Tag Archives: Journalism Education

College Media in the Digital Age

The Carnival of Journalism is BACK. This month we are asked to describe how we would set up a student news organization in 2013 or how an existing college news organization could modernize itself.

What I would love to see is college media organizations reinventing themselves like startups, using some of the tried-and-true techniques used by experienced entrepreneurs.  This doesn’t mean that they have to or should throw out everything that they are doing now, but it does mean that they need to do some hard, creative thinking about the audiences – and the advertisers – they serve, what their needs and problems are, and what kinds of key digital products and features they could offer that will meet those needs.

In other words, instead of getting mired in the endless debates about what skills they need to master [are blogs journalism? do you need to code? etc. etc.], they can learn the PROCESS of innovation , and THEN develop the skills they need to make the create the kinds of news products they and their audiences decide they want.  Bonus is that it is far more motivating to learn skills in this context than purely in a classroom setting, and as a professor, I’d also be happy to adjust my teaching to what students told me they wanted to learn for this purpose.

I would urge college media editors and staff to attend some kind of 48-hour or similar launch program either at their own university or a at a local accelerator, like this one hosted by Start.co in Memphis. Or take a hands-on course on media entrepreneurship. Or find somebody that teaches design thinking and then use those processes to reinvent yourselves. Entrepreneurs know a lot about innovation and how to come up with a solid and sustainable plan for the future that is based on more than just intuition, and I think the experience can be incredibly valuable for students who face a future in which they will also have to help media companies they work for evolve.  For example, in my entrepreneurial journalism class we use the Start.co founder’s toolkit and the Business Model Canvas to guide us in creating and pitching media startups. These resources would ensure college media organizations leverage digital tools in ways that help ensure their ongoing relevance, impact, and financial sustainability, rather than just flailing around trying to blindly grasp at new ideas.

Overall, I encourage college media to experiment. Those core writing and reporting skills you are practicing aren’t going away, and you can never get enough practice at either of those in college. The Elements of Journalism are as important as ever.  But the relatively safe environment of college is the best time in your life to take lots of risks and try new things.

Side note: Journalism education can be vastly improved. I’ve spent the last 5-8 years of my life trying to change it, with plenty of frustration along the way However, I think far too many people 1)are making assumptions that we can teach every single skill required and churn out idealized graduates who are highly proficient in multiple areas [sorry, that’s impossible] 2)Assuming that people who are ~19 years old know exactly what they want out of education, are extremely motivated to learn, and generally behave with a similar mindset to a middle-aged person working at an elite national news organization [did you think the way you do now when YOU were 19?}  3)that so-called “digital natives” are naturals when it comes to producing digital content. [They are native consumers, not producers.]  We need your fire to help us change antiquated academic thinking, but we also need to to be somewhat realistic about what we are asking and expecting.  Remember that if we graduate critical thinkers who genuinely care about journalism and can write,  learn quickly, and engage well with others, we are doing pretty well on setting them on a path to what will undoubtedly be a lifelong learning process.



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Be Careful What You Wish For When It Comes To Collegiate Accountability

An op-ed published yesterday by the New York Times calling for greater accountability for colleges and “more meaningful standards for academic quality” was on the most-emailed list this morning and is making the rounds of faculty listservs.  It’s obviously hard to disagree with the basic concept. However, I think we need to be wary of unintended consequences of well-meaning notions such as the accountability push that don’t really address what I think is a crisis in American higher education.

First of all, having been part of a faculty that went through an accreditation process that culminated just last week with a visit by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, I just think that it’s important to be aware that while “accountability!” sounds like a concept we can all cheer for, we have to think carefully about how we want to get there. Faculty members and graduate assistants in my department spent literally thousands of hours over the last few months preparing endless, detailed documentation of everything we do as part of the accreditation process, including a detailed assessment of each our courses to determine if students are learning the desired skills. I am not exaggerating. These are hours not spent on teaching, research, or service. I don’t even want to begin to calculate the financial cost if you add up our collective time (and lucky me, I did much, much, less than some others.)

