Testable, measurable skills we should teach in j-school

Like a lot of j-schools, mine has been discussing updates to the curriculum. Much of that discussion concerns skills. So we ended up saying we need a list of skills. Then someone said, yeah, I’ve seen that kind of list, and I don’t know what some of that stuff means. If you say the students “need to know digital audio” — what is that, really?

Earlier today, Amy Gahran wrote:

It’s such a shame that most j-schools still are not teaching new journalists crucial skills they’ll need to act entrepreneurially in media: content management systems (including blogging tools), mobile tools and mobile media strategies, social media, business skills, management skills, economics and business models, marketing, SEO, community management, etc.

That’s the kind of list we’ve seen before.  In contrast, my faculty has been working on a list of measurable results, and I’ll give you three concrete examples of what we think the students should be able to do:

  • Audio: Produce a 2-minute clip with clear nat sound, narration, and interview material, edited digitally and compressed for the Web.
  • Online ethics: Answer questions about five case studies concerning: advertising interference in editorial; hidden bias or manipulation by the journalist; sock puppetry or fakery; image and audio manipulation; staged or posed events (video, audio, photo); influence by fear or favor.
  • XHTML and CSS:  Demonstrate knowledge of how to use 10 basic XHTML tags and basic CSS (body, font, color, margin, padding, div); test this knowledge with a set of multiple-choice questions.

Now it’s your turn.

Quit saying, “They need to learn how to be entrepreneurial,” and give me a measurable result. Then I can teach them — not to do only that one thing, but to employ the skills it requires.

28 Comments on “Testable, measurable skills we should teach in j-school

  1. Weblog: Develop and maintain a weblog devoted to a topic over a semester. Demonstrate understanding of the nature of the weblog format through superior use of external links, short-form writing, topical specificity, community participation (through blogroll, comments on other blogs, and responses to comments on your blog), and understanding of traffic statistics.

    I’m sure you’ve got a video component on your list, too.

    And I’d add something about understanding and using Twitter or CoveritLive or a social network (myspace or facebook) to cover an event or build an audience for a news project.

  2. Rolling news: Cover a live news event, writing and uploading a short, immediate report and following up with further reporting developed into at least two online updates.

    Photography: Cover a live news event, taking and editing six distinct photographs and producing an online slideshow with captions.

    Liveblogging: Maintain a liveblog of an event for at least one hour, making multiple posts with links.

  3. Video: Use a point and shoot camera to generate a 30 second interview clip to use alongside a text story. Edited digitally (when required) and compressed for the Web.

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  5. OK, I’ll take the challenge, it’s a good one. Thanks for pushing on this, Mindy.

    Here’s my attempt at turning my quick list from yesterday into a more specific education plan for measureable skills.

    Bear in mind, I’ve never written a formal curriculum plan, so I’m sure there’s lots of room for improvement here.

    Whadya think?

    – Amy Gahran

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  7. Having hired a lot of j-school interns lately, I’d have to add:
    1) Pass a copy editing test
    2) Write four different-length headlines for the same story including one for print.
    3) Find five sources for a story using the Internet only for Factiva/Lexis searches — if that. No Google, no Wiki.

    A lot of j-school kids don’t seem to be learning the basics. You still need to spell, even in captions for slide shows and you need to get names right in VO for video. Once you’ve passed those three, then move on to:

    4) Given a topic this week’s Pew study on the middle class, describe how you would cover it in each of the following ways: print, online (text), as a video piece for the Web, as a blog report, as a photo essay, as some other interactive media (Map, Flash infographic, etc.. Then pick one and do it.

  8. While all of the above is good and its all necessary, I like Bryan Murley’s approach and would extend it by having students follow through an any given story produced by any of the above means by allowing comments on the piece they produce:

    Monitor and foster the discussion;

    Set up a Facebook ( or other network) based on the issue or event;

    Invite expertise to participate (crowdsourcing);

    Solicit interested officials or lawmakers so that the piece becomes the lynchpin for a public dialogue;

    Schedule and promote an online live chat;

    Globalize by researching the issue to find similar occurrences around the country or around the world;

    Build an extensive resource guide of links, documents, and sources.

  9. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed so far. As a journalism curriculum leader who’s struggling with these issues right now down at the bottom of the world, I find this discussion very stimulating.

    We seem to be some way behind our North American colleagues in this field, but we want to (and need to) catch up quickly.

    Some key concerns for me are
    how do we resource this expansion in curriculum;
    does it come at the expense of other things;
    where can I get the training I need so that I can competently demonstrate the skills to students?

    I guess part of the answer is that new hires need to be efficient in these skills, but in an industry that’s still struggling to come to terms with a lot of this stuff, they’re not easy to find.

    Something that’s not here yet is the idea of “beat blogging”. I’m fascinated by this and it seems that we should perhaps be looking more closely at it.
    Another issue on my radar is digital story-telling. What really sets it apart from the inverted pyramid and traditional styles in broadcast news?
    I’m really keen to hear from colleagues who are dealing with these issues. You can find me at the AUT University School of Communication Studies in Auckland, New Zealand.

  10. Great post, Mindy.

    I think all J-school students should be taught basics of making print stories (from briefs up to 20 inches), video stories, picture essays and broadcast radio reports. Give them the bag of tricks to deal with any story — and any employment situation.

    Which leads to what has been missing all along, and is maybe more needed now: a class on how to run yourself as a business. John Harrington’s “Best Business Practices for Photographers” should be the basic textbook, with a few adds needed.

    I can’t see CMS, blogging, social networking, etc., as requirements any more than, say, word processing. Students should be encouraged to get into them, but I don’t think a lot of it is stuff that needs class time for teaching, maybe just workshops and such.

    Perhaps as a capstone, students can work in a group to create a multimedia project that entails multiple videos, maps, copy, etc.

  11. @Rick – I would gently suggest that your list sounds like it came from five or six years ago. Saving the essential digital skills until a capstone leaves the students ill-prepared for today’s job market.

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  13. Rick wrote: “I can’t see CMS, blogging, social networking, etc., as requirements any more than, say, word processing. Students should be encouraged to get into them, but I don’t think a lot of it is stuff that needs class time for teaching, maybe just workshops and such.”

    The point of learning those tools is that they foster a more flexible and robust mindset that influences the acts of defining and covering news. It broadens the possibilities (journalistic and business) for news.

    When you’re not trapped in terms of thinking of news as unstructured blocks of narrative (whether text, audio, or video) defined by a conventional “news peg” (which is what the tools journalists have used for the last century or more have done, to the point that most of us don’t even notice it anymore) there start to be new opportunities for creating more connections of relevance with more communities.

    And that’s what makes journalism a potentially smart career choice these days, despite the waning fortunes of traditional news media and news organizations.

    IMHO, of course 🙂

    – Amy Gahran

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  15. This is a much needed discussion. I agree with Matt that we still need to teach the basics of story-telling and writing, regardless of the medium. So I have my students at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism spend several hours writing breaking news. They have to write the story in four paragraphs, around 200 words, to deadline – first in 30 minutes, then 20, then 10. This way they learn to work under pressure, to deadline and to focus on the key facts in the story.

    One other things I would highlight is that students do an audio slideshow which must have a clear focus and narrative flow, as well as compelling images. The purpose is to have students conceive of a story in images and sound, rather than words.

    Beyond this, the challenge is to instill in students a way of conceptualisation of stories in ways suitable for each medium – print, broadcast or online. This involves understanding how these platforms are different and repurposing content from one to the other does not work. As an exercise, I have the students discuss how they would cover an issue for each of these different mediums, working out what works and what doesn’t.

    Teamwork is a essential as students have an opportunity to learn from each other, even if this is simply based on peer-editing. We also hand over responsibility for the online student publication to the students, so that they have to chose editors etc and then self-organise. This provides a valuable lesson in taking responsibility and in working with others.

