|Berbercarpet, via Flickr (CC license)|
|Journalism sudents need the right tools — and skills — for the kinds of careers and opportunities they’re really going to be making for themselves.|
Picking up on my post yesterday, Univ. of Florida journalism professor Mindy McAdams challenged me (and her other readers) to translate my quick list of what j-schools should be teaching into a something more testable and measurable that could be translated into a curriculum.
Here’s my first shot at that:
- Content management systems (including blogging tools): First, I’d have the students run a group blog on a topic of their choosing for a year to get comfortable with the content and commenting apects of blogging. (A group blog is likely to get more activity and discussion than individual blogs.) This blog should be based on an expandable, customizable tool like WordPress. Then the students should be taught the basics of information architecture, and from that figure out how to expand or customize their blogs to deliver or integrate new kinds of content or services. This could be as simple as finding and installing WordPress plugins to add features, or integrating content from other places (such as Flickr or del.icio.us). The goal would be to get them to not just understand, but demonstrate that on their own they can envision, research, evaluate, and act upon options to do more with their content online. There’s a lot you can do without getting too geeky. They need to gain the confidence that many options are within their personal grasp — they don’t always need to get permission or beg someone else to do things for them.
There’s a lot more on my list, of course…
- Mobile tools and mobile media strategies. These students all have cell phones anyway. Require them to subscribe to mobile news and information services, and critique the quality of the service and user experience. Also, require them to create whatever kind of content their phones support (photos, video, audio, GPS data, even just SMS to Twitter, etc.) and post or stream it from their cell phones. Include participatory exercises based on SMS or MMS to include students who don’t have data plans on their phones. Free services like NowPublic, Flickr, Qik and CNN’s iReport could be especially helpful and even fun for your exercises.
- Social media. The point here is to help students learn a key tool for engaging communities, while also gaining experience with how influence works and information travels through social media. I suggest starting with whatever social media services most of the students are already using (like Facebook, MySpace, Ning, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Twitter) and explore both the one-to-one and group interaction options through exercises. For groups, it’s probably better to get them involved with existing, active groups on these services — rather than try to start a new group from scratch. Where possible, use both web-based and mobile options for these services. They should learn to use these tools for community outreach, story/issue research, and promotion of their work.
- Economics and business theory/models. Journalism students should be taking courses in the media business that offer the fundamentals of historical, current, and emerging media business models. They should learn what budgets and balance sheets look like, how grant funding and investment works, and how to evaluate the economic environment they’re operating in — including how it’s changing. Get them used to seeing the big picture and looking ahead. Practical skills could include analyzing the economic environment of the local community, spotting emerging trends that could offer journalistic or other media opportunities, and writing a basic business plan to capitalize on those opportunities.
- Business skills. This could involve evaluating and estimating revenue options from grants to investors to advertising to subscriptions to partnerships and more, as well as knowing what steps to take to pursue that funding. Example exercise: Develop a strategy and action plan for increasing online revenues for the campus or local daily paper — including calculation of expenses and revenues, and a timeline for implementation. In addition, they should be aware of what it takes to start and run a business — requirements for taxes, healthcare, getting SMS shortcodes, working with advertisers, etc. No part of the business that supports their journalism should be alien to them.
- Management skills. I’m envisioning this both from an entrepreneurial and organizational perspective. In all exercises, put the students in a decisionmaking role and guide them through learning how to manage time, resources, and people — whether employees, collaborators, or community members. For instance, if a class project is increasing online revenues for the campus paper, divide that mission into sub-tasks, assign someone to manage each part of that project, and require them to make decisions and delegate. Teach them how to use tools like Basecamp to coordinate team efforts. In fact, it might be a good idea to coordinate projects with other j-schools around the country or world, since increasingly in the media business project teams are widely distributed. The point is to encourage them to take charge of the process, not just to pigeonhole themselves as content creators.
- Marketing, advertising, and SEO. In addition to taking a marketing basics class oriented toward media products and services, j-students should learn the basics of search engine optimization — since findability generally translates into traffic, engagement, and revenue for most media ventures. Exercises can include learning to use Wordtracker to optimize headlines, stories, and metadata to increase both traffic and relevance; using Google Analytics to analyze traffic patterns to a news/info site (such as for the campus paper) and suggest strategies to boost traffic and engagement; developing and running Adwords campaigns (with a modest budget) to promote a class project; researching niche ad networks that might help support various types of coverage or beats, etc.
- Community engagement and management. This is perhaps one of the most marketable skills any journalist can have for the next several years or decades. The point is to get them used to creating news as part of a conversation, rather than simply as a one-way product for publication. It’s about promoting constructive public discourse through active engagement. Exercises could include participating in an active community forum; working as a volunteer moderator for an active forum where contentious topics arise; taking and active role in editing and discussing a Wikipedia page of interest; helping to coordinate (not just cover) local events like town hall meetings, conferences, or festivals; participating in or running local meetup groups, etc. These experiences tech how to handle conflict, foster consensus and diversity, produce events, and demonstrate respect and understanding for communities in order to build credibility. In this respect, working through local government, advocacy groups, social service agencies, neighborhood associations, and ethnic or religious groups could be as valuable (maybe more valuable) than working through journalistic or media organizations.
…I realize that my list sounds like a hell of a lot of stuff, but I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what today’s journalists really need in order to take advantage of current opportunities, spot emerging opportunities, and take charge of their own destinies (rather than relying on a paternalistic news org to shelter them while they write, write, write).
I realize also that there may be resistance in journalism schools to much of what I propose, for reasons ranging from “we’re not a vocational school,” to IT staff resisting implementing the kinds of tools I’ve mentioned, to the need to integrate curricula more closely with business schools, to the tenured faculty who must teach at least some of these topics not knowing or caring much about them.
I’m not saying this would be easy. But I do think what I’ve outlined, in addition to teaching core journalism skills and values, is what today’s j-students really need to prepare for the kinds of careers they are most likely to have — and the kinds of media they can play a key role in inventing or developing.
(And thanks, Mindy, for making me think this through more.)