The floating university

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
8 November, 2016
Editorial: 45
Fecha de publicación original: 12 noviembre, 1996

Date of publication: 12/11/1996. Editorial 45.

*Seventh article in a series on digital journalism

Teaching we learn

The other day, during a seminar on Internet, somebody asked me what I would have asked the Net for if it were Santa Claus. My answer was: What we are doing right here, in other words that people with experience and knowledge could explain to me how it worked and how to use it. If there has been something that those of us who have already spent a few years trying to unravel the nets have sorely missed during this time, it has been the comforting hand of a tutor to point us in the right direction or, at least, help make our efforts more economical time-wise. Manuals help, but all of us have got stuck some time or another in the arid, cryptic style of technicians explaining their field. Due to the lack of good guides, we have had to burn the midnight oil in our attempts to grasp some kind of sinuous map that would at least help us to make out, however tenuously, the landscape of online services, their content and how best to take advantage of them.

The recent blossoming of Internet has made training an urgent necessity. In fact, when someone asks (and there is always someone who does) “But, who makes money out of the Internet?”, the answer is obvious: in the first place, all the paraphernalia that goes towards training, educating, orientating, advising, consulting and studying the Net. In the second place, well, nobody knows, apart from Netscape, Yahoo and two or three more. Anyway, training in Internet is a very interesting new phenomenon which is acquiring some peculiar characteristics of its own. Thanks to the Net, businesses and institutions of all kinds (public or private, profit or non-profit) have discovered the value of communication (one supposes that they knew the value of information). The Web with its synthesis of different media –written, spoken, graphic and visual, including still or moving images– has allowed users to become familiar with basic publishing tools, launch their own publications in the enormous digital newsagent’s and broadcast their messages reinforced by design, layout and the combination of headlines, texts and images.

Up to now, this profession had been the domain of journalists, recently backed by university courses to train them. For the rest, who today make up the vast majority, there are no schools, training centres or high schools devoted to this task. Or rather there weren’t, because now they are springing up like mushrooms in autumn. Today there are Internet courses all over the place. The interesting thing abut this education explosion is that the vast majority of its clientele are companies that until recently, at least strictly speaking, have had nothing to do with communication. I have been asked to give these kinds of courses in Spain and various European countries and what I encounter is really curious. Either they are organized by press associations who are really concerned about what the Internet represents or will represent for their members, but who have no influence on the internal dynamics of the communication media. Or the organisers and people attending have nothing to do with the communications media, but recognise that for the Internet to work for them they need to know about the communication process in depth. In the second case (and I say this because I ask them), amongst those attending there are hardly ever members of the press offices concerned. It is almost as if it has been accepted that there is a split between how one should work with the new medium (to which end other types of people are needed) as opposed to the present daily running of things in the media business.

One of the keys to this problem is that, in Spain at least, neither the majority of journalists nor the media companies have openly recognised that the Internet is anything more than a new space to improve their sources of information and access data bases. But information can be sourced by telephone, fax, personal encounters, by CD-ROM or online services. The difference, the novelty of the Internet, is that it is a new space to publish in. A space governed by its own laws which affect everything from the language it uses and the way it packages the messages in order to get them to users, to the role which the transmitter of information plays in relation to the receiver because of the interchangeable roles which exist between them. While this fact is still not understood, it is not surprising that practically all the journalism faculties still view the new medium with more curiosity than with a professional eye. The exception, or at least the one I know of, is the University of Navarra, which belongs to the Opus Dei, where students begin to work with the Internet from their third year onwards. Each one of them has their own personal page on the Net and, in the years that follow they get together to develop projects that, by their last year must be economically viable. It is strange that it has taken a religious organisation of this kind to train its students and set up the use of the medium via the most advanced criteria to be found at the moment in the academic world in Spain. At the forefront of this educative process lies the Multimedia Communication Laboratory, run by María José Pérez-Luque, a telecommunications engineer who, while she was in the US doing her doctorate, realised that the Internet was crying out loud for the fusion of her profession and that of journalists. The other universities (I must point out that I do not know the details of each one of them) run ad-hoc courses for journalists with names like “Exploitation of new data and telematic systems” (What the hell does that mean? If anyone has any idea I would be grateful if they would let me know as soon as possible because I have to teach this “subject” at the Universidad Autonoma of Barcelona next year in a doctoral course called “Quality Journalism”).

In Spain, as far as I know, the only newspapers that have run training courses for their staff are La Vanguardia and El Periódico. I can talk about El Periódico, where I hammered things out with my colleagues. Every section of the newspaper from the editors to the sports section (I don’t mention them necessarily in order of merit), the local office in Madrid and the editors of the provincial newspapers, attended eight hours of classes. We covered everything from the history of the Internet to new media and the Net itself as a means of communication, through to e-mail, search engines, advertising, information sources, forums and news groups, etc.; in open connection with the Internet all the time. Unfortunately, this initiative was not followed up. Neither were enough terminals installed in the newsroom to encourage its general use, nor was each journalist even given an e-mail address, something which would have substantially modified the way they work while, at the same time, altering their perception of the possibilities that the Net has to offer them. And this is exactly where the other big difference between them and the majority of other companies who open themselves up to the world of digital communication lies. Once the process has been initiated, they immediately hand over the tools and necessary resources to maintain and strengthen its use. Fortunately for the latter, the Net has generated its own kind of floating university which includes courses, seminars and conferences of all types, run by the most unlikely variety of places (post-graduate colleges, marketing congresses, business administration schools, meetings of stockbrokers, financial summits, environmental conferences, public administration refresher courses, etc., and held in theatres, hotels, monasteries, country houses, or carpeted public administration assembly rooms), but which maintain a rapid rate of education and training, although it is perforce erratic, random and decentralised. Just like the Net itself.

Translation: Bridget King.


* Other articles dedicated to digital journalism

1.- In search of the digital journalist
2.- From the dictatorship of the technicians…
3.- …to the rebellion of the masses
4.- The birth of “soft power”
5.- The postman knocks a thousand times
6.- How to escape from the newsagent and survive the attempt
7.- The floating university
8.- The knowledge correspondent
9.- Hard disc journalism