You may not know my guest today by name, but it’s safe to say that if you read an English-language newspaper anywhere in the world, Howard Finberg is having at least an indirect effect on its content.
NewsU has enjoyed explosive growth since opening its virtual doors on April 11, 2005. Starting with just a few courses and little more than word of mouth advertising, the mostly free training for journalists now has thirty-five courses and 35,000 registered users.
In the interest of complete disclosure, I have often worked on assignment for The Poynter Institute and even wrote two white papers and the script for an animated video for NewsU. In fact, I wrote the following Dr. Seuss-inspired rhyme, which Howard himself recorded for NewsU:
You can do it wearing a hat.
You can do it with your cat.
You can do it at night,
And you can do it when you look afright.
You can do it when things are slow,
Or when you can’t get the creative juices to flow.
You can do it when mother’s not there,
And you can do it in your underwear.
BOB ANDELMAN:Howard, thanks for taking the time to talk.
HOWARD FINBERG:Glad to be here, Bob, and thanks for reminding me of why we don’t use that rhyming any more. The whole idea of underwear is just more than we can take.
ANDELMAN:I remember doing that and being very surprised that some of that actually made it into the final. Howard, can you give us kind of a brief synopsis of NewsU’s mission within Poynter?
FINBERG:Well, our mission is to extend our training and our teaching from Poynter to the universe that can’t get to the Institute itself for what we call an in-person seminar, so our desire is to reach those people who may not be ready to come to a Poynter seminar, who may not have the money to come to a Poynter seminar. And frankly, to reach people who might not be journalists and who would not qualify to come to Poynter. NewsU training is open to everybody. All you need to do is register. It’s free. It’s very accessible because the amount of time you spend on it is really up to you, and most of the things we do are very short.
ANDELMAN:So you’re open to non-journalists.
FINBERG:We welcome non-journalists. We think the skills that we offer training in are perfect for bloggers, for people who are running Web sites, for anybody who is interested in getting their writing sharper.
ANDELMAN:Would it be useful for someone who is actually being covered by the media, for them to understand maybe how things work? Could they learn that from it?
FINBERG:Well, you certainly can learn how a newspaper operates in the different departments. We have something called “Anatomy of a Newspaper.” If you’re a PIO at a police department, I would recommend you take “Covering Cops,”which is a great module in understanding how journalists need to cover the cops, and, in turn, it’s a way of if you’re a public information officer looking at the perspective from the journalist.
ANDELMAN:Do you have a lot of students taking the courses?
FINBERG:We have a good number of students. About 12 to 15 percent of our registered users are identified as college students, and there is a much smaller percentage who are over-achieving high school students.
ANDELMAN:And let’s come back to the journalists. I mean, why would a journalist choose to take an online course?
FINBERG:Well, I am going to give you back our motto, which is: the best journalists never stop learning. So if you are a journalist, you are always hungry to improve your understanding of the world around you and your craft. Given the turmoil in the industry, I would say it’s also a matter of job survival to be as good as you possibly can be, to really sharpen your job skills.
ANDELMAN:The start of NewsU kind of came on the heels of a lot of scandals in journalism, a lot of ethical issues and plagiarism, things like that. Was it coincidental? Had it been in the works for a while?
FINBERG:Total coincidence. NewsU grew out of some research done by the Knight Foundation when they surveyed journalists and newsroom leaders and identified some areas that they could have an impact. At the same time, I came to Poynter with the job title, it’s my best job title ever, Bob, “Presidential Scholar,” which was a fancy way of saying that I would come for a week to ten days every month for about a year and figure out the impact of technology on journalism and the impact of technology on journalism education. So out of that came a report urging Poynter to think about getting into the e-learning business, expanding its reach. Knight got a copy of the report, loved the idea, funded the project.
ANDELMAN:How far behind are newspapers in continuing education for reporters and editors? I mean, I was thinking about this. Doctors and lawyers, realtors, even meeting planners have requirements in their industry of their professionals to have continuing education.
