Teaching Journalism in the 21st Century: A Conversation with William Zinsser
Few subjects are as challenging to teach as journalism, a field that is changing as fast as technology itself -- or faster.
I reached out to William Zinsser, age 90, a living legend, stellar journalist and one of America's greatest teachers of writing. I was curious to hear how he adapted so successfully to publishing his work online. Following are highlights of that conversation.
The Medium is Not the Message
"Clutter is the disease of American writing," Zinsser wrote in On Writing Well, the gold-standard go-to guide for crafting effective prose. "We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon."
When I speak with Zinsser about the Internet, I ask whether the Web adds "pompous frills and meaningless jargon" to the public discourse. First and foremost, he tells me that technology is not the issue.
"The issue is learn to write," he says. "Put one sentence after another in good, simple declarative language, and get what you want written the way you want to write it. Then find a way to harness it, publish it in whatever technology that exists."
Zinsser is a self-professed "lifelong child of paper." For years, he sold pieces to The American Scholar, a prestigious quarterly magazine that ran his work in a print edition. At first, he balked when he heard that his editors wanted him to go online.
"I thought, 'Oh, God, that's the kiss of death," he tells me. "I will vanish into some electronic black hole. I don't even know who's reading.' I assumed that nobody of any intelligence was reading out there -- it was one vast mess."
Zinsser quickly admits his misjudgment.
"It took me a while to figure out what a good blog should be," he says. "It had to be more timely; it had to be tighter. But I learned a lot by doing it. At the end, I heard from a tremendous number of new readers who were very bright, another big surprise. I have a whole new readership . . . It was very satisfying that I was able to convert my lifelong skills as a writer to a new technology -- regardless of the technology."
I have long argued in favor of moving print publications online, especially with an increased emphasis on "going green." I find solace in discovering that William Zinsser is another supporter.
"I have been impressed by the fact that The American Scholar, like all magazines, now is putting a heavy emphasis on its online presence," he says. "That's their only road to salvation."
For a man that lived most of his life dependent on paper, Zinsser adapted extremely well to the Internet -- so much so, in fact, that he proposed starting his own blog. He wanted to see if he could write in a new medium and continue producing reviews and columns, which he had done so successfully his entire life.
He not only succeeded; he excelled. At 89, Zinsser won a National Magazine Award in digital commentary. I discuss with him the increased emphasis on video and multimedia in today's newsroom, and that editors require reporters to do a bit of everything. I ask if he thinks the public is losing something by editors placing an increasingly heavy emphasis on those areas.
"Of course, we are losing something, which is an appreciation of the written word. That's a rather odd thing to say, since it's been going on as the main prop since the King James Bible."
Zinsser also fears what he calls an "epidemic of lost logic."
"That's because most people in the world now get their information from multiple sources, many of them visual images that are flickering on a screen. They are not arranged in any order. They're coming at us from every direction. They're coming through their wrists. They're coming through their ears. They're coming through God-knows-whatever other wires."
A Few Best Practices
I press Zinsser for advice on how I should conduct my class, especially if I aim to educate marketable journalists.
"I would say to anybody teaching journalism or any kind of writing, the job is to teach them how to put one declarative sentence after another -- and it always will be," he says, noting that the same holds true whether one is speaking into a video camera or using any other piece of technology to disseminate information.
In addition to this advice, I'd also like to offer some suggestions of my own for teaching journalism in the 21st century:
- Technology should only be used as a conduit to express effective writing and clear thinking.
- Move your publication to an online format to teach contemporary journalism skills, including blogging.
- Teach how to communicate effectively on social networking platforms.
- Have students practice their writing and interviewing skills in a newsroom setting. (See my student interview Martin Luther King III.)
- Teach students to write and record a Podcast.
Whether you're a lifelong child of paper or pixels, one thing hasn't changed. On the page or on the computer screen, good writing is good writing.