There’s a lot to think about these days for journalism professors. It’s not enough to just be able to drill students in nut graphs and interviewing, non-linear editing and broadcast writing. Certainly, it’s hard to keep up at times — and with it all.
Just last month, Syracuse University’s Jennifer Grygiel wrote for MediaShift that, “Colleges and universities are busy writing new curriculum, hiring qualified faculty and working to gain access to enterprise software and technology — but there is often still a gap in what we can teach.”
As we know, the industry is changing rapidly, we are in the midst of a presidential campaign that is testing journalists in unprecedented ways and, we have seen racial issues grip the nation again and again.
The day before Grygiel’s piece, New York magazine posted a lengthy overview of the state of journalism and media, “The Case Against the Media. By the Media,” in which it painted a “negative” picture of journalism (although it also cited some optimism).
“People love to shoot the messenger, and these days especially, in an era of proverbial cable-news shoutfests and clickbait journalism, the messenger probably hasn’t been doing itself many favors,” the NY magazine story lamented.
Then there was this: “Dire signs for media were everywhere this year.”
Amid all that, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the world’s oldest and largest group of collegiate journalism and mass communication educators, held its annual conference in Minneapolis last week to provide some help for the nearly 2,000 educators in attendance.
This was my third time attending this conference, and it is a bit overwhelming with dozens of sessions each day. Here are some of my top takeaways:
With technology changing so fast and tight budgets at many institutions, educators are struggling at times with what equipment to buy, what software programs to use and how much technical training to include in classes.
The University of North Carolina’s Lisa Villamil says she stays connected to the industry, and “if it’s something that isn’t being used in the field,” she cuts it from her classes.
There is a nice benefit in switching the tools you use, she says: “There are fabulous free tools being created every day.”
However, those free tools are hard to keep track of. Villamil spoke on a panel about making tech purchasing and teaching decisions along with Ohio University’s Mary Rogus, who puts the onus on the students to be able to learn on their own.
“(Employers) want students who are adaptable,” she said.
Another panelist, Seattle Pacific’s Peg Achterman, said she often asks students struggling with technology, “Did you Google it?” The message: Figure it out yourself, which is not to be mean, but solution-focused.
The bottom line is that programs of varying sizes and budgets have different needs and abilities. Faculty need to give students a meaningful understanding of why certain story forms are useful and then send students out to do it and not simply focus on one tool or program.
“Different uses require different software,” Rogus said. We can’t possibly teach every student every one, and they’ll have changed by the time students graduate, anyway.
Once video equipment is selected, how do you use it?
That was the question in a panel I led seeking to provide guidance to broadcast journalism professors who know video is being produced by essentially every news organization, not just television stations.
Still, as the annual Radio Television Digital News Association/Hofstra University TV employment study revealed, local television news employment checked in at 27,870 employees for 2015, second all-time to only 2001. There are lots of opportunities for traditional TV jobs, even if we recognize that TV is not the only place graduates will produce video.
So should you still teach students to produce a traditional 1:30 TV-style package? Syracuse University’s Simon Perez says yes.
“The ability to distill a story down to 90 seconds means you know it forwards and backwards and can make the choice of what to leave in and leave out,” Perez said.
Even so, Lynda Kraxberger, the associate dean of undergraduate studies and administration at the University of Missouri, says while the traditional package and resume reel may not be the future of the industry, they are still needed for students to get jobs because news directors expect them.
But the University of Texas at Austin’s Mary Bock says audience demands have changed and most viewers don’t want videos longer than a minute.
“Will people click something if they know how long it is?” Bock asked.
She sees a bifurcation of video into short content designed for phones and documentary-style productions, leaving out much of the way video is currently being produced.
The short clips are something that Toni Albertson has been focused on at Mount San Antonio College near Los Angeles.
“One of the things I wanted to focus on is the shift away from traditional broadcast to video clips on social media, and the basic skills needed to produce these clips,” Albertson told me in preparation for the panel.
Bock sees a fundamental shift from broadcasters filling time to consumers needing to make time, which means video can no longer be produced the same way.
Perez says the traditional package form forces video producers to do all of the things that make for good video storytelling regardless of the length.
