Teaching a New Generation of Reporters to Capture Events on Film


First came the bad news. The third day of classes at the New York Film Academy’s new digital-journalism program, launched earlier this month, began with an NBC Nightly News segment about the newspaper business.

The Boston Herald was outsourcing its printing operation. The Chicago Tribune unloading its skyscraper. The Palm Beach Post laying people off. The San Francisco Chronicle bleeding $1 million a week.

The message was clear. Traditional media are in upheaval, and how they will function once the dust settles would have something to do with the roughly 30 students assembled in this windowless room at Broadway and Prince Street.

The Film Academy’s program—launched in partnership with NBC News—is a response to a sea change in how the public consumes news, a change that has also forced adjustments in newsrooms and graduate schools across New York City. With its Nightly News, like other network newscasts, competing for viewers with cable and the Internet, NBC saw it as in its best interest to make sure the next generation of potential network employees had the skills needed to create media for a variety of platforms—from the Web and cell phones to the TV screens in taxis.

“What this business needs in general are more young people who need to be great journalists, but who also need to know all the technology to be more nimble and resourceful,” says Lyne Pitts, NBC News’s vice president of strategic initiatives, who is overseeing the partnership. “So, we decided to teach them.”

Pitts says NBC approached the Film Academy because “we weren’t looking for a place where we could go in and do lectures.” The Film Academy “had all the technical expertise. We could really go in and create a brand-new program.”

It can be thought of as more like a conservatory than a traditional journalism school, according to David Klein, NYFA’s senior director, and Michael Young, its provost and director of education.

“It’s different studying a craft in a university setting where there’s a more academic approach to the subject than in a conservatory,” Young says. “I think that’s why a lot of people come here for all of our programs, for a heightened focus on the subject. You’re really focusing on the craft.”

The student body is diverse, in keeping with the school’s open-admissions philosophy, Klein adds. Many are twentysomething college graduates. Some are in their thirties and forties. Some have journalism experience. Some are from abroad. One is a chef.

But what’s a film school doing teaching journalism?

In journalism, Klein says, “the intention is to present the truth.” That’s not so different from filmmaking, insofar as film also teaches us something about the human condition.

Plus, whether in film or journalism, students need to know how to get clear images, how to record quality sound, how to use lighting, and so on, Klein says. In the first week of class, digital journalism students learn the basics of camera operation: Pan. Tilt. Zoom.

They also need to know the news and how to find it. That’s where NBC comes in. Their journalists give talks and work with students on how to research, report, and write stories.

In one class, Anne Thompson, NBC’s chief environmental-affairs correspondent, was on hand to discuss a piece on glacier melts in Greenland. Before Thompson arrived, the instructor asked the class what the top story of the day was.

“Iran,” one student said. (That morning, images had been released that showed Iran test-firing missiles—images, of course, later shown to have been digitally altered.) Other headlines were also offered, which led to a discussion of news judgment. How do the pros decide what is news? Impact, proximity, timeliness, conflict, and human interest. And, it was acknowledged, the number of dead Americans is also a factor.

Later, other NBC segments were shown to explain different shots. Establishing shots let the viewer know where they are. Footage of a firefighter running with a hose over his shoulder toward a California blaze was an example of how to shoot action and keep it in frame. To make a less dramatic shot more interesting—a doctor-patient conversation in a featureless hospital, for example—students were shown how cutaways can supplement the main action or lack thereof. Get a close-up of hands pushing buttons. Slowly zoom in on the overhead lights, but don’t get zoom-happy.

This summer, students are taking four- or eight-week courses. In the one-year certificate program that begins this fall, the first semester will focus on project work, the second on live news and investigative pieces. Pitts notes there are no guarantees the students will land jobs at NBC once they finish. “But we’ll keep an eye on them.”

The goal is for each graduate to become a “one-man band” who can research a story, write it, light it, shoot it, edit it, and get it back to where it needs to be—the studio, the satellite truck, the handheld device, wherever.

“The whole industry has to start changing its mind-set because where they’re delivering information is changing,” Klein says. “The Web divisions are expanding.”

That shift is not lost on the students.

“If you write a piece and it was only in print, it’s interesting to see how fewer people would see it [than] if it’s online,” says Nicole Beckley, 25, of San Francisco.

