We Need a Digital-First Curriculum to Teach Modern Journalism

    by Cindy Royal
    August 26, 2013
    In a digital media curriculum, students would use blogs, Twitter and Storify for mobile reporting projects. Photo by David Nolan, Texas State University.
    Click on the image for the full series. Original photo by Taqi®™ on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Click on the image for the full series.

    At the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, one panel addressed adding programming skills to the curriculum: “Why All Your Students Must Be Programmers.”

    "What I am proposing is curriculum in which digital is the foundation, and the basic skills of writing, reporting and editing are injected into digitally focused courses."

    The inevitable question was posed: What would you cut from existing offerings to make room for these new topics? Some were provocative in their responses, like NPR news application editor Brian Boyer’s declarations: “No print design. Done.” And, “Adobe products are dead to me.” Matt Waite of University of Nebraska said he gets around curriculum limitations by holding special office hours he calls “Maker Hours,” allowing interested students to hack on projects. But overall, few specific recommendations were offered as to how programming could best be integrated into existing curriculum.

    Photo credit: Cindy Royal, Texas State University

    Academics and professionals on ‘Why All Your Students Must Be Programmers’ at the AEJMC conference in Washington, D.C. Photo by Cindy Royal, Texas State University.

    It got me thinking about how many schools, including my own program at Texas State University, have approached digital in a piecemeal fashion — injecting digital topics into existing courses, creating a few electives, or in some cases, adding a single required course.

    I think there is a better route, another way to conceptualize an entirely new curriculum around Digital and Data-Driven Communication. And, in thinking about how this could be done, I’ve identified three guiding principles.


    1. Flip the Curriculum

    This is different than the recent concept of “flipping classes,” offering online lectures and outside work so that classroom time could be spent on discussion and exercises. While that may very well be a part of this approach, what I am proposing is curriculum in which digital is the foundation, and the basic skills of writing, reporting and editing are injected into digitally focused courses, as opposed to inserting a digital lesson or two into traditional classes.

    Most programs have courses at their core that introduce basic skills, things like Media Writing, Media Law and Introduction to Mass Communication. Other programs also require courses in Media History or Mass Media and Society. I propose we flip and reconfigure these courses with a digital emphasis.

    Introduction to Digital Media. This course would introduce students to the digital media environment, discussing the nature and scale of digital media and the role of social media to professional work and life. Students would emerge with an understanding of their personal brand and the beginnings of a digital portfolio that could follow them throughout their program of study. This class would also introduce new careers created by the digital age and the need to prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet. The course would begin to introduce writing, but writing would be done in the context of a content management system. In conjunction with learning AP style and the inverted pyramid, students would learn about linking and embedding visuals.

    Multimedia/Mobile Writing and Reporting. These courses would be offered at different levels and focus on a variety of ways that digital can be integrated across mass communication fields. Students would learn writing, photography and multimedia editing skills together. They would learn how to report from the field, using a mobile phone or tablet and would gain judgment in which tools and platforms to use.

    Digital Media Law. The digital media environment introduces new legal challenges and exacerbates existing ones. The important role of the press to democracy and the First Amendment would still be taught, but primarily in its context to digital media issues. The background of legislation and litigation will need to be connected to future implications in a digital environment, not just how they operated in the past.

    History of Digital Media. You may think that history is the one class that shouldn’t be touched in a digital media curriculum. There is, however, a new history that is critical and relevant to our students’ understanding of the digital media environment — the history of technology. History classes should focus on the introduction of personal computers, the origination of the Internet and Web and how various sites and platforms — things like browsers, search engines, social media and mobile apps — have disrupted traditional media. This approach offers a mindset that encourages students to think innovatively about what could or should come next.

    Photo credit: Cindy Royal, Texas State University

    Students in Advanced Online Media at Texas State University learn Web development, responsive design, data visualization, Web scraping and content management system customization. Photo by Cindy Royal, Texas State University.

    The Culture of Digital Media. The emphasis in this course would be on the culture of technology and how it has affected personal and professional interaction. Topics would include the open source and hacker ethos, innovation, entrepreneurship and social issues related to gender, race and other demographics associated with digital life.

    Outside these contexts, there would be no dedicated writing, reporting or editing courses. These topics would be integrated and evaluated in the ways we approach digital media throughout the curriculum. Courses could be considered beyond the traditional semester or quarter system, potentially offering shorter terms or intensive weekend workshops.

