I haven’t spent this much time talking to journalism professors and students since I graduated from Texas Christian University (let’s just say some time ago).
I visited TCU last week to present seminars on the Complete Community Connection and journalism ethics in the digital age. And since I was sticking around for some memory-lane time, the curriculum committee at TCU’s Schieffer School of Journalism asked me to meet with them and tell them what I think journalism schools should be teaching about our swiftly changing field.
I shared my views with them and will share them with you here shortly. The TCU meetings continued a heavy fall schedule of consultations with journalism faculty and students on a variety of related topics:
- In late August, I was a panelist for the Accreditation Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, sharing my views on how journalism schools should be teaching today and what sort of standards the council should require. Afterward, I shared some resources for journalism educators on this blog.
- In mid-September, I met with University of Missouri faculty to advise on plans for digital-only coverage of the Associated Press Managing Editors convention in St. Louis.
- Later in September, I presented an ethics seminar at the University of Kentucky. The visit included an informal discussion over pizza with students about what editors are seeking in interns and journalism graduates. I developed a post of career advice for journalism students and called their attention to an earlier post on the importance of your digital profile.
- The next week, I met with faculty advisers and editors of the Iowa State Daily, who came to Cedar Rapids to brainstorm issues such as digital coverage, C3 and organizational changes we’ve made at Gazette Communications.
- In November, I led another ethics seminar at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and critiqued the senior portfolios of three UNL seniors (part of the UNL accreditation process, as well as providing advice to the seniors).
- Before visiting TCU, I returned to the University of Missouri for an American Society of News Editors/Reynolds Journalism Institute Ethics and Values Forum. Participants included journalism faculty from four other universities, in addition to Missouri. After dinner one night, we had an interesting discussion with several Missouri students, many of whom are already looking for jobs.
- I have had frequent discussions with David Perlmutter, new director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, including plans to team-teach a course with Jim Cremer on creating an iPhone application.
In various ways in formal events and private conversations, similar concerns about how to teach journalism today came up again and again. If I could summarize the concerns (admitting that I am drawing conclusions that weren’t always stated explicitly), I would say this: Lots of journalism educators worry how they can and should teach to prepare students for a world that has changed vastly since professors practiced and/or earned graduate degrees and is changing so swiftly that even if professors were current in all respects, their lessons may be outdated by the time their students graduate. While journalism school enrollment is stronger than the businesses that support journalism, educators are keenly aware that they need to update their curriculum and knowledge or they could face the same sort of crash that news media companies are experiencing.
My response focuses heavily on what journalism schools should be doing to address new needs and challenges. I have not looked at closely at what they should not be doing. But I would suggest that in the current environment, every requirement and every course needs to be re-examined and face demanding questions:
- Does the course need to be updated?
- Should the course be dropped?
- Should the course be taught less frequently?
- Should the course be combined with another?
- Should a required course become an elective?
Journalism schools also need to examine their tracks, sequences and structures. If your school offers a “print sequence,” you might as well call it an “outdated sequence.” While newspapers still command large audiences and generate large revenues, newspaper companies are diversifying and journalism schools need to be educating multi-platform journalists, not print journalists.
As I go through topics that journalism schools might not be covering adequately, I would argue that many of these issues don’t need to be addressed in a standalone class, required or elective. Rather, they should be integrated throughout the curriculum. For instance, if you offer an elective course in Twitter but don’t teach students in your basic reporting course how reporters should use Twitter, you aren’t teaching what you need to teach. I would advise requiring students in their first media writing course to spend at least a couple weeks taking their class notes in Twitter, so they get an early practical exposure and see it as a tool for journalism from the start. And each course should decide the appropriate way to use Twitter in that course.
