Cover Story

Eight "truths" of communicating in the digital age

Cover art

Would Alexander Graham Bell have summoned Watson via text message? What would Walter Cronkite’s Twitter handle be? Could Greta Garbo be left “alone” in an era of TMZ.com?

When the talk turns to communication, opinions proliferate like cat videos on YouTube. We’ll never know the answers to the questions above, but here are eight things we know are true:

Truth 1

1.  A notebook and a pen are often secondary to the smartphone in the journalists’ toolbox. The ability to take photos, record video and break stories online with just one device changed journalism and those in the field are adjusting quickly.

Kristine Guerra ’10 (Journalism) covers the crime beat at the Indianapolis Star. She and her colleagues are using mobile devices and online tools with great effect.

Guerra can give her 1,700-plus Twitter followers valuable information on breaking news as it happens. Online platforms also allow her to tell stories in new ways, through videos she takes with her company-issued iPhone, or interactive graphics created by designers at the Star.

The newspaper’s print edition is still paramount, but the online audience is growing, and expectations for photos, videos and interaction are increasing as well.

“As a journalist, I prefer the digital platform,” Guerra says. “You have so many more options to tell a story. We have a changing audience that wants stories now, and not just the text.”

2.  Google “reliable news sources” and you’ll find any number of outlets claiming to be a trusted source. The immediacy of social media and 24-hour news channels can be a boon for sharing up-to-the-minute information during events like the Arab Spring uprisings. But rapidly shifting events also expose the vulnerabilities of immediate reporting we saw during the early hours of the Boson Marathon bombing, when the methods, motives and even identities of those who carried out the attack were misreported.

Truth 2

Carol Ann Hackley’s 26 years as a communications professor at the University of Pacific mirrored the rise of the Internet, online communication and mobile devices. She says her students helped keep her in the loop on technology advances, but she holds tight to the principles of communication, whether it is journalism, public relations or personal interaction.

Hackley, co-author of Wordsmithing: The Art & Craft of Writing for Public Relations, says as news cycles vanish, it’s more important than ever to communicate professionally and truthfully.

“Fast is good, but not when it’s a detriment to the accuracy,” says Hackley, who retired as a professor in 2011. “Writing with 140 characters (on Twitter) is great, but not when you shortcut grammar. With instant communication you lose clarity and caution.”

Truth 3

3.  While the unending flow of information is a net positive, there are concerns that customizable news can limit one’s viewpoint. The proliferation of websites, blogs, publications and social media sites where people interact in like-minded communities—bonded by political persuasion, religious belief, sexual orientation, lifestyle or even sports team affiliation—can lead to form of “group-think” that doesn’t always account for reality.  

“If used correctly, you can get a deeper understanding of the world on the web,” says Molly Dugan, professor of journalism. “But with a newspaper you at least read all the headlines to find the stories you were interested in. I think we’re at risk of losing some of our well-rounded views.”

Truth 4

4.  Waheed Choudry ’96 (Marketing) is responsible for keeping hundreds of businesses networked and up-to-date. He is the president and chief operating officer of Nexus, a steadily growing advanced technology provider with offices all over the United States and Canada.

He says the prevalence of cloud-based technology and mobile devices is, in some cases, making cubicles and business complexes a thing of the past. The technology advances of the past decade have also empowered people, enabling business to take place any time, anywhere.

“There are so many decisions that wouldn’t be made, or would be delayed without cellphone access, email and data,” he says. “Overall, it helps provide me better balance, so I can come home at a reasonable hour, help to get the kids to bed and then I’m back online. We’re more productive at work, but also more productive in our personal lives.

“We’re just scratching the surface of how mobility will impact how we work. One of the unique challenges that corporations face is allowing that mobile environment to thrive in traditionally static business places. We want it all to work the same.”

Truth 5

5.  The word friend was strictly a noun until Facebook arrived in 2004. In the decade since its inception more than 1.2 billion people have been “friended,” on the social media site.

While Facebook and other social media sites let your friends keep up with the latest on you family activities, vacation photos and analysis of the current cult television program, there are also companies who want to sell you their products. And they are keeping an eye on where you go online.

Facebook has emerged as a marketing, advertising and public relations tool for more than 25 million small businesses around the world. The “Like” button is a new currency and the site is a key brand development and marketing venue.

