Content Ninja's Weblog

An exploratory journey on the edge of newspaper evolution

Journalism education is dated February 9, 2009

Filed under: innovation — contentninja @ 2:45 pm
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Math in the afternoon
Image by indoloony via Flickr

Some colleagues and I sat on a panel last week at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.  We were there ostensibly to talk about online reporting, but we spent a lot of time talking about how journalism is changing on a large scale.

Instructor Jane Nesmith and her students were most welcoming, but I suspect that I got  more out of the hour than they did. Here’s why.

I faced up to the fact that formal journalism programs are even farther behind the innovation curve than newspapers and media companies, and that’s a huge disservice to the next generation of journalists.

The media companies that make it will need skill sets that today’s journalism graduates aren’t getting, and while companies will train current staff to adapt, new hires will be expected to bring requisite skills to the table. And the journalism grads that stick with this business need skill sets that no one is advising them to pick up. So let me be one of the first.

As I told the students at Coe, would-be journalists should be blogging. If it’s not required for school, do it on your own. Take some business and marketing classes, to help you manage your career like the entrepreneurial business that it will be some day.  Does your college of choice have a formal journalism program? If so, take a hard look at it. Does it have photography, videography, multimedia classes in addition to the writing courses? How about those marketing and business courses, especially change management? How about graphic design? How about basic web coding? If it doesn’t have those things in the core curriculum, is the program flexible enough that you could pick up the classes in other departments? If it’s not that flexible, is there an all-purpose liberal arts degree that you could get instead and shape the appropriate program for yourself?

I’m serious about this. Classes on the inverted pyramid don’t cut it anymore (not that they did when I was in school, either), and Hunter S. Thompson‘s style of writing hasn’t been cutting edge for  a long time.

Yes, this stuff is being talked about in academia. There may even be J-schools that are thinking, “Gosh, we have to change, too.” The problem is that schools change reactively, not proactively. Don’t I and my colleagues wish that our educations included business courses?

In the meantime, current journalism students are flailing, and they shouldn’t bank on the fleeting advantages of youth. Once more grown-ups figure out it takes only 5 minutes to set up a Facebook account or learn to use nearly any social network, they’ll be less likely to hand over the keys to the kingdom merely because a new hire is younger than 30.

Coe, a small, private liberal arts college, doesn’t have a formal journalism program. Students can, however, craft their education to fit their needs. If I were Coe, I’d put together a “suggested” curriculum for journalists. Then I’d market Coe to would-be journos everywhere.  “See all the courses we have to prep you better than the big guys’ J-schools can? Survive the journalism revolution. Craft yourself a degree that will carry you through the 21st century of journalism.”

Yep, that’s what today’s students need, because that’s what media companies need, too.

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18 Responses to “Journalism education is dated”

  1. mollyrossiter Says:

    Very interesting points made. I’ve been wondering, as we’ve watched the changes in the journalism industry take place all around us, how today’s students/tomorrow’s journalists were being informed/led.

  2. contentninja Says:

    Not all may agree with my assessment, Molly, and I’m told that some J-schools get it and are on the cusp of improving their educational offerings. I do have a tendency to make sweeping generalizations when I’m ranting, so I’ll concede the point. Some schools may be making the appropriate changes. I just don’t believe they’re within driving distance of us, and Gazette Communications needs local colleges to get it, too.

  3. Beth Malicki Says:

    Journalism schools should take a page from Mizzou’s J-school. It’s added a convergence degree which lets a student dabble in TV, print, web, magazine and advertising. Mizzou tells students the truth about the job market, options and the change that exists in our chosen profession. When I graduated from University of Missouri-Columbia in 1999 I took a capstone course on websites, could shoot video, edit tape to tape and non linear, wrote on at least 2 different newsroom computer programs for scripts and could produce, report and run the studio camera.

    J-schools have to innovate, not wait. Mizzou isn’t waiting. Mizzou is hosting media managers from around the globe to talk about what’s next for our business. Students and other J-schools should pay attention to the Mizzou model or risk being irrelevant.

    I visit a number of J-schools and I applaud many of the great things they are doing. But they have to move faster and get ahead of this change in media… while still teaching where we came from.