    2. New Concentrations

    I see concentrations with a skills emphasis, rather than focusing on a specific industry. Taking courses in one or more of these areas would provide students with a range of experiences that would qualify them for more and different positions.

    Multimedia: This concentration would provide a visual focus in classes like digital photography, multimedia editing and design. Students could attain positions in traditional broadcast organizations or use their visual skills in organizations that want to include multimedia with their content. Training would be in traditional coverage, but also include character-driven narratives, multimedia packages and non-traditional storytelling. Graphic design would be approached with a significant focus on Web and mobile delivery.

    Programming: At this point in the curriculum, students would know why programming and data are an important skill to storytelling. The courses leading up to this concentration would have introduced basic programming concepts and demonstrated their use in various projects. Courses would introduce more advanced programming concepts, Web development, data visualization, Web scraping, mobile development and advanced content management system customization. This concentration could be supported by collaborations with other departments or with local professionals or organizations, with the goal of ultimately co-opting these skills with a communications context.

    Social Media: While every instructor would be expected to use relevant social media tools in the classroom, students with this concentration would be able to use advanced social media techniques in a variety of professional settings. They would be able to more specifically focus on engagement and advanced social media implementations, like the use of analytics and the creation of comprehensive social media campaigns. They would then be able to apply these techniques more specifically to courses that deal with traditional and non-traditional careers.

    3. Experience Learning

    Photo credit: Cindy Royal, Texas State University

    Digital media students would gain experience by covering university activities, local events (like the students above covering South By Southwest) or special projects. Photo by Cindy Royal, Texas State University.

    Students interested in working in traditional media fields would get the experience they need by working for student media and/or selecting a capstone course that addresses traditional fields in a digital context. Or they could select a course covering new careers in digital media with a focus on jobs in the tech industry and with startups. These courses would have a significant experience-learning component, allowing the students to work with clients or to cover university activities, local events or special projects.

    The biggest challenge to this approach is in having educators with the training and knowledge to teach in and stay up-to-date with the digital environment. This may require different hiring qualifications, tenure and accreditation standards and career expectations. We must create incentives that will encourage faculty to move quickly in this direction.

    This model is being proposed as a starting point for future conversations about radical curriculum reform. There are multiple ways that these recommendations could be implemented within a specific program: in lieu of traditional journalism and mass communication curriculum; introduced as a new major; developed as a new graduate curriculum; or proposed via a new academic center, allowing for interdisciplinary collaborations. It’s time that curriculum reflects the future of media, rather than its past, creating a comprehensive framework and courses that establish an innovative mindset amongst our students and ourselves.

    Fascinated by a co-worker’s demonstration of HTML, Cindy Royal started her first website in 1996, a concert review site called onthatnote.com. This hobby inspired a career change focusing on the effects of the Internet on communication and media. After 13 years with NCR Corporation and Compaq Computer, she enrolled in the journalism program at The University of Texas at Austin, earning a Ph.D. in 2005. She now teaches Web design and leads digital media efforts as an associate professor at Texas State University. Royal is most proud of her students’ accomplishments, with many having gone on to careers at The New York Times, Digital First Media, Austin American-Statesman, Blackbaud, Spredfast, Homeaway, SXSW and more. She has been recognized with several teaching awards, including the Presidential Award for Excellence from Texas State University in 2013 and the Statesman’s Texas Social Media Award in 2010. Royal is a member of the 2013-2014 Knight Journalism Fellowship class at Stanford. More information on her background and activities can be found at cindyroyal.com.

    Tagged: curriculum reform data digital media education programming
    • Yes. Yes. Yes. This is the roadmap!

    • markglaser

      Cindy, this is a great, thoughtful post and points the way toward a new way of teaching that would really prepare students for the real world. The only question is: How do you convince slow-moving institutions to change that much?

      • Cindy Royal

        That’s a great question, Mark. I touch on it, discussing recruiting,
        incentives near the end. But I think there needs to be buy-in on exactly what is different here. It’s not just giving a few classes some new names. It’s a different understanding of what is meant by “media” and the goals we have for our students – new types of jobs (that may not exist yet) in new fields. Then, a program will need to complete a comprehensive assessment of the skills their faculty already has and how it matches up. Gaps will need to be filled, perhaps by people with different backgrounds.

        But, I am interested to hear what others think, first about this approach, and then their thoughts on what it might take to implement in their programs.

