Journalism Education Debate: Getting Beyond ‘the Typical BS in J-School Classes’

David Schick has a plethora of problems with 21st-century journalism schools — from their “old school way of thinking” and lack of tech training and investments to their behind-the-times professors and not-applicable-to-the-real-world class assignments.

In a buzzworthy new post for his blog Report Schick, the University of Georgia journalism student offers a brutally candid j-school shakedown with only a smidgen of hesitation at the start. “Are journalism schools teaching their students the right skills?” He asks to kick things off. “At the risk of sounding redundant. … No, they’re not. … I know many journalism students would concur with me when I say you learn a lot more in a college newsroom than in the classroom. … I learned more in the first month of my first (unpaid) internship than I have from all my j-school classes combined. That’s the problem with journalism as an academic field of study. Theory is great, but nothing trumps experience.”

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His take on those experiences yesterday landed him on Romenesko and at the center of an eternal social media debate centered on, drum roll, the relative effectiveness of journalism education in these pioneering digital times.

In the brief, exclusive Q&A below, Schick fleshes out some of the thoughts shared in his post — including perspectives on what is holding back j-education from greatness and suggestions on a slate of classes to add to the major’s core.

What is holding back j-education from truly preparing students for real world journalism 3.0?

Well, one thing that holds back journalism education from preparing students for journalism in the real world is the constant repetition of the basics and, to some degree, the intermediate knowledge. The time spent in those monotonous classes would be more wisely spent teaching something new. When you get to a so-called “advanced” level reporting class, there’s really nothing new. The assignments are maybe a bit longer and perhaps graded more harshly, but the only extra effort you put in is to satisfy the word count.

The only way to truly prepare students for the real world of journalism is to let them experience it. And based on my anecdotal evidence, many j-students I know, including myself, who actually seek out real world wisdom some times end up sacrificing their grade to do so. Why? If someone is working on a project outside of class that a professor would deem of journalistic importance or value, why not take that into account?

Journalism is a discipline unlike others where students have the potential to start building their careers while they’re in school. How hard would it be for professors and j-schools to have some flexibility within curricula and syllabi to find credit for, and encourage, outside work that’s relevant?

Flesh out the ‘tech minor’ you mention in your post. How do you see that working?

Part of the requirements of my journalism degree are electives and “core” within the journalism discipline. Some of these make sense, others do not. For example, why not replace the three semesters of a foreign language I’m required to take with something that would be more useful to me like a coding language (such as HTML, CSS, Javascript or PHP) or learning about data journalism. How and where do I get the numbers I need for a story? What’s the difference between good data and bad data? And, most importantly, what does it all mean?

Oh, and here’s a novel idea: Teach a class on the journalistic applications of Microsoft Excel. That could easily be a semester-long class by itself.

The j-school needs more classes that are devoted to digital literacy. We have an online audience now. We need to know more than just how to write up a WordPress blog post. We should know a little bit about all the different types of content management systems out there. We should practically be social media experts by the time we get our degrees. To be employable, we need to be more than point-and-click journalists.

What’s more, my j-school requires us to have a minor for our degrees. It can really be any minor, but why is that? If we’re going to be forced to have a minor, shouldn’t it be something that increases our knowledge of technology? Once again, like Cindy Royal said, “We work in tech.”

Some critics have said that in order to accomplish this we’d have to sacrifice something else like writing skills or journalistic values to make room for this new information, but there’s only so much of the former you can “teach.” My writing has developed because I write and the amount of journalistic knowledge I’ve taken with me out of the classroom is negligible. I’ve learned far more working in the real world of journalism. So don’t bore us with more of the same. J-students have plenty of hard-drive space to add new programs that will actually be useful to them when they graduate.

The j-school needs more classes that are devoted to digital literacy. We have an online audience now. We need to know more than just how to write up a WordPress blog post. We should practically be social media experts by the time we get our degrees. To be employable, we need to be more than point-and-click journalists.

What about the argument that learning j-skills separately can be its own reward — helping students perfect their writing and understand the style of the news world before diving headfirst into a work environment?

I will give in to the point that learning j-skills separately can be its own reward. But how long does that take or how long should that take? Anything beyond one dedicated class seems excessive to me. To perfect one’s writing just takes time. And I would obviously advocate spending that time out of the classroom because of the importance I place on experience. An editor from my first internship always said that to improve your writing style you should “read more than you write.” And you should read the types of stories you want to write.

My ONA/SPJ (Online News Association/Society of Professional Journalists) group at UGA recently put together a panel of CNN staffers. After the session was over, I was talking to one of the speakers and we got on the topic of reading The New York Times because UGA has newsstands and provides free print copies of the NYT every day. He was impressed that we had that amenity and said that reading the NYT everyday was an education in itself, adding that we would get more from that than our classes. And I agreed.

[In his post, Schick writes, "We really need a league of superhero j-school professors that teach by day and report by night to get that digital first hand knowledge we need to succeed after graduation."] If you could select some superhero j-profs, who would make the cut?

That’s a tough one. What I meant by that was that it would take a superman (or woman) to be able to do both jobs, reporting and teaching. But that’s almost what’s necessary and what is lacking with some — but not all — journalism professors. A couple examples of this would be the experienced journalist who left the field 10 or more years ago to teach or a professor with a Ph.D. in journalism who’s spent less than six months in a newsroom.

I’m sure they all have a lot to offer, but not nearly as much as a reporter who walks out of a newsroom after deadline and into a classroom to start teaching. It’s probably an idealistic dream, but it would be awesome — we need an Indiana Jones. And it all goes back to that real-world experience that I, and other J-students, crave.

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Comments
One Response to “Journalism Education Debate: Getting Beyond ‘the Typical BS in J-School Classes’”
  1. Paul says:

    An article a great many j-school profs should both read and take to heart, rather than issuing a casual dismissal. I spent the better part of two decades in newsrooms, watching with growing interest and alarm as the state of the art began to seriously define how the job of journalism got done. Instead of innovation and forward-thinking traditional print and broadcast journalism merely laughed off the idea that technology could somehow pose a threat to their entrenched business models. I don’t hear a whole hell of a lot of laughing these days.

    I teach as an adjunct, with my primary responsibility being the oversight of student media production on our campus. Journalism was my job, but the study of technology was what delivered me to my current position. I traded the newsroom to teach volunteers at a public access television station, and was energized by the enthusiasm these folks showed when they were given access to content creation tools, and a pipeline through which they could deliver their messages. It solidified for me the idea that journalism is a *vocation*, not a business model.

    Students should write, and publish, and criticize and take advantage of every single interactive communications opportunity that’s available to them. And if their instructors can’t be bothered to see the value in that, they should seriously question their institution’s commitment to the vocation, and ask whether or not their future is worth the gamble on a business model that’s seen itself knocked upside-down. Journalism is a gig for those who *do* it. And these days, they’re on YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, SoundCloud and more. They know Drupal (or at least enough to keep from chewing their own wrists open in frustration), WordPress and Joomla. They can whip up a blog post using their iPad’s Blogsy app with embedded video they uploaded to YouTube, shot on their iPhone, with hyperlinks to relevant source material, and a soundbite uploaded to SoundCloud.

    A journalist doesn’t *need* a newspaper, or a television station, or a radio station anymore. That’s a thing which is a complete and utter reversal of how things used to be. But those places sure as hell need journalists – and if j-schools aren’t going to provide them with the skills they need in this century – students had better make it a priority to teach themselves. And fast.

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