By: Bob Weinstein
Columbia’s Pavlik Points To Brave New Reporting World
from this week’s special E&P Interactive print section:
John Pavlik walks briskly to his office, unlocks the door, and stalks
into the spacious room with a student (actually, ‘apostle’ is a better
description) hot on his heels. Pavlik figures he can better extol the
virtues and influence of new-media studies on modern journalism by
having one of his students present. That student is 27-year-old Rob
Frehse, a former assignment editor at an ABC affiliate in Boston.
Pavlik’s offices are surprisingly orderly for an innovator, gadgeteer,
and inventor of tomorrow’s media toys. You’d think there would be
tools, computer disks, notepads, even half-consumed coffee containers
and little packets of mustard and mayo scattered around – some evidence
of controlled chaos to capture the workings of the techie mind. One
large room is used for teaching, research, meetings, and seminars; the
other is his office.
Frehse is just one of the new generation of journalists being trained
by Pavlik to use all the nifty toys new-media techies will be turning
out. These journalists won’t be charging out to cover stories with the
traditional reporter’s notebook, a few pens, and a camera, says Pavlik,
professor and executive director of the Center for New Media at
Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
Rather, each may be armed with a half-dozen high-tech tools, including
a portable hand-held wireless computer, the newest cell phone with
Internet access and e-mail, a ‘mobile journalist’s work station,’ and a
camera with Cyclovision, a process developed at Columbia’s new-media
department. It’s a 360-degree imaging system requiring nothing more
complicated than attaching a parabolic mirror to the lens of an off-
‘It gives you a feeling of space, allowing you to design your own view.
And it takes less than 20 seconds to load,’ Pavlik explains.
And that’s just for starters. Pavlik says a PC-and-camera combination
will enable a reporter to shoot and send pictures, and stories, to his
or her newspaper – or to a colleague working on the same story in a
different location. ‘This is all real-time communication,’ says Pavlik.
If you think Pavlik is excited about present innovations, just ask him
about his vision of the future. He normally speaks at the speed of
sound, a challenge to any journalist who aspires to catch every
information nugget. But if you ask him about the future, Pavlik shifts
into overdrive, and there’s no keeping up with him. Along with better
information-gathering tools for reporters, newspaper readers can look
forward to electronic paper, Pavlik predicts.
No joke. Pavlik said a researcher at Columbia is developing electronic
paper technology. ‘It’s tomorrow’s newspaper,’ he says. How does it
work? ‘The paper is filled with millions of electronic transistors,’
Pavlik explains. ‘The paper updates itself every time it’s connected to
the Internet. You don’t ever have to throw it out.’
The centerpiece of Pavlik’s office are two back-to-back workstations
equipped with oversized monitors. One workstation running Windows NT
boasts a special video capture board that allows Pavlik and students to
work with full-motion 360-degree video and other digital video.
Enmeshed in technology, this is where Pavlik spends countless hours,
often working well into the night surfing the Net, critiquing students’
projects, as well as his own.
Rob Frehse is just as hooked on new media as his mentor, who he
respectfully calls ‘Professor’ or ‘Dr.’ Pavlik. In these days of
disenfranchised youths and open relationships with teachers, it is
surprising and impressive to witness the deference bestowed upon
Maybe it’s the scholarly aura of Columbia University’s century-old
museumlike stone buildings that triggers respect between student and
teacher. Or, possibly, it is as basic as Frehse realizing that Pavlik
could teach him things he could learn nowhere else. Or maybe it’s a
healthy combination of both. Pavlik, 43, is so immersed in his work, so
excited and consumed in his own thoughts, the time-honored distance
separating teacher and student probably doesn’t cross his mind.
Why should it? Pavlik might toss it off as an irrelevant detail. He’s
teaching someone who is just as addicted to technology’s toys and the
promise of an exciting future as himself. What’s more, Pavlik is all
about turning out the next generation of wired journalists, a
generation that’s being molded and nurtured in his classes.