She enjoys writing, and wants to tell arts and culture stories. But after seeing the dismal “downside of typical formats” such as print, she felt it was smarter to go into digital journalism. That’s where the jobs are. That’s how the stories she wants to tell will reach people.

While that notion has plenty of buzz these days, not everyone is completely convinced.

The Brooklyn Paper has drawn attention as a small community newspaper that has embraced video reporting.Its website features everything from straightforward videos of Community Board 6 coverage to a piece on a solar-powered composting toilet in Clinton Hill, a retrospective on the life of a masturbating walrus from the New York Aquarium, and “bird-on-bird action,” when a pigeon was caught noshing on a chicken wing.

“One of my main goals in life is to eliminate earnestness from public discourse,” says the paper’s editor- in-chief, Gersh Kuntzman.

Yet Kuntzman isn’t sold on the degree to which digital journalism fits into the future of his paper or of the newspaper business in general. For one thing, videos take time to edit—time taken away from reporting, and time that isn’t available on deadline. And, he says, no one on the business side has said, “All of the advertisers want to be on the page with the videos on our website.”

Video does provide readers with another way to get into a story, Kuntzman admits, and it can provide a compelling perspective not easily captured in print, along with a dash of humor and hand-hewn authenticity. But the industry’s lurch toward online video underscores what he sees as a concern for the business: “We’re not making readers anymore. Nobody is. The bloggers aren’t creating readers, they’re creating browsers.”

If the media continues to cater to that consumer, some fear it will lose something more valuable than ad revenues. “It’s a lot of bells and whistles,” one local journalism professor writes in an e-mail. “It’s a delivery system. The core values should be the same. But that gets lost in the buzz. So, it’s OK to embrace the technology, but I fear it is not only the tail wagging the dog, it is actually throwing the dog out of a 20-story window.”

Columbia University has approached digital media more cautiously, with an eye to wag-the-dog fears. Its graduate school of journalism still stresses traditional writing and reporting, but has begun incorporating what professor Duy Linh Tu, coordinator of the new-media curriculum, calls a “new-media mind-set.” Students are taught to use Final Cut Pro and other programs, but he says he doesn’t want them to get too caught up in the technology, because the “Flash guy” today could be outmoded tomorrow.

Instead, he says he wants students who can adapt to the landscape without “freaking out.” They are encouraged to report first and then figure out which tool, whether a blog, a video, or a slideshow, helps tell the story best, “as opposed to the other way: ‘Here’s a camera and tell a video story.’ “

When New York University first approached digital journalism, it created a website on which students could publish their work, and it incorporated the Web into existing classes, says Jay Rosen, former department chair and NYU’s digital guru. Now, at its new facility in Cooper Square, NYU is looking to develop something similar to the Film Academy’s conservatory model.

“I was very interested in arts education as a metaphor for journalism education,” says Rosen, explaining that he drew inspiration from the Yale School of Drama, in which actors and production students learn the theater craft by mounting public performances. “If you organize around projects, the projects can change as the technology changes.”

Professor Jeff Jarvis, head of CUNY’s digital-journalism program, says all students learn to “make journalism in all media” by the time they graduate. Young students today, he says, have one advantage that previous generations did not: familiarity with such things as wikis and Flickr, which is “knowledge the newsroom desperately needs.”

The “biorhythm of news” is changing, says Jarvis, noting the “crowd sourcing” used by The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC public radio, where listeners are asked to help with reporting and pore over documents, as well as journalists’ use of Twitter to gather information about the recent earthquakes in China.

But one thing that’s not changing is that journalism continues to attract young people eager to tell compelling stories. Tony Muse, 32, an Englishman, worked as a print journalist for roughly nine years before coming to the New York Film Academy. He wants to be a one-man band, not only because of the technology and because he feels it’s the way he can stay in the business, but because of the stories he can tell. He says he wants to be a foreign correspondent, to “go anywhere in the world with a laptop and a camera and a cable to connect them.”

Perhaps that optimism will one day lead to a resurgence of journalism. Because, in the end, a platform is just a platform, but a story can make a difference.

“We are still finding out as an industry as a whole” where journalism is headed, Muse says. “The industry is still trying to square the circle of information’s desire to be free.”