A little over two weeks and two papers to go, and then this semester will be done. I’ll have a short break, as I’m taking one class in the first summer session, again in Bloomington. So from May 8 through June 15, or something like that, I’ll be commuting to B-town three days a week to take a magazine writing class. Should be fun and interesting, since that’s kind of where I see my career headed. Oh, and we’re having a baby sometime in the first two weeks of class, so it’s not going to be your ordinary, laid-back, summer class.

So my two papers. The third paper for my media & society class is supposed to be based on the effects of various outside elements on journalism. Technology, economics, etc. We’re to pick a TV outlet and a print outlet, and do a 1-2 day survey of their coverage, and compare that coverage to each outlet’s web site, then draw some conclusions based on medium. Should be a kind of fun paper. Our first two papers had a six page limit; this one has an eight page limit, so there’s a little more work involved. I’m hoping to spend this weekend picking my subjects and setting up my monitoring for sometime next week.

The big paper is my research paper for my ethics class. This is the one that I had a draft due last Friday. After some changes and a few tweaks, I’ve ended up writing about public journalism, Communitarianism, and then a case study of a newspaper in Virginia that made a massive effort to convert its operations to a public journalism model. Public journalism, also called civic journalism, is a model that was first practiced in Wichita following the 1988 presidential election. The editor of the Wichita paper was disgusted with how his paper, and most others, had covered the campaign. Issues like tax policy, foreign affairs, and domestic agendas barely received coverage. What did seem to be important, if you read most papers or watched most newscasts, was Michael Dukakis riding in a tank looking like a fool, George Bush visiting a flag factory, 1000 points of light, Dukakis’ inability to answer a question about his wife (A completely awful question, by the way) in a warm, personal manner, Willie Horton, and the Pledge of Allegiance. So leading into the 1990 elections, the Wichita paper surveyed its readers to find out what issues they were interested in. They then made an effort to force the candidates in each race to address those issues. So basically, public journalism involves a shift from letting elites in government and business set the agenda, to allowing the public to set the agenda. It’s more complex than that, but that’s a fair summation.

Public journalism has been controversial because some see it as the media casting aside their traditional philosophy of detachment for one of advocacy. They wonder if the media can play the watchdog role if the public selects what is covered. They worry about how journalists will react if the pubic holds them responsible for issues they’ve pushed but haven’t been resolved effectively. It’s defenders say that journalism is the one force that can reengage citizens in participatory democracy, and thus public journalism is absolutely part of what journalism should be. They argue that public journalists aren’t advocating specific policies, they’re simply asking the public what issues are important and attempting to force those in power to address them. Finally, they say public journalism isn’t some radical shift in how journalism is practiced. Rather, it’s taking it back to its roots and practicing the art in its intended manner.

Again, that’s just a brief overview. But the readings, well some of them, have been very interesting. It’s fascinating to read studies of news organizations that have attempted to implement public journalism and see the internal battles, the adjustments to technique, and the changes in attitude over time. Whether a journalist (or prospective journalist) totally buys into the concept, I think there is a lot to learn from studying it. I tend to think the watchdog role is the most important aspect of journalism, but don’t necessarily buy the argument that practicing public journalism precludes journalists from holding those in power accountable for their actions. I think there are certainly ways to combine each school of thought and examine the doings of the elites while still taking interest in what the public wants addressed.

A big frustration of my writing efforts last weekend was relearning how to write a research paper. My writing style definitely fits the journalistic genre much better. That’s when you read about something, throw in a few quotes or references, but provide most background and arguments in your own words. As I read studies and stories written in an academic manner, I realized I had to adjust my format. Lots of citations, which meant I needed to write things down. How do I do that? Oh yeah, note cards. How do I organize them? Of course, write an outline, number the cards, and reference them on the outline. Stuff I hadn’t done in, oh, 11 years or so. And back then I didn’t exactly do the pre-writing process all that well. So I was laughing at myself a little as I created a method for organizing my material on the fly. I’m pretty sure I’ve screwed something up, so when I sit down to crank out my next draft, I’ll realize something very important has been misplaced or was recorded improperly.

It’s a little ironic that I went through that since I had been toying with a few applications that are designed to do much of that in a paperless setting. (WARNING: Lengthy, geek-based, technology-focused productivity pr0n rant to follow. Proceed at your own risk.) One great thing about the Mac platform is there are tons and tons of organizing apps. Windows users tend to stick with the elements of Office. I could use Office, although I try not to use it unless I have to, both to avoid Microsoft at all costs and because it’s so damn slow on Macs (I have an alternate word processor called <a href=”http://www.nisus.com/Express/”>Nisus Express</a> that I try to use rather than Word). I’ve played around with <a href=”http://www.devon-technologies.com/products/devonthink/index.html”>DEVONThink</a>, which is very cool but probably beyond what I need and somewhat unnecessary if you leverage the power of <a href=”http://www.apple.com/macosx/features/spotlight/”>Spotlight</a> effectively. I checked out <a href=”http://www.barebones.com/products/yojimbo/index.shtml”>Yojimbo</a>, which has a cool name, pretty look, but is probably a little light. <a href=”http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/omnioutliner/”>OmniOutliner</a> came with my PowerBook, and while it’s promising, I’m not very reliant on outlining as my sole method of organization. I’ve been playing around with an app called <a href=”http://www.hogbaysoftware.com/product/mori”>Mori</a> which is very cool and I may use going forward, but at the same time isn’t really a tool that I see as useable for large research projects (It well could be, I just haven’t figured out how yet). After I started, I found an app called <a href=”http://www.bartastechnologies.com/products/copywrite/”>CopyWrite</a>, which looks very, very cool and even has a perpetual free option if you keep your projects within a certain scale (they tout that as the perfect option for students, hey, that’s me!). That may be something I’ll have to try out after I get through this process. Anyway, if you’re still with me after all of that, I thought it was funny that I’ve casually been checking out some cool toys, but hadn’t made a choice by the time I really needed one. When I hit writer’s block moments, I would load up a trial app and plug away for a little while, thinking, “Wow, if I had just started using this three weeks ago, I wouldn’t have note cards scattered all over my desk.”