Journalism Industry Outpacing Educational Curricula

In recent years, journalism programs have taken steps to integrate

print, TV, radio and the Internet into every fiber of students’ training and assignments. They have intensified their partnerships with newspapers, TV and radio stations and other media to heighten their students’ real-world experience and gain exposure to various aspects of the industry. But a recent survey by the Poynter Institute shows doubts that journalism education is keeping pace with the changes in the industry.

Two thousand people responded to the survey, with respondents categorized as either educators, working media professionals or “other” professionals. About 19 percent of the educators, 11 percent of those working at media organizations and 14 percent of independent professionals said programs were keeping up “a great deal” or “completely.” The rest said “mostly,” “a little” or “not at all.”

While a couple of big journalism schools are opening new buildings this fall, throwing together classes and instructors to cover all the “platforms,” and some schools are creating new master’s degree programs, journalism programs across the country are increasingly under fire for being slow to react to the changes in the way people get their news. To keep pace with some of these industry changes, groups have sponsored studies and awarded grants enabling schools and the media to try new initiatives. Heavyweights in media and journalism education are urging their people to look beyond the layoffs and cutbacks in news outlets — especially severe among newspapers — and explore new opportunities.

Glenn Frankel, director of the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin, says when it comes to journalism education, “nobody’s where they need to be,” and anyone who says they are is wrong.

“It’s a moving target,” says Frankel, who cites “the digital revolution.” “No one knows how this will turn out,” he adds.

The wave of the future

This “digital revolution” is speeding up and expanding the spread of information, journalists say. Consumers expect near instantaneous reporting of a development through Twitter and website postings, even if it’s not letter perfect. Any errors can be corrected immediately as well, with reporters revealing to their audience some of the news-gathering process as they go along.

The story, once the endpoint, is now the beginning, with people giving their own input and angles that reporters can follow up on, says Sara Quinn, a faculty member at Poynter who teaches multimedia.

“New journalism is about conversation,” she says. A story also can be told in different forms, depending upon which seems most appropriate.

Jason DeRusha, a reporter and weekend anchor for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, Minn., has found Twitter and Facebook to be invaluable for tapping the brains and eperiences of a wide range of people.

Recently, when he let his audience know he was working on a story on who could afford a local $40,000 fundraiser for President Obama — and what donors would get for their money people responded promptly on Twitter and Facebook with comments and bits of information.

When he did a story on high-definition TV, one of his Facebook contacts said some people couldn’t view closed captioning on it. “I hadn’t considered that,” DeRusha says. “You wish you’re smart enough to think of everything, but you don’t —your readers do.”

Most journalists use social media for promoting themselves and their stories, but “I’d challenge them to use it for news gathering,” he says. The benefits outweigh concerns about being scooped, he says.Joanna Smith, a reporter at the Toronto Globe, uses Twitter to report, network, and get in touch with sources. “It has become a huge part of my job,” she says, and has even changed the way she writes for print.

She began using Twitter in 2010 when she was covering Haiti after the earthquake and found other means of communication had failed. She filed her first story a bit at a time.

“What I loved about it was that it was stripping my writing of all extraneous words — just nouns and active verbs, get rid of adjectives,” she says. “A lot of it carried into my writing [for print] — it brought an immediacy to it.”

Each type of social media is best for a certain kind of story and has its own style of writing, journalists say. Students can get the hang of it by observing those who do it well. “Schools don’t know how to teach this,” DeRusha says. They’re busy as it is teaching the fundamentals, he says. “But now, how to write for hyper-conversational social media? That’s a different animal.”

Broadening horizons

Meanwhile, some encourage students to take double majors. It’s an unbeatable resume booster and makes you a more thoughtful, analytical reporter, says Wendy Norris, a former journalist and founder and chief executive officer of Tekhne.com, a digital information startup and media consulting group.

The days when young people could learn the ropes by joining a small newspaper or TV station are pretty much gone, educators say. With bare-bones staffs doing more with less, no one has the time to be patient with fresh-faced graduates hoping to glean experience from trial and error; they are expected to come out the gate ready to run.

Are there jobs out there? Journalism schools say yes, and that their graduates are being hired for them. But students must have diverse skills and be able to sell — even “brand” — themselves. They may wind up in non-journalism jobs that require

good communication skills.

Looking back at his time at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, National Association of Black Journalists student representative Wes Lowery said he enjoyed the competitive spirit. “It’s a big school, and a lot of journalism students have their guns blazing, wanting to be the best.” He praised a dramatically different “converged” curriculum the journalism school is starting up this fall that makes it easier for students to mix and match courses in various forms of media.

Lowery, who served as editor of The Post, a student-run independent newspaper at Ohio University, and would like to continue working in the newspaper business, has internships lined up after graduation at the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.

“I have the flexibility to do multiple things,” he says, noting that apart from his classes, he honed his writing, video and social media skills as editor of the school newspaper.

Still, Frankel, a former editor and foreign correspondent with The Washington Post,

has faith in journalism, which he says has always been restless, skeptical and dynamic. The field will absorb and use new ways of doing things, and become better, he says.

When Frankel first joined UT-Austin two years ago, students and faculty members said

the program needed to change to better prepare students, and asked for his help.

As a result, the school is replacing the traditional sequence of courses with a new “converged” curriculum this fall. Undergraduates will learn critical thinking but also

take courses weaving in video, audio, print and Internet-related forms. Faculty members are expected to collaborate with each other more than ever before, and the Belo Center for New Media is opening on campus this fall to support these initiatives.

“Everyone is excited and a little scared,” Frankel said. “We’ll make mistakes. But if we don’t make mistakes, we’re doing something wrong.”

Dr. Lawrence Kaggwa, professor and interim chairman of the School of Communications at Howard University, thinks students should consider launching their own media ventures now that they can get their content out so inexpensively online.

“We’re trying to prepare students for CBS and NBC,” he says.

“But I tell them, ‘If they don’t hire you, don’t lose sleep over it. Start your own enterprise.’”