Reforming J-School to Educate “New Journalists”

While college deans are busy discussing journalism education, the Online News Association is educating “new journalists”—in one weekend.

Kevin Schaul said he learned more in three days at last year’s ONA conference than in his classes at the University of Minnesota.

“That’s the nature of education,’’ the computer science and journalism major said. “It’s lagging behind. We’re just in a period in journalism where it’s really obvious.”

Schaul returns to ONA as a winner of the AP-Google Scholarship, a $20,000 grant for students at the intersection of journalism and computer science. He was a panelist for the “Anatomy of a New Journalist” session on Saturday.

Students, professionals and recruiters at ONA weighed in on J-School reform. They include:

  • Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Journal Register Co. & Digital First Media.
  • Dan Gillmor, founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
  • Jeff Jarvis, associate professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.
  • Meredith Artley, vice president and managing editor at CNN Digital and vice president of the Online News Association.
  • Kevin Schaul, 2012 AP-Google Scholarship recipient and sophomore computer science and journalism double major at University of Minnesota.
  • Katie Zhu, 2012 AP-Google Scholarship recipient and junior journalism and computer science double major at Northwestern University.

Journalism education needs to move its focus toward digital, but not lose sight of basic principles—reporting truth, minimizing harm, acting independently and remaining accountable.

Buttry: “I think journalism schools need to prepare students for today’s marketplace and tomorrow’s, and you do that by integrating the tools and the digital workplace into the classes. If you’re not dealing with data, social media, community engagement, digital ethics—you’re not relevant.”

Gillmor: “It’s a dilemma because you want to have great basic skills in terms of critical thinking but you want to add to that with digital, social media, understanding statistics. This should be a time of experimentation as long as we don’t lose track of basic principles.”

Schaul: “You’re really going to need to know how to do everything—how to shoot, how to report, how to do simple graphics.”

Zhu: “You can’t just learn all the shiny new cool stuff and not know the difference between the its. You still need that very solid foundation before you can build on that.”

Professors need to stay creative, curious and current in their knowledge of digital media.

Zhu: “The mindset of some professors needs to shift.”

Gillmor: “You could be describing tenured professors in any field. There are some tenured professors who are going wild with stuff because A, it’s fun, and B, they think it’s their duty to learn it.”

Buttry: “I think the overhaul needs to be more in the teaching. Part of the challenge is that veteran faculty haven’t caught up. They’re trying to make it to retirement without learning this stuff. They can’t do that. This is the day we’re teaching in. You have to be current. You cannot adequately teach journalism without teachers who know how to gather and rely on social media.”

Tracks for journalism programs are outdated.

Buttry: “The lines are blurring. The movement from broadcast journalism to print journalism is digital. I would not differentiate by platform. If you have a print sequence, you are failing your students. There is no such thing as print journalism anymore.”

Gillmor: “Digital is now considered part of the regular curriculum. The tracks are disappearing because it just makes sense. Everything is kind of born digital these days.”

Let the curriculum go broad enough to demystify technical processes, but go deep into one area the student is passionate about.

Schaul: “Obviously we’ll all have specialties, but if you know a little bit about photography, a little bit about coding, you’ll be able to tell stories better. You can go over to that section in the newsroom and say, ‘I have this great idea. Let’s make it happen.’”

Gillmor: “Have a broad background, but find something you absolutely can’t get enough of and focus on that.”

Artley: “There is so much demand on our time and attention that staying focused on one beat or one topic or one discipline or one approach is more challenging than it’s ever been. The challenge is to use all these tools but to keep a focus and a discipline. It doesn’t have to be that you should only be diving into health journalism—or on a deeper level the changing face of Medicaid—but it’s to say that you should have a few things that you are uniquely informed about, and I think that’s important for job hunting.”

Buttry: “Basic programming should at least be offered and maybe required. I don’t think everyone needs to code, but we need to demystify how stuff works.”

Partnerships among departments let journalism schools provide specialized knowledge in a certain field and better prepare students. Universities should explore interdisciplinary studies and partnerships, especially between journalism and computer science, and journalism and business.

Buttry: “I think journalism schools should explore partnerships with computer science departments and business schools.”

Gillmor: I think it would be a good idea in a university for students to come out with an appreciation and an understanding of what the start-up culture is all about. That is not a comfortable thing for students but it’s absolutely the way life is going.”

Jarvis: “Not everyone should do it, but the business of journalism should be a part of journalism school education. It exists also so you can learn the business of journalism and become a better steward of it.”

Zhu: “If you have a great journalism department and a great computer science department, you should bring them together.”

Journalism universities are struggling, but not all are stagnant. Universities should work together in an open discussion for reform and innovation.

Gillmor: “This should be a time for experimentation, and that means trying stuff that won’t work and saying what we learned.”

The group mentioned several universities noted for their experimentation:

For more information about journalism education reform, refer to the ongoing series from Nieman Journalism Lab.