Skills and Knowledge EVERY Journalism Student Needs

The journalism department at the University of Memphis is in the early stages of updating  our curriculum to help our students build the knowledge and skills they will need in the new media world.  I would love to get your feedback as we embark on this project.

Currently, we have three news/editorial sequences:  newspaper/magazine, broadcast, and the rather unfortunately named “Internet journalism.”  We are exploring the possibility of collapsing these sequences into one – but maybe still preserving the opportunity for students to develop an emphasis in one area.

A key aspect of a curriculum revision in this era of converged media is  identifying a set of skills/competencies you’d like ALL of our graduates to have.   Here’s my current list – admittedly these are coming off the top of my head and are fairly general in nature.  I’ve included both “traditional” and the “new” skills here, and many of these we already teach.

I’m doubtful that we could ask our students to develop expertise in ALL of these skills, but I’d like to see them develop at least some familiarity with the majority of them – and maybe go deeper in one or two specific areas. Please add some or comment on these.

(A caveat: The MOST important aspect of a college education in journalism, in my view, is to develop a strong ability to think critically and creatively. These skills I list here are more mechanical in nature – critical thinking is something that must be part of all coursework.)

Skills We Want ALL of Our Students to Have:

  • Writing a)Basic grammar and style b)Standard news story c)Feature/Strong narrative writing ability d)Developing a online “voice” on a (beat) blog f)writing a script for video/podcast
  • Reporting and covering a beat
  • Interviewing, developing sources, talking to people
  • Computer-assisted reporting/databases
  • Basic video shooting and editing (Final Cut?)
  • Basic principles of Web design and some coding (CSS)
  • Basic principles of shooting photos/ability to put together a slideshow (e.g. Soundslides)
  • Record audio and produce a podcast
  • Writing headlines AND basic search engine optimization
  • Content curation – how to select good links/content and make sense of it to readers, and offer context/background on an issue for going deeper (akin to NYT Topics pages)
  • Using social media to a)report b)promote your work c)foster community d)cover a beat e)figure out what’s going on in your community
  • Flash? Creating (simple) Web graphics? (I know less about this myself..)
  • How to produce live reports – via text, via Twitter, via CoverItLive…
  • Be able to answer the question: What is the BEST media to use to cover this story?
  • I’d tend to argue that layout e.g. InDesign is no longer as relevant – but I never had to take a class on it when I got my degree in the 1990s either, so I’m no expert.


  • Core values of the profession – Elements of Journalism (and ability to think critically about how to apply those values in their daily work – and in new media)
  • Ethics
  • Media law
  • What is going on in media/journalism today? (All students should be armed with ideas for new business models, ways to deliver content how/when people want it, etc.)
  • Basic knowledge of the institutions of civic life, e.g. county/city/state/national government
  • Entrepreneurship? Learning how to freelance and work for non-traditional organizations?



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26 responses to “Skills and Knowledge EVERY Journalism Student Needs

  1. Hi,
    Here are two links from Poynter articles where journalists and educators debated this issue…myself included.

    I also fall on the Dreamweaver is nice side…but content management systems and database skills are critical for today’s journalism students. I would suggest both — you never know where you’ll end up — but there are strong feelings either way.

    Thanks for following me on Twitter: mediaghosts.


    M.A. University of Memphis;-)

  2. Uncle Dave

    Under your skills header you recognize interviewing, developing sources and talking to people. I have always regarded “listening to people” as being somewhat important. While talking to people can be valuable being willing to listen can create resources if you recognize what it is they have to say. Too much talking might lead to the subject answering a question or comment the way they might feel you want them to answer. I can’t recall his exact explanation but one of my favorite writers the late Studs Turkel often mentions time to listen invites people to open up and reveal their true inner feelings and concerns.

  3. changingnewsroom

    Thanks Michelle! I hadn’t had a chance to do much research on this yet, although I’ve enjoyed hearing various conversations about it pop up on Twitter here and there.

    Didn’t know you were a U of M grad. 🙂

  4. Dave

    I second learning a CMS — WordPress, College Publisher, whatever, just something that gets students familiar with the processes. The Web team will forever be your friend if you can easily figure out how to fix a typo in your story yourself, rather than sending us an e-mail.

  5. Great list so far.

    I might add digital photography and photo editing (for web and for print). Cameras today are very user-friendly, and with a small amount of training, a journalist could have the ability to take good photographs and edit them for whatever format they might need to be edited for.

    You mention using social media to promote work…I agree, and think that teaching journalism students some basic PR skills (audience, messaging, choosing the best form of media to reach an audience with a specific message) are all essential skills…especially as a freelancer.

    And freelance skills are definitely great…freelancing requires a lot of organization and the ability to keep up with invoices, story pitches, articles, sources, editors, etc. (Maybe too in-depth for this list, but if people want to freelance, it’s a different beast than working as an employee).

  6. changingnewsroom

    Thanks everyone, these are some good ones.

  7. changingnewsroom

    I wanted to collect here some ideas folks have been sending to me or posting elsewhere:

    Steve Fox (@stevejfox), a UMass journalism professor with 20 years in the business, addressed one thing I’ve been mulling over – should we be training our students to be specialists or to be generalists? He said, “I tell students to know how to do one thing really well but be well-versed in many things.” I would agree.

    Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Held @tomheld reminds that the basics are also important: “Basic writing skills, noun verb agreement, active verbs, complete sentences. One idea per sentence.”