FINBERG:Yes, it’s not one of the bright spots within the industry, and a colleague in the training area, Michelle McClellan, has a project called Tomorrow’s Workforce, where she goes into great detail of how, if you increase the amount of training dollars spent, you can actually drop some dollars from the bottom line. There is a real ROI (return on investment) to it. You know, we are in an industry that has not valued training as highly as some other fields, mostly because it’s in the very nature of journalists to be somewhat skeptical of formal….
ANDELMAN:I don’t know what you’re talking about, Howard!
FINBERG:….of formal organizational kinds of things.
ANDELMAN:Now, I mentioned some professions that have ongoing training requirements. On the other hand, securities traders have ongoing training, and yet they still have scandals, and they still have problems. Having training will not solve all the industry’s problems.
FINBERG:Training will not prevent you from screwing up if you have a predisposition to screwing up. But frankly, training helps. It gives you another way of looking at the issue, another way of trying to work through the decision process. Training is another tool that you need to use. And I think one of the frustrating things is to get people to recognize that training is really becoming much more of an individual decision and to look at organizations to take care of your training needs is to miss an opportunity. I think the individual needs to be responsible for their own training, and that’s why NewsU is structured the way it is. It’s free, it’s short. It’s not a big time… We don’t do 16 weeks of training. We do one to three hours of training so that you can get in and get out.
ANDELMAN:Explain a little bit about how that works, because you do it at work, you do it at home, as I say, you do it in your underwear.
FINBERG:Stop with the underwear jokes!
ANDELMAN:The idea, though, is that you can do it wherever you have computer access.
FINBERG:That’s right. All you need is Internet access, ideally broadband, which pretty much everybody is migrating toward, broadband, you know, the latest version of Flash, which is free, a browser, and some time. Dive in and dive out. It’s all self-directed in the sense that it’s like someone saying, “Well, here’s a smorgasbord, figure out where you want to start, and you want to start with the meat course, you want to start with the salad.” Start with dessert. We don’t really care. I mean, just get in there and start.
ANDELMAN:Does it require a self-motivated person to do it?
ANDELMAN:And are journalists by nature, are they self-motivated?
FINBERG:The best ones are. “The best journalists never stop learning.” That’s one of our other little mottos.
ANDELMAN:I’ve heard that. The Poynter Institute is known for its weeklong seminars. They are very focused on things, and they vary in depth. They start early in the morning, and you go all day, then you interact with people in the evening usually, and it’s a continuing… You put four or five long days in. Is NewsU, is it a complement or a supplement to that? Or is it something else?
FINBERG:It’s something else. I mean, if you look at, and unfortunately, this being radio, you have to imagine a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is the Poynter seminar or any seminar. It could be anything. A personal experience. The scale is at the top, it’s high intensity, but at the top of a pyramid is only a few people can get to, whether it be a conference or a workshop or a seminar, you know, that attendance level gets tighter and tighter given the intensity of the experience. At the bottom is the broadest reach possible. That’s the web in itself, and in the middle we like to put NewsU, where it has a modest amount of intensity of experience, but it’s a different kind of experience, but it has the potential of the broadest reach. It’s not a seminar online. It’s not designed that way.
ANDELMAN:Will NewsU at some point in the future take advantage of the seminars that are here? Will we start seeing 10 or 15 minute clips of, I don’t know, if Bob Schieffer comes to the Institute, who’s on the Board, if he comes here and speaks, will people who use NewsU have access to a portion of his talk, things like that?
FINBERG:Yes. In fact, Bob, I should tell you that we actually already have that up and running. Time to renew your membership in the NewsU Club. We call them “Seminar Snapshots,” where we take a ninety-minute, two hour session led by some of the world’s best journalism teachers, the best journalists, and we edit it, and we edit it with the idea that we are going to pull out the learning moments, those little nuggets that you would write down if you were actually in that seminar room and saying, ah, “I have to remember that.” Well, we do that, and we edit that video together, but we also just don’t let it stream. We break it up into chunks so you can, again, you can dive into any of these little chapters, pull out the learning nugget. We call them “Seminar Snapshots.” They’re free. They’re on NewsU right now. Andrew Hayward, former president of CBS News, did a great session on media consumption and understanding how the world is changing. That’s something that I think Mr. Media should check out.