I think a much better approach to accountability would involve less paperwork and forms and binders and instead, outsider experts engaging us, our students and professionals in vigorous conversations about whether or not what we are doing is working and how we can improve, a more iterative approach that can move at the same speed as the digital tools our students need to learn. This might sound wishy-washy, but I think a process for tapping creative and intellectual forces in this way would be much more valuable than costly bureaucracy and an attempt to vigorously quantify everything.

I’m lucky enough to be on a faculty with several other engaged, caring people with whom I am nearly constantly brainstorming, discussing new assignments and syllabus tweaks, figuring out how to motivate recalcitrant students, and more. We don’t wait for a formal assessment or an accreditation visit to start working over what we can do better – it’s part of our daily lives and culture. A slow, bureaucratic accountability system has little relevance to us. So here’s another thing we could do to improve academic quality: Make hiring and retaining great teachers who truly care about students an institutional priority on par with other priorities like research. If you want to improve educational quality, hire great people and give them the resources and support to do their jobs. Don’t measure them by the number of widgets they create, e.g. graduates – you’ll end up rewarding the wrong things. Don’t burn them out and ask them to be all things to all people.

I think the real root of the problems facing higher ed are the big, messy, ugly ones: a)Rapidly declining public support for education b)A failing public education system which begins long before universities get our hands on students (many students are so ill-prepared for college work it would shock most people outside of the academy) c) A cultural shift that broadly devalues knowledge and puts the onus on the faculty and not the student to guarantee learning at the collegiate level. The last doesn’t mean I think we can’t improve. It just means that I think that at some level students need to take responsibility for their own education – I can’t force an adult to learn.

The piece, written by Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation, more specifically calls for the end of the anachronistic credit hour as a unit for measuring student learning, replacing it with “common standards for what college students actually need to know and to be able to do.” That’s fine, as far as it goes, though I’m unclear how much of a significant difference that would make to the bigger picture.


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Why Professors Value Journalism Degrees More Than Professionals (Beyond the Obvious)

I’m all for disrupting  higher education. I think open-enrollment online programs and “digital badges” to recognize the development of certain skill sets are a great idea, as Howard Finberg of Poynter writes, and I was doing a fist pump in agreement over the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton’s piece deriding the “symphony of slowness” in journalism education. By all means, let us escape from the bureaucratic, risk and change-adverse academic climate to one that welcomes innovation and can help us lead in building the future of journalism.


There’s a reason, beyond the obvious one of self-preservation, that 96 percent of journalism academics said that a degree was “very to extremely important” to learning skills, according to Finberg’s survey, compared to just 59 percent of professionals.

This reason is that many students are coming to college woefully lacking in basic reading/writing and digital skills. A significant amount of what my colleagues and I do as college professors is essentially remedial. SHOULD this be the case? Hell no. But it is. CAN students learn these journalism skills on the job or through their own initiative using online resources? Sure. But in my experience,  very few employers have the ability or desire to do the kind of time-intensive remedial training I’m forced to do in my classroom; they complain about the students we do send them because sometimes we are unable to completely make up for the deficiencies they come in with. And very few students, especially between the ages of 18 and 22, have the kind of self-motivation to push themselves through an online program with no carrot in the form of a formal credential and no accountability in the form of tuition. Each semester, I fail at least one quarter of my undergraduate journalism classes because they simply do not do the work, and that’s in a face-to-face class they are paying for.

Ultimately, this is a problem with our nation’s struggling primary and secondary education systems and the lack of parental and social and financial support for education that many communities face. I honestly believe it is a crisis that will ultimately erode our democracy, which depends on an informed citizenry, as well as our economic competitiveness.

I love my students dearly and care passionately about teaching, so forgive me if I sound down on them. And certainly this does not apply to all of them. But I think we need to have an honest conversation about the state of education today, or nothing will change.