“I think we need to be careful about jumping on every single bandwagon that comes along and end up giving students a very shallow level of expertise,” Perez told me. “Good storytelling is good storytelling and good video is good video. The mechanism by which it gets presented to viewers may change, but the principles don’t.”
Code, yes it’s still important
The language of the web and mobile, according to Texas State University’s Cindy Royal, is code, even if we’re not clear what the term code encompasses exactly because it is so broad.
Simply put, Royal and her fellow panelists, including me, who advocated teaching coding in journalism education, say students need to be at least, as West Virginia’s Bob Britten put it, “code literate.”
“It’s not acceptable to ask your IT person to fix something in bold in your (content management system),” Royal said of journalism graduates.
Royal has developed a digital media innovation major at Texas State, which, coincidently, received final approval from the state during the session.
Other programs are teaching a coding class or classes, but many still do not or do not require them.
Last year, I wrote for MediaShift “Why Journalism Students Need a Baseline Understanding of Coding” and argued that journalism and communication programs can and should take the lead on teaching code for students from across their universities. This is an opportunity for outreach and all-important credit hour generation for our programs.
“Every department across the university,” Royal said, “has problems that can be solved by coding.”
Moreover, she said, “Every industry needs strong communicators who are tech-savvy.”
Another panelist, the University of Iowa’s Kevin Ripka, just finished his first year teaching and said failure is part of the process of coding (it’s true for teaching, too, unfortunately, Kevin).
Students learn problem solving by learning to code, he said, and letting go of their fear is important.
Britten says coding needs to be demystified in courses and curriculum. After all, it’s become as central a part of journalism as video and social media, and he says it should be normalized as such.
So where to begin and what to know? The consensus was that, at a minimum, students should learn HTML and CSS, but those are just the beginning.
There are many free resources for students and faculty who want to begin coding, which include code.org, CodeAcademy and CodeActually, which Royal created specifically to teach journalists and other communicators to code.
Focus on Diversity
Getting students to engage in diversity was a big focus in many sessions. How professors do that will vary by the class, but, as the nation has been focused on issues of diversity and privilege, professors are coming up with new approaches.
“There were so many bad things happening (across the country),” he said. “I wasn’t sensing anything in our community.”
He wanted the class to explore what daily life was like, from the barbershops, which he said were central, to the significance of churches.
“For me, it was unexpected what role religion played in the community,” Freeman said.
At Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, Adam Kuban wants students to understand privilege.
“I don’t think that we do this topic justice,” he said of diversity broadly and privilege, specifically.
So, his Audience Analysis class revisited a sociological study of Muncie from 90 years ago.
The 27 students produced stories about Muncie now looking at those who traditionally have privilege and those who don’t.
“While males don’t see it as this issue,” he said. He hopes engaging in these conversations will help change that mindset.
Spotlight on Marty Baron
Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron has led numerous Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, most notably as editor of the Boston Globe for the reporting on the Catholic priest sex abuse and cover up that inspired the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.”
He’s had a legendary journalism career and is a definitive editor of his generation, and here’s the great part for journalism educators: he still values his journalism education and professors at Lehigh University from 40 years ago.
“Their spirit animated me during the early part of my career,” Baron said of his professors.
They would certainly be proud. Baron received the 2016 Gerald Sass Award for Distinguished Service to Journalism and Mass Communication given by the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication at the convention.
Baron said he would never have survived this long without his professors’ support — a message that resonates well in a roomful of journalism educators.
Many young journalists are well-prepared for the work, he said, but they must enter the field with no sense of entitlement.
“Your students will face enormous obstacles,” he said.
There’s financial uncertainty at many news organizations, but worse, he said, is the erosion of trust in journalism among the public, as seen in the presidential campaign.
Still, Baron, in his understated and soft-spoken style, is as passionate as any young journalist.
“I am optimistic,” Baron said, “and I am hopeful about our profession.”
Despite all of the challenges journalism educators face, there is much to be excited about, particularly the students who will follow and build upon the work of Marty Baron.
Aaron Chimbel is an associate professor of professional practice in journalism at TCU’s Bob Schieffer College of Communication. Before returning to TCU in 2009, Chimbel worked at WFAA-TV in Dallas, where he won five Emmy Awards and a national Edward R. Murrow Award. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronchimbel.