“Well, technology is a glittering lure. But there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.” – Don Draper
Those of you who’ve had Media & Society with me have watched me open the first class of the semester by showing a famous scene from the wonderful television show Mad Men. In the scene, Draper is pitching an ad campaign to a group of executives at Kodak who are trying to figure out how to best market a slide projector called The Wheel. In the pitch, Draper moves past the tech and shows what we can do with it, what we can make with it. What we can create with it.
I show this clip in M&S to demonstrate a core tenet of my whole teaching approach. Technology is just a thing. It’s just a tool. With it we can create great beauty, but we also can use it to harm one another, to destroy things.
Now that you’ve spent a semester using technology to tell stories, I want you to rewatch the clip with fresh eyes.
Did you see it? Did you see that moment where you forgot about the pitch and the product and started bonding with the story?
More important, did you see yourself doing that this semester in JOUR 230?
I never know the answer to that last question until the end. My approach really is to introduce a lot of tools, give you tons of chances to use them, prompt you more and more to envision stories with them and then hope the allure of the tech itself fades away.
Google Glass? Super exciting early. I loved reading some of your recaps about how it melted in the background and you learned what you can do (and can’t do) with it.
Storify? Cool tool. Useful all the time? No. In some contexts? Sure.
Final Cut X? Not the scary tool you thought it’d be, right? By the end of the semester, you were one with it, editing videos with more precision and attention to detail. The technology barriers were lesser, if not gone.
But even then, I never know until I see the capstone projects, because for the first time you are picking the stories and the tools without my help. Up until that point it was all proscribed, but the capstone is different. It shows me how far you’ve come in thinking like a multimedia storyteller.
We had a great discussion on Sunday after every presentation, really kicking around the plusses and minuses of each project and each approach. That’s how we learn in this class, by giving critical assessment together and helping us improve bit by bit. In the tech world they call this iterating, the process of improving step-by-step by building on past successes and misses. But the awesome thing about iterative improvement is that everyone around you benefits too. Think of how much better those second documentaries looked because we took time in class to go over everybody’s first one rather than let you absorb feedback on just yours.
Here’s a quick list of what you all did:
- Alison Mango – Operation: HOOAH
- Julie Tatios – What Makes Google Glass So Cool?
- Hannah Rettoun – The Hobo Army
- Laura Casale – Full of Crepe
- Katie Hommes – The FBR movement
- Connor Tait – Inside The Goose (has a great Glassumentary with Tony Silvoy)
- Kelsey Alpaio – Lehigh: Early Campus History
- Abby Smith – Body Image Pressures
- Kerry Mallet – Tensions in Greek life
- Katie Suma – Christmas City
We all had our favorite projects. I think we can agree Hannah brought the house down. Pound-for-pound, I think it was my favorite project because it was so well crafted start-to-finish. I really loved what Kelsey did with her Wix site, and Connor did a great job with his traditionally packaged story. I think a lot of us felt that way, and that’s no shame on the other projects. Laura’s documentary was really solid, with lots of details and I learned a lot without it feeling like the story was too packed (the mark of great editing!). Katie’s project on FBR tackled tough subject matter by curating a lot of good material and adding some new content.
But even with that in mind, I want to propose a radical idea, something I want to take with you in the places you go next. Hannah’s was my favorite, but the best project was done by Abby and Kerry.
Confused? Let me explain.
Abby and Kerry tried something I didn’t suggest. I threw out a bunch of ideas, from Wix to your WordPress site, etc. I suggested structural and content possibilities in the assignment details. And then Kerry and Abby went out and used Scroll Kit. I’m super glad they didn’t tell me this, because I might have tried to talk them out of it given that I am aware that it’s a buggy work in progress (and a new storytelling form we aren’t quite sure what to do with all the time).
When we were reviewing those sites I think we saw some of the obvious drawbacks to their approach. Abby needed more visual and original content, less and shorter text bursts. Kerry could have collapsed some of those videos or melded several of the short clips into 2-3 longer ones. Neither of them entirely worked even by their own estimation, although the components were all there in some fashion.
