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March 18, 1996

Digital Metro

Columbia University's New-Media Machine

Up on Morningside Heights, they're building a journalism machine.

The device, a custom-made portable computer, will let working journalists scour distant archives for video clips of Pat Buchanan stumping in New York while searching the Federal Election Commission filings of Buchanan's campaign committee.

At the same time our man on the campaign trail will be able to use the machine to sample audio of a Georgia rally, or download an applet that will calculate the effects of Buchanan's flat tax proposals. And of course our Virtual Joe Pulitzer can file a story, full of embedded sound and video, all using wireless digital uplinks, thanks to hardware built into the device.

No, the journalism machine won't mix martinis at the end of the day. Nor will it train its operators to tell searching, fearless stories that cut to the heart of complex, important issues. That task belongs to the machine's inventors at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The journalism machine, more properly known as the "mobile journalist terminal," is just one of the ambitious new ventures of the J-school's Center for New Media, a program to train digital-ready journalists.

The Center's first two years have been as full of glitches as a new winsock.dll installation. First, the school's new-media acolytes had to battle resistance from rear guard professors of print journalism barely comfortable with the notion of television news. One new-media adjunct remembered being cornered by a print professor who folded himself into a boxing crouch ala Joe Frazier and put up his dukes at the site of her.

Then students and faculty had to cope with a wrenching, $6 million gut rehabilitation that tore apart the school's dilapidated building for the sake of adding an eighth floor and plenty of fiber optic arteries.

It seemed like teaching the students how to tell html* stories was almost an afterthought. No permanent staff members were hired. And even the J-School's dean, Joan Konner, admitted that the debut new-media course was a disorganized affair.

"Last year there was heavy debate by the students and faculty about whether this was as good a course as we wanted to offer, and it wasn't," she said. But the center has proven its worth, said Konner, who recently announced that she would be stepping down as dean next January. She noted that all the center's first-year graduates who looked for jobs in new media had found positions at much higher salaries than their colleagues in the print media.

Now new media isn't just for new-media students anymore. Every part of the school's curriculum has entered the digital age -- from the audio and video editing suites in the broadcast program to the Web site belonging to The Bronx Beat, the school's student newspaper.

The academic conundrums and solutions mirror the dilemmas facing real world news operations as they struggle to cope with the on-line onslaught -- how will publishers deliver news on line, and how will journalists learn to tell stories using technologies that are changing more quickly than Netscape's market value?

For John Pavlik, the Center's recently appointed executive director, the answer is to have journalists create the new technology themselves -- with projects like the journalism machine.

Unlike most of the school's staff -- comprised largely of working or retired journalists -- Pavlik is an academic with a Ph.D in mass communications. He is also one of the few staff members for whom "publish or perish" means writing software, not books.

His task is to negotiate the miasma of academia, concocting groundbreaking technology joint ventures with the Columbia School of Engineering, Teachers College, and other divisions of the University.

The Engineering school is building the journalism machine hardware. The J-school is writing the software. Another project under way would allow video editors to search digital archives by visual example instead of relying on key words punched in by an editor when the pictures are filed.

This type of research and development is new in journalism education, and it could have an effect beyond the ivy-covered walls of the academy. The journalism machine has already interested several commercial news ventures and could be a money maker for the school in the long run, said Joshua Schroeter, the Center's first director and now director of strategic planning under Pavlik.

Full-time R&D is not a traditional part of the J-school's curriculum, but Pavlik wants the school to rely less on criticism and analysis and more on experimentation. "What we want to do is employ a medical school model," he said. "How would you ever develop a treatment for AIDS if you said, 'This one's no good; that one's no good,' but no one ever tried to figure out what works?"

Smart agents that search for the news you want, custom on-line news delivery, news products that serve special-interest communities -- these are some of the ideas that Pavlik intends to put to the test during his tenure at Columbia. And it could trigger another battle for legitimacy as professors come to grips with their changing roles as inventors instead of critics, but apparently the school's alumni -- among the most notable journalists in the world -- are sold.

"You would not believe how many calls I get from people who want to take classes," Schroeter said. Continuing education classes for working journalists are under consideration.

"The trick is to not lose the stuff that makes this school great -- the editorial pedagogy, the writing, the reporting," he said.

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  • The Center for New Media's home page contains links to The Bronx Beat, JRNY, and other student projects.

    Jason Chervokas and Tom Watson at welcome your comments and suggestions.

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