Columbia Journalism School building; photo by ...

Columbia Journalism School

I shared a Facebook link this morning to a PBS story about a new degree program at Columbia University, Medill School of Journalism that will create journalist/programmers. To me it made perfect sense, and I said so. I immediately heard back from an old friend.

“Geeks instead of journalists?” he wrote.

“Not instead,” I said. I told him that in my opinion individuals are demanding more control over content than ever before — no longer (if ever) the realm of a programmer.

I also said that, IMHO, writers and designers have historically been separated at birth as far as the web goes. Not for all companies, of course — there are many fine examples of well-designed web sites. I’d say they’re few and far between.

But for the masses? A company generally calls a web design company, who offers a design but no copy — the web design company considers web copy the responsibility of the company. So, as in so many media tragedies, the company calls up its PR person and asks that she or he produce copy for the web site.

Why is this happening when there’s a long history of tight relationships between writers and designers as far as advertising and print collateral? Hard to say exactly, but I think part of it has to do with money and speed. The web has grown so quickly that an infrastructure to support its proper execution has never solidified. Geeks went out and got the jobs that writers and content people didn’t know how to execute themselves. And content went begging.

Not only that, but web designers aren’t always the best people to judge usability. Every time you go to a web site and can’t find the thing you came to find — someone was asleep (or missing) at the wheel.

This scenario is changing, thank goodness. WYSIWYG design programs are getting easier to use even if their users don’t fully understand HTML. Blogging software, incredibly easy for anyone to set up and use, is now fair game for designing full web sites. There are many, many templates available for non-designers and programmers to use. In other words, it’s possible for a content person to “come over to the other side.” Cost, among other factors, has made it so.

Also, web consumers are becoming savvier about what works and what doesn’t. We don’t have that much patience for web sites that don’t work as we need them to. So it makes sense that those who are better at organization, usability, and writing are taking back their birthright.

And, as time goes by, we’ll see the gap narrow even more, as software and e-learning each accelerate. Certainly there will always be a market for technicians, but there will be a larger market for content people who can create anything from an electronic newsletter to an interactive web site at a much lower cost than is now possible.

My friend wrote back, “I hope you’re right. I’m just an old newspaper guy suspicious of technocrats and J-schools on principle.”

I say he and I will both be satisfied with the outcome. The medium will always be the message, and the message needs to be controlled by the many.

The wave of the web future

by susan time to read: 2 min
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