Media Potlatch Needed

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer of Jan. 7, 2008 reports the continuing closing of many community college newspapers across that state.

Amy Rolf writes, "One by one, community college papers around the state are tacking up their going-out-of-business signs after years of wrestling with undernourished budgets, high staff turnover and one undeniable fact that can't be trumped.

"Nobody's reading anymore."

Rolf writes that North Seattle Community College's Polaris "took a summertime break from publishing and never returned…."

Jeffrey Vasquez is director of student services at North Seattle. "A clear decision wasn't ever made… We really want a student paper.' I think it just kind of lost energy."

Right now, as California community colleges observed in Ventura County, the closings appear to be occurring in small, "sole practitioner" programs. There is just not enough mass to create print mass media. And attempts to create a viable, across-the-county program in several areas are rejected by journalism faculty wedded to traditional models or who wish to protect their own programs at the expense of their sister campuses.

Those who see the on-coming headlines of a train wreck are rushing to online, multimedia journalism. But current media studies suggest this is a stop-gap, not a solution.

Dr. Elizabeth Yamashita taught graudate students at the University of Oklahoma to never ally themselves with dying business models. The trick is to reinvent the business before it peaks and begins to descend. Traditional newsrooms are in free fall, including television. Radio abandoned news reporting decades ago, reinventing itself primarily as entertainment.

I once owned an audio visual company, Mercer Visual Communications, Inc. I followed the business through the full 20-year technology cycle before reluctantly closing it; from bud, to bloom, and then to seed with the death of film. I emerged from the experience with the philosophy, "Everyone should be fired every 15 years whether they desereve it or not." And in every case I have observed, mine included, the people are happier after about a year of anger and rage.

Futurist Tom Peters, a business student told me this week, says reinvention should be every 12 years for a business. I can't verify the time cycle, but reinnovation is certainly a buzz word among the CEOs who cite Peters. In one way (but not all) it resembles the Northwestern Native American Potlatch where every few years, one gives everything away burns down the rest, and start over.

But institutions are loath to fund total remakes when it appears the organization just can spend a few buck for tweaking.

Anyone who read the book, "Chaos," understands the cycle of growth and decay. You can't avoid it.

As a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine, I did not teach the Cypress College method as gospel. I correspond with these students using Skype and email, re-emphasizing they must create a Ukrainian model for news distribution. And in eastern Europe one can make changes rapidly. There are no traditional structures to imped innovation. Will a Ukrainian geek blow the American journalism model out of the water?

American journalism will be reinvented. Reinvention may come from within our own campuses. Will the re-invention come from the new Digital Cinema program being founded in the Art department? Will the web design course in Computer Science create a new content model as it teaches the digital process.

Just as Bill Gates destroyed Mercer Visual with PowerPoint, our J-programs probably will be broadsided by other departments.

I hear your screams of protest. I heard them when the p.m. newspapers were dying. I hear them now as the big dailies and small weeklies layoff. Why should college journalism be immune from the laws of chaos?

Right now, it is the small programs that are failing. Compare the failure of the small programs to the failure of the p.m. newspapers in 1980. The big programs are not safe, just next.

Consider the following research papers:

The Long Tail

Newspaper Next—Blue Print for Transformation

Newspaper 2.0

Have your students watch Newspaper 2.0

The Conclusion appears to be, anything print newspaper organizations do will be never enough and always too late. Most college programs are based on print, even those touting the web.

And the Cypress College program knows it must be true. We have a great internship program with major media. But once the internship is finished, the students no longer get full-time jobs. Even as the companies switch to the web, new jobs are still being lost.

Our students may enjoy working in our newsroom currently, but they are choosing other majors. Under state education vocational program rules, I can't justify my journalism program. I have three years to reinvent Cypress College journalism, or close it as I retire.

Welcome to our media potlatch.

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