David Ferguson ’88 (Computer Science) began managing Facebook’s “Pages,” in 2010. He currently is an engineering manager for “Groups,” a section of the site for those with common interests.

 “As Facebook has continued to grow, more and more people and businesses have grown to depend on us,” Ferguson says. “It’s always a challenge to make sure we’re delivering the products and technology that will make them successful and doing that as the scale gets bigger and bigger.

“I think our role in that ecosystem is to find ways to respect your time—in the smallest amount of time—to give you the news and information that have an emotional resonance, or excite you or make you take action.”

Truth 6

6.  Just 10 years ago, birds were the only ones tweeting, a vine was simply Tarzan’s mode of transportation and the selfie didn’t exist.

Now, Twitter is home to more than 5,000 tweets per second. Tarzan is no longer the only person using Vine—more than 50 million people use the looping video app that burst onto the scene last year. And “selfie” was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2013 and the camera-phone self-portraits are everywhere on social media sites.

Russ Stanton ’81 (Government/Journalism) was editor of the Los Angeles Times from 2008 to 2011, leading the newsroom’s shift into the digital era. He is doing the same thing in his current role as vice president of content for Southern California Public Radio.

In an effort to keep its audience engaged, informed and entertained, Stanton’s network is developing apps for mobile devices to provide listeners with a wide variety of functions and features.

“We’re working with our staff on figuring out how to replicate that rich radio experience online,” Stanton says. “We’ve added a lot of visuals to our website and we’ve tripled our unique users over the last few years.”

Stanton says one of the major challenges approaching for public radio is the battle for the dashboard. As vehicles get smarter­—with Bluetooth and connectivity features—the radio or CD player are no longer the only options for drivers.

“We’re going to be losing our monopoly on the automobile dashboard,” Stanton says. “We’re trying to develop systems that allow us to disaggregate our content to adjust to that. Two years ago our radio audience was much larger than our online audience and now that’s reversed.”

 7.  Food, water, shelter and a high-speed Internet connection?

Truth 7

For millions of people, access to the Internet isn’t a luxury. It’s a lifeline for business, entertainment and communication. Though the first iPhone came out just seven years ago, most Americans can’t imagine a world without email, text messages, Facebook or YouTube.

But a digital divide still exists. Just 34 percent of people on the planet have regular Internet access.

Even in the U.S. nearly 30 percent of people are without regular access to the online world. In contrast, 90 percent of Sac State students own laptop computers.

Facebook partnered with several other technology companies to create Internet.org, a nonprofit devoted to expanding online access across the globe. It’s a focus for the website, which celebrated its 10th birthday in February.

Ferguson says as online networks expand to include more and more of the world’s population, needs are being met that otherwise may not have been addressed.

“We’ve seen it result in helping wells get built in places where they don’t have clean water,” he says. “The village needs a well, 10 people donate $100 and now they have their well and they have water. When you’re aware of the need, you can respond.”

8.  For most of today’s college students, the World Wide Web has always been a part of their lives. These “digital natives” expect that technology will be available in all aspects of their daily activities.

Reuben Greenwald, Associated Students’ marketing manager and a student in Sac State’s master’s degree in higher education program, says he and his student marketing team seized upon those expectations. They implemented a range of social media tools and a revamped website to get get students engaged with campus activities. And students have responded with plenty of retweets, shares and likes.Truth 8

“We write about fun things going on campus and non-campus things like bands, or fashion, to draw in students. If they come across information that they find useful, they’ll come back,” Greenwald says. “By providing what we call the ‘fun factor’ we are also able to share information we want them to know about, like a scholarship deadline or a tutoring program.”

This reliance on technology can have its drawbacks. Non-natives can get where they’re going without GPS, select a restaurant without a Yelp review or find a library book without an electronic search.

Greenwald says the students of today expect to have information at their fingertips.

“They want instant gratification. They don’t want to search as long or as far as others have had to,” he says.

At the same time, they don’t always pursue the most expedient route.

“Students would rather email than talk face-to-face because it what they’ve always done,” Greenwald says. “But it they would just walk downstairs and talk to someone instead of emailing back and forth, they could get their questions answered right away.”

Whether the moon landing would have launched a meme or Tom Sawyer would have gone straight to e-book, are riddles without resolution.

However, one thing is for sure: the pace of change in communication technology will likely continue to advance at breakneck speed. But there will still be a place for the principles and standards that have stood the test of time and technology.