Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What journalism schools can and can't teach students

Versión en español aquí.

A master's degree in English literature might not seem an ideal preparation for a career as a business journalist. Actually it served me well, for all the reasons given by advocates of a liberal arts education. 

But my own experience seems to have little to do with what the journalism job market is seeking today.  Should we be improving students' minds and souls or helping them get a job? 

These days I advise students to be practical. Employers and recent graduates are telling me that the current job market demands that job applicants know:

  • Multimedia storytelling skills. Producing slideshows with sound, shooting and editing video and photos, writing for the web.
  • Data and statistical skills for storytelling. Collecting, editing, analyzing and interpreting data to produce compelling interactive maps and graphics.
  • Audience development skills (formerly known as marketing and circulation) such as managing online communities, interpreting data on audience behavior, crowdsourcing for information, interacting with the audience.
  • Basics of programming. How to create compelling pages that attract web audiences.
  • The business of media. Journalists can help a news organization generate revenues without compromising their ethics, and today that skill is more important than ever. 

Surely there could be more, but then the universities and professors have to ask themselves, if we add all these things, what are we going to leave out? We already have a packed course curriculum, how could we possibly add more?

That is the wrong question to ask, because today, the market for which universities are preparing students is demanding a different type of graduate.  The market is putting less importance on the degree a person has and more on the skills. 

"Digital first" in education

Cindy Royal, professor at Texas State University, is advocating that journalism schools "flip the curriculum" to emphasize "digital first." In other words,

"what I am proposing is a curriculum in which digital is the foundation, and the basic skills of writing, reporting and editing are injected into digitally focused courses, as opposed to inserting a digital lesson or two into traditional classes."

The job market seems to agree. A young acquaintance of mine was applying for an online reporting job at an internationally renowned news organization, and the interviewer wanted to know more about the metrics of audience engagement with his stories -- time spent, social sharing, search traffic -- than the stories themselves. In other words, did this job candidate understand how to capture and interact with the audience on the web? 

Of course, the editor had already read the candidate's stories. Of course, the quality of the writing and reporting was important. The point is that the market expects graduates to bring them a new set of skills. 

The question for educators should be, where could he learn those marketable skills? Would it be at a university?

Metrics aren't the enemy

No lectures, please, on whether we are in danger of pandering to the audience with metrics. You can use metrics to determine if your editorial niche is resonating with the audience without abandoning your standards. 

You don't have to pander to the audience to reap commercial value. Even an investigative story that does not produce much traffic can help the business, as Felix Salmon noted in a recent blog post. Advertisers will see that a site is a serious news outlet "and be that much more willing to pay premium rates to advertise on the site as a result. Readers who like having fast news during the day like having meatier stuff to read over the weekend." 

Investigative stories strengthen the value of the brand, attract the best journalistic talent and encourage sources to come out of the woodwork, Salmon adds.

Commercial and editorial values do not have to conflict. Serious advertisers don't necessarily want a huge quantity of views. They want their message to appear in the appropriate context: a business environment, say, rather than a football match or shopping mall. So today's journalists need to know how to interpret the top line metrics, such as page views and unique users, and not be misled by big numbers. Does your journalism faculty understand this topic?

New job descriptions

We can waste a lot of time lamenting the layoffs at media outlets, or we can help students prepare for the new types of jobs that did not exist a decade ago. 

If you look at the recruitment ads or the staff listings at leading digital media, you will see job titles such as "user engagement strategist," "editor of outreach and social media," "audience development manager," and the like. They didn't exist a few years ago.

In the halcyon days of media monopolies, journalists knew little and often cared less about what the audience thought of their work. Today journalists have to know how to be interactive, and some universities have responded to the demand. One example is USC's Annenberg School, which offers a master's in managing online communities. There are others.

Intersection of technology and communication

The future of journalism is digital, and that means it depends on technology. New jobs are opening up for people who can bridge the two worlds. Some job descriptions today at media organizations are "newsroom technology expert," "manager of search optimization," "mobile platform development specialist," and "data journalist."

Digital media allow data journalists to display their work in compelling interactive graphics and maps. But they can't just produce pretty pictures. They have to know how to verify and clean up the data and present it in a way that tells a story. This is another opportunity. 

Some innovative university programs are cultivating relationships with computer science engineers and programmers to develop tools for journalists. The new technologies have potential to improve the collection, analysis, display and distribution of news and information. 

