The Problem With Today’s Journalism Students
Dave Copeland of ReadWriteWeb talks about what I preach to my journalism students every week in his blog post titled “Want To Save Journalism? Start At The Bottom“. It’s not enough to just be a good writer or a good photographer these days—you have to be good at everything.
“When I started out as a journalist in the early 1990′s, being a good writer or a good reporter or a good photographer was usually enough to land a good entry-level job in print. That model doesn’t cut it anymore: now students need to have all those skills, plus an ability to work in a range of content management systems. Being able to edit video and audio and being fast enough on your feet to file a broadcast from your smartphone doesn’t hurt, either. Oh, and don’t forget all those crucial social media skills that colleges are not stressing enough.” —ReadWriteWeb
My undergrad alma mater, like many other universities and colleges around the nation and around the globe, started a new media track in the 2000s to help train students for jobs in the digital world. Not solely journalism, or film, or marketing— these new media tracks focus on creating and producing video, web sites, audio files, film, and much more for an audience that gets their news and information from more than just traditional news sources.
At the recent Spring College Media Convention in New York City, college students participated in workshops that touched on many aspects of journalism. Some of them were:
- Website Revolution: Rake in Readers, Tame the Flames, Land a Hot Job
- Phone Alone: How to be a Multimedia Journalist With Whatever’s in Your Pocket
- Brand Me: Using Social Media to Brand Yourself & Your Newsroom
- Video Basics and Beyond: You Don’t Need to be a Final Cut Pro to Make Your Multimedia Amazing
Sure, all of these things are important to know for a budding multimedia journalist. But what about WRITING!? I’ve taught at two schools—one a state university and one a small, private media college. The writing that comes out of these students is usually abysmal. And if this is the way journalism is heading, we should be scared.
I teach a spring course called Online Journalism. I’ve been doing it for about four years now. In fact, the head of the department asked me to create this class from scratch, which I did. I teach them about SEO about HTML about using social media effectively. But I also teach them how to write.
I also find that I have to teach these tech savvy students how to communicate. One of my students sends emails out before she has a chance to read them. Often she’s angry and defensive in the first email (usually sent after I edit one of her pieces) and moments later she sends me an email apologizing.
I had to tell her to think before she reacted. Email is so easy to use (and so easy to misinterpret) that you can get into big trouble if you don’t choose your words wisely. I also have to tell them to pick up the phone and call people. Need an interview and the person isn’t emailing you back? CALL THEM. The ease of technology, I believe, is creating a generation of passive reporters—people who will be content to email someone questions instead of having an actual interview.
I am constantly amazed at how many college journalism majors don’t know the rules of journalism. They don’t know how to properly attribute quotes and they don’t even bother with looking things up in the AP Style Guide. And I’m amazed at how many professors don’t hold these students to strict deadlines.
Schools should offer students the best of both worlds—a solid foundation of traditional skills and ideas on how to use those traditional skills in a digital world. I think most credible journalism programs do a good job at this, but not everyone
The problem for teachers is trying to teach your students something that hasn’t been proven to actually work. Every day newspapers and magazines go out of business. Traditional print media is changing—and it’s changing so quickly that it’s hard to keep up! What a student learns their freshman year can practically be obsolete by the time they are seniors. How do schools find teachers who are not complacent, who stay on top of the trends and constantly push themselves to learn?
“…instructors and advisers often just don’t understand what is and is not working, if they understand new media at all. What happens here and across the industry is people cling to myths, including the feeling that having a print product is vital and that they can’t make money online. They focus on soon-to-be-antiquated skills like print page design when they could be focusing on understanding Web site analytics.” —ReadWriteWeb
It’s crucial to teach the next wave of journalists (who may very well become freelancers themselves) about working around the digital world. But if they don’t also learn how to create a grammatically correct sentence or the nuances of interviewing someone, we aren’t sending them into the real world well prepared.