A CreativityKit should still include the classics

At issue: Journalism students are getting an expensive gift.

Out take: It’s still valuable to double down on writing and reporting.

The journalism program announced this week that it’s rolling out a program for incoming freshman this fall that will provide CreativityKits—which include a fully-loaded 13-inch MacBook Air. It seems like a grand gesture, a sort of, “We know we haven’t invested enough in you,” apology. And it’s a welcome improvement, but there’s a trepidation in hailing it outright, for fear that a super-light laptop won’t necessarily mean graduates will leave here with better grammar, reporting skills, or story ideas. 

This pilot offers more than just the machine, of course: it arms students with important tools. The software suite—think Adobe and Final Cut—would cost hundreds of dollars for one to download on their own. Next fall, they’ll access these programs at a nominal cost, free initially and $250 per semester after the first year. With financial aid available, according to department chair Paul Niwa, the CreativityKits will give students who might not have had access to a laptop, and certainly not one with these applications, new opportunities. By striking down this barrier, the journalism department should progress towards its goal of becoming a more inclusive program.

Clearly these CreativityKits are going to help students access crucial digital resources, and that’s great, but there’s no guarantee that this will make students better journalists. It goes without saying that we’re student journalists and are aware of our own shortcomings. We are by no means a perfect paper, and we do not claim to be the arbiters of what is good journalism. That said, it is obvious to us that certain fundamentals of journalism are not being taught adequately at this school, and our narrow focus on technology and software is partially to blame. We’ve now made a huge investment in getting software to our students, when there’s still a need for some of the other basics. Software mastery is indeed very important but knowing how to write a news story is arguably the most important part of our job. Our school inadequately teaches these journalistic fundamentals, making its new software focus a moot point.

Young journalists are training to be storytellers. We’re cultivating the art of capturing our world and practicing shapeshifting to effortlessly dance between mediums, always working to best inform, entertain, and empower. It’s a tall order, this journalism profession, and today much of our work is gathered, crafted, and distributed digitally. Our institution allows us the opportunity and privilege to get our hands on new, slick tools, but first we need to nail the basics. We deserve more than an arbitrary grammar test upon entry into the department. Perhaps we should require a copy editing course or a creative nonfiction writing class to encourage students to flex their imaginative muscles. Our craft requires us to be poised and unhesitating writers and editors, before everything else. At the ballet, we might be impressed by the height of a dancer’s leap or his elaborate costume, but if his toes aren’t pointed, the movement isn’t complete. 

And that’s the problem with this good idea — CreativityKits aren’t journalism kits, and it’s shortsighted to falsely equate the two. Sleek software is necessary, but operating systems and iPhones age out annually. Technology is a tool, but this is a fruitless investment if it begins and ends with buying a few laptops and booting up some new software. Journalism still needs to be taught, and our students deserve a journalism program that questions the straight white cisgender male perspective that’s so often viewed as “objective.”

The forthcoming undergraduate departmental mentorship program, however, warrants a special shout out. JUMP — Journalism Undergraduate Mentor Program — fills a high impact void in a low cost way. A lot of this industry (like many at Emerson) is rooted in connections and relationships, which this program can foster. Innovation in this department isn’t an either-or, of course, but each represents different investment values in real time. We ought to be less concerned about computers and more concerned that our students are able to take advantage of a curriculum that challenges students to think and report and learn outside of their comfort zones.