Changing Journalism Education

There’s been quite a bit of discussion online of late about what the heck journalism schools are doing while Rome burns. Patrick Thornton, editor of, posed some questions on the subject yesterday on Twitter (#jedu #jschool) asking how educators are keeping pace with innovation and if not, what the hold up is.

My perspective after nine (non-consecutive) years at three journalism/mass communication schools (Wisconsin, Annenberg East, and Missouri) and after joining the faculty at the University of Memphis is that we ARE making progress, but slowly.

Some of us are increasingly incorporating blogs, social media and a Web 2.0 mindset into our courses. Each of my media writing students must create a blog and are required to Twitter for a week (this after I nearly had a heart attack when not one of them even knew what it WAS). We talked about and got a little practice using these tools to make them better reporters, to build community, to promote their work, and to find out what people are talking about. I also regularly harangue them over email and in lecture about new trends they need to keep pace with (I think some of them have come to dread the inbox deluge).

Like Mizzou and many other schools I’ve heard about, we are also having many discussions about how to update the curriculum and course requirements to better reflect the digital age. At Memphis, we are working to build partnerships with our local paper, local television stations and Web sites that will give the news organizations much needed labor and content and our students training and a place to showcase their work. We’ve also established a mentorship program that connects students with professionals, and all students have a faculty adviser who interacts with them regularly to give them guidance on the kinds of skills they need to develop.

However, there are a number of barriers at all academic institutions I’ve observed or been a part of. Any student of organizational change has to point out that change is always hard for a number of human and bureaucratic reasons, NOT because the individuals involved are a bunch of recalcitrant jerks.

One problem has long been that the academy values research more than teaching and interaction with the proverbial “real world.” I’m personally fortunate to be part of a department that values it much more than most, but all PhD students are taught early on at academic conferences that “publish or perish” is alive and well and that the most important aspect of getting tenure is journal articles for other academics to read. Now, there’s some excellent research on journalism and new media going on out there (along with the sadly ongoing onslaught of predictable stuff like the upteenth framing study), but where we fall down is on translating that to both the classroom and the “real world” because, frankly, there aren’t many incentives to do so.

I also believe that some people forget or don’t realize that a lot of what journalism students need is the VERY BASIC stuff. Do you remember what it was like to really not know ANYTHING about journalism, back when of course you didn’t even read/watch news all that much because you were fresh out of high school and still trying to figure yourself out, much less the rest of the world?

I love my students, I believe they are very smart, and I’m not used to playing the curmugeon role. However, students MUST learn how to write and do basic reporting before they learn anything else. You can’t write a good 140 word Tweet if your sentences are largely unintelligible. If you don’t know how to ask good questions and interact with others, you can’t write a very good blog post that goes beyond your own blather or manage an online conversation. I’m all for incorporating new media early (my aforementioned media writing class is the first skills class our students take), but you need to walk before you can run.  If you learn the basics and develop critical thinking skills in college, you will thrive in any environment you find yourself  in when you graduate.

In addition, comparing notes with friends nationally tells me that shrinking state budgets are wreaking havoc on public universities all over the country. My sense – I don’t know this for sure – is that there may be some fear at most universities that any changes in course requirements might be read by the bean-counters as possible areas where “efficiencies” could be found, even though these changes are most likely more demanding on faculty asked to stretch their own skills, not less.

Here’s one thing I personally would like to see happen.  I think schools should be  decimating the individual media sequence in favor of a “journalism” major. It doesn’t make sense to have a “newspaper/magazine” and a “Internet journalism” sequence anymore; you should be able to have an emphasis in an area that interests you, but ALL of our students need to learn at least basic skills in all media and not to narrowly focus on the kinds of jobs that might not be around when they graduate. We’ll see what happens.



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4 responses to “Changing Journalism Education

  1. I think it’s great that we’re focusing so much on what needs to change for future students in our J-schools.

    For instance, my university, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, merged its news-editorial (print journalism) and broadcasting majors this year.

    For those of us already in the program – speaking as a senior news-ed major – we’re grandfathered in.

    So while I’m glad the college is taking steps forward for incoming students, what needs to be done to give today’s sophomores/juniors/seniors a badly needed wake-up call?

    I know my rude awakening about my narrowly focused skill-set came about a year ago. Since then, I’ve spent as much time as possible learning audio/video editing programs, getting involved in new social media, etc. I’ve made decent progress, though I always feel like I’m playing catch-up. (Then again, it’s that feeling that drives me to be constantly learning.)

    So what’s my point?

    I’m not saying that our students are terrible, by any means. (Many are darn good.) But I worry that many of our current students – not necessarily our incoming ones – will learn too late that being good just isn’t good enough anymore.

  2. Pingback: Preparing our students « Newsroom on my Back

  3. James McPherson

    A very late response to an old post, so you may not even see it, but…

    I agree with you about the combining of various platforms into “journalism,” and we’re doing that at my university. But I’m at least equally concerned about a trend (which began long ago) that I view as negative: away from “journalism” and toward “communication.”

    And while my students and I are bloggers (and I incorporate blogs into my journalism classes), I am less enamored with Twitter–which I see as an offshoot of that “communication” trend. Not everything that can be said is worth saying, or is worthy of attention.

    For example, last week when I asked a group of j-students about something in our local newspaper, almost none knew what I was talking about–but they almost all could share some meaningless junk info that they’d picked up that day (that hour, that minute, that second…) on Twitter.

  4. Carrie Brown

    Thanks for the comment, Jim.

    While there is a lot of “junk info” on Twitter – I would argue that there is also some good stuff. Communities of professional experts, (including journalists and academics, which I happen to follow), have grown up within Twitter, and these are useful sources with a high signal-to-noise ratio.

    Some of that info could be used by reporters to discover trends and story ideas and get a read on what folks are talking about, just like my journalism professors used to recommend hanging out at coffee shops and local diners.

    I may be misunderstanding what you mean by “communication” but I think that the tools the Web offers us to engage the audience will actually produce better journalism and bring our enduring values to life more than ever by helping make our work more accurate, relevant, and complete.

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