Jennifer George-Palilonis on multimedia education and a new challenge at Ball State

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Ball State grads are everywhere in our profession, and wherever they are, there is a connection to Jennifer George-Palilonis. Palilonis, a full professor at Ball State, recently stepped down as journalism graphics sequence coordinator to become co-director of the school’s new Center for Emerging Media Design & Development, which will offer a master’s program in information design. She’s also the author of two books, The Multimedia Journalist (Oxford University Press, 2012) and A Practical Guide to Graphics Reporting (Focal Press, 2006), which will be released in an updated second edition in 2016, and recently received her PhD in Human-Computer Interaction from the Indiana University School of Informatics & Computing. I had a chance to catch up with her about her approach to teaching multimedia journalism.

What are some of the perhaps underappreciated practical tools that journalists should know about?

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the software, hardware, coding languages and storytelling techniques that have risen in the digital age. In some ways, the answer to your question depends on your role. There are a lot of easy-to-use tools out there for data visualization that don’t require that you know code. Knight Lab’s Timeline JS and StoryMap JS are beautifully elegant tools that allow storytellers to focus on story and not worry about code. They are also customizable for those who DO know a little code and want to modify the core structure. Likewise, there are a number of other tools that allow journalists to make simple but interactive charts, images and videos. ThingLink, for example is an interactive media platform that allows you to enliven your content with rich media links to photos and videos. And Infogr.am offers pretty elegantly designed templates for interactive charts.

I’m surprised at how often I run into journalists that don’t know much about Lynda.com or think it’s just for designers. I am blown away at how robust that site is and how good those tutorials are. For a reasonable price, you can access tutorials and workshops on everything from grant writing, to motion graphics software and techniques, to marketing analytics and business intelligence. Seriously! The list goes on and on.

How does writing a book like this affect what/how you teach?

I am constantly looking for new ideas, new examples, new ways of thinking and doing. So, writing a book like this really puts that mission into high gear. Perhaps most exciting is the website that I developed to accompany the book. My logic is that you can’t write a printed book about multimedia storytelling without a digital piece. Most textbook websites are just “supplements” to the book. I wanted the website to be a true companion by offering regularly updated blog posts highlighting innovative examples of multimedia journalism, as well as a repository for more resources and exercises, interviews with professionals, and tutorials. My hope is that it becomes a living, breathing example of the best of multimedia journalism.

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As you were researching The Multimedia Journalist, what surprised you?

I talked to a lot of colleagues at other universities about how they were teaching multimedia journalism to try to get an idea of how the book would be structured. I was challenged by the fact that everyone is doing it differently. In other words, there’s no real curricular precedent for how these concepts should be integrated into an existing journalism curriculum. Some people said, “We have one class in multimedia storytelling at my school.” Others said, “We integrate concepts related to digital journalism throughout the curriculum in every class.” Some said it’s up to each professor to decide. Others said their faculty collectively decided how to approach digital journalism, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and multimedia storytelling.

When you’re writing a book like this one, it’s impossible to serve all of those interests equally. So, I just tried to stay true to the original mission of the book: provide a practical and introductory guide for students learning to become journalists in a multimedia world. I believe firmly that most people will and should focus on one or two skills they are good at. In other words, you’re a writer, or a designer, or a photographer, or a programmer, etc. But in today’s world, we all must have a working knowledge of the roles, responsibilities and skills of the others on our storytelling teams. Speaking a common and mutually understood language is half the battle to being a good journalist in the multimedia world.

Several critics have said that the book is “too basic.” But that’s exactly what I was going for! Foundation. Breadth.

Can you talk a little about entrepreneurial journalism – how Ball State graduates are making it work on their own terms?

We all know that traditional journalism organizations have struggled to keep audiences, stay relevant and grow their digital platforms. In spite of that, my students NEVER have trouble getting jobs. But unlike my generation – most of whom got their first jobs in traditional newsrooms – today’s journalism grads have broader horizons.

For example, I have students who have taken jobs at hospitals, firms that develop multimedia teaching and learning tools, marketing agencies, commercial design firms, and more. And several of their employers have told me that even though they’re not doing traditional journalism, it’s the journalism skills that made them attractive hires.

I also tell my students all the time that in addition to preparing them for their first jobs out of school, I am also trying to prepare them for a lifetime of adaptability and innovation. So, I focus a lot on soft skills like collaborative abilities, lifelong learning strategies, and an understanding of how to apply what you know today to what you want to know tomorrow.

What drove the creation of the new program at Ball State?

It’s a graduate program, and undergraduate minor and a center in the Department of Journalism. We’re very excited about it. The center is a holistic learning environment that pairs a traditional graduate curriculum with a hands-on lab experience in which students work with public and private partners to solve real problems. Our Year One cohort includes students with undergraduate degrees in journalism, art and graphic design, computer science, English, history, and more. Together, they will study human-computer interaction, design thinking, and transmedia storytelling. The mission is to advance students’ creative problem solving skills and develop an advanced, graduate-level workforce that has practical experience in storytelling, applied research, and development in digital strategic communication design.