The kinds of people who become journalists at elite institutions are often smart and self-motivated, and it’s hard to conceive of a 19-year-old who has difficulty writing an intelligible sentence or a so-called “digital native” who doesn’t know how to copy and paste a link (I have many of the latter). Trust me, I have trouble believing it myself. And I’m sure the best journalism schools have far fewer struggling students, but they also pull from a far-less diverse population of more wealthy students, too.

If we were to eliminate journalism degrees, what you would see is even more newsroom jobs going to a more homogeneous group of people from upper-class family backgrounds. You would also see a decline in the kind of news literacy we need to ensure future demand for good journalism, as yes, many students with a journalism degree go on to other non-news jobs. By all means, embrace online delivery and open education. I just think it’s a little naive to think that we are ready to eliminate the degree.



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Shilling for Social Media and Other New Tools

This post is part of the monthly Carnival of Journalism.  Here is the prompt: How do you decide to dedicate time to a new tool/platform/gadget? What is the process you go through mentally? And then later – how do you convince others to go through that process? And, last: How do you ensure that the tools you do adopt are used once the “newness” factor fades?

As a journalism educator, a big part of my job is convincing students to try new tools and cultivate the habit of using them regularly, so I’ll focus first on that part of the prompt. I teach reporting and social media, two courses in our curriculum that emphasize multimedia and experimenting with new technologies. Contrary to popular belief, many of these so-called “digital natives” are often neither savvy about new tech nor exceptionally eager to go beyond their Facebook and Internet Explorer (?!) comfort zones.

As David Cohn of Spot.us puts it, my main goal is less to teach mastery of any particular tool or software, but to “teach a mind-set of problem solving.” But cultivating the motivation in students to grapple with new things that may be initially frustrating is often difficult.

A few techniques I use:

  • Show as many examples of high-profile journalists using these technologies as possible. Yes, I will stoop to pimping Katie Couric’s Twitter account or showing them People magazine’s Facebook page, as well as many accounts from the New York Times, CNN, local journalists, and the like.  It’s hard to argue you don’t need to do it when you see the pros, especially the ones you have heard of and respect, are doing it.
  • Similarly, I show as many examples of students at other schools using new technologies as possible. Those of you at elite schools where your students on average are more motivated or have access to all the latest gadgets and shiny new labs help show my students the way and foster a little sense of healthy competition.
  • Find ways to generate a quick community of fellow beginners by fostering cross-campus conversation. For example, last semester my students participated in a Twitter chat with Bob Britten’s class at WVU and Jeremy Littau’s students at Lehigh, among other collective activities.  When you are new to a social network, it often takes time to cultivate enough contacts to make the experience meaningful; this technique lets students learn more about engaging with a community in the shorter semester time frame.
  • Make it fun. Scavenger hunts or live tweeting the Grammys may not be the most noble of educational or journalistic pursuits, but enthusiasm pays it forward. Classes that have fun doing assignments together also tend to get along better with their peers, and in intangible ways I don’t entirely understand, this raises overall effort level in the class.
  • Similarly, harness students’ passions. I used to be more adamant about “hard news” assignments. I’ve learned, however, that if you want students to learn, say, WordPress, let them blog about whatever they want. All the same standards of original reporting, verification, grammar, etc. still apply, of course. But when a technology is new to you, it helps to have a genuine sense of excitement about what you are trying to use it for. As students get more advanced and take higher-level courses, they do more meaty and investigative work, but when you are introducing lots of new tools, giving them some agency in deciding their final objective helps.
  • Do it yourself. The whole “do I say” thing is not a cliche. You’ll lack credibility if it’s obvious you aren’t really using these tools yourself.

