Journalism training must face up to rapid change

A debate about the effectiveness of journalism training and education in meeting the needs of rapidly changing and converging mainstream media is taking off in the United States. The issues are similar here.

I was alerted to the discussion by Ryan Sholin who is working on a thesis at San Jose State University about the adoption of weblogs at US newspapers. He wrote in his Invisible Inking blog:

Hey Spartan Daily kids (and all J-School students everywhere). Those of you just writing stories for the print edition, not participating in the blogs, not asking your faculty advisers when they’re going to get you one of those great audio recorders, not asking where you can borrow a video camera from, not asking the online editor to show you how the content management system works… WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

Good luck at the internship with the weekly paper, but seriously, if you want more than that out of a journalism career, it’s time to either start learning on your own, or asking for more from your school.

If you ask them to teach you more, maybe they’ll get the idea that they should be teaching you more.

It is tough for the teachers too. How do we cram more into a course? What goes? J-schools like mainstream media have business models which are slow to change and people who do not want to change. Then there is the need for alterations in courses to go through validation processes which were not designed to meet the needs of anything which is changing rapidly.

And, yes, there are teachers who don’t get the web and would rather carry on doing what they have always done. You spend time in some pretty bruising meetings on the way to change. But we are getting there. It was pleasing last week when a visitor said he found better multi-media capabilities among our students than he did in other places.

That is reflected in the jobs our students get but I know we have to do more. We are making some progress so I was interested by Rob Curley’s post revisiting the state of journalism eduction which he wrote about in 2004. He writes:

I still see much of that same near-disdain-for-new-media attitude in far too many of the younger reporters in our newspaper newsrooms. In fact, if we want to do something cool on one of our sites, we’re much more likely to get help from either a mid-career journalist or a senior reporter.

He recently gave this advice to an aspiring journalist:

Know how to write. Know how to tell a story. Know how to conduct an interview. Know how to research your ass off.

Traditional journalism skills will *never* go out of vogue. I don’t care what the latest gizmo is, the foundation that everything will be built upon are those core journalism skills.

But also understand that things are changing rapidly in our industry.

Hear. Hear. Those are the skills that have to be applied to all journalism but the web is here and that means a lot of exciting new ways of applying the basic skills.

Howard Owens, director of digital publishing at Gatehouse Media, writes:

I’ve run across far too many recent J-school grads that are as traditional in their thinking as any crusty old city editor you care to name. I’ve talked to other hiring managers about how hard it is to get recent J-school grads to take positions in the online departments — they all want to work for print. I’ve seen shiny new grads in newsrooms who won’t pick up a video camera or file a web-first story. It’s a pretty amazing phenomena.

In a separate interview with Innovation in College Media, Owens gave this advice to J-schools:

One of my big concerns about j-school professors today is that many of them don’t get the web. You blog, but how many others do? How many have done anything to participate in the participant culture, even so much as be a regular on a message board or mailing list?

So, again, you’ve got to understand to teach. You can’t just read about it in a book. Of course, I have no numbers to know if my perception is accurate or not, but I’ve run into so many recent J-school grads who seem intent on protecting old-school journalism, or worse, would rather write for print than web.

Educators who get the web, and get what needs to be done can communicate with some authority. I know some have required students to blog. They should make sure that student publication policies reflect the three prime strategic initiatives I outlined above. Students and faculty should just assume their future is online, and design curriculum and publication efforts accordingly … be even more dismissive of print than mainstream pubs are right now.

Overall, I agree with him but don’t think we should be dismissive of print. It is going to be an important part of journalism for a long time both for magazines and newspapers. There is a focus in these US posts on newspaper journalism but the web is having a profound effect on broadcast journalism too. All aspiring broadcast journalists now need to be able to write for the page (web or print) as well as for speech.

Most of our students are now blogging, some are coming up with innovative ideas for the web and I don’t see much of this “I only want to work for print” attitude. From what I have read of student blogs from other UK universities that is a fairly general situation.

In some ways the issue for journalism eduction is that when students arrive we don’t know what the industry will be looking for at the end of the course. How do we cope with that?

Later: I have just read a great post from Mindy McAdams who teaches online journalism in Florida. She asks this question: “How many j-schools are permitting students to graduate with a journalism degree and inadequate skills to pursue a career in journalism?”

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  • Bryan Murley

    Very thoughtful words. I think the situation may be slightly different in the UK as larger UK papers and the BBC have been much quicker on the uptake as far as new technology and readership changes are concerned. At least, that’s the sense I get from across the ocean. :-)

  • Media Blog

    I have a subsequent post on my blog clarifying the poorly chosen “dissmissive” word.

  • Ryan

    “Then there is the need for alterations in courses to go through validation processes which were not designed to meet the needs of anything which is changing rapidly.”

    Of course, with curriculum committees and accreditation and all that, it’s far faster for most schools to change the *name* of their courses to Online This and That than it is to actually *change* their mindset.

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  • Alan Hiscock

    It brings a wry smile to my face to see how much of this tosh about the new media comes from US sources. Journalism in the US has never had much in common with that in the UK; and that is still the case, both in print and on-line. The all-round quality is much higher in the UK.
    Ok, they had Watergate; but the UK national and provincial dailies have lots of riveting investigative stories in a year, not just one in a generation. Since then, the best shot at a big US scandal was an intern sucking the president’s cock. And who cares what consenting idiots do in private?
    A blog is no more nor no less than a personal column put on-line. Personal columnists have a big picture and by-line and the licence to rant about whatever they like in whatever way they like. Columns and blogs are high in opinion, mainly cock-eyed opinion, but low on facts; and that’s not the journalism I have come to love and practise for 38 years.
    So here are a few facts. In all the main places where jobs in journalism are advertised in the UK, there are still vastly more print jobs than those in the new media.
    Only three publishing companies in the UK have so far made significant money out of web-sites.
    Most web-sites show an appalling ignorance of typography and have little opportunity to make it more refined. The result is that column measures, founts and typefaces, not to mention the inordinate length of some stories, mitigate against the reader persevering with or enjoying the experience.
    I am no dinosaur. I teach my university students all the basics of journalism, and how to create web-sites and input stories to them. I have used the virtual newsroom and virtual classroom. But I insist my students tell the readers relevant facts of public interest which they didn’t already know; and to do this in a clear and often entertaining way. Against this, blogs are dull, dull, dull.
    What’s more, I work hard in a committed way to do a first-class job. Those who have the time to blog can’t have much of a life nor a demanding job.

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  • Shirley Lewis

    As a journalist,lecturer and media trainer I am fascinated by the above dialogue. Blogging is after all writing.
    Surely the fundamentals of journalism are as vital to new media as old, and practical experience the ultimate classroom.
    We may be able to teach the rudiments of journalism,show students how to adapt their styles for print, broadcast and on line but how do we teach them dogged determination, iniative and empathy. The ability to think on their feet and second guess a news editor.
    Call me old fashioned but are we not in danger of producing graduate clones.

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