ANDELMAN:Mr. Media was there.
FINBERG:Oh, yes. Well, check out the…
ANDELMAN:There was also the seminar on reporting on children, I think.
FINBERG:Yes, and we have one of those up, as well.
ANDELMAN:I was actually there taking notes on that for ….
FINBERG:Well, we have all those now in snapshot form, as we are calling them.
ANDELMAN:And so that going forward, you are looking for those opportunities.
FINBERG:Yes, we are looking for them not only at Poynter, but ultimately, we want to work with, it sounds like a commercial here, we want to work with other organizations to do that.
ANDELMAN:What are some of the big topics that are attracting to most users on NewsU? What courses are they taking in the greatest quantity?
FINBERG:Well, the one with a billboard bullet next to its name right now is “Five Steps to Multi-Media Reporting.” It’s a real good introduction to thinking about how to report using digital audio, digital video — as I am sitting here looking at your digital audio and your digital camera. It’s a partnership with the University of California/Berkley’s Night Center for New Media, and they actually had a little mini-Web site or Web page on this topic. What we did was we NewsU-sed it, or we re-NewsU-sed it. We put it together as an e-learning module, and it’s just exploded. But we have some old standbys that are always on the most popular list. There’s “Cleaning Your Copy,” which is sharpening your copy-editing skills or your writing, grammar skills AP style. That’s also a good one. Chip Scanlan has a number of great courses for writers, “How to Do Better Interviews,” “How to Re-Write Your Own Material.” I think one of the biggest challenges that any solo writer has, those without a copy desk, (is) how do you take your own stuff and sharpen it? And there are some great interactive tools in that, including something that I just love, called The Sentence Tracker. You put your story into this little widget, and it will show you in a bar graph the length of every sentence in your document, which means you can sort of see, “Well, wait a minute, that sentence is way longer than the rest of the sentences; maybe I want to make it shorter.”
ANDELMAN:Flow a little better.
FINBERG:Flow. Yeah, that’s a writer kind of thing.
ANDELMAN:Well, it’s the kind of thing… I know when I talk to people about that kind of thing, I suggest that if they are not certain, if they are not confident in their style and their effort, that they read it out loud, and they’ll figure out pretty quick if it’s working or not, because if you have one sentence that goes on for three pages, something is not right. What are some courses that are kind of hidden gems that people have not discovered?
FINBERG:Oh, I didn’t know there was going to be a test. Well, there is an interesting course on freedom of information that sort of gets lost in the shuffle unless some college professor decides that he wants his classes…. I think it’s something that journalists need to understand, so that’s a hidden gem. I don’t know if this would be a hidden gem, but it’s awfully interesting is “Dealing With Race in Terms of Identification Within Stories.” Keith Woods of the Poynter faculty did a great job there. They are all my children, so they are all very precious to me, and I love them equally.
ANDELMAN:What about courses on ethics?
FINBERG:We just launched one last week, brand new course. We don’t tell you what is right or wrong, but what this course is is “Your Guide to Ethical Decision Making.” It really helps you think through the process. There are a bunch of case studies there that you can study. You can see what the challenges are. For both journalists and non-journalists, this would be a great course for a lot of different people. Bob Steele helped really put that together, by the way, since I have to give kudos to the people who do all of the real work here.
ANDELMAN:I was going to ask you about that. Now what kind of people put these together? Are they done by Poynter staff, are they done by outsiders or experts in other fields?