In other cases, a required or elective course – or perhaps a course combining a few of these topics – might be exactly what a journalism curriculum needs. I will make specific recommendations about how digital skills should be infused throughout the curriculum and about specific courses a journalism school should consider. But as curriculum committees and J-school leaders consider these issues, they will need to consider other factors. As j-schools weigh such factors as course loads, total hours students can take and so on, I would usually err on the side of incorporating digital skills throughout the curriculum, rather than addressing them in specific courses.
These are the topics I think journalism schools need to address:
Social media. Journalism schools today need to educate students about how social media are changing professional media and society. Twitter is the social platform that needs the most attention right now, but professors need to stay abreast of how society and journalists are using social tools and update their courses appropriately. If Twitter goes the way of MySpace, you need to adjust swiftly to address the next hot social tool. Students are already active in using Facebook, so Facebook is less urgent. Professors also should consider how to use Facebook in courses, such as using a fan page for assignments and exchanges about a course. My primary recommendation here is that social media need to be incorporated throughout the curriculum: Twitter in media writing, reporting, ethics, specialized reporting courses, appropriate strategic communication courses, etc.; visual journalism courses should cover such social tools as YouTube, Flickr, Twitpic and Qik. Ethics courses certainly need to incorporate social media, including Facebook. I also would recommend an advanced course on social media strategy. This would focus on how media organizations need to use social tools to engage the community and serve business customers. This course also would cover potential uses of emerging social tools. This should be an advanced or graduate-level course, serving journalism and strategic communication sequences.
Interactive databases and computer-assisted reporting. I have been critical before of the use of the term computer-assisted reporting. You might as well refer to notebook-assisted reporting or telephone-assisted reporting. This is 2009 and computers have been an essential tool for reporters for a couple decades now. Journalism schools should take the lead in breaking down the data ghettos that have emerged in our profession. Basic reporting courses should cover use of basic spreadsheet, database and mapping programs. These are essential journalism tools and skills and their use should start in basic courses and be required throughout the curriculum. An advanced course should cover development of interactive databases using such tools as Caspio, Django and Ruby on Rails. Again, these skills are as valuable to strategic communication students as to journalism majors.
Programming. As I mentioned to the TCU curriculum committee, I encourage working with a computer science department to develop cross-disciplinary courses such as my iPhone app course at Iowa. I also encourage working with the computer science department to develop double-major or major-minor combos to help “hacker journalists” get the appropriate education in journalism and programming. (I’m delighted that two students in the iPhone class will be double majors in journalism and informatics.
Mobile journalism. Basic reporting courses should introduce students to the multitasking skills and demands of mobile journalism. The University of Missouri is requiring journalism students to buy iPhones. I don’t know how important it is to specify a brand (I do use an iPhone), but I think requiring students to use smart phones as journalism tools is an excellent idea. If I were teaching a reporting or multimedia course now, I would require that some specific assignments be carried out entirely with a mobile device. This would require writing on the phone, shooting still photos and video and providing geocoding metadata. An advanced course(s) could focus specifically on mobile journalism, such as developing mobile applications or a mobile-first strategy.
The business of journalism. Journalism students need a more thorough introduction to the business of journalism than I received as a student (almost none) or than students receive today. They need to learn about traditional business models for print and broadcast. They should understand the disruption that is causing the collapse of the business models. They should understand why and how some organizations are seeking to try paid-content digital models (and they should understand how paid content has been tried before and that it hasn’t worked). They should examine and understand efforts to develop new business models (such as my own Complete Community Connection model). They should learn about product development and entrepreneurial journalism. They should understand how the advertising model is collapsing on all platforms and study efforts to develop new revenue streams. Tim McGuire’s Business and Future of Journalism course at Arizona State University provides a good model. While some coverage of business models would be good in lower-level courses, an upper-level course is a good idea and I would encourage requiring it for all students or for some particular majors. The lack of business literacy is a huge problem among journalists and tunnel vision on business issues is a huge problem for people in advertising and executive offices.
