Overhauling J-School Completely

Sscornelius, via Flickr (CC license)
Maybe what journalism education really needs is to start over from a new foundation.

Well, there’s been a ton of great discussion lately on the theme of what kind of education and preparation today’s journalists really need, given the changing landscape of opportunities they’re facing. (Thanks to Mindy McAdams, James Ball, Paul Canning, Andy Dickinson, eGrommet, the Ethical Martini, Innovate This, Monitorando, and José Renato Salatiel for their contributions, to the many commenters on all these posts, and to Elana Centor who started it all. Here are my recent posts on this theme.)

I’ve heard from some journalism educators that the kind of preparation I’ve proposed is far beyond what most existing j-schools could offer. I understand that.

Really, I think what may be needed is to completely re-envision and rebuild j-school with today’s realities and tomorrow’s likelihoods in mind.

Here’s what that might look like…

At the undergraduate level:

  • Keep the core basics: Training in reporting, writing, ethics, and editing skills. But make sure these are taught in the context of today’s media landscape. (For instance, the ethics course should cover the ethics of community management and comment moderation, as well as more traditional fare.)
  • Minimize instruction focused solely on traditional roles and jobs. How many courses in magazine writing do these folks really need? Not much.
  • Require at least two internships: One with a traditional news org (mainstream or alternative press), and the other with an independent or entrepreneurial venture or project. A good optional third would be internships that involve online advertising, search engine optimization, or community management. (Hey, I did four or five internships with my journalism degree.)
  • Require at least one media business course on how the media landscape is changing — emphasizing the importance of entrepreneurialism, business skills, building a personal brand/network, and continuous self-education.
  • Teach the right tools. Ditch Dreamweaver. Teach a real CMS (like WordPress or Typepad), a feed reader, media-sharing tools like Flickr, a key SEO tool like Wordtracker, using social media like Facebook, and basic mashup tools (like Yahoo Pipes or Google Maps). Experience with these tools provides a practical grasp of information architecture and why it matters. Of course, also teach the basics of capturing and editing photos, audio, and video — as well as GPS and geotagging. None of these tools needs to be in-depth. Just the basics will do for undergrads. No need to teach them separately — better to use them together in projects.
  • Teach them to think on their feet and educate themselves. Have students create whatever content they can with whatever tools are available to them (including cell phones, digital cameras, text messaging, browser add-ons, Google Earth). Require them to figure out how to get mileage out of what they already have on hand. It’s more important to open undergrads’ minds to options, creativity, and resourcefulness than to impart detailed production skills that are quickly outdated. (Pro-level photo, video, audio, or design skills that journos are likely to use are better taught in workshops, IMHO.)

At the graduate level:

  • Partner with a business school for an entrepreneurial journalism degree program. (Could be a specialized MBA.) This would cover all the business, marketing, management, and economics territory I discussed earlier. It would also involve running student team projects as businesses. (Like a mini startup incubator.)
  • Open teaching to more practitioners. Let more people who actually DO today’s cutting-edge media projects do more of the teaching — either entire classes, or special seminars or team projects. Part of the problem with today’s j-schools, IMHO, is that too much of the teaching gets done by faculty who are out of touch, inexperienced, or in denial about media evolution. Students should get more exposure to practitioners than occasional guest lectures. Get rid of requirements that faculty have advanced degrees.
  • Involve the students in evolving the curriculum. Require them to actively consider what opportunities they really face, and what they really need — and more importantly, what j-students will need next year, in five years, in 20 years. Keep in touch with grads, so they can be your radar screen.
  • Let the undergrads in. If you have some promising undergrads, allow them to participate in grad-level activities and projects as time and resources permit, and according to their abilities. Feed the fire in the belly wherever it flares — don’t just ration knowledge and empowerment based on hierarchy.
  • Let the geeks in. It’s vital to invite and engage technologists (programmers, search mavens, database gurus, mapping geniuses, etc.) in the field of journalism. We need each other. Offer these people additional training in journalism basics, and leverage their talents and perspective in planning and implementing projects.
  • Continuing education. Offer options for mid-career journos and others with related experience or goals to take classes, participate in projects, etc. Don’t require people to commit to getting an expensive advanced degree in order to get value from — and contribute value to — this collective learning experience.
  • Distance learning. To the greatest extent possible, make these llearning and collaboration experiences available online. After all, the teams behind many of today’s media ventures are widely distributed.

Seems to me this wouldn’t necessarily have to be a degree program or happen through a college/university to be useful. (IMHO, in journalism and media, advanced degrees are worth far less than experience — unless you’re specifically interested in academic research or a teaching career.) However, I’ve framed this in the context of higher education because that’s an existing institutional structure that might prove useful, as long as it doesn’t undermine the process with inertia and bureaucracy.

Whadya think? Could it be done? Would it help? What would you change? Please comment below.

14 thoughts on Overhauling J-School Completely

  1. Just to say that I’m not saying this to re-open a Dreamweaver debate again – I agree it should go – but to clarify a point.

    WordPress and typepad are not CMS’ in the same way as the kind of cms they might encounter in industry and shouldnt be presented as such.

    Granted there are a growing number of publications using open source blogging platforms and low level CMS’ but they don’t match the object driven, content seperate from design, systems that are out there. The reasons for using them are, not to do down the great apps they are, mainly economic

    Don’t get me wrong, I think there is absolute value in teaching them – they should be there.

    But we need to take care not to see, and sell, this as something as simple as – dreamweaver = not what industry uses anymore and wordpress/typepad = what industry is using. The two arent connected.