Universities innovate

Amy Schmitz Weiss of San Diego State mentioned some academic innovators recently in Nieman Lab and commented, "Data is all around us, and it will only become more pervasive as digital technologies advance and our daily lives become centered on these two worlds. As educators, are we preparing our students to be able to manage these two worlds of data science and digital media together effectively and accurately?"

The two worlds can come together in many ways.

Mindy McAdams of the University of Florida has long been teaching students how to write code and how it will improve the quality and reach of their journalism.

The Hacks/Hackers movement that links journalists with technologists started with a collaboration between Rich Gordon of Northwestern University, Aron Pilhofer of the New York Times and Burt Herman, a former AP foreign correspondent and Knight Fellow at Stanford University. It has spawned chapters around the worlds began at a conference Northwestern University and MIT. has described how working journalists can improve their data skills through a series of self-help tactics. 

Journalism and the liberal arts

After laying out what I think the next generation of journalists needs to know, I find the list daunting. It's too much. I ask myself, how can a university possibly prepare them for everything they need to know?

The answer, I think, is that they can't. What they can prepare them for is a mix of the practical and what I think is more important, the critical thinking and communication (writing, speaking) skills.

No university can teach a student everything they need to know in their future career. That's what life does.

My own study of literature and other fields indirectly helped me in my career when I needed to learn how to produce journalism at a daily newspaper and, later, how to write about business and the economy. 

Studying the textual sources of Shakespeare's plays was an exercise in analyzing the reliability of sources. Historical geology helped put human evolution and climate change into context. French literature of the18th century showed the origins of our ideas about liberty and equality, useful for interpreting the Arab Spring. Calculus helped me refine math skills and thinking that are still useful.

It feels like a copout to say that the right answer to the question of what to teach journalism students is to find a balance between the practical and the edifying. Because it is easier said than done. 


My MOOC experience and what it means


  1. Good post, Jim. I agree with you that it's impossible, in a limited curriculum, to teach everything a journalism student would need to know. I think the key is to give students enough of a taste of the possibilities early in their course work that they can understand where they fit in the new journalism landscape -- what they're good at, what they love to do, what will get them excited about waking up and going to work in the morning. Then they need to "heavy up" in course work that will prepare them for those kinds of opportunities. And these should include courses outside the journalism school -- whether that's computer science or history or marketing or statistics.

    One framework I have used, which I think works for some students, is to ask them to figure out if they are, first and foremost: (1) a reporter (someone who is good at, and loves, finding stuff out); (2) a storyteller (someone who is good at, and loves, creating content and building narratives); or (3) a publisher/producer (someone who wants to build, lead, start, run or build the audience for a publication). Many jobs, of course, require a mix of these, but I would argue that most companies/organizations looking to hire a young journalist are thinking about one of these as their priority for each job.

    At the start, I think most journalism students think of themselves as storytellers -- we need to expose them to reporting and publishing/producing so they can have a fuller understanding of their possible career tracks.

  2. I like your idea, Rich, of "heavying up" in a particular area. Students should specialize if they want to be effective. There is no way that a graduate will master all the skills. But being familiar with them will help them work in the multimedia digital environment.

    Journalists are also in a position now to make a big contribution to the success of the business. Knowing the audience is critical.

  3. The list of skills demanded by employers is really informative and I will re-post it on my blog.
    FYI: I compiled a database of US colleges and universities that offer digital journalism courses, along with a series of posts analyzing digital journalism education.

  4. Your list is very useful, Professor. My thanks for sharing it. There is a big gap between what the market is saying it needs and the skills universities are teaching, with some exceptions.

  5. Rich, I hope you are right that most journalism students "think of themselves as storytellers." But to be an effective storyteller there are lots of other skills that students need that often aren't develo0ped by a traditional journalism education. I agree that a more "liberal arts" approach might be helpful, with strong emphasis on history and social science. However, I still believe that journalism education is not only needed but should be expanded.

  6. Yes, those digital journalism skills are important for effective and engaging storytelling.

  7. In today's environment, I think storytellers and reporters both will have to embrace publisher/producer or they will be less attractive to future employers. All will have to understand audience behavior, viral value of content, product ideation and development to be well-rounded candidates.

  8. Agreed, Randy. We can't be isolated from our audiences any more, and we can't afford to be ignorant of what they need. That's why job-seekers will need these skills.