Charting our course for the next 50 years

By Jason Schaumburg | NINA President

Welcome to the 50th anniversary of the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association. I have the tremendous honor of serving as president of NINA during this landmark year. We started Dec. 1, 1962, as the Northern Illinois Editorial Association. In 1974, the name changed to the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association.

While we will spend time this year looking back and celebrating the organization’s 50th anniversary, we also must spend time looking forward. So much has changed in journalism and newspapers in the past 50 years; circulation gains and losses; new tools for journalists; advancements in printing. I could use 50 column inches and come up with 50 changes.

Perhaps the biggest change has been our transition from newspaper companies to information companies — something NINA 1st Vice President Larry Lough has been preaching for the better part of a decade — and the birth of new, online-only information companies.

No longer is ink on paper the only way we disseminate news and advertising to readers. Increasing numbers of people consume the news on their smartphones or tablet devices. Paywalls, monetizing the web and increasing page views have become the focus of the business side of what we do.

Much like our industry, NINA is at a crossroads. Sure, we’ve been around for 50 years. But will we be around for another 50 years? And what changes does NINA need to make to stay relevant for another 50 years? We will spend this year trying to answer that question.

A task force has been formed to tackle the issue. I am leading a discussion focused on our mission; who are we and what do we want to be? Joining me are Ottawa Times Managing Editor Lonny Cain, Suburban Life Publications Publisher Mark Colosimo and Northern Star Adviser Jim Killam.

Also as part of the task force: Lough, the executive editor of Sauk Valley Media, will lead a discussion looking at the makeup of NINA and how our structure can better reflect our membership and our mission. He will be joined by The Observer Features Editor Sharon Boehlefeld, Kane County Chronicle Editor Kathy Gresey and Rock Island Argus Managing Editor Roger Ruthhart.

Of course, these groups won’t work in a vacuum. We would like to hear from the membership about what you think the future should look like for NINA. After all, this organization belongs to the members.

If you have an idea — large or small — please email it to me or simply add a comment below. If you have an opinion on how NINA can better serve our journalists, speak up. Now is your chance to help shape the future of our organization.

NINA’s mission is to advance the quality, integrity and credibility of journalism and journalism education in northern Illinois. Spending our 50th anniversary studying how to carry out that mission is essential to our sustainability.

Jason Schaumburg is editor of the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb. If you would like to weigh in on the future of NINA, please email Jason at jschaumburg@shawmedia.com. Or, simply leave a comment below.

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Mistakes were made: What we’re seeing in future journalists

By Jason AkstI get many opportunities to glimpse what college journalism students think about, so I like to think one of my “other duties as assigned” is to be a Catcher-in-the-Rye kind of kind of guy.

It’s one thing to teach news writing, but quite another to alert tomorrow’s journalists about cliffs they could fall off … especially when the terrain keeps changing. Recently, our NINA colleague Jim Killam asked me to chat with the Northern Star staff about mistakes I notice beginning journalists making.

Here’s a snapshot of significant thinking/attitudinal errors I have noticed in the last few years.

In video we trust

Students are profoundly visually oriented. What concerns me is that we forget that imagery is compressed and edited. Imagery is frozen moments of time, but video is especially beguiling in seeming to present the whole story …

Until, too late, we realize we only saw a part of the story, and the part we saw might be horribly misleading. Remember Shirley Sherrod?

 Facebook/Twitter

Overwhelmingly, most of the social media usage I see is … social. We as educators and professionals need to do more to make journalism and social media intersect in interesting ways. That’s one of my main professional goals for this year.

 Two ears, One mouth: get a clue

Human anatomy favors journalists. The reason we have two ears and one mouth is not so we can hear in stereo (though that’s cool too). It’s because we should listen twice as much as we speak.

Beginning journalists sometimes don’t realize the awesome power of the uncomfortable silence: many people will do nearly anything to avoid it (like answering questions or supplying information). A substantial hurdle to overcome these days, what with all the texting.

Unwillingness/inability to read

A couple years ago I asked students what they read for fun over the summer. There was nervous chatter because many couldn’t think of anything.

“Just tell him ‘Harry Potter’,” somebody said. I chuckled too, and said, “OK, but I’ve read every book, so I’d want to know which one you’re talking about.”

Crickets. It’s a safe bet that if they aren’t reading for fun, they aren’t reading unless they have to.

Face value

Don’t take anything for it. Despite their media/technological sophistication, students seem alarmingly ready to accept information at face value, without analyzing it (or its source) for what’s missing, what’s incomplete, what’s over-generalized, and so forth.

Government, schmovernment

Students are disinterested in day-to-day, routine government (city councils, school boards, etc.), even though they know governmental reportage is critical to journalism. I require students to cover a meeting of public government because I know few of them have ever been to one. It’s an assignment several of them skip, knowing they will get a zero.

Anti-journalism pop culture

Each semester, I task students to watch for journalists portrayed in movies, TV shows and books. With the noteworthy exception of the Stieg Larsson novels (“The Girl Who …”), journalists are scum. It’s fictional portrayal, but what I want students to realize is that when the same fiction is manifested so thoroughly via so many channels, people aren’t going to be thrilled that there’s a journalist in the room.

Avoiding news consumption

I give weekly news awareness quizzes, carefully explaining that part of getting hired and being a journalist is knowing what’s in the news and who newsmakers are, but I’m very careful to choose BIG news questions that students should have seen/heard/read in many places. “If you’re going to be a doctor,” I say, “very early on, people are just going to expect that you know anatomy. If you’re going to be a journalist, people are just going to expect that you know what’s happening.”

They nod understandingly … and then fail miserably on news awareness questions.

Single-source reliance

What’s on the internet must be true. That’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s amazing the extent to which students submit work based on a single source, and often that single source is a website.

Jason Akst, a NINA board member, teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. Contact him at jakst@niu.edu.