USA TODAY US Edition
Why journalism students need improv classes
As the digital revolution upends newsrooms across the country, here’s my advice for journalism students: Learn to improvise. Your school has a theater department? Take Improvisational Theater 101 as an elective.
I’ve been a reporter for more than 25 years, so I have lived through a half-dozen technological life cycles. I was a reporter
before we had fax machines, and I am still a reporter now that we
no longer have fax machines. But the most dramatic transformations have come in the past half-dozen years. That means I am, with increasing frequency, making stuff up as I go along.
Much of the time in the news business, we have no idea what we are doing. We show up in the morning and someone says, “Can you write a story about (pick one) tax policy/immigration/climate change/the New Hampshire Senate race?” When newspapers had once-a-day deadlines, we said a reporter would learn in the morning and teach at night — write a story that could inform tomorrow’s readers on a topic the reporter knew nothing about 24 hours earlier.
Now it is more like learning at the top of the hour and teaching at the bottom of the same hour. And the question is, “Can you blog/tweet/Snapchat/Skype this?” And the answer should still almost always be: “Yes.”
As with any improv scenario, we have to pretend we know what we are doing, react on the fly, trust our skills and instincts, and not fear the unknown.
Snapchat was a mystery to me. Someone asked if I could “Snapchat” the State of the Union preparations in the Capitol. I said “sure.” I do not know whether I did it right, or if anybody saw it, or if it has any longterm value to our readers or our brand. But what the heck. I learned something new, and every day you learn something new is a good day. It’s why we love journalism in the first place.
Some of this stuff won’t amount to much. Last fall, we created a “Yo” channel for the presidential debates where we sent the key one-liners from the debates to anybody who signed up for “Yo Zingers.” We gave up on it after a couple of tries. Alas! No mo Yo.
My newest adventure seems to have better prospects for survival. I’m running a weekly political podcast (check out USA TODAY’S Cup of Politics!). When I say running, I mean the whole ball of wax: We got a cou- ple of microphones, a little converter box that plugs into my laptop and some cheap software, and Voila! — my desk is transformed into a recording studio.
The whole setup fits in a backpack, and during the presidential conventions, we should be able to use it to do real-time interviews anywhere. The system uploads more or less instantly, so I can go from recording an interview to live on the website in about 10 minutes. And beyond the podcast, I have been interviewing my colleagues about their stories, and the results become digital ornaments we can add to articles on the website or tweet on their own or post on Facebook.
All of this is improvisation. I have no idea what I’m doing.
But neither does much of the news business these days. My colleague Trevor Hughes got a 360-degree video camera and has been experimenting with how to use it for news purposes. “I’ve found 259 ways it doesn’t work well,” he told me. But the 360-degree video he made of the launch of the largest firework in the U.S. is outstanding.
All of these things — the tweets, the Snapchats, the podcasts, the 360 videos — are just new ways to tell stories, which is what we are in this business to do. Used properly (and they are not always), they do not supplant reporting but enhance it, as long as we stick to our core values: We are trying to bring our readers/viewers/ listeners stories that engage, inform or entertain them, while respecting both the audience and the subject of the story.
These tools open a whole host of interesting questions. For instance, the Senate has a press gallery for print reporters and another for broadcast reporters. If I got to a press conference and shoot live video on my iPhone, posting it to Twitter via Periscope, which am I?
Or, as we said in improv class, “Who’s my character?”
My character is still a reporter. I am just increasingly working without a script.