By the way, I know some of you are probably aghast that not all young journalists are inherently curious and eager to learn “cool” new things, but remember many college students are not long out of high school, where their access to technology might have been limited to sporadic trips to the computer lab. I teach in the Mid-South, and although I’m seeing a much higher rate of smartphone adoption recently, my students don’t all have access to the expensive devices, either – and the culture here is not one in which education is necessarily highly valued or prioritized, regardless of what you study. Students who work long hours waiting tables or similar may not have many regular technology-related habits or experience developing them.

As far as my own tech adoption goes, well, I think others have described it better than I could.  I think  University of British Columbia professor Alfred Hermida’s post offers some great insight into thinking through your social media strategy, and Cohn’s thought process is pretty similar to mine – I keep an open mind but probably won’t use it often if it’s not simple to use.

I will say that at least at the moment, my intentions sometimes override my capacities. I love trying new tools and I think it’s important to do so as often as possible, but at the moment I’m pretty much utterly overwhelmed at work and I’m lucky if I can keep even half of the balls in the air. For something to really become part of my routine, it’s got to meet a pretty high bar of usefulness and enjoyment. Once I develop routines I also tend to latch on to them, which makes it difficult to fit in new things; that may be something I need to work on to make more time for experimentation.


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Boots on the Ground: Students as Local News Sources

Can’t believe a whole month has passed and it is once again time for another blazing round of blogging with the Carnival of Journalism. This time, our fearless leader David Cohn has asked us what steps we, as individuals, could do to increase the number of news sources in our communities.

I think those of us who teach at universities are especially well-positioned to add to the diversity and quantity of local news sources, and indeed, my colleagues and I are trying to do just that right now.  What else do we have but willing and able students who need to master reporting, writing, and multimedia skills not by listening to lectures, but by actually DOING journalism? Yes, our students are still, by definition, learning how to practice journalism and may not be quite up to par with the pros (though I’ve seen a few that could give some pros a run for their money), but they have faculty members who have years of newsroom experience to serve as their editors and guides. [Sorry the image here isn’t edited properly – burning the midnight oil here and running out of steam to fix.]

Probably the most impressive effort to increase local news sources at the  University of Memphis is just launching now. My colleague Dr. Lurene Kelley and our new multimedia capstone class are taking on the hyperlocal reporting challenge by providing extensive online coverage of one community: Cooper Young in Midtown Memphis. Their site just launched this very week, and they hope to not only give these senior-level students a culminating experience that brings all of their writing, reporting, photojournalism, video and web production skills  together, but also to offer this neighborhood the kind of extensive coverage not available from the major metro media. Because this is a new course, enrollment is small, but will grow in subsequent semesters, and Kelley plans on expanding to other neighborhoods as well.

In my reporting and social media courses, each student chooses a beat and creates a beat blog, which may range from anything as serious as local politics to something more fun like Memphis music or MMA. While the beats aren’t explicitly local per se, in-person reporting is required so they definitely have at least a local angle. These blogs are often fledgling efforts by inexperienced students, but local voices get heard that might not otherwise get media attention. You can check out my undergraduate and graduate students blogs via the blogrolls on our class sites. We are just getting started this semester, so there may not be much content yet.

My student Nicole Blum took this great Twitpic of a local fundraiser for St. Jude.

This semester, my social media students are also using a variety of tools such as Twitter and Flickr to report the news and share stories. For example, during a major snowstorm in Memphis last week, my students took photos and reported on everything from road conditions and wrecks to sledding spots from all over the greater metro area using the class hashtag #j4801 and #snOMG. My students have also been participating in campus and city-wide “Scavenger Hunts” that in a sense are also a form of local news reporting as they gather photos and quotes that tell a story about university and civic life. In fact, if you check out the hashtag #j7200 this week you could learn a little bit about some of the places and people in Memphis.

My goal is to continue to build upon and expand efforts such as these and get more of our courses involved in these efforts.