  2. Andy — thanks for commenting

    Yes, I agree WordPress is not the kind of CMS journos would probably be using if employed by a major mainstream news org. Honestly, in many ways it’s probably superior 🙂

    But the point of using even a basic but functional and customizable CMS like WordPress is to get journos use to thinking of content in modular terms, understandinghow tags and categories make their work more findable, understanding the importance of feeds, and generally getting a bit of a feel for information architecture.

    Any CMS is just a tool that can be learned, and these tools are constantly changing, fast. Any tool you learn in school will be outdated soon afterward. But the first hurdle is to understand why using a real CMS is important, what options it offers, and how much journalists can do on their own without having to go begging to an IT staff.

    – Amy Gahran

  3. Peter — I honestly don’t know the % of journalists who get into that field via j-school. I know several working journalists who did not go to j-school. It’s definitely not an absolute requirement.

    That said, with newsroom staffs shrinking constantly and quickly, this is now an extremely competitive job market. It’s an especially bad time to try to get a journalism job without any training. That’s an expensive proposition from the employer’s perspective.

    So if you don’t have a journo degree or very relevant experience, you’d better have some other great skills to demonstrably offer unique value to the news org or other employer. Community management, ability to create interactive maps, and database mashups are good examples.

    – Amy Gahran

  4. Sean Blanda wrote:

    >“Require at least two internships” Until they pay, this policy is the equivalent of gentrification< Honestly, Sean, that's a very shortsighted view. I went to Temple U for j-school, and I all students there were required to take at least two internships. I did at least 4, maybe 5 (Hey, it's been a long time) -- but I know only two of these were paid. That said, my internships were by far the most valuable part of my journalism education. Which is why I voluntarily did more than was required. I learned far more through experience than in the classroom. I felt that a big part of what my tuition went for was for access to those internships. Not getting paid for them was not a concern for me. YMMV, of course. - Amy Gahran

  5. hey amy, thanks for the link to my vague waffling ;] got to love arianna… truly been a FAN for, ow jeez, is it that long? you pioneer, you …

    nb: James Ball at some London school or other sez they’re all on the ball there – wouldya believe it. brits on the ball …

  6. While I agree with Andy about WordPress not being a CMS for the industry, I think if you are in online news publishing, you should choose CMS to fit your needs. A community paper may derive great benefits from WordPress while a county gazette may exploit the strengths of bigger CMS such as Joomla and Drupal. I have dealt with a number, including the little heard-of Zope. Be that as it may, WordPress certainly allows for easy customisation and installation. Hacks are a plenty and the tags, pages, pre-publishing feature and a host of others in WordPress still make it my preferred choice of a good start-up CMS. And I think Amy is right in saying it is superior – It is, and in a lot of ways. For one, WordPress files are generated to be SEO friendly with keyword tags (unlike proprietary systems such as Asp, etc. which you need to customise). Another is it is free and lots help are available. And for a one-person online publishing unit, WordPress is hosted everywhere and takes less than two hours to sign-up, host, install and start posting. Templates too are widely available.

  7. @Sean: I’m not so sure that requiring two internships is the equivalent of gentrification. I only did one (which was technically a fellowship at the Arizona Republic, and paid), but did a bunch of other small jobs (paid) that were the equivalent to internships: working with a dot com in 1999, working as a webmaster, overnight/holiday shifts at a wire service, picking up tiny community stories for a local rag. I was no trust fund kid, neither was my husband, yet here we are, working in journalism.

  8. I’m in the process of shifting from using html (a la dreamweaver) to a cms (wordpress) for my student publication next semester.
    I think this is the way to go, but I still think it’s hard to keep up. I’m spending my research funds on upskilling myself in blogs and cms and all sorts of stuff.

    My big question is how do we convince reluctant colleagues, both within j-ed and in other areas of communication studies (whom we deal with daily) that we should be allowed to totally overhaul the curriculum.

    And how do we convince print-centric industry bodies that they have to get with the programme, not get in the way.
    Advice appreciated.
    PS, I’ll be in the US, in early september, if you’re in LA, San Fran or any where near the Missouri School of Journalism around 10 Sept, I’d love to catch up. There’s a great $2 martini bar in Columbia Missouri, and I’ll be there for at least one drink.

  9. Amy, I think WordPress is just as good for any journalist who wants to have a one-man/woman-run online news. Otherwise, if scalability is an issue, then Joomla can be considered. Depending on what you are looking for actually. Personally I have customised WordPress to be quite a good Online news portal. The categories section and tagging can all be customised quite easily in a lesson shorter than it would take to read all the comments here. If anyone is interested, just Google “WordPress as News Content Management” and you will have quite a handful to enlighten.

  10. Pingback: Notes from a Teacher - Tuesday squibs (j-school edition)

  11. I really liked the point about the importance of “thinking on their feet and educating themselves.” It looks to me that American universities and colleges place too much emphasis on technology that will be outdated in one year and forget the importance of teaching flexibility and critical thinking in online media.

    I am all for ditching Dreamweaver and substituting it for someting more practical (WordPress if my favorite). Dreamweaver should be offered in a special in-depth sections/workshops of j-schools along with extensive CSS and XHTML.

  12. I most certainly agree. Too much emphasis on technology can be a bane especially when there are better low-tech approaches to deal with hi-tech problems. For instance, you don’t need an expensive video cam to do short web videos that can be taken using mobile phones or palm-held video cams.

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