  4. Nick Bergus Says:

    @Annette: You are absolutely right that schools are behind the times and need to catch up (and try to get ahead). Even when schools that know they’re behind try to catch up, there are limited resources — money for teachers and people to fill online teaching rolls. Students are going to have to learn on their own, (but students should be doing that anyway).

    @Beth: A convergence focus isn’t the answer. ALL classes should be about convergence, not just the ones for some students.

  5. Zack Kucharski Says:

    Great post Annette, I absolutely agree with you. Flexibility in some of the programs has been problematic for years, and given all of the changes in recent years, I’d guess the gap has gotten worse.

    I agree with Nick. Convergence has to be part of every class…there is no point in offering anything less at this point.

    The style of teaching also needs to change. A large lecture with a small group session isn’t really conducive to learning a lot of this stuff (with any frequency at least). J-schools need to be offering hands-on lab classes for a lot of these courses.

    Aside from that, I think there’d be benefits of bringing some non-journalism experts in to do some collaborative teaching.

  6. Hidama Says:

    As a student in that class, I first want to thank you for coming in. We’re honored that The Gazette lent us their best and brightest!

    Secondly, I hope we didn’t underwhelm you. Most students have taken no previous courses in journalism and took the class as a fun alternative Gen. Ed.

    I agree that it is a must that students take business courses and spend some time in tech classes – whether that be digital art, web design, or CSS. Soon we won’t be able to pin our social media networks on our resumes like medals and we’ll need to have a working knowledge of more than copy editing marks.

    I also agree with what Nick said, “Students are going to have to learn on their own.” Nesmith, at the beginning of the course, asked the class why students were at college. With some of us piling on a 2nd job or a 4th student activity, she reminded us that we weren’t here to get a degree. Students should enroll to study and should pursue studies outside of the class as well.

    I hope that come May my class understands social media, enjoys blogging and comes to value print as well. It was great to have the panel come in and tell my class to get on Twitter, start blogging and in general understand technology.

    For as much as people praise the youth on their grasp of tech, we don’t understand it – we just use it.

  7. contentninja Says:

    @Hidama Thanks for stopping by and your kind comments. I wasn’t underwhelmed at all. I enjoyed being there and having some smart conversation with you and your classmates. Made me wish the same sort of panel had visited one of my classes when I was in college. You are an insightful young woman, Sarah. You’ll do well, and I think Coe will give you the freedom to craft a more forward-thinking journalism education than many J-schools can offer.

    @Zack I like your ideas on how to execute. An option for those outside experts is for a J-school to partner with other college departments — computer science, business, design, etc. — to connect J-students with experts in those fields.

    @Nick I think resources will always be an issue — in the workplace, as well as academia. Professional journalists and media companies have to figure out how to get it done, and J-schools do, too.

    @Beth I’m not sure I’d categorize as innovative the convening of media managers to talk, unless it results in action items we haven’t seen before. We’ve been talking for a couple of years now; it’s time to act. While journalism doesn’t have all the answers yet, it’s clear, at least to me, that we need to get moving on digital skill sets. J-schools should be all over that.

  8. Joy Says:

    Nice use of one of my pictures. That was taken during a mental break after intense studying at Coe College’s Stewart Library. Good to see the name of Coe out on blogs :).

  9. @Joy Thanks for stopping by! I wandered about your Flikr photos for a while. Nice stuff. I’m glad that Zemanta helped me find you.

  10. robbrood Says:

    Very interesting and relevant blog Annette. I also wish I had immersed myself in more convergence classes during college. Back in the early to mid-90s the World Wide Web was just really starting to get its legs and everyone was talking about HDTV being all the rage.
    I don’t have knowledge of how area J-school curriculum is evolving to keep up with the changing landscape, but it would seem to me if you are a student in a pragmatic journilism program you had better seek out internships that allow you flexibility for learning as many different skill sets in as many areas as possible along with enrolling in other classes for converging mediums.
    I have talked to several Career Exploration classes for the U of I Pomerantz Career Center and what strikes me is how many of those students don’t seem excited or engaged in how rapidly the world is changing around them. Maybe because they grew up with the technology and don’t have the reference point necessary to put it in perspective yet. But @Hidama makes an excellent point about youth not understanding technology, but rather just using it because it exists.

