Teaching Journalism in Tumultuous Times

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A professor from another college recently sought my advice about how to rejuvenate his school’s journalism program. He asked me two questions, one easy, the other not so much.

First, the easy one: What skills will be the most critical for a student who hopes to enter the journalism job market in the next five years?

I’m old-school. I still believe the most important skills to teach journalism students are solid, dogged reporting and clear, lucid writing. That’s the primary focus of the classes I teach. So how do we make this exciting for students born in the 21st century?

Well, we have this old-school thing called a student newspaper (the Centurion). Students write and edit all the stories and headlines, lay out the pages and even distribute the papers across the campus once they’ve rolled off the presses. The students own the process and they’re entirely responsible for the end product. In effect, they are running a small business, which makes the entire endeavor challenging and (hopefully) a lot of fun.

Our journalism courses work in sync with the paper. So students in my reporting courses cover hard news for the Centurion, the features writing class produces long-form magazine style pieces, the editing class edits the stories and lays them out, and so on. Every journalism student is in effect a newsroom staffer, and we aim to publish virtually every article our students write. From the very first day of class, students understand that they are not just producing assignments for a class, but writing articles that will be published in a very real publication.

This gives students a very real sense that they are learning practical skills. They are also getting lots of clips, and at the end of the semester everyone creates an online clip portfolio that they can use when they apply for internships and jobs.

Do I incorporate technology? Absolutely. We offer a course where students learn to shoot and edit news videos. I started this course years ago after the editor of a local paper told me she was looking for entry-level applicants who could produce digital videos. The Centurion also has a website, which gives students experience in operating a WordPress-type of content management system. And in our editing class students learn to use Adobe Indesign to lay out the paper.

But the core of our curriculum is still focused on teaching students to report, write and edit.

And now, the tougher question: How do we sustain two-year journalism programs in an era of declining college enrollment and newsroom layoffs?

I’m not sure I know the answer to this question. Enrollment certainly is down at colleges across the country. This is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is the fact that there are simply fewer 18-year-olds graduating from high schools now compared to, say, a decade ago.

So we do what we can to generate good publicity about our journalism program. The Centurion has won more than 90 awards since 2010, and every time we win another plaque I do everything I can to get the word out to the local media. Every spring we hold forums where we invite working journalists to speak at our college, and those often get news coverage as well. It also helps that at our college, students majoring in communication – a degree that attracts a lot more students than journalism – can fulfill elective requirements by taking journalism courses. And while I have nothing against communications majors, I tell students if they really want to become journalists, a journalism degree is the better choice. (Sometimes I gain a few converts.)

Obviously the news about the news business remains gloomy. Both print and digital-only news outlets are still searching for a viable business model, even as Google and Facebook vacuum up most of the digital ad revenue, leaving publishers to fight over the crumbs. But I’m not sure how much of that matters to young people, who, fortunately, tend to be very good at ignoring the advice and pessimistic prophecies of their elders. Last semester, I asked the Centurion editor in chief (a young woman majoring in journalism) if all the newsroom layoffs ever made her consider another career. “No,” she told me, “if anything it’s just made me more determined to make it in this business.” Thank God for the next generation.


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