Pavlik, lean with a closely cropped beard and short hair, casts
anything but a formal academic presence. When he speaks about new
media, he’s not just pontificating about the history of the Internet or
the evolution of the computer, but describing what he considers the
most exciting and vibrant innovation in journalism since Gutenberg’s
printing press. By the sheer breadth of his knowledge about new media
and the importance of the Internet for both print and broadcast
journalists, Pavlik strikes a commanding presence.
‘My, you talk fast,’ a visitor observes.
‘This is nothing, you should see me in class,’ he replies.
He is most passionate when discussing the state of journalism. Pavlik
says, ‘We’re in a transitional stage in which we are being flooded with
news. There is going to be a sorting-out process in the next five to 10
years in which we’ll have to learn how to manage all these news
All of Pavlik’s students are involved in the experimental use of new
tools. ‘This is what distinguishes graduate and undergraduate
education,’ Pavlik preaches. ‘Students are encouraged to help create
the new knowledge.’
Frehse certainly agrees. That’s why he came back to school – and not to
just any journalism grad program. Frehse chose Columbia because it’s
lauded as a mecca for new-media experimentation with the guru behind it
being John Pavlik. ‘I wanted exposure to the new tools and how to apply
them in the real world,’ says Frehse. ‘I wanted to learn about
alternative story options and a new way of thinking.’
So did Dan Goodrich, 49, a veteran photographer with Long Island, N.Y.-
based Newsday and a 1998 graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of
Journalism. Goodrich returned to school so he could learn about the new
tools and become a photojournalist. ‘You can’t help being inspired by
the guy [Pavlik] because he completely loves his work,’ says Goodrich.
‘I used to be pretty much a word person,’ testifies Carla Baranauckas,
44, an editor at The New York Times, ‘but now I think in terms of what
is the best way to convey information.’
Pavlik, she says, introduced her to a wide array of video, photo, and
graphic imagery, ‘but the emphasis was always on storytelling. He
taught us to be discerning instead of just using technology for the
sake of technology.’
In this new-media world, Pavlik is an innovator and prophet rolled into
one. Prior to joining the Columbia University faculty, he was founding
director of the School of Communication at California’s San Diego State
University. He has written several books on new media and computer
networks as well as contributed to more than a dozen software packages
for education in journalism and communication.
Is Pavlik a techie, teacher, journalist, or futurist? Answer? All of
the above. That’s why Joan Konner, former dean of Columbia’s Graduate
School of Journalism, hired him. ‘We needed to increase our
intellectual resources in new media,’ says Konner. ‘We had to adapt or
else we’d become obsolete. There were few new-media experts who had
both a research background and practical experience with new-media
technology. Pavlik was well-known and skilled in a practical way.’
Columbia University didn’t want to be left in the technological wake
and needed to bolster its journalism school’s image as being part of
the experimental vanguard. By the late 1980s, Konner and other faculty
members felt they’d better master the technological tools that were
changing journalism. ‘We saw the revolution [a favorite word among
Columbia’s faculty] coming, and by 1992, it was under way. The changes
were overwhelming. Students needed a technical knowledge base, and John
could give it to them. He was writing about the convergence phenomenon
very early,’ Konner says.
Yet Pavlik says the word ‘convergence’ had a powerful meaning to him
before it ascended to a power buzzword in techie circles. He says he
owes his fascination with journalism and technology to his family. His
grandfather published a weekly newspaper in Minnesota around the turn
of the century, and his parents ran an electronics-parts store in
Racine, Wis., where he grew up. ‘It was the convergence of electronics
and journalism that led to my strong interest in technology and news,’
Pavlik explains. ‘Unconsciously, I have been trying to bring them
together since my childhood.’
But Pavlik’s epiphany pointing him toward his life’s obsession occurred
when he was about 9 years old after his parents bought him a crystal
radio set. Pausing to stroke his short beard, he says, ‘It was amazing.
Here was this crude device. It had no antenna, electricity, or battery.
