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Brave news world

Newly named “disruptive journalism” fellow Erik Palmer is proud of his title, but it doesn't mean what you might think.

Palmer's lessons focus on a sense of urgency in media, technology and culture that is changing — disrupting — the flow of news and other communication in the digital world.

Palmer, an associate professor and chairman of the Communication program at Southern Oregon University, is one of 17 disruptive journalism fellows who attended the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism's Online News Association 2017 Conference, held Oct. 5-7 in Washington, D.C.

Their goal, he said, is to recognize, encourage and be creative with the seemingly disruptive changes in communication focused on our screens, especially cellphones.

Each fellow was assigned to champion an aspect of journalism. Palmer’s is “strategic thinking,” using SOU’s small, agile and responsive campus to “meet those needs deftly … understanding the experience of how we consume news” in the constant and shifting stream from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and myriad other platforms just coming into being.

“Not every university has kept up with that, but we have,” he says. “We’re oriented to visual storytelling, as well as to professional journalism.”

Instead of the time-honored process where journalists hand readers printed stories that are the final word on a topic, “the decisions people make are so rapid and frequent that journalism means being able to frame a story in ways that capture your attention — not with sensationalism,” he said, “but with what reader-viewers perceive as most important in their lives — then responding to that.”

What does the flow of useful information look like in our “disrupted” world?

It might start with surfing through Facebook posts, picking up a link on Twitter or Instagram to a news story you want to read and sharing that story, then end with watching your favorite TV shows streaming from Netflix or Hulu. Much of your day may be spent in your own echo chamber, being logarithmically fed what online corporations know you already like.

What is journalism’s job in all this?

“Our obligation 30 years ago was to create content, take photos and lay out the design," says Palmer, who earned a doctoral degree in communication and society at the University of Oregon. "Now, journalism is being asked to get involved in engaging our audiences and supporting the economic vitality of the media.”

As a teacher of journalism students in this age, Palmer “orients students to strategically reach audiences. Writing and photography still happen and they emerge from the agenda they set strategically.”

Here is the crux of it, which sounds different than “All The News That’s Fit To Print” on Page 1 of the New York Times: “The challenge is right in front of us now," he says. "The most successful journalism comes from what audiences need and are willing to pay for — and meeting those needs with creative content.”

How does journalism determine your needs? “It’s understanding the experience of how they consume news, the stream of stuff on the internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. The decisions people are making so rapidly and frequently and being able to frame a story in ways that capture their attention in the stream of social media.”

Palmer picks up his cellphone from his desk, noting smartphones are always in front of us now, with our laptops becoming secondary. Then he opens a slim, folding keyboard that talks to his phone wirelessly on Bluetooth, demonstrating that everything you need now can fit in a pocket. Voice-activated “bots” that run on Alexa and other web-enabled devices meet our needs almost instantly.

“It’s connected to Amazon and you tell it what to do,” he says. Play music, for example. Need soap? Just say, “Get me soap” and it knows your address and credit card number — and a lot of other things about you — and can add it to your shopping list or have FedEx drop it at your door the next day. This has a big impact on the economy, advertising, local business and all facets of culture.

In digital media where he teaches, Palmer seeks to “realign the mind-set, not to react but to be proactive, using technology in new ways,” he says. One of the great demands in the field is finding employees who are technically competent, including being able to do coding.

“You have to have a good mind-set (as a journalist) and understand traditional values, yet have robust tech skills,” he says. Growth areas in the profession include “product manager — people who identify audiences that news organizations might serve and to lead creativity of specific digital products that engage that audience. It could be multi-media features on the net, new apps or many other wondrous avenues, many as yet unexplored."

The most rewarding part of the conference, he notes, is “seeing SOU is really engaged in a national conversation on (emerging) journalism.”

If all this sounds depersonalized and values-neutral, Palmer says it's quite the contrary. “In the future of journalism, social values are essential. If the industry is not able to sustain those values, it’s going to be a disaster. In some ways it already is, for example, the fake news. It’s smart, but not well-meaning. People have been effective at hijacking the platforms for their own political and economic benefit.

“What’s going on is a very real risk. There is optimism and very significant fear. My job here is to help students make a better life for themselves. It’s changing so fast that we have to make new courses in two- to three-year cycles.”

Classic examples in the three-dimensional world, he says, are Uber and Airbnb, which innovated over the “sleepy old institutions” of cabs and motels.

“We’re not in the world that used to be anymore. … Disruptive is a metaphor to describe the radical change in existing institutions. We’re at the forefront here of how media are going to evolve and we should have pride about it.”

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Erik Palmer instructs students at the Digital Media Center on the SOU campus on a recent afternoon. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]