau in Lavonia, Ga., across the state line from South Carolina, Emily Huigens agrees. “I am actually grateful for getting the short end of the technology stick here,” she said.
“All the lessons I learned about a sense of place and actually stepping out on the pavement to get the story have proven true – although with my three-county beat, it’s more like tires to the pavement. I realized after my initial anger about the lack of Internet that it’s possible to waste a lot of time on the Web without learning much more than you could get over a phone call. And half the time, I have to call to confirm stuff I find on the Internet anyway.”
Huigens said she learned an important lesson about technology: “I don’t need it to do a good job – but it does help.”
DEAL WITH IT
What can be done about the technology gap? Students and the industry both can help bridge the divide, according to several journalists and educators.
Journalism graduates have a responsibility to invest in themselves, says Lou Rom, who covers politics for The Times in Lafayette, La. “The key to early success in this business rests in great part on one’s decision to invest in one’s future – i.e., computers, technology, training.”
Reporters should use their own tools if their newspaper doesn’t have decent computers, says James W. Brown, associate dean of the Indiana University School of Journalism: “There is no excuse for not owning your own if the newsroom doesn’t provide it.”
Students also should expose themselves to real-world conditions, said Steve Frothingham, a reporter for The Associated Press. That is what he did by taking a summer internship at a small Maine newspaper before graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 2000. The paper’s reporters shared one slow Internet connection – and had to wait for the managing editor to go to lunch so they could use his faster machine and color monitor.
“The internship did what it was intended to do – showed me what life is really like out there before I completed my J-school classwork,” Frothingham said.
Journalists also must learn human networking to overcome technological challenges at work, said Jessica Matthews, a reporter at the Scranton, Pa., Times-Tribune. Last spring, for example, she did a computer-assisted reporting project that required SPSS.
“We don’t have SPSS, and the paper didn’t have the budget to purchase it. So I used the software at the local university here,” she said. “Students need to be resourceful. Just because many of the papers they will start at won’t have the technology they’re accustom to doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a dead end.”
THE NEED FOR SPEED
Newspapers ignore technological upgrades at their own peril, says J.T. Johnson, a journalism professor at Boston University. Graduates turned off by low-tech newsrooms will gravitate to research and writing positions with consulting firms.
“Those students will quickly find that what they know isn’t valued by the news media, and they will quickly take their skills to places like Forrester or Gartner Consulting or the other high-paying firms that do, essentially, journalism.”
Even if recent graduates don’t use their high-tech skills right away, their training eventually will pay off, said Joyce Shannon, who interrupted graduate school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to work at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
At the Tribune, reporters use DOS-based software and share two Internet-enabled computers, she said. “The machines at our desks are the equivalent of Tandys” – without Internet access or standard Windows programs.
But the Tribune is getting a new computer system. “I have actually been the one to comfort some other reporters who are worried about using the new technology,” Shannon said. “So working with all that advanced stuff wasn’t a waste after all; I’m hoping I can help out others around the office a lot more.”
Jeff South is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.