Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What journalism schools should be teaching

While it might seem counter-intuitive that more students than ever want to study journalism, given the problems in the news business, I think it’s understandable. The reality, based on their own experience growing up and despite what some traditional practitioners think, is that it’s an incredibly exciting time in the field, with technology creating new opportunities that we could only have dreamed of even a few years ago. But before those of us who love the profession celebrate too much, we should also remember that it’s probably not the only area experiencing a boom, given the huge cohort of students moving into colleges right now.

The New York Times Education Life section Sunday provided a real service by exploring how schools are approaching teaching journalism at a time when the field is “undergoing a sweeping transformation.” Some of what I read encouraged me. But I fear that in many cases we’re still missing the point.

What should journalism schools be teaching?

First, I need to acknowledge that I am a journalism school graduate, with a master’s from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The most valuable part of that program, in the days of the typewriter, was the summer boot camp. So I was delighted to hear that Columbia now requires a Web boot camp. Both are a way of establishing a common language and understanding before getting to the real work. The danger if schools don’t take this approach is that they’ll spend too much time on things the students either already know or should know, and think they’re providing a journalism education. So when I read about Arizona State teaching students in writing class how “to upload their articles onto the Web” or in the online reporting class how to “subscribe to syndicated news feeds,” I thought, “Give me a break.” Both are so easy and in any event the techniques may change over time, what’s the big deal? That’s not anything to boast about.

When I hired journalists at the Rocky Mountain News, one of the questions I always asked was whether they had ever worked for a “good editor.” If they had, I asked them to tell me about the experience. If they couldn’t answer yes, I worried about them, because they had missed a critical experience in the development of a journalist. And that’s working for somebody who demands a level of rigor and effort that establishes a benchmark, a standard to which one always aspires.

To me, that’s the fundamental role of a journalism school, to put that editor’s voice into the minds of its students. That’s what is going to separate the students from the universe of citizen journalists in this new era. And I say that with no disrespect to what blogger Glenn Reynolds called “An Army of Davids.” I believe he’s right about the benefits of technology empowering the individual. But it doesn’t mean that journalism doesn’t remain something to be valued. If anything, it may be even more valuable going forward. But that’s only going to be the case if we remember what journalism is. And that’s where the schools come in.

It was highly competitive to get an internship at the Rocky, yet too often students came in never having had a professor be really tough or honest with them about the quality of their work. The first obligation of any journalism school is rigor. The second is to instill the value of critical thinking. One of the difficult parts of being a journalist, for some, is that you have to think independently, which means you’ll inevitably have to keep a certain distance from those you cover. This can mean that you’re not accepted or liked, two things many, if not most, people crave. Too often journalists give in to that desire; too often they’re willing to accept what they hear uncritically. They need to be exposed to and taught critical thinking.

So, if we accept that rigor and critical (or independent) thinking are the basis for any program, there are two other values that need to be instilled and encouraged, what Tim Gallagher, my friend and former editor of the Ventura County Star, described as “skepticism (not cynicism) and curiosity.”

We can’t prepare young journalists today for the technology they’ll be using. It changes too fast. It’s just a given that they need to be playful and skilled with technology. But there are many ways to learn that. There are few places for them to be exposed to people who will push their thinking, demand a level of work that they didn’t know they had in them.

We know that good journalism is very hard work. But what the students see on television can make it look easy. It’s a false picture. The journalism schools, by exposing the students to great journalists and by working side-by-side with the students on stories, need to build that foundation of understanding on which they’ll be able to build their careers. The bottom line is that they need to help their students learn to become storytellers. It’s easy to teach people to become recorders of events or repeaters, transferring a message from one source to another. It’s difficult to teach people how to become storytellers. And, yes, of course I mean “all-platform” storytellers.


  1. What they should be teaching--and what hasn't changed--is online community building and interaction. As journalism continues to move even more online and towards interaction with "citizens," students are going to need tools to help them communicate effectively, which isn't as easy as it sounds. It's very easy to misinterpret words on a screen because there is no vocal inflection nor body language. And while young people may have these budding skills from their personal social circles, it is a very different thing to employ online communication skills with those whom one does not know, and might even be contacting one under a pseudonymn. When these skills along with storytelling are taught, young journalists will be able to do their job well and create the types of communities they will need to boost their profiles and revenue.