    • Matt Dulin

      Your proposed concentrations make more sense than the typical lineup of “broadcast journalism” and “print journalism” and are truly interdisciplinary. I’m also really glad you mentioned student media as a partner in the flipped classroom. That’s a no-brainer!

    • edward m lenert

      And as to the point that ‘All Your Students Must Be Programmers,’ I recall that someone once said that, “It is easier to teach journalism to people who know how to code than it is to teach coding to journalists.”

    • susanyoung

      I would love to partner with you to develop this curriculum! As a former news reporter and news director, I see blogging and citizen journalism as important parts of this as well. Excellent post; we need more of this kind of thinking in academia.

    • Joe Cardillo

      I think you sort of alluded to it when describing core classes for j schools, but the key to amazing journalism has always been and always will be great storytelling. One of the things that I personally see a lot of is people who don’t have core reading/writing/reporting skills being tossed into roles that demand those capabilities. The end result, quite frankly, sucks. Should journalism live and breathe digital? Of course. I wholeheartedly agree with you there. But great storytelling and reporting, that’s not something you can learn to do simply by coding or being an expert at analyzing data. I think Simon Rogers and his old team at the Guardian did a nice job of pointing out that context and stories shape how we understand the web, and all of the accompanying data. J schools would be wise to take your advice + keep in mind the overall strategy of teaching great storytelling. My two cents = )

      • Well said Joe.

      • barbara

        thank you. it’s important not to confuse journalism — its values, ethics, and purpose — with its delivery, whether print, web or social media. i agree both are important, but without an understanding of and facility with real journalism, there’s nothing worthy delivering.

    • QuietRiot

      If digital is so important, why are the photos in this column so boring? No offense, Cindy, but I think it speaks to this desire to create another generation of generalists that can kinda write, kinda take photos, kinda program — and do nothing well. In my opinion, it ain’t gonna work that way. Programmers will program; writers will write; photojournalists will make photos. It’s myopic to look at legacy media and their decisions to drive this.

      • QuietRiot

        To reply to my own post, any professors worth their paychecks have already built digital media into all of these classes. So I guess I don’t see where the revolution is here. I know I’m being a jerk here, but didn’t we just insert the word “digital” into all of these legacy courses? I agree with Joe Cardillo that the value-add in a journalism education is understanding storytelling — not programming. Journalism students with a basic exposure to programming are just going to get in the way of professional programmers and you’ll end up with an unappealing product, just as when we try to get writers to take photos, or photojournalists to write. It devalues and misunderstands the time and effort it takes to build skills in such diverse areas.

        • Joe Cardillo

          No one’s going to accuse you of being charming, but I do agree that journalism education needs to be thoughtful about generalist vs. specialist. How many amazing designers are also amazing journalists? There’s a reason why the list is small.

          I disagree w/you on legacy media though, I think everyone has the responsibility to push the model forward.

    • Doug Mitchell

      Public media guy here who is waist deep in recruiting too. We still need people who can talk to other people in person and draw information out of them. That’s a skill. It’s called Interviewing. We need to find the next Terry Gross, Michelle Martin, Ira Glass, Jesse Thorn and Ray Suarez.
      We need people who understand the art of the sound and sound editing as well as writing full grammatical sentences with descriptive prose. That’s a skill as well. Also, we need people who have something of a social justice understanding which means they come from communities that right now remain uncovered. This means they know how to effectively pitch community based ideas, have those pitches accepted at the station level (I think) more so than the national level and then go out and effectively use the latest tools to gather, produce and distribute these stories themselves. This is not resistance to technology, but an insistence on qualitative standards that I think are slipping. I don’t care who’s fault it is. Let’s fix it.

      • Hi Dough, I agree with you. However, how do you suggest we “fix it”? I am interested in reading your strategy on education reform; particularly with marginalize communities you speak of needed for a more balance perspective. Michelle Rhee is one of the few known to make an attempt at “fixing it” but unfortunately, her unorthodox strategy was shot down.

    • Danielle Cervantes

      Cindy, I enjoyed reading your succinct assessment of the AEJMC panel on programming and proposed road map for teaching a more effective curriculum. I think it’s clear and manageable, and I would be excited to collaborate if you ever wanted an additional voice.

      My two-cents:

      Instead of a “programming” concentration, I would suggest a more comprehensive “data science” concentration, encompassing everything from statistics to spreadsheets to databases to coding and programming.

      In other words, an elite computer-assisted reporting (CAR) track.

      Why jump over basic CAR to such an advanced specialty as programming? CAR, even in it’s most basic forms like spreadsheets and PDF scraping is still an uncommon skill set among today’s working journalists. (In fact, even CAR experts admit that most of the CAR work they do involves nothing more than Excel.) If that’s the case, why not roll CAR fundamentals and advanced programming together as a complementary, forward-thinking concentration?

      Furthermore, data journalism requires a unique balance of abstract methodological though and concrete point-and-click technical skills. It’s a leap to assume that a program can fold basic CAR/programming preparation into the basic curriculum unless CAR experts are also cross-teaching the intro-level courses. Learning to value data in journalism? Sure, generalist faculty can teach that in low-level classes, but valuing or appreciating data is not the same as actually using data accurately and meaningfully.

      Data journalism is an attitude, value and frame of mind, not an accouterment to spice up traditionally reported stories. If we are to do justice to data journalism’s spirit, best practices and develop it as a legitimate concentration, we need to evangelize data as the *origin* of stories, not simply an illustrative or auxiliary element like photography, video, visuals, or infographics.

      Danielle Cervantes
      > Journalism instructor (CAR, investigative and newspaper concentrations) at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego
      > Former data specialist and investigative reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune (1996-2011)

    • Cindy Royal

      Thank you all for the constructive comments. I introduced this approach as a conversation starter, which it has definitely achieved.

    • John Russial

      If you merely “inject” writing, reporting and editing into courses, you diminish what has been and remains the core of journalism. It’s been the core through the history of newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, and it remains the core in digital media (which, incidentally, are still mostly based in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV). Progarmming has certainly become important in journalism, since about the ’70s, but focusing on specialities such as programming will not produce journalists. And focusing only on digital history, etc., leaves out a great deal that’s important.

    • I second the Data Science tweak. The need for Data science skills is greater than teaching journalists how to code. Coders are easy to find. Data scientists who actually care about journalistic issues are much harder and deliver greater value.

      Also, project management has to be infused into the mix. In the concentrations and in the practicals.

      When I interview top editors about why their news app or other project was a hit or miss, they all point to the quality of the project management.

      To wit: The success of any bringing any new storytelling initiative into a newsroom rests on how well the project was managed, who was the keeper of the vision, and who had deep enough experience across the various disciplines and subcultures to be able to lead decisively.

      • Cindy Royal

        I agree. I should have emphasized the data science perspective on the programming concentration.

    • Cindy Royal

      I should also point out that the mission of journalism schools is often to train more than just journalists (or what we have traditionally considered as journalists). We should be able to contribute to the broader skill set required by a media company, which includes people who can tell stories visually, with data and by engaging the community. At my school, we also have advertising and public relations majors. And, many of our graduates have taken their mass communication/tech hybrid skill set to move on to careers with tech companies and startups. This is part of the broader definition of media my approach recommends.

      • Joe Cardillo

        That sounds liberal arts-esque – since I’m a graduate of that model, you won’t find any arguments here. But, and I offer this not as a criticism but as a question because I respect what you’re looking to do, how do we make sure journalism sees the forest and the trees? In other words, Twitter and Storify, for example, are tools/tactics, and they have limitations and advantages (McLuhan is relevant here) but I firmly believe bigger structures apply, like storytelling, shaping the context for how information is used and shared, and yes, even long-term business strategy.

        Programming, data science, UX, these are all windows into the above, but they are not as easy as just learning the formulas. If you want real, valuable insight in any field, you have to spend time asking questions, looking deeply, experimenting, and also relating it to other disciplines and the world at large. One of the reasons I love Richard Feynman so much, he was dedicated to those ideals.

