On September 30, 2009, John Temple, former editor, president, and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, posted a transcript of his keynote presentation at the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit, delivered that same day. Under Temple’s direction, the paper won a total of four Pulitzer Prizes. And yet, seven months earlier, that same paper printed it’s final edition, after almost 150 years of publication.
I see valuable lessons in what Temple has to say to news professionals that apply in the secondary school setting–not just in our journalism classes and school publications, but also in the classroom and school paradigm in general. Below are some key points to consider:
Newspapers, like schools operate under long-established and respected models of delivery. Each is served by professionals rigorously trained to operate within these models. And those models and the paradigms they support are difficult to shift, largely because they have deeply engrained conventions and cultural functions. Temple notes:
“…we thought we were in the newspaper business….and put the vast majority of our efforts into the print war. We didn’t understand what was happening to the playing field. Media companies used to think they were in control. That they could “own” a market. What we didn’t take into account is that in this new era, consumers were going to be in control.”
Failure to adopt technology was not “the problem” that plagued Temple’s newspaper, anymore than it is a failure in most American schools today. And yet, too often technology is seen simply as a way to make existing tasks easier or more efficient. Use and development stop short. We adapt the adopted technology to fit the existing model of delivery, rather than adapting the model of delivery to adopt the new ways of thinking made possible by the technology. Temple writes:
“Right from the start, new offerings were measured by what they did for the core product, not on their own merits…The Rocky’s first Web site…grew out of the newsroom’s night copy desk crew, a few of whom had learned some HTML… the attention of the paper’s leadership was on print, not on new possibilities…The message to the newsroom at that time regarding the Web site: “Do not let it interfere with the print edition.”
Because the adoption of technology is so often reactive in established institutions, its application is mostly hit-and-miss. Temple continues:
“We knew the Web was a place we needed to be. But we didn’t have a clear strategy. Mission. Or objective. It was a “complement to the paper,” as we said in our initial ‘About us’ page.”
How often do we hear that in the school setting? Yes, we’ve moved beyond “teaching technology for technology’s sake,” but our new mantra–”technology as a tool”–falls short of innovative use. The word processor is the accepted new “typewriter,” as we continue to teach the literacy of writing for print publication (rather than online or other media). PowerPoint (and sometimes, even SmartBoards?) are often harnessed as multimedia presentation tools, rather than the means of promoting more interactive, user-driven learning.
The problem, as Temple sees it? Focus is all on “keeping the newspaper alive.”
“We didn’t understand the Web or new technology and didn’t have the time to learn much about it. We weren’t a consumer-driven company…”
Just as new technologies in Temple’s world were neatly seperated from the “real business” of running a newspaper, technology in our schools often remains departmentalized. And while, as Temple admits, “it was probably a smart move to get the Web out of the newsroom” because “it made it possible for the Web staff to carve their own path,” it ”also separated the newsroom from its new online product.” According to Temple, “that clearly had its downside.” Temple explains:
“A pivotal moment – perhaps the most telling about the paper’s approach to the Web – came on the morning of April 20, 1999 when two students opened fire at Columbine High School. The world was watching. At that time, we had one content producer whose job was essentially to shovel the newspaper onto the Web. The Web team was on the first floor of our building. The newsroom on the third. After news of the shooting broke, the producer came to the newsroom and asked the city editor for any news he could give him. ‘I’m not giving you anything for the Web site,’ he remembers being told. ‘They’ll steal it.’ They, in this case, was The Denver Post. The culture of the newsroom at this point was still to save any possible scoops for the morning paper to keep the Post a day behind us. The Rocky’s Web team ended up relying on our TV news partner for its reports.”
This particular insight cuts straight to the heart of what is happening in our schools–particularly secondary schools. As departmentalized entities, we jealously guard our resources. School libraries and other common resources are too often not seen as centers for ideas and sharing, but rather as places for going and getting.
This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some incidental progress…in schools, as in the newsrooms. Temple remembers:
“Something else happened that day, though, that changed the perspective of the newsroom. We decided to give all our best photographs from the high school to the Associated Press as soon as we had them in our computer system. The result, the Rocky pictures you’ve just seen appeared on front pages around the world the next morning. The staff saw the tangible benefits of sharing in real time. The quality of their work captured the attention of the world and raised the paper’s profile. That day was a turning point for how the newsroom worked with the web, although the results wouldn’t become fully visible until a few years later.”
Temple recognizes (partially in hindsight) what was needed to maintain the progressive momentum:
“If you want to compete in a medium, you have to understand it… you need to get the right people into an organization, people who can see and seize new opportunities…The question is why would talented people want to join companies that are held back by their past? I think that’s a real problem for legacy media organizations.”
And so we stand, in our schools. Too often, the innovators are quickly “humbled” and silenced by the culture of tradition that surrounds education. Too many young teachers retreat to the oasis of the department or the individual classroom. Or, they leave the profession altogether, to pursue careers in field where new ideas are encouraged and their fresh points-of-view respected.
Some might argue…and I can’t agree..that what happened at the Rocky Mountain News can’t truly be seen as a harbinger of what is to come for schools, or even other newspapers–that I’ve stretch the analogy too thin. But like Temple, in expressing his concern for the future of historic titles like The New York Times, I am concerned about the future of schools as the center of education. “There’s still too much of a sense of entitlement in the industry.” Rather than blame the innovations (media remix, blog proliferation, etc.) for the demise of the institution, Temple advises:
“The industry should be focused on building new and better products and services…look for ways to answer the needs of the people in their communities. They have to know what business they’re in. We thought we were in the newspaper business. [We're] not. [We're] in the news, information, knowledge and connection business.”
Temple’s parting advise to news agencies is pretty solid advice for educators (administrators and teachers, alike)–”Know your customers.
Imagine new potentials for your students…not just their potential to learn what you know, but their potential to learn in new ways. “Partner more with others and invite more people to participate.” Reapply Temple’s advice and give students more control over how they learn. We’re still thinking too much about how we ourselves learned and not enough about what today’s student know and needs.
“And, of course, finally, the most difficult recommendation of all…stop making decisions…based on how they’ll affect…legacy business.”