Recently, MediaShift started running reports from “embeds” at various media outlets and educational institutions. This report comes from Alfred Hermida, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia.
“Multidisciplined” and “flexible” were just two of the words in a recent ad for a paid internship at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper. The posting listed a whole series of multimedia skills as mandatory. There was no mention of traditional journalism attributes such as accuracy, good writing or ethics, perhaps because it goes without saying.
The posting demonstrates how the demands of the industry are changing as news organizations grapple to reinvent themselves for the digital age. The issue for those of us who have moved from the newsroom to the classroom is how to make journalism education relevant for the 21st century.
As a result, money is pouring into new projects such as the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, bringing together 12 U.S. universities to “direct a bold, experimental digital media program” or the Tow Foundation grant to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for “the research and teaching of professional journalism in new and emerging media.”
These are much-needed programs and go to the core issue in journalism education about what and how we should teach at J-schools. It is something that we have wrestled with at the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia. We are a small graduate school with around 50 students enrolled in a two-year Masters program.
When I joined in 2006 after 16 years at the BBC, we still had separate courses in news-writing, multimedia and research methods. Students learned key journalism skills such as strong reporting, as well as gaining a grounding in online writing or producing slideshows in Flash. But we found it provided a fragmented learning experience that didn’t make enough of the connected way in which journalism is evolving.
This past academic year, we decided to combine these three disciplines (news-writing, multimedia and research) into an ambitious team-taught integrated journalism program. Over two days every week for the two semesters, students receive training in core journalism competences. They get to apply these skills through assignments that take them from covering social issues in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to tackling questions of diversity, with the work published in TheThunderbird.ca, an online magazine.
Questioning What Is News
The philosophy behind this change is to provide students with an integrated approach to journalism, taking its cue from the shift at universities toward interdisciplinary collaboration. This builds on the idea of convergence journalism with its focus on training students in how to report for different platforms.
But it goes beyond teaching the next generation of reporters how to tell stories and understand the best way to deliver that story, be it in print, in a podcast or in a Google map. While this is important, our aim is to reconceptualize what we mean by journalism in a digital age, when the boundaries of what is news and who is a journalist are becoming increasingly blurred. As Andy Guess writes in InsideHigherEd:
In today’s landscape, defining ‘the media’ isn’t nearly as clear-cut as it used to be. Big-name newspapers and networks mingle with cable channels, all-purpose websites and blogs in the minds of the average news consumer, and for good reason: They are, in many cases, converging, with widely read blogs run by newspapers and online web stories originating from cable networks.
We adopted a business school model, bringing together a core group of academics and media professionals with different areas of expertise, from places as diverse as the BBC, CBC, The Globe and Mail, CanWest Global, and “60 Minutes.” As journalism itself gets more complex, teaching in silos is no longer appropriate.
Fortunately we had buy-in from all team members — even from the ones who were self-professed digital newbies. Of course, there were different points of view but these took place in a collaborative environment without rancor. It probably helped that we are a small and relatively new J-school — just 10 years old — so there are no political empires to defend.
Getting such a project off the ground requires a high level of coordination. Much of our time over the summer of 2007 was devoted to devising a syllabus that coherently blended the different elements that make a great journalist. From a practical point of view, this involved breaking down who was teaching what and when, down to the hour of each day, and then making sure the syllabus ran on schedule.
Demands on Students
Part of our approach involved decoupling journalism from any particular medium, not just in the curriculum but also in the minds of students. On Day One at the school, we ask students where they see themselves working. For many, journalism is equated with a career in print, where it is simply about good writing. This is something that other J-schools face, what Jo Geary at the UK’s Birmingham Post described in a discussion on the Online Journalism Blog on the role of J-schools as a “rather outdated, ‘mono-medium’ view of working in journalism.”
The hard part, though, is trying to do all of this in 24 weeks, even with two days of classes every week. Many students come in with little or no journalism experience. By the end of the first year, they have to learn to research, report and write accurately and fairly, acquiring a wide range of technical skills working in sound, vision and code.
If that were not enough, we also want students to gain a conceptual and critical understanding of what makes journalism, how it is changing, and to experiment in new forms of media such as blogs. The demands on today’s students are much higher than when I went to J-school more than 20 years ago and reflect the complex industry they are entering.
After just one year, it is too soon to reach a conclusion. But the students landed some great internships over the summer from the Village Voice in New York to CBC London to Deutsche Welle in Washington, D.C., and three won scholarships to the student newsroom at the Online News Association annual conference in September.
This summer we are revisiting the course, seeing where there is room for improvement. As Emap’s David Cushman observed in the discussion on the Online Journalism Blog, everything is in beta now and university courses should be no different.
Just as prospective journalists are asked to be flexible and multidisciplined, so should J-schools. Technology is enabling new forms of journalism and new news outlets that were unimaginable a generation ago. But journalism is too important to be left to the technologists alone. Journalism educators have a vital role to play in helping students gain the conceptual, critical and practical skills to flourish in today’s newsrooms and the newsrooms yet to come.
Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and journalism educator. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.