  11. contentninja Says:

    @Robb I think you make a good point that you may not have even intended. It will fall to the students themselves, at least in the short term, to make sure they get the skill sets they need.

  12. robbrood Says:

    There is an interesting column written by a 20-year journalism prof. at U of I about discussion with one of her classes about this very thing.

  13. Mike Coleman Says:


    Great stuff. Partially through and upon reaching the section about being young, I was reminded of the old dogs, new tricks saying. That’s the premise of one facet, particularly Facebook. The fast growing demographic on Facebook? People over 30. Facebook is dominated by teenagers and college students? Sorry, the majority are outside of college (source: Facebook and their largest user population have grown older (so to speak).
    A parallel thought/question to that – does an uptick in the average age of the Facebook user mean the over-30/out-of-college crowd is able to adapt to and incorporate new technologies as quickly as younger adults and teens? I think that is a huge stretch of a single data point. This is much, much less about about how fast the world is changing. Today’s 20-year-old in the U.S. has, from their earliest recollections, been submitted to dizzying array of technological advances and a corresponding array of changes in social behaviors. Growing up in the 70’s had one huge technology event for me: FM radio. My kids have been through VHS, DVDs, BlueRay, HD, digital TV, Gameboys, Nintendos, Wii, IM/chat, skype, html, forums, hulu, etc – just to name a few. They actually don’t think the world is changing quickly…it’s not normal to them.

  14. contentninja Says:

    @Davis Contribute something constructive, please, or move along.

  15. Erika Says:

    The first time I read this article, I thought I remembered reading something to the effect that you said there is not a school within the driving distance from Cedar Rapids that is making the changes necessary changes to their program that will benefit the next generation of journalists. Or something of that nature.

    I am curious if you looked into Mount Mercy’s program. You speak of Coe, a college that does not have an official program, but forget to mention Mount Mercy-a college in Cedar Rapids that has a journalism program. And the program includes graphic design and photography classes. We also have those marketing and business courses that you talked of taking.

    Currently our professors are keeping us up-to-date on the new trends. Mount Mercy may be a small college, with a journalism program that is also small, but our professors are preparing us for today’s world of journalism.

    We may not have a broadcasting studio like Kirkwood, or Iowa to make newscasts, but in some classes require us to learn how to use the camera, put a package together and edit the video.

  16. Erika Says:

    Ah, found the comment I was talking about … You say: “Some schools may be making the appropriate changes. I just don’t believe they’re within driving distance of us, and Gazette Communications needs local colleges to get it, too.”

  17. contentninja Says:

    @Ericka Thanks for stopping by! The original post was a follow-up to a visit made to Coe and not a full assessment of local collegiate offerings. So thanks for sharing what Mount Mercy has going on. Your comment leads me to believe you’re a student there. I encourage you to look outside the structured curriculum as well for skill sets that would serve you well in the work world. Downsized newspapers, for example, want video but don’t have the money for a professional digital camera and an editing bay. Just knowing your way with a Flip camcorder and iMovie might serve a journalist far better than traditional broadcast television training. Thanks again.

  18. Joe Sheller Says:

    Interesting commentary and replies. I’m one of Erika’s teachers at Mount Mercy. FYI, while we do have a slightly fancier video camera than a “flip,” but it’s not a “TV” camera-the Mount Mercy Times (Times TV is posted right on our site) is shot with that simple camera and edited in IMovie. One thing we do at Mount Mercy, unlike most colleges, our newspaper web site (, no “www”) is student-run and designed (many school use templates from external services). Most of what you say is completely valid, but I would quibble with saying the inverted pyramid “doesn’t cut it anymore.” It’s an important teaching-learning tool–the challenge with beginning student jouranlists is to get them to understand “news” and the inverted pyramid style quickly identifies if they are learning that lesson–the problem is if their writing eucation stays there too long or ends there. Besides, the inverted pryamid has sort of made a multi-media comeback–most quick web news reports are, for convenience and speed, written in the good old IP!

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