FINBERG:Well, there are really two groups involved in doing e-learning at Poynter. The subject matter experts, which can by Poynter faculty, (or) you can be outside experts, we call them SMEs, subject matter experts, or SME. They’re the ones who have all the content knowledge. They’re the ones who know the subject, but what we have at Poynter and NewsU are the e-learning wizards or the producers, and whether it be Casey Frechette or Vanessa Goodrum or Phil Zepeda or Jennifer Dronkers, I mean, they are the producers who take that stuff. And then we have Jen Wallace, who does the design, and Vicki Krueger, who does the editing, and together as a team and truly as a team process, they’ll go in there and take what you as a subject matter expert would say, okay, here’s the material, and then they’ll say, well, here’s how we can put this together as both Web pages but also, here are the interactive points, here is a quiz we should drop in here, what if they did a match game here, what if we did, let’s identify these components. Our philosophy is learn by doing, so there’s a lot of things in there you have to do.
ANDELMAN:People say you get what you pay for. Most of the courses are free. Can you make the case for you get more than you pay for here?
FINBERG:Yes. You can get more than what you pay for. Free is not necessarily a value statement on quality. I think we are very lucky. Free, it’s not free to do what we’re doing here, okay? And this is not a hobby. This is real, solid stuff. We can do this because of the generosity of the Knight Foundation. This is their philosophy, to provide this kind of training to journalists. Now, whether they’ll continue to fund this and allow us to be free forever we don’t know. We’re not going away, but if we do get into the charge business, we have to figure out what that might look like, whether it be the cost of a triple shot caramel macchiato grande at your Starbucks, $4.36. Or whether it’s a subscription for a year, $39.95, and you have access to all these things. We don’t know. We’re going to look and see what’s appropriate. We don’t want price to be a barrier to training, though.
ANDELMAN:How did you feel when you realized you had hit 35,000 registered users? I remember when you hit a thousand how excited you were. But when I heard that it was up to 35,000, it’s almost two years now, it just seemed to me….
FINBERG:Actually, it’s over 36,400, I think, was the last number.
ANDELMAN:Not that you’re keeping track.
FINBERG:Not that we keep track. If I were really keeping track, I would give you the specific. I’ve stopped looking that much. I think there are key milestones that really matter, and the 10,000 to 25,000 marks were really big deals for us. By the time we got to 35,000, we were, “Oh, this is really big.” But you know, a little overwhelmed with the responsibility we have to the people who are finding us means we better not screw up.
FINBERG:Well, the bulk of our users are obviously from the States, but 20 percent are outside the U.S.
FINBERG:And probably about 15 percent are outside North America. And actually, the interesting thing is that that number has actually gotten bigger, not smaller, so because we have gotten a much bigger reach within the academic world, which tends to be very U.S. Our international presence is still growing because in many countries there is no journalism training. There are no Poynter Institutes in lots of places. There are no journalism schools in lots of places in the world, and we provide a way for professionals to get better at their skills. We have registered users in 194 countries, territories, and principalities, so I think there are only 170, I’ll probably get called on this, but I think there are fewer countries, so we have lots of different territories and things like that. I am just amazed.
ANDELMAN:Howard, you mentioned before about the multi-media reporting course. Does that course cover or will there be a course that helps reporters who get downsized in adapting their talents to other media? For example, let’s say that someone at the St. Petersburg Times gets downsized, just as an example; they’re not doing that at the moment, but if they did, a perfectly good reporter, but there’s just not enough jobs, will there be a course there that says, “You don’t have a traditional reporting job, you still want to be in reporting, here’s a course that helps you figure out how to make a living or how to source stories elsewhere or whatever the case may be.” Is that a direction?
FINBERG:That’s a possibility if we found the right subject matter expert and we thought the need was there and if we could do it better than anybody else, we would go do it. That’s pretty much the process. It really depends upon who the expert is, but frankly, it also depends on the need in the industry.
ANDELMAN:There is a lot of talk about newspapers changing dramatically in the coming years. A certain publisher at a certain major New York-based paper actually said they might not even be in that business in five years, although he retracted that.
ANDELMAN:Yeah, once he realized that people had heard him. Will the mission of NewsU adapt if the newspaper industry starts changing that dramatically in the coming years? Will you have to adapt?
