J-school education in the digital era

In a conversation with a colleague yesterday, I confronted a question about what journalism students need to know. Not that I haven’t thought about it before — of course I have. But in this case, I found some of my long-held assumptions challenged.

My colleague said newsrooms want to hire journalists who can report for various platforms and use a variety of reporting tools and techniques in the field. No argument from me on that score.

What made me chafe was the assertion that there’s no reason to teach HTML and CSS, because newsrooms all have content management systems, and design is done by people with a graphic design background — not by journalists.

There’s no reason to teach scripting (JavaScript, PHP, etc.), because newsrooms hire programmers to do all of that.

There’s no reason to teach the tasks performed by online producers, because that’s all the same as (print) editing — or else it’s monkey work, and teaching that would be a waste of time.

My argument: Not all journalists are reporters. Design, production, editing, and packaging have been taught in j-schools since before my own undergraduate years as a journalism student. The skills required to do these tasks belong in the curriculum. I’m in favor of teaching digital reporting skills (audio, photo, video — and don’t forget databases!) to every journalism student — in the core courses. On the other hand, I would never insist that every journalist learn how to write JavaScript or how to animate in Flash. There’s a world of learning options in between those two poles.

Why shouldn’t journalism students learn basic HTML and CSS? Why not learn how to optimize photos for online? (While they’re at it, they ought to learn Photoshop ethics too.) These are hardly rocket science, and a little knowledge in this vein can go a long way in a pinch — on deadline, or late at night when news breaks, or on the road. It’s not as if a journalist will always have a full support staff available — a full complement of programmers, designers, and trouble-shooters ready to step in and fix things.

Is it sufficient to teach students only how to report for digital platforms — without teaching them how to produce, edit, design, and package?

I poked around on JournalismJobs.com and found this in an ad for a job at USA Today:

Are you a digital storyteller? Do you speak infographics? Do you dream in ActionScript? If you answered yes to these questions, USA TODAY.com may be the place for you. USA TODAY is currently seeking experienced multimedia designers, with a journalism background, to join a progressive design and multimedia team.

Candidates must be:

  • Well versed in Flash CS3. Advanced ActionScripting a plus
  • Show strong sense of design
  • Must know how to utilize multimedia techniques to tell stories that will engage the reader
  • Must work well in a deadline situation
  • Must work well with a team of talented individuals

That sure sounds like someone with a j-school education, doesn’t it?

I’m not saying that every j-school should strive to turn out hundreds of graduates qualified for this particular job. However, I do think students in a good j-school should be given the opportunity to become so qualified.

17 Comments on “J-school education in the digital era

  1. The biggest thing I’ve learned since getting into multimedia is an appreciation for what’s possible.

    Because I’ve played with FMAtlas and Zeemaps, I see how an interactive map could help a story, and when it wouldn’t. Because I shoot video, often just for fun, I have a better idea what I like to see. A friend asked me about using Drupal or WordPress for his magazine’s website and I gave him far more information than I could have if I hadn’t worked on sites using both.

    Even if a reporter never has to write code, or edit video, or put together a data project, just knowing what could go into the story means they’re more likely to get the right people in early (assuming said newspaper has a programmer, Flash producer or videographer on staff, which seems a big assumption).

  2. Ever tried to copy/paste advanced MSWord into a CMS? You better know some Html to clean up the mess.

    Computer-based technologies tend to be more complicated than previous media. I think the multimedia housekeeping problems you were talking about yesterday stem in part from newsroom ignorance as to what’s server- or client-side, what’s bandwidth etc.

    Fist, as you said, j’lists won’t have the luxury of a 4-techie team to work on their articles. But, without turning them into nerds, they do have to know the basics to gain in efficiency online.

  3. They have to know technology and journalism, because Internet is about people – not technology, but to know how to use it you have to know technology. But online journalists are not programmers and knowing cms, html, photoshop, soundslides, audacity,… is not programming.

    At pregraduate journalism program on University of Dubrovnik students learn car, web design, online reporting and online editing beside other offline journalism skills.

  4. I think there is also value in teaching journalism students when to know if a certain technology can be leveraged in the story-telling process, even if they don’t know how to use it personally. Chances are someone at the organization will, or it could serve as a prompt for seeking out further learning.

  5. @Patrick: I agree, and I certainly don’t mean to say that every journalism student needs to become a code expert. A little bit of solid knowledge, however, can go a long way in this realm.

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  7. I think Mindy and everyone who has commented on this is on the money.
    In every CMS I have used, one needed at least some basic HTML knowledge to tweak the appearance of content or, as Nico pointed out, to clean up copy that comes from another system.
    Knowing the basics about HTML, CSS and Photoshop allows you to know what is possible and better enables you to work with the staff who does the scripting or makes decisions on how the content appears online.
    And finally, college is the time to learn and discover new things – students who never considered working as online producers might find that’s a career path to explore.
    As the spouse of a journalism professor, I know it seems hard to fit this stuff into a curriculum but it’s time to find a way. More knowledge and skills are always a good thing.

  8. When I was in J school — many, many years ago now — you were required to take a copy editing course, you were required to take a photography class and you were required to learn something about newspaper design (in addition to all those reporting courses).

    I’ve found uses for all of those skills over 25 years in the business and was glad to have been taught at least the basics. I think we’re looking at the same thing now, though the list of “basics” is growing rapidly.

    As in the past, a little background in various disciplines can pay big benefits for students. And those that end up wearing multiple hats at smaller publications will benefit the most.

  9. @Pia: Word! “College is the time to learn and discover new things.” It’s a dirty crying shame that some students don’t view it this way and, rather than take interesting challenging courses to expand their world, seek out easy courses to inflate their GPA. So sad.

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  12. A student seeking a successful career in New Media must learn the whole package.

    While most people find a focus based on one of their skills, each one is invaluable in the daily routine of digital news production.

    However, I still agree with Chris and Patrick that the ability to understand how to use the media as a means to an end is far more valuable than the tech skills.

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  15. Although the background and training I have are very much what’s described, I wouldn’t agree that HTML and CSS are necessary tools in every journalist’s toolkit. Are they useful? Perhaps, but that shouldn’t equate to necessary. Because technology moves the boundaries, what happens in an academic environment is that the teaching crystallizes around the New Hot Thing, and as time and technology march on, schools are still teaching the old thing in the old way–because that’s how they operate. Students, on the other hand, are graduated from the institution with no current job skills.

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