Sunday, February 7, 2010

Are the digital natives gaining on me?

A couple of years ago, when my cordless kitchen phone went on the fritz, I tried this experiment:  buy an up-market, two-line version (with voicemail) and leave it boxed in plain sight.

Sure enough, it drew passing teenagers like flies to honey, and --voilà! -- installation was swift and painless. The phones were set up in the rooms I designated; a voicemail message was recorded; the clocks were synchronized; an internal phone book was created.

And I didn't have to lift a finger, thanks to the digital natives in my household. They've grabbed at technology before, from video cameras to cell phones to DVD players. (One even threatened to set up our first desktop PC, since her parents were taking too long. We were instruction-readers; for her, booting up was second nature.)

Now people like them are knocking on the same doors I am, competing for some of the same jobs.

While journalism programs are flush with students, their graduates are having a tough time finding work -- as am I -- because of turmoil in the news industry. Yet when they hit the marketplace, they're likely to have fleshed out the new-media skills they've used all their lives -- talents that currently are in demand.

Last month at a news conference at the National Press Club, I chatted with a young woman who will finish a graduate program in journalism in May. She rolled her eyes as she described the programming and multimedia classes she's had to take; she'd rather spend more time writing. But ask anyone about the skills a future journalist will need, and writing isn't the only one mentioned.

Indeed, a lot is made of the budding journalist who is fluent in code: HTML and CSS, Django and Ruby. Check out this roll call. Or take a look at the work of these prospective competitors: the interactive maps created by this j-school senior; the videos produced by this recent graduate; the blog by this student entrepreneur.

Some say the model of journalist as scribe is over. That means the division of labor I formerly observed -- leaving the Web folks to code while I worried about nouns and verbs -- is coming back to haunt me.

Seems like I should have paid more attention when those teenagers were programming that cordless phone.

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