    One of my current media writing students also wrote to me just to reiterate the importance of Web skills in ALL the current curriculum sequences. Students are eager to get these skills.

    Michelle (above) offers two excellent links – as I expected the smart folks at Poynter have been grappling with this issue as well.
    and – see her at @mediaghosts for the live links.

  8. Jonathan Groves

    Great list here — I really like the term “content curation” and will definitely add it to my geeky catch-phrases.

    One thought on the list: I would be cautious about abandoning visual design altogether. As much as we focus on writing and video, we can forget the importance of how the elements fit together to tell the story. With technology making it so easy to put the pieces together, beginning journalists/designers often think more is better and lose the idea of subtlety, especially with so many competing voices vying for the audience’s attention. I think some exposure to the importance of color schemes, font usage, etc. is vital to a well-rounded journalist.

    We have teamed up with our visual-communication program for graphic-design/photography classes — partly because we’re so small — but it has worked well to round out our program. The ones who’ve been through part of that sequence tend to come up with better Web designs than those who haven’t.

  9. I can’t help but think that this list, for the most part, details the new literacy skills for all students, not just journalists in training. Everyone’s a reporter in the new order; everyone uses/remixes media.

  10. changingnewsroom


    Indeed. That’s an argument we are most definitely trying to make.

    Also, even if our journalism students do not work for traditional news organizations when they graduate – if indeed there remain traditional organizations to work for – we think that these skills will still serve them well in their careers and in life in general.

  11. emilywsussman

    Three cheers for entrepreneurial and web development skills. Here’s Glaser on the former:

  12. This is a terrific and nearly complete list of verities and skills for a new generation of journalists. I would add to this (and probably subtract a few you’ve listed) two very important attributes that digital media allows: 1) The ability for every journalist to start his or her own entrepreneurial venture, 2) The skills of developing community around the journalism one does.
    Let’s take the first point: What digital media really provides is a free printing press for every would-be journalist. So it’s not possible for your graduates to start the next TechCrunch or Huffington Post, or They don’t need to join a traditional media organizaton to practice their craft. They can conceive and launch their own born-to-the-web journalistic enterprises. Collaborating with your computer science and business colleagues on campus to build a sequence of coursework in this area would offer important distinction to your program.
    2) New media is not merely another distribution platform for journalism. It allows us to transform what journalism has been and is. For years, journalists have written with little regard for their readers. By and large, we gain reinforcement and motivation to each other. We write our stories as if they were on tablets and hand them down to an audience we don’t know or frankly care about. This is journalism as product. Digital media allows us to change journalism to a process in which we engage our audience at every stage. We can ask our readers what stories they would like us to pursue; we can tell them what we’re working on and ask their advice during the reporting process; and finally upon publication we can view the story as an intellectual campfire around which we gather people (our audience) and actively engage in an extended conversation about our work that brings it to a new, improved level. This is a monumental mindset change for journalists and yet it is imperative. Why? Because it creates community, induces loyalty, and improves the quality of the journalism we do. Teaching this as a way to practice journalism is more important, frankly, than teaching someone how to snap a digital picture, whip out a Flip camera and take a video, assemble a narrated slideshow, etc.
    My two cents.

  13. changingnewsroom

    Thank you, John, that’s an extremely insightful comment and very well said. Couldn’t agree more. I’ll share with my colleagues.

    Love reading your Twitter feed, by the way 🙂

  14. weirr

    Great list already, but I’d edit a couple parts of it.

    I would avoid any description of a single tech in favor of a description of the knowledge you’re trying to teach. In other words, Twitter = microblogging/live reporting; Flash=web graphics, Soundslides=photo sequences.

    I think knowledge of how to tell a story (which you already hit on) outweighs the actual technology. That’s not to say “don’t teach Twitter”; it’s to say “use the tool to teach the principle.”

    And I’d say that “layout” in terms of traditional print design is a pretty specialized skill. But “design” in terms of information architecture or visual journalism is just as important online as anywhere else.

  15. changingnewsroom


    Thanks, that’s a great point. I especially like what you said about “layout” vs. “design” – that’s a really helpful way to frame the matter at hand.

  16. Interaction and engagement is key. The information “push” is no longer acceptable and it is not the way to connect. It is crucial to have the skills to effectively engage and interact to hold an audience and this is not easy to do. It’s a conversation. Journalists need to understand that and educators need to recognize it as an art that needs to be taught, practiced and developed.

  17. changingnewsroom

    Angela, thanks for your comment, I couldn’t agree more. 🙂

  18. Curious

    I need help my cousin is graduating and is going to college for journalism, what is a good gift pertaining to journalism. Software, books? If so what kind, any ideas. Thank you

    • changingnewsroom

      Well, I’d recommend the book Elements of Journalism by Kovach and Rosenstiel, which I call the “Bible” of journalism. Lots of other good books out there too though. I really enjoyed Katherine Graham’s book Personal History. There’s a great anthology of nonfiction stories on crime out there that’s kind of fun.

      I recommend all incoming students to have a laptop (essential) and if possible some kind of smart phone, though those a little pricey of course for a gift. Not bad to have your own digital camera or Flip video camera. either. Software kind of depends a little bit on what the school typically uses and teaches.

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  23. Gezahgn Berhie

    A journalist is after all there to inform, educate, persuade…at the expense of even his/her life, so he/she has to be priorly educated, informed, and committed to, only, for the profession. A professional journalist, at a punch, is he/she who knows something of everything so that he/she will tell others.

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