What Did I Learn About The State of Journalism?


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Ted Jackson speaks to ICMA awards ceremony. Most of what I write about is from his seminar presentation the next day.Ted Jackson, a great photographer, does not like oatmeal, one of my favorite breakfasts.

Ted Jackson, a great photographer, does not like oatmeal, one of my favorite breakfasts.

At one point during his excellent presentation to the Iowa College Media Association Convention, a gathering hosted by the Iowa Newspaper Convention at their annual meeting, Jackson showed a picture of a sign made for him by his college roommate. “Never,” it said over a picture of the Quaker Oats guy, “Be Mundane.”

OK, I can understand oatmeal as a symbol of mundane. But add a bit of honey, some peanut butter, a bit of cinnamon, some walnuts and raisins, craisins or both—well, you’ve got crunchy, nutty good morning nutrition, satisfaction in a bowl.

Photography is a bit like that, I suppose. It’s easy to do an average job of it, to take photos that show, as Jackson says, what things look like, but that don’t really compel a reaction or do well at telling a story.

Jasckson, who has shot incredible images of the aftermath of Katrina and showed multiple of that and other examples of his compelling visual journalism, shared several ideas. What were some highlights to me:

  • Aim for the rule of three. You’ve heard the rule of thirds. To Jackson, every photo should have three things that make it stand out. Subject, light, composition, the decisive moment, framing—not every image will have it all, and many have just two good points. A photo with three stands out.
  • Work a little harder. If what you’re doing is easy, and you’re a professional story teller, you may not be doing it right. One of the other advisors, chatting after the session, noted that it’s the same with writing. If what you’re doing seems easy, you’re probably not doing it hard enough or paying enough attention. I was impressed at how Jackson pushed himself. He showed a picture of a Cajun in a boat, and to most photographers, it would be a very good image. But he played with shutter speed, the presence of light cutting through background trees and the instance when the man in the boat leaned back to take a deep breath—and voila, rather than settling for the very nice image, several snaps later Jackson had captured something extraordinary.

I think it illustrates a point I make to students which Jackson didn’t state, but that was, I think, implicit in his work. One aspect that makes a great photojournalist is imagination. Not fiction—not creating that which doesn’t exist—but the ability to think of the different angle, to sense elements that could be framed—to imagine and then executive better photographs.

Jackson was a highlight of ICMA for me. But so was seeing the new newsroom of the Des Moines Register in an excellent tour led by Rick Green, Publisher.

The newsroom is stunning. It’s a bit like a giant bridge from the star ship Enterprise, although instead of one screen as the focus of a great semicircle, it has a bank of nine to 12 screens. And the semicircle spreads out in row upon row. In the other directios, window looked east where the gold dome of the Capitol shone in the setting sun.

Well, the main bridge of the star ship Register was exciting enough. They also showed us a state-of-the-art TV studio, which made me almost salivate with envy. A less fancy version of this same room is something I’ve been lobbying for at MMU in recent years. No, we don’t need a full broadcast studio, but yes, we do need a room decently equipped for video production. Between communication, marketing and art, we have too many disciplines on campus that need a strong video component to not have this kind of room.

Rick Green, publisher of the Des Moines Register, makes a point in the newspaper-web site's video production studio room.

Rick Green, publisher of the Des Moines Register, makes a point in the newspaper-web site’s video production studio room.

Green noted that the Register has a deadline every minute of the day, and that it produces its newspaper out of its digital online news service, rather than the other way around.

It left me thinking that we at MMU need to push much harder in that direction.

Besides the visionaries—Jackson and Green—the ICMA convention included other interesting journalistic speakers.

In particular, a former TV anchor and former governor’s press secretary, Courtney Greene, and former Register writer and Pulitzer-Prize winner, Jane Meisner, who now work together doing PR at AIB College of Business in Des Moines, described their careers and their paths from journalism to PR.

Well, it’s a route may careers have taken. For our students, it’s important to note that any communication career has multiple twists and turns.

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Courtney Greene, former TV anchor.

So what is my take away from the 2014 ICMA convention? For one thing, I’m not as pessimistic about the future of journalism or journalism education. There are bright new things happening, and there is room for new, creative people. For another, I’m more convinced than ever that today’s journalism education requires multiple platform talents—that journalists need to be at ease telling stories any way an audience wants them. That’s not a new idea to me, but it’s one that was emphasized at the conference.

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Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Meisner.

Finally, you can be a great journalist and excellent story teller and still make fundamental errors. Like traducing oatmeal without realizing some in your audience come from Cedar Rapids, home of a major Quaker Oats processing mill.

Well, you can’t win them all. And we still love you, Ted.

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