What every journalism student needs to know (now)

Journalism educators debate about what students need to know today. I have some ideas about that.

We insist, of course, on reporting fundamentals — news judgment, interviewing skills, fact checking, ethics, law. The need to master these remains strong.

All students should have basic familiarity with (basic) XHTML and CSS. That’s about 10 tags in XHTML. For CSS, that’s fonts, color, and divs. They may not need this every day on the job, but these are the foundation bricks of everything they will ever do — because everything they will do is going to be online.

Every reporter should know how to gather AND edit audio. It’s so close to the normal job of every print reporter, it’s a natural fit. Audio also has a shallow learning curve. Low stress, big returns.

All journalists need to understand the basics of photo composition, photo ethics and simple Photoshop (cropping, resizing, resolution, etc.). I would expect a journalist to have a high-res digital point-and-shoot in her pocket at all times, just in case news happens.

All journalism students should be exposed to Soundslides, because it has become the industry standard. I’d think one required homework assignment using the Soundslides demo version would be enough for many students to get the idea. Anyone who wants to work as a photojournalist should work to become adept.

Video is hard — takes longer to teach than everything else. I hope I’m figuring out how to teach it to print journalism students in less than one semester. I’ll let you know. You may not have cameras and you may not have enough time, but at least you could look at current examples. (And read Colin’s awesome blog.)

Podcasting is not as important as audio interviewing skills and audio editing, but depending on the course, it might make sense to combine the two and produce a weekly podcast — if you can come up with a format.

I recently wrote about why NOT to teach Dreamweaver. Nothing wrong with Dreamweaver — I use it almost daily. But learning it is not the best use of the students’ time. Other stuff is much more important.

Finally, the much neglected matter of storytelling. No matter which vehicle you’re using to carry it, your story is the dealbreaker. No story (or a weak story)? No deal.

Amid all the talk about how to add all this “new” stuff without compromising the “important” stuff (implying that the new skills are not as important as the old ones), most educators never get around to discussing how hard it is to get a really good story out of students. When the subject does come up, there’s universal agreement that the ability to recognize, pursue, and develop a story seems to elude many journalism students.

Don’t forget story. In teaching each of these skills, no matter how technical or tool-based, we have to keep the idea of story prominent and clear.

Update (March 5): See related ideas in a Poynter article published on March 4.

26 Comments on “What every journalism student needs to know (now)

  1. To add to the list – now any student interested in images should check out Colin’s “Finding the Frame” – little snippets with the SR staff on how they got the shot. Cool!

  2. I wrote a similar story about this on my blog. Designing the perfect online journalism course.


    I more or less agree with you. However, I think journos should do some sort of practical element.
    You only really test your skills when you put them into action. If you know how to do video then start a vlog. If you learn html and css then build a simple site like AngryJournalist.com.

    Its good to see what people have done. Not what they say they know.

  3. Ok. I understand it would be nice for journalists to know all this. But hey, it is really getting a bit much.

    There are some more things journalists ought to know and be able to do. For instance, if they are financial journalists, they should be able to read and analyze financial statements, no? They should have in-depth knowledge of IFRS financial reporting standards, I guess. They should continue studying all this, because financial techniques change all the time.

    Oh yes, I almost forgot: they should master several languages, especially in Europe (French, English, Spanish, Italian maybe, why not some BRIC-languages too?). For some reason a lot of the literature about multimedia considers it normal that journalists master html and css, know the basics of xml, but what about those very old and stubborn things, called languages? Do you prefer have a master in html as a correspondent in paris, who does not speak a word of french, or someone who does speak french but alas is a bit lost as far as webdesign is concerned? (ok, maybe less relevant in the middle of the USA, but in Europe, things are a bit different).

    Add to this skills in audio, video, photo, interactive graphics, html, css, Flash…

    And of course, those journalists must be young so they are extremely flexible (no kids!) They must be sophisticated observers of the industries they cover, have extensive networks. And journalists are preferably very, very cheap compared to let us say bankers.

    There must be a reason why multimedia and cross media are so hard to implement in newsrooms. Some reasons: a day has only 24 hours, and human beings need some hours for let us say, basic maintenance activities. Another reason: you cannot train journalists for days and days and let them fill pages in the newspaper and report online for the website at the same time (remember, newsrooms are slimming down). Yet another reason: maybe the guy who has a great network in the banking industry just “does not get video reporting”, but you won’t fire him or her because well, he or she brings in scoops every two days.

    I don’t doubt some very talented journalists can combine it all and are ready to work 16 hours a day. But a vast majority has some problems with it all. Maybe, just maybe, the dream of the multimedia journalist is just a publisher’s dream, hoping to recruit with one single person a whole team of professionals.

  4. Good synopsis Mindy.

    Often all the tools that we have to master can divert us from the main purpose of journalism,telling the story

  5. Mindy’s syllabus is a better fit for the realities of today’s newsrooms than a notion that most students should be aiming their education at, say, the limited opportunities for Paris-based correspondents.

    All I’d add is some discussion of looking beyond traditional notions of storytelling, in whatever medium, to the more interactive opportunities of online. Not that students need to learn Flash — though that wouldn’t hurt — but that they shouldn’t come out of J school thinking that their job is simply to lay a story in front of the reader. Give me reporters who will suggest — even if they don’t have all the skills to create on their own — alternative forms like a presidential comparison form or an online spelling bee.

    I often tell folks that moving from my former print-only job to more involvement with online and multimedia was like moving from the 16-crayon box to the jumbo 128-pack. We have so many more ways to communicate today, I don’t want students coming of out J school who just use brown because it’s too much trouble to have to pick between burnt umber and brick red.

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  7. @John Kroll: You rock, man. This is my favorite quote of the week — “Moving from my former print-only job to more involvement with online and multimedia was like moving from the 16-crayon box to the jumbo 128-pack.”

    I love the examples you linked also. Thanks!

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  10. @John Kroll: Let there be no misunderstanding, I do agree journalists ought to master the basics of html, css, flash, some javascript, video and audio.
    I just wanted to point out that while it seems natural to teach all this in journalist school, it is often hard to retrain older journalists who are already on the job and working in understaffed newsrooms.
    Storytelling is essential, but also expert knowledge about the stuff one covers. What should be avoided is that journalists make nice stories, using the different multimedia techniques, but fail to ask the hard questions because they lack expertise about the subject matter.

  11. @Roland: I agree that a journalist cannot get a good story if she doesn’t know how to ask the right questions.

    More and more, I am also seeing that one reason young journalists fail to ask the right questions is that they don’t have a clear idea of what a makes a story. They are trying to collect a bunch of facts, but they have not thought what the story is or could be.

    “Woman bakes cakes” is not really much of a story. “Woman expresses dreams through cake designs” is a story. I know we should be able to boil a story idea down to three words, but the simple action is not enough.

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  14. Mindy,

    There is so much to say about the state of journalism education. I think I’ll spare you another one of my long-winded (or is it sore-fingered?) rants. I made a post about your post today, which explains my feelings about the subject pretty well.

    I think the essence of what journalism education should be is pretty simple: Students need to know what a story is, how to interview, how to report and what journalism ethics and law are. Beyond that, journalists should be platform agnostic. This means they need to have the skills necessary to report in a variety of mediums.

  15. As a person who recently moved from industry (post-gazette.com) to academics (commedia.psu.edu) I think it is really important for students to try new things. They have four years to experiment with video, try CSS, take a language and most certainly learn how to find and tell a story. Once they get into the newsroom there will be a million reasons not to take any risks. If nothing else, we have to teach them it’s okay to take a chance and fail — as long as they strive to do their best and learn from their mistakes.
    As an educator, I’m delighted to have eager students at hand who are willing to try something new. We are constantly experimenting with alternative story forms in class. Hopefully they’ll keep this sense of adventure as they enter the working world.

  16. Great list, Mindy. I might add one more: “new” media literacy. So much work in newsrooms these days is collaborative and (sometimes painfully) converged. Sometimes students need to see how pieces come together.

    I’ve had success with this classroom assignment: Students pick individual news-based Web projects for case studies. They are required to interview at least three members of the team (can be an editor, videographer, reporter, photographer, designer, CAR expert, whatever). Students have to ask about metrics of success, software, process, collaboration, lessons learned, who did what, including arguments.

    I pre-approve all the case studies they propose; sometimes I give them names of recent alums (Wendell Cochran suggested that part) doing hands-on work. Case studies can be award winners, or just solid projects. Often, the smaller the newsroom, the easier it is to reach the main players. Anyway, the articles they wrote this year in particular are just terrific. From Fashion Week at the New York Times to Unequal Justice at The Dallas Morning News, the students learned a ton.


  17. Curt great point. School for me has been all about pushing myself and taking chances and doing things a paper unfortunately may not give me the creative freedom to persue.

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