FINBERG: We tend to be print-centric, I guess, if you look at writing, but we don’t believe we are newspaper-centric, and we think that we will have a lot of content in the coming years that will be appropriate for those who are working with video and with audio. In fact, in a couple of weeks, we are going to be launching something called “Telling Stories With Audio, “which is really to help people who want to record and want to understand how to record audio with their stories. We are going to do things on video editing ethics. Ideally, we will go into writing for video, which is very different than writing for print.
ANDELMAN:Video editing ethics, is that…
ANDELMAN:It was just a few years ago that the big issue was Photoshopping ethics, that people were, the famous O.J. cover of Newsweek or Time.
FINBERG:Or taking the Coke can out.
ANDELMAN:Yeah. I mean, so now obviously, it’s moving rapidly. The target keeps changing. I saw just this week that MediaBistro.com was offering its own sort of freelancer’s version of NewsU. Will we see more splintering that way? I mean, freelancers, Poynter doesn’t really speak to them, Poynter speaks to newspapers and radio and TV.
FINBERG:Well, but we want to talk to freelancers, and if there are freelancers out there, come, visit. Let us know what you need. That’s the nice thing about NewsU. NewsU partners with a lot of different groups. I mean, if MediaBistro wanted to partner with us, we would be delighted to partner with them. But they charge for their courses.
ANDELMAN:Well, these courses that they just added are actually free. Of course, I think in some way, they are a come-on to…. They are a taste.
FINBERG:Yeah, they are a taste of what they’re…
ANDELMAN:But that’s not so different from NewsU. I mean, these are free tastes, and then hopefully, I am sure there is some desire to….
FINBERG:You can get a lot of training at NewsU without having to come to any Poynter seminar. They are not come-ons to seminars.
ANDELMAN:Okay. I used that term in reference to MediaBistro, but at the same time, Poynter training, on-site training, has largely been limited in that, A), you can only take so many people in a seminar…
ANDELMAN:And B) it is costly, and the reporters generally rely on their newspaper or the publisher or the TV or the radio to pay their way. It’s not something that a lot of them can afford to do independently.
FINBERG:We would argue that it’s not costly compared to other training, but….
ANDELMAN:Well, I understand.
FINBERG:But certainly more costly than free.
ANDELMAN:Right, but for some people, like at a small newspaper, who will never be sent at that expense, NewsU is an introduction to Poynter and what it has available.
ANDELMAN:I think that’s more what I’m getting at here.
FINBERG:Yeah, but I think we have to look at it as something very different than an introduction to Poynter.
FINBERG:I think it sort of stands on its own. You know, if you want to get into a brand discussion, I mean, Coke is responsible for a line of water — Dasani. Okay, so there’s water in Coke, is Dasani an introduction to Coke? Or is Coke an introduction to water? Because they both have good ingredients in it, but they’re very different things.
ANDELMAN:How integrated is NewsU with Poynter, Poynter Online, the Poynter seminars, the other things that Poynter does, or is it pretty much, does it stand alone in some regards?
FINBERG:It’s modestly integrated given the nature of what it is. It has to be. The people here are very much part of the Institute. There are a lot of overlapping circles between Poynter Online and NewsU and Poynter Seminars. There has to be.
ANDELMAN:Eighteen months ago, my sense was that people outside of NewsU at Poynter didn’t quite know what to make of it and might have been a little on the skeptical side. I am guessing at 35,000 registered users, you’re probably not hearing or seeing as much skepticism as maybe you did when you started this.
ANDELMAN:36,600. I’m sorry.
FINBERG:No, I think that it’s how it works, what it does, it’s reached its impact were all unknowns, and frankly, everybody is busy here. I mean, there isn’t a faculty member who has his feet up on the desk sort of saying, well, what can I do today? You’ll be doing writings reported online between leading seminars between consulting in newsrooms between writing textbooks and things like that. There is a lot to keep you busy here, and this NewsU thing comes along, and, well, this is one more thing to worry about. I’ll worry about it later. Well, later is now, so… You know, the Institute faculty has embraced Poynter and NewsU very nicely.
© 2007 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2007 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman