Monday, August 11, 2014

A Visit with Journalism Professor Doug Trouten

Our paths crossed more than 30 years ago when I was just beginning a writing career. Today he's a journalism professor at the University of Northwestern -- St. Paul. This is a little longer than a normal blog post but is a worthy read with many good insights for writers.

EN: You were former editor of the Twin Cities Christian newspaper. Can you briefly explain how the paper evolved from inception to the present?

Doug Trouten: I was very fortunate to be able to work as editor without also having to be the publisher. That’s a significant distinction because very few regional Christian newspapers have full-time editors. Most people who get into the industry were drawn by the ministry potential or by the opportunity to run their own business, but very few have journalism backgrounds. I always felt very privileged to be working full-time as a Christian journalist, since I know that many of my colleagues in Christian newspapering were also spending their time selling ads, doing billing, and running the business side of their publications.

The paper was founded in 1978 by Terry White, who was teaching journalism at Crown College at the time. In fact, my wife and I had him as our college journalism professor. From the beginning, the heart of the paper was the events calendar. Terry saw a need for a single resource that Christians in the Twin Cities could use to learn about events and opportunities. He hired a former student to serve as editor. After a little more than three years the founding editor was ready to move on. Terry sold the newspaper to Christian business owners Leonard and JoAnne Jankowski, and hired my wife and I to run the editorial side of the paper for the new owners.

Over the years the paper went from a monthly to a bi-weekly, from 16 pages to 40 pages. The name was changed to the Minnesota Christian Chronicle, then to the Christian Examiner. The Jankowskis sold the paper to Mike Beard (currently a member of the Minnesota Legislature), who sold it to Warren Smith, who sold it to the current owners, Lamar and Theresa Keener. The Keeners recent transitioned the newspaper to a magazine, and are publishing under the name “Refreshed.”

EN: It must have been a lot of work. Why was this paper so important? What role did it fulfill?

DT: You’re certainly right about it being a lot of work. It wasn’t uncommon for us to pull an all-nighter, trying to make the paper as good as it could be before the press deadline. We eventually added a weekly news service that fed stories to 300 Christian media outlets around the world, and with the news service and the two sections of a biweekly paper, we had eight press deadlines a month. It was crazy.

But it was also a lot of fun. I think the people who worked there all had the sense that they were doing something important – helping to create a tool that God could use. The paper crossed denominational lines and geographic lines, letting Baptists in Minneapolis see what Lutherans in St. Paul were up to, and so on. Covering the local Christian community helped send a message that there were important things going on, and I think the paper helped develop a sense of shared community among Christians in the Twin Cities.

The paper also gave me a chance to write a regular column, and I tried to use it to help readers see that there were good, reasonable arguments to be made for the things they believed in.

EN: What was the biggest lesson or lessons you took away from this experience?

DT: I learned a lot of lessons. I learned that as a writer you can ask people almost anything and they’ll probably answer you. I learned that everybody has a story to be told. I learned that you could be fair and professional and still write stories that supported a Christian worldview.

One of the biggest lessons I took away was probably about the importance of having a good work ethic. We worked like mad for years, because that was the only way to do all of the things that we wanted to do. And over the years I had a chance to hire a number of staff people who shared our vision and poured their lives into making it a reality. I’ve hired raw talent and I’ve hired work ethic, and work ethic wins every time. I was blessed to work with some excellent people, many of whom I’m still honored to call friends.

EN: You are currently Professor of Journalism at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul. How has journalism changed in the past 30-40 years?

DT: The Internet has changed everything by blowing up the financial models that sustained journalism. In the 1990s news organizations made a huge mistake by deciding to give their product away online for free. I think nobody realized how big the Internet was going to be. It turns out that if you have an expensive product that needs to be produced by trained and experienced professionals, giving it away for free is not a sustainable business model. We’re still trying to figure out how to pay for journalism in the 21st century – but we’re going to have to find a solution. A lot of people say they get their news from the Internet, but what they don’t always realize is that most of the news on the Internet comes from newspapers. Google and Yahoo don’t have armies of reporters. Newspapers do, but that can’t last if we don’t find a business model that works.

Another huge change in journalism in the last few decades has been the emergence of 24-hour news channels. These networks – CNN, Fox, CNBC – have changed what people think journalism really is. When the 24-hour news channel was born, I think a lot of people thought we’d be getting a lot more news. But it turns out that bringing us a lot more news is expensive. What’s cheap is to bring us the same eight or nine stories we were already getting, and then add in hours of people yelling at each other about those stories. As a result, a lot of people think that the circus they see on TV is real journalism. But real journalism is about creating informed citizens who have the knowledge of the world necessary for a democratic government to work. That kind of journalism is vital, and is increasingly misunderstood.

EN: What is the biggest challenge you face as you attempt to prepare students for careers in journalism?

DT: One challenge is that some students who want to pursue a career in journalism are scared away by others who insist that it’s a dying field. It’s true that the Internet has caused some belt-tightening in traditional news organizations, but it’s also created a lot of new opportunities. The basic skills of journalism – identifying important stories, gathering information, and presenting that information in a clear and compelling way – are still highly marketable skills. What’s changed is that we now prepare journalism students to tell stories across a variety of media platforms – print, web, audio and video.

EN: How has the social media explosion affected college journalism teaching?

DT: Social media has created a new set of opportunities and obligations for journalists. Through social media the journalist can interact with audiences like never before. But social media also has a tremendous appetite for material. It used to be that a reporter would spend their day putting a story together, and would turn it in at the end of the day. Today that reporter needs to Tweet about their story, blog about it, and post something about their story on Facebook. And the reporter will probably write four or five versions of their story for the web throughout the day as additional information becomes available. The news cycle used to be 24 hours, and now it’s constant – and that’s the world I need to prepare my students for.

EN: Why is good writing still such an important need today?

DT: Despite the proliferation of high-tech means of communication, good writing is still the irreplaceable foundational skill. If you have only 140 characters to tell your story, each word has to be pure gold. If you’re presenting your story on an Internet platform designed to distract readers into clicking instead of reading, you have to tell your story in a way that grabs and holds your audience. Whether it’s a podcast, a blog or a video, anything more sophisticated than “look at this cute cat” is going to benefit from good writing.

Today there are more opportunities than ever to add your voice to the marketplace of ideas, but there’s also more noise and distraction than ever. A gimmick may cut through the noise temporarily, but good writing is what will let you build and keep an audience for your ideas.

EN: Thank you, Doug. Lots of meat to chew on here.... as I expected.  

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