Community engagement. Interaction is a significant part of the future of journalism, from crowdsourcing of stories (investigative, events, features, reviews) to engaging comments on blogs to aggregating the work of community bloggers and citizen journalists. This could certainly be a full course.
Digital content in specialized courses. A question raised in an email about TCU’s curriculum asked how much digital content should be integrated into advanced courses on journalism specialties, such as public affairs reporting and sports reporting. My answer is that the courses should have as much digital emphasis as the specialties have now, and that’s a lot. For instance, even TCU sportswriting legend Dan Jenkins, became a Twitter icon this year at age 79. Blogging, liveblogging and video are essential parts of sportswriting now, and the traditional game story is declining in importance to the point that sports writers are debating whether it’s dying. Any course on a specialty should reflect the current state and projected direction of that specialty.
Visual journalism. Photojournalism and graphic arts, as narrowly defined for much of my career, are outdated journalism specialties. While those skills remain important, visual journalists need to master (and be taught) a range of digital skills: video, audio, animation, multimedia graphics using programs such as Flash. And, of course, visual journalists need to learn ethical standards for using all these new tools and skills. Journalism students learning graphic arts should certainly learn how to make print graphics, but they also should learn to develop interactive multimedia, including simulations and games.
Live coverage. Increasingly, journalists need to provide live, unedited coverage of events. Whether in a reporting course, a visual journalism course, a live-coverage course or all three, students should learn how to liveblog, stream live video and aggregate real-time public content from social media.
Managing digital content. Digital journalism and strategic communication both will require a range of digital skills that are rapidly developing. The specific content of such a course and the balance of topics covered would change by semester, but someone should stay abreast of issues such as search-engine optimization, analytics, tagging, curation, aggregation, archiving, content-management systems and semantic technology. Some of these topics need to be introduced in lower-level courses, but they easily could be an upper-level course.
Design. Print design is fading in importance as newspapers cut newsholes and resources and require more regional design and use of templates. But web design and mobile design are areas of growing importance. Design courses should be adjusted accordingly.
Blogging. I don’t see a need for a course specifically in blogging (though I wouldn’t object either). Blogging should be part of nearly every writing course. In many courses, students should be required to keep a course blog. I evaluated portfolio blogs for seniors at the University of Nebraska, and I would encourage any journalism school to require students to maintain portfolio blogs.
Link journalism. Students need to learn how to use links, which are the footnotes of the digital world. This certainly should be part of reporting and editing courses.
Law and Ethics. As I address in my Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards seminars, ethics education needs to address a wide range of digital issues. Of course, digital journalism presents many legal issues as well. In fact, many (I suspect most) editors and journalism professors continue to follow outdated advice on court interpretations of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
First Amendment. The American Press Institute, where I worked for three years, collaborates with the First Amendment Center and the Freedom Forum to take our seminars to programs on the First Amendment. These programs gave me both a deep appreciation of our First Amendment freedoms and a keen realization that professional journalists don’t know enough about the history and current status of the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees. A First Amendment course could be a cross-disciplinary course with credit in journalism, religion and political science. With TCU’s international communication major, this course should include units on restrictions on our key freedoms in other nations.
TCU’s curriculum committee asked me whether I thought professionals would be interested in a certificate program in digital journalism for professionals needing to update their skills. While ability to pay might be impaired by staff reductions and fears about job security, I think interest in such programs would be high. I encourage journalism schools to offer such programs in person and/or online, and to either develop financial aid support for such courses or to cut down the university overhead in determining tuition, since professionals would not draw as heavily as younger students on university resources. Such a certificate program should allow considerable flexibility for professionals to fill the gaps in their own skills.
Many journalism schools will be hard-pressed to update their curricula as I’ve described (though some certainly are already doing some of these things). They will need to hire more faculty with digital skills, use adjunct faculty with digital skills and require faculty to update their own skills and knowledge.
I’m glad journalism schools are considering these issues and I hope they move decisively and swiftly to update.