Millennials – How to reach ’em, how to teach ’em

JAWS CAMP 2010, JAWS CAMP blog l

Journalism professors and “Millennials” took on the topic of engaging a new generation of budding journalists at a panel Sunday afternoon.

There’s no firm agreement on just who qualifies as a member of the Millennial Generation, but the group is generally considered to include people born between 1980 and 2000. The panel featured two of them, Alexis Hauk, a reporter for the New Bedford Standard-Times, and Lauren Whaley, who writes for the Center for Health Reporting.

The panel also featured three journalism educators: Sarah Pollock, a professor at Mills College; Gwyneth Doland, who teaches at the University of New Mexico; and Fara Warner, who teaches at the University of Michigan and Michigan State. Tracy Everbach, a professor at University of North Texas, moderated the discussion.

Discussion started with whether the Millennial generation is as “tuned out” from the news as people say they are – or if they simply get their news in a different way.

One problem, Pollock said, is that students experience news differently today. Her students in California read newspapers online daily – but couldn’t tell her who gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was. When Pollock asked them to show her how they read the website, she realized that the homepage wasn’t laid out like a front page – and that meant they didn’t know news was prioritized and ranked.

“They would be lost in a sequence of clicks,” she said. “Even I couldn’t get the news from the way they were reading it.”

Hauk said the issue is complicated for young journalists, who need to learn Web skills and are told newspapers are “increasingly irrelevant.”

“I don’t think it’s surprising that the younger generation is getting our news from the place where we figure we will eventually land a job,” she said.

Warner does not have her students subscribe to a newspaper, she said, because the professors are telling students the Web is where the jobs are. But she said media literacy is a major issue for Millennials, who, she said, don’t always understand why institutions like local government are important.

“We also are teaching civics in our classes,” she said.

Whaley said her generation is accused of being interested only in their own lives – and part of the challenge would be to make news interesting to them. She said she was optimistic about what some saw as problems – if students only want to text, for example, is there a way to reach them with news through texting?

Doland said her students are at a disadvantage because their local paper is behind an online pay wall. Only one of her students gets the newspaper at home.

“I didn’t realize none of them grew up reading the newspaper,” she said.

Reading in print is an activity, she said, but reading online is “bang, bang, boom” and over.

Warner said one of her jobs as a professor is to stop students from just “surfing” news. She hands out 6,000-word New Yorker articles to help “give them the breadth and depth of what journalism is about.”

Panelists also discussed the trouble with Google – and how it’s prevalence means that many young people do not know how to do more intensive searches on networks like LexisNexis. Reluctance to interview sources in person, or even on the phone, was also cited by the educators on the panel as an issue among Millennial journalists. Several panelists said Millennials come in to class knowing little about the world, the history of journalism, or the broader context of their stories.

But Pollock, who has taught for more than 20 years, said she has not seen a big difference in what Millennials know compared to the generations before them.

“I am not at all convinced that this generation knows any less,” she said.

Blogged by Jillian Jorgensen, JAWS Fellow 2010