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Universities and Community Information Needs

When I mentioned I was participating in a blog carnival, perhaps unsurprisingly, my husband asked me if this involved the Caribbean/South America and boobs. No, though frankly I wouldn’t mind escaping from winter to a booze-soaked paradise ;). But I digress from a topic that is quite near and dear to my heart as a journalism professor, and the first one assigned in the Carnival of Journalism set up by journalism innovator and Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow David Cohn: How do we increase the role of higher education as a hub of journalistic activity and increase digital and media literacy in the academy, as recommended by the Knight Foundation?

First of all, let me say that I think this recommendation is nothing short of critical. As the metropolitan/local news ecosystem continues to experience layoffs and economic strife that decreases the quality and quantity of the available journalism, journalism schools have to step up and be innovators and news providers. Lacking the same commercial imperatives that newsrooms face, we need to be bold even if  our unexperienced charges can’t fully replicate the work of a long-time professional. It’s good for society and it’s good for our students, who can benefit from every ounce of real-world experience they can get.

Here’s how I think we need to make this ACTUALLY happen, beyond the lip service and pontificating the academy is all too fond of:

  • Journalism schools are increasingly likely to bring on aging former editors who worked for major national or local publications and can lend their glossy imprimatur of prestige to the school’s faculty. This is all well and good, and many make excellent professors – this is not any kind of attack on qualified and dedicated individuals, really, so don’t get in an offended huff, people.  But I think we need to also consider making riskier hires of younger and digital-savvy folks with big ideas and the energy to carry them out. Asking people who have made their entire careers off of a dying industry to now re-create an utterly new one at the twilight of their professional life is a tall order at best. You can also often hire a lot of younger people for the salary you pay the bigwig. Just sayin.
  • Support, cherish and reward student innovators who are making efforts to do things like modernize school newspaper’s websites, create entrepreneurial news ventures and the like. They will experience many obstacles in their path and they need our mentorship. Students, like members of any organization, respond to what leaders reward and what they punish, so we need to be conscious and deliberate about the messages we send to them. Yes, sometimes those that try new things will fail. That’s okay. Flexibility and fearlessness and good-old-fashioned effort will take them far. Please believe me that right now many face discouragement, fear and catastrophizing instead of support.
  • I think all students, regardless of major, should take a digital literacy course that empowers them to not only become more critical and wise consumers of media that will demand and support the best journalism, but also be savvy media creators comfortable with new tools.
  • It takes a village, to use a tired cliche. Universities need to foster an environment that supports the free and open flow of information and the foundational efforts of young journalists who MUST learn by doing, not just by snoozing through a lecture. Administrators, other professors, public officials, and the like need to be responsive to interview and information requests from student journalists and be willing to work constructively with them to improve the accuracy and quality of their work. Being aggressively pompous, belittling and/or denying them access will NOT help them grow as journalists nor serve the larger public good. We journalism professors work very, very, very hard helping our students improve, but we need others too – making up for a deficient primary and secondary education system (not to mention freshman English composition classes at our own universities staffed by overworked graduate students that so may borderline-illiterate students seem to pass) that leaves many students grappling with basic sentence structure is not something we can do all on our own.
  • Instead of having students turn papers in on dead trees to be seen only by you, increasingly find ways to integrate class work with actual online news production. It’s so easy and cheap to do. Got a neighborhood that never appears in your daily paper unless a crime is committed there? Send in some students, set up a blog and a Twitter account, and get them going. I’m biased as an alum, but the Missouri School of Journalism has been doing this FOR YEARS. It can be done. Even if the results aren’t perfect, they are often better than nothing and I nearly guarantee a better learning experience and buy-in.
  • Encourage innovative research into new media instead of yet another safe and predictable study on framing or agenda setting that does little to advance existing knowledge, instead just providing that nice tenure-padding on a vita. Research begets good teaching because it helps professors stay on the cutting edge of their field. I’ve been at conferences where professors who think that maybe the more interesting research path is not in print media are called “furry digital mammals” who are delusional and don’t understand the lasting primacy of print. Really. Not helpful. I’ve also seen really good research (not talking about my own here) denied inexplicably while yet another framing study rolls forward (I have nothing against framing, it’s just that we’ve kind of been there, done that.)
  • Finally, faculty need to USE new media. You can’t teach it credibly unless you DO IT. Students know when you are just blowing hot air. So try it. Get on Twitter, blog, what have you. Embrace new things. There’s a great community of committed journalism educators for you to join. It will be worth it.


