Mastering basic reporting skills is essential for budding journalists, even as technology and the demand for storytelling on a variety of platforms evolves.
This is as true today as it was in 1845—the year the telegraph was invented and editorials were written about how the advancement would result in the demise of newspapers.
“What it really did instead, is it enhanced newspapers because the telegraph could take the news from point A to point B, but it couldn’t take it that last mile from the telegraph office into people’s homes, into taverns or into hotels and coffee shops and things like that,” says David Copeland, professor of communications and director of Elon’s Master of Arts in Interactive Media program.
Copeland, a former journalist and media historian, has written many articles and books about the evolution of journalism. History has taught him that the skills a journalist needed 100 years ago are still required today.
“The bottom line is you have to be a good writer, and you have to be a good storyteller,” Copeland says.
Graduate students enrolled in the Interactive Media program first take a basic writing course learning the essentials: gathering accurate information and presenting it in a concise way that grabs a reader’s attention. The coursework, like technology, evolves from there.
“One of the things we do with students—they are pretty adept at all this technology anyway—is you teach how to write in multiple ways,” Copeland says. “You teach how to write for different platforms.”
Ten years ago, all a newspaper reporter needed was a notebook. Today, reporters shoot video, tweet from press conferences and capture photos with their smartphones.
“It works the same way whether you are a print outlet or whether you are a broadcast outlet,” Copeland says. “You have to do the same kinds of things. You have to know which media do the best job of telling the story and which one will give the best information to people. ... Part of our job as educators is making sure students are aware of that.”
News delivery has continually evolved to make use of technological innovation. And even today, as online news sources rapidly replace the print products that have been a staple since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450, Copeland sees history repeating itself.
Take Benjamin Harris, Copeland says. When he produced a four-page newspaper that was later banned by the Massachusetts government because it was thought to be “problematic,” he included three pages of text. The fourth page was left blank with instructions for readers to comment on the news and then pass it on, much like the comments section available on online news sites.
“It was very 21st century, right? Yet it was 1690,” Copeland says. “It was kind of the way the more things change, even though the technology changed, the method or at least the idea of it has been the same.”
Copeland started focusing on media history when he was in graduate school. A prolific writer, he’s authored 12 books and dozens of book chapters and journal articles. One of his most recent books, The Media’s Role in Defining the Nation: The Active Voice, details how integral the media has been in shaping what happens in this country.
“It’s really hard to separate a lot of events that have happened in America’s past with their presentation in media,” Copeland says. “... Even though we claim today that we are looking for an impartial and objective kind of press, the media have been actively involved in presenting information and pushing different information and causes.”
Copeland joined Elon’s faculty in 2001. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University. He received a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theology from Southeastern Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He teaches courses in media history, editing and design, media writing and media in a global society.