      • Jena

        This is true for my school, too, St. Edward’s University, in Austin. In fact, most of my Journalism students are Communication majors specializing in Media. These students range from journalists to public relations, marketing and advertising majors. Others are Writing/Rhetoric majors specializing in Journalism and others are majoring in Political Science and other fields and minoring in Journalism. They all need strong digital skills including, I believe, coding, which we teach in Online Writing (and which I am now learning, too). Like everyone else, I’ve moved to completely overhaul our Journalism curriculum and I agree with much of what you’re saying here, Cindy. I don’t think that teaching from a digital perspective negates, in any way, teaching interviewing or basic reporting skills. Why would it? Spent a week at Poynter’s multimedia conference for college journalism educators this summer. It is amazing how much you can learn fast and how much the emphasis, despite the intensity of focus on digital approach and skills, was on NOT replacing the basic journalistic ethos (for the journalists) with a purely “it’s all about the tools” way of thinking. The one caveat I would issue, however, is that I find my students are going into newsrooms that are really behind their training. They still need to write an inverted pyramid story, on deadline, for the next day’s print edition. So, we need to teach them to work well in that space AND to be ready for what’s going to hit them in just a matter of years.

    • Gary Kebbel

      Cindy, I particularly like your concentrations of multimedia, programming and social media. I’m wondering how you would propose training current faculty to teach in this flipped curriculum or where you would find the new professors to do so. My guess is that it would be more difficult to get a current faculty to agree to flip the curriculum as you suggest, than it would be to start something completely new.

    • Gary Kebbel

      Cindy, I like the new concentrations of multimedia, programming and social media. I’m wondering how you would train current faculty to teach the type of flipped curriculum you’re talking about? Or where would you get new faculty? I’m guessing it would be more difficult to get a college to approve a flipped curriculum than it would be to start something new.

    • r.g. ratcliffe

      This would be like putting platform ahead of content. Sure no student has any more need of learning the pica pole or the photo wheel. The inverted pyramid is a relic of the telegraph. But no matter what the platform, content remains the king. Clear writing remains essential, as does story telling. Students, especially now, need to know the difference between informed commentary and personal opinion. Libel and slander law is the same no matter what the platform. The photograph with this column is proof that not everyone with an iPhone is a photojournalist. If someone is trained in audio editing, photography and video editing, the skills translate to whatever medium in which they are used. Few of the nation’s future journalists are going to be web designers, though all should be exposed to elements of that. As to foisting the essentials off to online courses, honestly, I have yet to see an academic online course that was worth the time put into it. That does not mean I’m against online learning. Creative Cow, for instance, does an excellent job of teaching, er, Adobe products.

      • Cindy Royal

        I’m not proposing platform before content, just that we teach these skills/concepts in a digital context. It requires a new mindset.

        And the piece doesn’t address online learning at all. Although it could be an aspect. But that’s another article.

        See my comment regarding photos.

        • r.g. ratcliffe

          I think I misread this sentence as proposing online learning: This is different than the recent concept of “flipping classes,” offering online lectures and outside work so that classroom time could be spent on discussion and exercises.

          However, I’m not sure the digital context makes much difference. I learned audio editing while working at a college radio station in the 1970s. Those skills translated easily to digital audio editing for podcasting for the Houston Chronicle.

          The basic skills of how to report and write are the same whatever the context. There are a few differences between the inverted pyramid and F-shaped copy for web display, but the basics of Strunk and White are the same and Reporting 101 are the same.

          The essential elements of photography from exposure to composition are the same whether the camera is a pinhole shoebox or a $6k digital. But if you put photography into the current state of digital news, then you don’t need much because photographs are a graphical element rather than an informational resource, which is why newspapers laid off photo staffs first.

          I’m just saying fundamentals play across platforms. At the same time, I think it is wonderful that today’s journalism students are being taught digital audio and video editing as well as database reporting — although I believe too many database projects still fall into the category of doctor, lawyer, Indian chief that have an interesting lede but not much else behind them.

          I’m not trying to be a luddite, but I think the real reason to not jump to fast into putting things into a digital context is we just don’t know what that context really is going to be five to ten years from now. Newspapers, radio and television remain far more effective for most advertisers. Will newspapers come back with the economy? Will television stations and networks successfully transition to the viewing on demand model? Will online news consolidate around two or three national publications or will it revert to the partisan style of the 1800s or will niche products such as Culture Map replace the department store model of journalism? I could go on in that vein for awhile, but I really believe that a student trained in the fundamentals of reporting, writing, ethics, media law and some platform skill sets will be ready for whatever the future brings.

    • Cindy Royal

      Sorry that some of you are not enjoying my photos. They were all on my iPhone, not taken specifically for this piece. That includes the one of the panel, sadly the only one I took, before I had the idea to write this article. Wish I’d taken more or could have found a better one from someone else. I was asked to provide images after I wrote the article. But hopefully you are enjoying the one by my talented colleague Dave Nolan!

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