  2. Journalism schools should be disbanded so that writers can learn the stuff of champion reporting from the school of life. Most journalism schools have doomed the journalism profession to mediocrity because they teach promising journalist to do the same thing. It's evident in the field when you can pick up a newspaper in L.A., Chicago, New York and your hometown and see the same stories - often chapter and verse - written in the same unsatisfying way. There's group think in this call of "independent thinking," because journalism schools train students to practice critical thinking in a certain way. The government is always corrupt. Crime is situational. Education is about teachers, their unions and their struggle in the classroom. They produce students who all aspire to do the same thing - replicate Watergate.
    Originality in newspaper writing is like an oxymoron. Google didn't kill the newspaper industry. Irrelevancy did. Rare is the article that goes against the typical stereotype of what makes a "good news story," in modern journalism. Wherever you go - the formula is the same.
    City Government - Must do the gotcha story on the local officials or politicans.
    Crime - must do the apology story for minorities behind bars.
    Education - must do the test gap story.
    And so on to throughout the industry you really only have about five unique stories being told over and over again and much to my horror being written exactly the same way. With only two sides and with neat, uncomplicated endings. Journalism writing today is more formulaic than Harlequin Romance novels.
    I purposefully did not attend a journalism school because I didn't want to surround myself with people who thought like me. I found it tough to report on a world I had not lived in. In the old days journalists were people like Hemingway, and other WWII veterans who actually lived in the world they reported on and thus wrote in ways that connected them to those who wanted to understand their changing world. Now journalist spend all their time with each other and in schools with people who are like them. And expect people who are so unlike to just accept their view of events.
    Where are the crusaders, the pioneers, the passionate champions who strive each day to tell stories that have impact and can literally change the world. Is reporting on the sexting of mayors as the Detroit Free Press did, really all that life-changing. It put a corrupt politician in jail yes but did it transform Detroit's community.
    Newspapers must become relevant again. Which means those in the profession must demand excellence and change. The current deaths in newspapers is long over due. Maybe now the crusaders will return and make my once beloved profession worthy of its legacy.

  3. Don't know if you remember me, but this is Carrie Brown - I worked with the Committee of Concerned Journalists traveling curriculum program, and we visited the Rocky a few years ago. I was so sorry to hear about the Rocky's closing, and I love your blog. I'm now a journalism professor at the U. of Memphis.

    I'm with you 100 percent that critical thinking is more important than any given tech skill.

    My only caveat is that students should be using new tools as they learn those same old core values (accuracy, independence, etc.)and those critical thinking skills. Instead of just hanging assignments in to me, post them on your blog after at least two rounds of rigorous editing. Posting to a blog challenges students to the idea that somebody could actually read those stories. Learn storytelling in multimedia. Instead of just going to the student government meeting (although you should still learn to do that), find new story ideas using Twitter and Facebook and through interaction with others.

    I do want my students to have at least some grasp of multimedia skills, but you are right, those are changing fast. It does seem though like many are asked in interviews to have at least a passing familiarity with them.

    You are right that students don't need to learn something as simple as how to use an RSS feed - but it's one way to get them started thinking like a good beat reporter - finding an area of interest or passion and finding some good sources to learn more about it - and there are so many good journalism feeds for learning about their new profession as well.

    I posted a few ideas of what I think students need here, and got some good comments as well:

    Cheers, Carrie

  4. Thank you for your comments.
    I agree about the importance of online community building. It requires a different understanding of your role as a journalist. But I was trying to establish core values for journalism education. This strikes me as something that students should be exposed to, but not a core issue.
    I think the concern about group think is valid. But I don't think the way to solve it is by disbanding journalism schools. That is not to say that I think every person who wants to be a journalist should go to journalism school. But in my experience, the hothouse environment of a journalism school can provide an intense experience that prepares a person well to go off on their own and carve their own path.
    It's great to hear from you, Carrie. Of course I remember your visit. Thanks for contributing to my blog.

  5. John,

    As a senior journalism student at Arizona State University, I can say that you are correct that we were exposed to RSS feeds and uploading articles to the web. But these skills were merely touched on in an online media class for about 20 minutes max - probably because most students were already familiar with them. The curriculum at the Cronkite School (in my obviously biased opinion) is one of the best in the world. There is heavy focus on traditional journalism standards including ethics, diversity, media law, seeking the truth, and reporting that information in a clear, concise manner for readers. In addition to the core classes, the opportunities for students to get involved beyond the classroom is tremendous.

