Academia may be notorious for adapting slowly to change. But as magazines have adopted new technologies and approaches, some journalism educators have been innovating right alongside them, updating their teaching of magazine courses to reflect the changing industry.
I talked with four professors who teach magazine-related courses about what they’ve been doing to keep their students’ training up to speed with the professional world.
Dusty tablets are apparently taking up space in at least a few classrooms around the country.
Magazines’ tech innovation has been a major motivator for new course requirements and content. One of the changes is a move away from tablet publishing — which was introduced within only the last six or seven years.
Ed Madison, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, was among the first instructors to guide students through the creation of an all-digital magazine, then using the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. Now, though, his students are exploring other publishing models.
“Adobe is making some shifts in how they offer that software, and there are some other opportunities out there that are platform or device agnostic,” Madison says. “HTML5 allows for some of that interactivity without having to have it on a touchscreen device.”
At the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Drake University, students of assistant professor Jeff Inman have also stopped publishing their tablet magazine and instead focused on their Urban Plains website, after taking a hard look at the numbers.
“It was no longer an area where we saw the industry taking an interest. Most [magazines] are pulling back on that,” Inman says.
His students’ audience was on the web, too, not on tablets.
“We were getting infinitely more page views and impressions [from] our website, and we had longer engagement on the website and a much lower bounce rate than we did on our tablet [edition],” Inman says. “Our biggest tablet got maybe 2,000 or 3,000 downloads. Our last website had about 90,000 views in six weeks.”
Going back to publishing a student-created print magazine wasn’t appealing from an audience or teaching standpoint, either.
“We flirted with the idea of trying to do print again. When it came down to it, it seemed antithetical to what we were trying to accomplish. It just got in the way, plus it costs so much more money than running the website,” Inman says.
The thousands of dollars that might have been spent on printing were instead put toward supporting students’ travel for reporting more in-depth stories.
In addition to device-agnostic web publishing, social media have become an increasingly important part of magazine students’ experiences.
“In recent years we began to emphasize social media more (as something new magazine staff members must be able to contribute to),” says Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, in an email interview.
Madison’s students are working on using social media for more than distribution, too.
“We’re experimenting with audience engagement at the conception of the story,” he says. “Instead of, ‘OK, we’ve assembled this article or issue, and here it is, world,’ we’re saying, ‘Hey, engage with us while we’re in the process of ideation. Which story should we pursue? Engage with us through with social media as we’re crafting a story.’”
Conversations about social media include more than skills for using them. Students need to discuss what social media mean for the future of magazines and journalism more broadly.
“When I ask students what they’re reading, they’re not reading that many magazines … They’re getting their content on social,” says Aileen Gallagher, assistant professor of magazine journalism in the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. “We talk a lot about how you can create the things that make a magazine a magazine — voice, editorial perspective, all that stuff. How does that exist in a world controlled by social media? They’re really wrestling with these questions, too.”
At Drake, Inman’s students are also now required to study video production.
“They have to know how to shoot and edit … but they also have to know how to be in front of the camera, with an emphasis on the how-to presentation or on walking and talking — the main formats our people are getting into,” Inman says.
Students who come into magazine courses today and mainly consider themselves writers are likely to find themselves stretched to explore other media.
Not Just a Magazine Writer
Technology and business are intertwined throughout journalism, and students aspiring to magazine careers are also having to learn more about the realities of the industry — how it makes money, and how professionals need to be true team players.
In addition to Drake’s new video class requirement for magazine majors, students are also required to take a mandatory class in digital media strategy and a one-credit class called “Business for Journalists.” Inman says the latter focuses on basic business concepts that journalism students might not otherwise encounter in college.
“For the first two or three years, maybe they’ll be making coffee, but after that, they’ll be looking at spreadsheets and managing budgets,” Inman says. “We’re addressing that need and making them not scared of it.”
Gallagher also emphasizes business discussions in her courses. She says her students today are more “savvy” about the business challenges facing the industry than when she joined the Syracuse faculty in 2010. She’s using a new assignment that requires students to do an audit of a magazine brand that includes an in-depth look at its digital and social media presence; a SWOT analysis; and recommendations for how the magazine can increase audience, revenue and traffic.
“When they go to work, I hope they’ll have good ideas for their own editors because they’ll be thinking about the business of editorial,” she says. “I tell them the worst thing that can happen is to be left out of the conversation.”
Students need to know how to have conversations about all of the aspects of magazine production, too, not just business issues. Requiring students to collaborate more deeply and broadly on class projects is another growing emphasis among these instructors.
At Drake, a merged journalism capstone course now requires students from across all media types to work together to create content for the student website.
“It’s fun to see traditional print kids running cameras at an event or video kids getting thrown into social media, thinking about the differences between social video and video for a news station,” Inman says. “Finding that crossover moment is exciting. Hopefully, as we get more people through our changed curriculum, we’ll find more of those moments.”
Madison wants his students to learn from magazine projects how to work with others’ different media expertise.
“We had some students whose expertise would be photojournalism, another in design, another in writing. But when they came into this class, the expectation is not that they’re going to leave skilled in all these areas, but that they’re going to know how to engage,” he says. “How do you talk with a designer? What’s the language you need to share to be able to create a better story?”
Digital Skills for Digital Jobs
Unfortunately, even with updated knowledge and skills, getting a job in the magazine industry can still be a challenge for new journalism grads.
“There are simply fewer positions at many magazines than there were in the past, and several have ceased publication. Internships and jobs are harder to come by,” Bloyd-Peshkin says.
When students do get hired at magazines, they aren’t usually doing print.
“A great majority of our students go to New York, and they work for major publishers, but on the digital side,” Gallagher says. Some of her students have landed at digital-only publishers, like Mashable, Business Insider and BuzzFeed. “It’s no longer the dream to work at a print magazine. The goal has shifted. They want to go where they read.”
Inman has seen similar trends in the hiring of his program’s grads.
“A lot of these pseudo-magazine websites that are in need of content creators are turning to our majors because they know how to tell a good story, and a good story that’s native to digital,” he says.
Yet students headed to these digitally focused jobs may be stunned when they arrive by what Inman calls “the volume problem”: the speed and quantity of digital work new hires are expected to produce — five or more stories each day. That volume is tough, if not impossible, to simulate in slower-paced college courses.
“Doing this website allows us the opportunity to up the volume, in theory. We have an expectation of a healthy amount of content to get them used to this faster pace of posting daily and promoting daily — but I still can’t get to that five stories a day,” Inman says.
One way Gallagher has addressed this problem is an aggregation assignment where students do a class live blog of an event (this year, the Oscars), with a focus on adding context and story to the moment-by-moment coverage. This kind of aggregation might be a typical entry-level task for a new digital staffer. Gallagher made this assignment address multiple skills by using Slack for a virtual editorial meeting and Tumblr to publish the class’s work.
But even as Gallagher and other magazine instructors come up with creative new teaching strategies and work to share key knowledge with their students, some skills will always be important.
“I’m still teaching copy editing,” Gallagher says. “No one needs to worry about that.”
Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. She teaches media theory, writing and editing, and does research on magazines, social media and political communication.