So why were they the best? Because they tried something new, and by taking a chance we now have a working set of best practices in our heads about what Scroll Kit is good and maybe not as good for. You have to try things and not always succeed in order to really start learning. Failure is where all the good stuff is. I promise. Not to say that Abby and Kerry failed (they certainly didn’t!) but even they will tell you there was room for those to be better. Some of it was technological, and some of it was based on good feedback about content itself. Much like those second documentaries improved on the first, Abby and Kerry – hell, all of us – will build on that next time they try Scroll Kit.
Thus, my radical idea is this: to be the best, you can’t be scared to try new things. I loved what Abby and Kerry did because they just went out and tried something. Leave behind the grades, the trophies, the good feelings that come with compliments toward your work and drill down to the essence of why we did all this stuff this fall. I said on the first day that grades don’t matter. I mean, you’ll get a grade and all, but I’m more worried about whether we created a multimedia storytelling mind in you.
We did, for the record.
I saw the fear in some of you early on, about blogging, HTML, video production, deadlines, workload, etc. To some of your eternal puzzlement, I kept encouraging you to embrace it. There is freedom in uncertainty and doubt, in not knowing if what you’re doing is the best way to do it. You have to hit a few dead ends in multimedia storytelling before you strike gold. And sometimes you have to patch a radiator with an egg and water – MacGyvering it, as Hannah would say.
Abby’s wrapup post on the blog rang true – you have to practice, practice, practice. Yeah, we’re talkin’ about practice! You have to spend time getting to know tools and immersing yourself. The reason why those projects rocked on Sunday was because of all the hard work you did this semester.
You spent the semester planting the seeds for future success in a world where things are changing rapidly. You’re going to get out there in the real world and the tools will change overnight. When I was in college my visual comm class had us go to a print museum to look at block printing machines. And effing print museum, seriously. Two years later we were electronically paginating in most news rooms. By the time I left everyday journalism in 2004 to go back to grad school, we were talking about digital first and the end of print.
The tools change. Once you’re gone from Lehigh, it’s up to you to find the Scroll Kits of the world. You might be breathing a sigh of relief that this semester is done (and go ahead, you’ve earned it), but the truth is you’re just getting started. The only difference is you have to become your own teacher now (or follow some smart folks on Twitter who can help you along). I’m always here for you, of course, but real aptitude means you’re teaching me new stuff to use in future J230 classes. And you will.
Take Mandy Jenkins, whose Zombie Journalism blog you should be reading anyway. Back in 2011 she got her hands on a grand jury transcript for a key case in her coverage area. She could’ve just put it online, but figured nobody would read it. So instead she used the transcript to create an Xtranormal animated video, using the transcript word-for-word.
Kind of silly? Sure. It didn’t win her a Pulitzer. But she’s one of the brightest young minds in digital media for a reason. She’s always looking for a new tool or context to do what she does: tell stories. That video has almost 5000 hits now. Do you think the transcript would have that?
So, I loved reading your blog posts. That fear and doubt in the back of my own mind about whether you’ll get there, that one I’ll have next month when the new class starts and every new beginning after that, goes away when I read not just what you wrote but how you talked about stories and digital media. You got it. You really got it.
Your job in the rest of your time here at Lehigh and beyond is to use these tools often, to use them well, and to use them effectively. And I don’t just mean you. This means encouraging those you supervise on the Brown & White to try things too. That culture of experimentation and trying stuff will make the paper better, and it’ll make you a better journalist. I promise.
“Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies—it happens when society adopts new behaviors,” according to Clay Shirky. His point in Here Comes Everybody is thus: Technology is great, but the cool stuff starts to happen when we are so immersed in the technology that its use no longer is a story. It fades into the background of our consciousness and becomes a tool, an extension of ourselves to create great things.
You have the tools.
Go create the future.