    I definitely agree with your contention that being able to tell good stories is very important, if not the most important part of journalism. But I did feel as though ASU was a little slighted in your post and wanted to clear up any confusion about the Cronkite School.

  6. Thanks. I did not mean to slight the Cronkite School. But it did get rather large play in a publication with enormous reach compared to that of this modest blog. I think it's exciting that they're collecting so much talent at ASU. But the bottom line for growth remains, i believe, close contact between an editor and a journalist or a professor and a journalist. The professors have a huge responsibility.

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  8. Dear Mr. Temple,

    Thank you for your post. It was today that I found your blog through a random search.

    I am a current student at Columbia University's j-school and I graduate in 11 days. I appreciate what you have written, and agree with much of it, but I would like to challenge the notion that independent thinking can be fostered in a j-school.

    You put forth the idea that a crucial part of the journalist's process is having a strong relationship with an editor or professor. This is not unreasonable, but I think you neglect to recognize that this worked best when the newspaper system turned a profit and offered stable, if not lucrative, careers.

    In this traditional structure, the would-be journalist learned what was right and wrong, good and bad, interesting and not interesting, from an older, more experienced person who knew best. Then, this rigorously trained cog would be placed into the machinery of a functioning newspaper and have a defined job.

    This process inherently creates a relationship of dependence: The journalist, no matter how brilliant or talented, is limited by the vision of an editor. Of course, this was necessary to maintain a publication's identity, and journalists who didn't fit in moved on to other places. But it must be said that this model puts limits on a journalist's independence, in terms of productivity, creativity and personal sense of enterprise.

    This traditional system doesn't work well in today's environment: there are fewer and fewer spaces in which well-formed cogs fit. For the first time ever, it behooves journalists to not only consider the quality of their work, but also its accessibility to the public, how it will be presented in terms of technology and how anyone can make enough money to support it. Indeed, this is a bit tragic--I don't think idealistic journalists like to fuss with business models or think of their work as a commodity--but that is the state of things.

    I do believe that students have much to gain from former journalists in terms of how to use language, how to ask good questions and how to handle sources. However, I don't think that the independence of thought and action needed to survive today's market can be taught by a generation of "experts" who have spent the bulk of their careers working within clearly defined limits, having to constantly make compromises to appease demanding editors, afraid to assert their own ideas in the search of so-called objectivity, and using, often, just one medium.

    It's a whole new ball game with new rules. The hard truth of the matter is most of the people teaching us, or attempting to show us the way, couldn't survive, as journalists, with the traditional skills they are imparting to us.

    Technology is obliterating the newspaper model--in terms of production, as well as readership. It is also redefining ideas of community, identity, geography and how to get the work of journalism done. You acknowledge that technology is important, indeed, but you say that RSS feeds and blogs are easy to manage, and not worth spending too much time on. You are right in this, but it is crucial for schools to inoculate students with a sense of the future and I don't always feel that this is taken seriously, at least in terms of curriculum. What's more, developing a "new media" mentality is a not a turn-key process. If it were, more teachers would not panic at the site of overhead projectors. Technological changes move in a current, and the sooner one hops in, the easier it is to get a handle on things further downstream. This cannot be underemphasized.

    I think if journalism schools really wanted to prepare students for the future, they should offer more ways for students to develop creativity (for example, by allowing cross-registration in other subjects, such as business, accounting, art design, creative writing, psychology, and marketing). They should also decentralize the voice of authority by encouraging group work (where students edit each other, collaboratively come up with story ideas and plans for executing them, and share resources). Professors, of course, would lend their expertise by overseeing all this and making sure quality work was being done. This would offer more opportunities for real learning and would empower students to develop a greater sense of personal confidence that could be taken not into the "workforce," but into the chaos from which "new journalism" will spring forth.

    Of course, these are just my own thoughts, based solely on my 10-month experience at Columbia. I don't know how students at other j-schools feel, nor how their schools are managed.

    Thanks for running this blog and keeping the discussion going.

    Best regards,

    Maile Cannon

  9. I have read the article based on the Schools related to the Journalism and their teaching skills.Journalism is kind of feelings which comes from the person only as he or she has only take to simple the guidance to deal with it.The schools are providing full support and related courses but to achieve that spirit depends on individual capabilities.I found this post very interesting.


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