    Today’s j-school students have so much to learn so at UBC, we layer skills over the two semesters. This starts off with learning about sources and basic news writing and we gradually add in more skills. But at the same time, we also increase the complexity of the stories, so that the students gain the practical and critical skills to be great journalists.

  16. Two cents, too long for a comment, here:

    J-schools need help from the broader university, in a re-evaluation of the core curriculum, to help net natives filter through the noise.

  17. Hm, maybe I could’ve rephrased some things. I didn’t mean to belittle blogging; I understand its role in news sites or journos’ personal sites, but I don’t think new outlets like that or Twitter diminish the importance of traditional reporting and story-telling. The fundamentals are lacking more than the implementation.

    Mindy: I wrote capstone, but was thinking of something that might take longer than a semester, a long-term project that’s more equivalent to a thesis. But yes, those skills should be taught way earlier.

    To add to the challenge, one specific business task would be to have students renegotiate a contract, showing knowledge of licensing terms. You’ll see much discussion about this in the various PJ forums, with more rights-grab contracts being pushed on us.

  18. @Rick — Wow, “renegotiate a contract” — that’s a very good one! We could make them role-play. One is the editor trying to screw over the freelancer, and the other one is the freelancer trying to project his/her interests.

  19. @Alf — Great comment, thank you! You are so right about narrative and story train. Too many people are slapping up audio slideshows that have no story to them. They are like factual reports, no emotion, no pacing. We need to work on this in many of our classes, and not only online.

    I’m strongly in favor of teaching skills in conjunction with real journalism assignments that employ the new skills. Too many faculty want to institute “technology workshops” in which the students would learn only software. Without the application to real stories, I don’t see much point in that.

  20. OK, here’s one for you. I’m not sure how to meet Mindy’s challenge of making this “measurable”, but I thought about this after a colleague sent me a response when I forwarded the link to this discussion around my teaching team.
    She wrote: “Mini-Murdochs with digital cameras?”, in response to the ‘concentious’ comment about teaching entrepreneurial business skills to journo students.
    That seems to me (in New Zealand) to be a particularly American approach – something to do with the way the discipline (journalism in the academy) has developed there as opposed to perhaps the UK and certainly Australian & NZ where I have my experience.
    We are much more inclined to got the “critical thinking and evaluation” route.
    We want our graduates to have a healthy scepticism and an ability to evaluate their own practice as well as analyse and interpret the world around them.
    But how do we measure this? It seems it’s really a value judgment in many ways. Perhaps it’s measurable through an essay, or even in the quality of stories produced.
    My premise for this is that journalism is an intellectual pursuit – that is really the public interest – and so we cannot just teach technical skills. It has to be contextualised and not just by media studies academics, but from a perspective of journalism scholarship.
    So are you teaching any critical/theory stuff around the new technology?
    For example: do your students get a chance to debate the differences/similarities between Jay Rosen; Dan Gilmor and others over the social aspects of digital news media?
    I think this is just as important as Soundslides and digital story-telling.
    We run the risk of simply buying into the hype and the digital optimism (the great democratic media future is just a click away) if we don’t engage cricitally as scholars as well as teachers.

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  22. I agree with Martin. Im developing a whole critical theory curriculum thats exploring the nexus of where information, technology and social use meet. To this end, Im incorporating disciplines such as epistemology, sociology, semiotics, and network theory. J-skills and multimedia skills can be taught, like driving a car. Multimedia skills will also inevitably evolve as technology evolves and as Alfred points out, not all multimedia will be appropiate for every story.What we need is to encourage a mindset that understands what people are *doing* with what kind of information, why they are doing it that way, what needs are trying to be accomplished. If you have a firm understanding of that, then you can tell the right story with the right technology and the right social application.Thats why Im bringing in these other areas.

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  27. Many of today’s page designers would fail the image manipulation portion.

    In their non-functioning minds, if you can do something with an image, then you just go ahead and do it.

    Also, matt — it doesn’t sound like you’re doing a very good job of hiring.

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