May 8, 2016

SCHULMAN | “When a Wave Comes, Go Deep”

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The future of journalism is murkier than Beebe lake this time of year. As a writer for the college paper, I’ve been thinking about this a lot (along with the rest of the folks here). I’ve also been considering this because journalism’s future hinges on two subjects I think about often: economics and computer science. My thoughts on the issue encapsulate two ideas I’ve been writing about all semester.

First, scarcity motivates so many of our daily decisions. Scarcity (or lack thereof) is the reason journalism’s future is uncertain. The floodgates are open to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. Content used to be scarce, and now it isn’t. Journalists have a question they need to answer: why anyone would support content when so much is free?

The second thing I’ve been writing about is that people can’t treat technology like a black box. Journalists need to hear this and start using computers as tools to differentiate themselves. If you understand the machinery that powers the web — things like SQL, Python, Ruby, JavaScript and basic web design —  you can design experiences that actually make you different.

Differentiating yourself among the sea of online content is not as simple as getting social media accounts, updating your website and posting videos and photo essays; platforms that my 16 year old brother uses will not differentiate you from the tsunami of free content on the internet. Everyone knows how to run a WordPress blog, upload photos to Instagram and post videos to YouTube; if things were this simple the conversation would be over.

If you want to stay relevant on the web, open a book on computer programming. Think about successful digital media. BuzzFeed was founded in 2006 as a viral lab tracking viral content and employs armies of engineers. Facebook is one of the biggest software companies in the country. Youtube is a subsidiary of Google. Medium was developed by ex-Twitter engineers. These companies spend a lot of money on software engineering to deliver a one of a kind experiences.

This is not a battle over writing — or even content. Journalists need to stop pretending it is.  Nobody checks their newsfeed for hard hitting reporting, or carefully written insights. You check your newsfeed because the experience of scrolling through is like eating a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Good writing is timeless. That will never change. But this isn’t about good writing.

All this to say, a website you didn’t build with some photo essays and video will not save your publication. I can’t tell you what will (if I did I would have millions of dollars in venture capital money). But, I’m confident you can figure it out. Writers are surprisingly creative. You just need the right tools. I should also say I’m optimistic. Writing is as much of a skill as computer science. (Most) computer scientists can’t write prose, but writers can learn to write code — trust me I did.

There’s a really good Humans of New York quote (that is just genuinely good advice) I think sums up my thoughts today and the semester as a whole:

“When a wave comes, go deep … There’s three things you can do when life sends a wave at you. You can run from it, but then it’s going to catch up and knock you down. You can also fall back on your ego and try to stand your ground, but then it’s still going to clobber you. Or you can use it as an opportunity to go deep, and transform yourself to match the circumstances. And that’s how you get through the wave.”

Computer science and the economics are the wave — you can either go deep or get knocked down. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking too it. Have some well earned fun on Slope Day, a productive finals week, and an amazing summer. Can’t wait to get back to The Hill next fall!

Eric Schulman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at eschulman@cornellsun.com. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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