Beware the digital native.

Here is a little quote to start the post.

“If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly.”

Responding to the general discussion about who is working the digital news vein, Pat Thornton has posted another take on the problems with management pointing out that Management should reflect demographics (AKA management can’t be just a bunch of old white guys)

The only way to expand into new demographics (mostly younger) is to have people in those demographics in management and actively consult younger staffers about what they want. No more guessing.

Honestly, how else are newspapers going to expand their audience if they don’t have people they are trying to court making decisions?

It’s a good post and I have swapped a couple of comments with Pat about the problems I have with his point. OK, I say problems. In the main, there isn’t a lot to disagree with. News organisations don’t look like the community they serve and that is a problem. Who could argue with that?

The transparency that digital platforms create means that people look directly at us and if they don’t recognise what is looking back then they leave. That’s tied directly to the thorny issue of diversity in the newsroom.

Can you only (afford to) be a journalist if you are a privately educated graduate with the resources to take the salary hit? Why are there not more black and female journalists and managers and influencers in our news organisations? All serious and systemic problems to chew over and try to resolve.

But I don’t think this is the nub of what Pat is saying and what he finds frustrating. This isn’t about diversity, it’s about innovation.

Young and smart or old and predictable?

In the main he seems to be suggesting that only young people (30 – 40) are really innovating online citing the creators of Amazon and Google as examples of young ‘Web titans’. Lets have more of them in decision making positions:

Let’s say you have 10 top editors. At least one should be a digital native. How many newspapers can honestly say that?

Can’t argue with that. Some bright people, young or not, wouldn’t go a miss. But I do have a problem with the term Digital Native. Why?  There is no such thing as a digital native. And it’s dangerous to assume there is.

The natives are restless

In the past it’s been easy to see the move of the mainstream media to the web as some kind of land rush. Hell, I’ve even referred to the move in negative terms as a form of Rachmanism. The logic would follow that there was an indigenous people or sitting tenant of the web that was somehow deposed. Now that would be a digital native.

Of course the logic doesn’t follow. Yes, there where early pioneers – even a founder – but no incumbent population

So what is this digital native thing all about? Who are digital natives?

According to the alleged inventor of the phrase Marc Prensky:

They are native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet. I refer to those of us who were not born into the digital world as digital immigrants. We have adopted many aspects of the technology, but just like those who learn another language later in life, we retain an “accent” because we still have one foot in the past.

He was using this in an academic framework talking about the need to embrace new technology in teaching as kids do in life. Of course the big flaw in this is that in journalism, as in education, not all kids/young people are fluent in that way especially when it comes to J-students. As Mark Comerford points out.

My j-students are often rigidly locked in to an analogue vision of the industry, see print as their future and do not easily understand the principals of conversation contra lecturing that many of us propagate as the (only) future for journalism. The have some degree of technical knowledge (though that is often over-estimated) but no great conceptual grasp of the shift from analogue to digital.

And the diverse, dynamic and fast changing nature of that conceptual change means that the landscape is too fluid to sustain any long standing definition that could sustain anyone being called a native.

Going native

So what we need to talk about here are not digital natives but people who have gone native (or better still the enthisiastic adoptor that Sarah Hartley talks about.) Picking up on Pat’s theme, I want to see enthusiastic adoptors of any age get a chance to change the way things are done and make newsrooms look more like the community they serve.  It is essential that we get more of that diversity that is so vital both commercially and socially.

But I don’t want a tribe of digital natives springing up creating digital divides – old/young, get it/don’t  – because rather than having the keys to the digital kingdom, all that the attitude really tells me is that they have gone really native. And when that comes with claims that having more of them is just what you need to get the job done…

‘Ten divisions of those men’ might sound tempting but that was a quote from Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.

Perhaps the best example of what can happen if you go too native