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Tweeting From Campus

My students at have a neat opportunity to connect with other journalism students around the country through Twitter, yet another example of how social media is having an impact on education and news. Thought I would do a quick post to invite other journalism professors and students to join us in the experimenting.

Beginning last Thursday and continuing through tomorrow, students at Arizona State, the University of Memphis,  the University of Oregon, and Hofstra University were given what at least their professors think is a fun assignment (as far as assignments go ;)): To Tweet tidbits and photos about campus life, helping each other get to know a little bit about what it’s like to attend these schools. The goal is to get some practice using Twitter, knowing what’s news and worthy of noting about campus, and connecting with others. Students use the common hashtag #jweb; you can check it out via Twitter search or here. Each class also has their own hashtag (Leslie-Jean Thornton’s Arizona State students are #305t, Suzi Steffen’s Oregon students are #J361,  Mo Krochmal‘s Hofstra students are at #JRNL8011, and my students are at #J3120).

This is just a warmup; we hope to find ways to expand the connections in the future. If you are a journalism professor, feel free to use the hashtag as well.


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New Media Skills: Not Just For Monkeys

I gotta share something here that is bothering me here in the journalism Ivory Tower, and that is the tendency among some academics to view “new” media skills – anything from Web programming to social media to data crunching to Flash – as something that is wholly separate from the intellectual endeavor. While viewed as increasingly necessary, these are things seen as lacking an academic heft, especially at the graduate level.

For example, I’ve heard impassioned arguments for why it is critical for every graduate student to take courses in law and history (as well as theory, research methods, and administrative methods here in Memphis), because the knowledge and perspective gained is absolutely critical to becoming intellectually well-rounded and a thoughtful practitioner . Skills courses are pooh-poohed as something students could take as electives or maybe even just on their own in a workshop in the summer; the idea that social media could be considered part of course content is laughed at (literally – “if you come to graduate school to learn how to Twitter, well that is just sad.”)

Now, I have nothing against courses like law and history. Nothing at all. Yes, they are certainly valuable. But very few of our students are here because they are considering a PhD. They are here, basically, because they want to get a job, or a better job. I question why any editor on earth would care if a student got a Master’s degree if that didn’t include some sophisticated new journalism skills.

Sure, anybody can write a line of code, and there’s a purely technical aspect to a lot of Web-related skills. But a journalist has to bring to bear news values, ethics, and an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the audience to bear when coding for a news related Web site. Even less technical things like blogging and Twitter have taught me about as much as any course I ever took by forcing me to take what I have learned and make it clear, understandable, and attractive to an audience.

I think every skills course should be taught in a way that encourages critical thinking, analysis, and applied theory. For example, students creating any kind of multimedia project should have to consider explicitly how they are bringing our core values to life and/or how they’ve used the media choice model or uses & gratifications theory (etc.) to create an appealing Web site.

If you create a kind of skills ghetto and teach the “high-minded” stuff in a separate class, you are encouraging students to see theory and practice as being somehow totally separate things – and the whole point is that they shouldn’t be.

If anything, it’s the undergraduates that I think deserve to get some kind of broad intellectual base, and since in their case we are just desperately trying to get them to be able to write one clear sentence, the focus for them can be a little bit more on the very basic journalism skills. But a graduate student to me MUST come out with some strong new media skills in order to succeed in the job market.

When I look at friends with Master’s degrees who managed to get the job they wanted in the current media environment – well, it’s almost ALWAYS the ones who went the “more technical” route and learned a lot about data, Web programming, coding, or multimedia.

I don’t know, maybe I’m off base here with this little rant. Let me know in the comments.


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