You had to wrap wire around a coil and assemble the thing. With an
alligator clip, I attached it to a radiator, and, lo and behold, I
picked up news and music. It bowled me over. Unconsciously, I must have
thought to myself, ‘How could I play a role in this trajectory that
brings media into people’s lives in a meaningful way?”
When he was older, he witnessed changes in communication in his folks’
store. ‘We sold TV antennas, but when cable came in the 1970s, I
witnessed the transformation of the media system,’ says Pavlik.
These early changes in communication motivated Pavlik to get a
bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in mass
communication. Then he built a career as a researcher and teacher, and,
more recently, has become an outspoken advocate for new media.
If Pavlik has a mission, it’s to change the way reporters gather news.
To accomplish that end, he hopes to play a part in creating tomorrow’s
tools. That’s not to say newspapers are ready to embrace these new-
‘Reporters are just beginning to use interactive tools,’ says Pavlik.
‘One of my goals is to get reporters away from their computers and show
them the best way to use these tools. It’s easy to get stuck behind a
desk just roaming the Internet all day. Reporters need to be in the
field so they can do their best work.’
To assist in that end, Pavlik sees a battery of new tools on the
horizon, many of which are on the drawing board, or already developed,
Another home-grown Columbia toy is Pavlik’s experimental mobile
journalist’s workstation (or ‘wearable augmented reality system’) that
enables users to experience hypermedia presentations integrated with
actual outdoor locations. It boasts high-speed Internet access and a
GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) system that locates its wearer
‘The mobile prototype uses a see-through head display to overlay 3-D
graphics, imagery, and sound on top of the real world, and presents
additional material on a hand-held pen computer,’ Pavlik explains. ‘You
can use it to create what we call ‘situated documentaries.’ You can
walk around the Columbia campus and relive the 1968 student revolt and
strike. Or you can journey back in time to see what the campus looked
like 100 years ago. The headset is translucent. Layered on top of it in
almost ghostlike form are images, graphics, text, and audio.’
Along with the 360-degree camera and the mobile journalist’s
workstation, wireless e-mail is just around the corner. ‘Imagine how
useful this will be to a newspaper reporter in the field,’ he says.
‘Instead of finding something to connect to, you can file literally
right from the field. You’ll also be able to do research in the field.
If someone makes a claim, for example, you can check facts right there
and not have to wait to get back to the office. You don’t need a
massive news organization behind you. It translates to more thorough
Next-generation journalists will also rely on wearable computer
devices. These are likely to be devices no bigger than a pager that
clip on your belt. You’ll be able to enter data by using either a
voice-recognition system or a hand-held keyboard.
‘Futurist Ray Kurzweil, one of the pioneers of speech recognition,’
Pavlik reports, ‘forecasts in his 1999 book, ‘The Age of Spiritual
Machines,’ that in less than 30 years, computer processing power will
far exceed that of humans and will have been so miniaturized that
microchips will be biologically inserted into people giving them access
to vast repositories of knowledge and internal computer power.
‘Is this part of the future of journalism in the 21st century? It’s not
as farfetched as it seems,’ he claims. ‘Microchip technology is already
being designed for use as aids to the blind or hearing impaired, in
some cases successfully restoring sight or hearing.’
Many of these innovations, if they come to pass, will directly affect
the future of newspapers. Pavlik envisions a renaissance for journalism
in the 21st century. ‘Reader penetration has been dropping steadily,’
he says, ‘because we have taken too many things out of context. The new
media give journalists the ability to put stories back in context. Take
conventional photography. The basic paradigm has been to put a frame on
a bit of reality. Well, that’s useful in focusing our attention. But,
it takes the context away. When you put something on the Internet, for
example, you have a frame where you can start the image. But, then you
can also pan-and-tilt or zoom anywhere within a 360-degree view.’
Pavlik insists young people, especially, want more and better
information. ‘They want to look around and draw their own conclusions,’
he adds. ‘We need to re-convince the public that they can trust
journalists. By taking advantage of new-media tools, we can recapture
and engage an increasingly alienated audience.’
Bob Weinstein writes a weekly syndicated career column about technical
careers called ‘Tech Watch.’
(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher