NYT enters education market, and the changing nature of newspapers

The New York Times has announced an inititiative that will provide content and social networking to students and educators. They claim it is

"a new online initiative that pairs Times content with faculty course material for both credit-bearing and continuing education courses. Educators will now have the opportunity to select Times articles, archival content, graphics and multimedia content, including videos and Webcasts, gathered around specific subjects, and make them available to students online, along with other course materials"

Perhaps more interestingly they edge towards a ‘Facebook for learning’ when they propose

"In addition to enhanced course offerings for college students and lifelong learners, the Knowledge Network will serve as a global networking and professional and academic development resource for faculty, students and alumnae. Users will be able to share work with colleagues, create their own academic or professional ePortfolios (digital repositories of a person’s work), invite peer review and establish professional contact with people around the globe based on common academic pursuits and research."

At the moment it is all based around their own system (they are partnering with Epsilen) so it feels like another publisher saying ‘come to our system’, so I’m not sure how open it is. For instance can you pull RSS feeds into your system, can you add applications to it, etc.

This is not particularly new – a number of publishers have done similar things. But it does further demonstrate the convergence of industries, and the increased erosion of the educational monopoly enjoyed by universities. At the moment they are selling it as a service that educators can use, but if we look at that second quote, it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to see other providers offering accreditation and freelance tuition in such a marketplace.

The other reason people will find for dismissing it is the traditional divide between ‘journalistic’ and ‘academic’ content. While there is some truth in this, it is a division that is becoming less binary, and increasingly fuzzy. This is partly because being online removes many of the constraints that forced newspapers to produce journalistic material in the first place. These include:

  • Space – in the physical format space is at a premium, thus any extended interview, analysis or commentary is usually cut to fit the page and allow for a last minute advert. This is one of the common complaints of both journalists and their interviewees. Online there is no such restriction, so you can have a brief, ‘traditional’ piece, but also a much longer version.
  • Audience – a newspaper has to aim at a general audience, and thus is often accused of dumbing down. Again this need not be the case online, because you can reach a global audience, not a national or regional one. Therefore what would be a small interest piece in your printed version can have a sufficiently long tail with a global audience. And, if space doesn’t cost, then why not publish it?
  • Format – the newspaper is restricted to print and the odd photograph, although as noted, the exact size and quantity of both elements will be determined by its physical limitations. Online of course there is the freedom to have different media types: audio, video, animation. But perhaps more significantly there is the freedom to play around with the format of these media types – you can have blogs which have a different feel from an official article, or podcasts, or online debates, etc. This allows the format to suit the subject, not the subject to be manipulated to fit the confines of the format.
  • The journalistic filter – when a newspaper was purely a physical object then the process of producing an article with all of the above limitations acted as a filter. It required specialist knowledge, which was embodied in the journalist. This person didn’t have specialist knowledge of the subject area they were writing about (although they are often broad subject area specialists, e.g technology writers), but they did know about the process of creating newspaper copy. When the limitations are removed, so is the need for much of this expertise. We are all journalists now. This means that a lot of material doesn’t need to go through the filter of the journalist, a process which is subject to misinterpretation, bias, editing, and mistakes, but instead can come from the expert themselves. Admittedly not all experts are good writers, but the process of disintermediation has commenced.

And in education the same process is happening in reverse. There the academic article was the unit of thought currency, but this was also largely determined by physical limitations. Online we are finding that the blog posting, and perhaps more significantly the distributed debate, is often more informative.

The upshot of all this is that those of us in education shouldn’t be sniffy about journalistic content – it’ll be knocking on your lecture hall door any time now.

(Thanks to Tony for the link)

2 Comments

  1. Guy Pursey says:

    Just a thought but to add to your list of constraints, there is also an advantage that being online provides which traditional journalistic media on paper cannot: ease of referencing.
    Obviously, referencing is crucial in academic papers and less so in journalistic writing. However, there is a potential, due to the availability of space and the possibilities of format that you mentioned, for more blurring of boundaries between journalistic content and academic material. Footnotes can be hyperlinked to references which themselves can be hyperlinked to the cited paper/blog online or even to the Amazon page for the book. You’ve done it yourself with the link to the New York Times website at the beginning of your post.
    This can be extended to words within the blog or online article itself. Whereas in a newspaper or magazine a specialist or technical term might require a explanation by way of digression for the non-specialist reader, hyperlinking enables the reader to find the definition elsewhere, making the article a smoother read for those who have the expertise. This happens to some extent already (the Guardian blog postings are first things that spring to mind). So, I guess this adds to your point that writing might “come from the expert themselves”; it might also go straight to the experts themselves and yet without alienating the hyperlink-competent but non-expert reader/user. Of course, there’s a danger that it could all get recursive after a few generations of blog postings and hyperlinks.
    Anyway, these are just a few thoughts I had while reading your post.

  2. Martin says:

    Hi Guy
    yes, you’re absolutely right and I should have added this. The boundaries of the article are blurred by hyperlinking/referencing so it becomes a surface to deeper content.
    Thanks for the comment.
    Martin

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