Journalism and mass communication educators must learn new skills and adjust their teaching strategies to keep up with the industry’s rapid evolution — or risk becoming obsolete.
That’s my conclusion after overseeing the publication of “Master Class: Teaching Advice for Journalism and Mass Communication Instructors,” a new book produced by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication standing committee on teaching, which I’ve chaired for the past four years.
It’s no secret that journalism remains in a state of upheaval, with many media organizations struggling to find new, and profitable, business models that will sustain their operations. What often gets underplayed – or downright ignored – is how fast academia is adapting to those changes.
“Master Class” addresses the issues facing today’s journalism instructors in a way that the last book on teaching in our field, which came out in 1992, would have never imagined.
Here are some of the major takeaways that came out of the two years it took to put the book together:
1. Technology is the future
If your program is not teaching the technology that comes along with producing journalism, then it is in danger.
Many schools are now exposing their students to the best search engine optimization techniques and using social media. But many schools are woefully behind in these areas. (Hint: Look to see whether your school has a LinkedIn page and how many of your school’s instructors are on Twitter.)
And “technology” means more than showing students how to use a content management system or download and edit videos. Today’s journalism student needs to be exposed to how virtual reality and artificial intelligence can be used to help tell stories. They also need basic coding skills.
The leading journalism programs are training their students to build media apps, and to download and massage data in ways that help tell stories. They are teaching students to use technology to attract audiences that may have never been exposed to content that they want and find useful.
2. Instruction is moving online
Many of academia’s top journalism programs have online master’s degrees that cater to professionals that need to upgrade their skills and understanding of how mass media works. That’s good and serves the industry.
The next step is moving more undergraduate education, and perhaps even doctoral education, online. As our universities and colleges struggle with limited classroom space and resources, the solution is to put more journalism education on the internet. It’s how most journalism is delivered today.
To be sure, not all undergraduate students thrive in an online teaching environment. But today’s millennial student wants flexible learning, and journalism can easily be taught with online tools. I’ve been teaching one section of our introductory newswriting class online now for more than a decade, and I see more and more skills courses moving online.
3. Non-tenured instructors in the classroom
The percentage of non-tenured, or non-tenure track instructors in the classroom is increasing, particularly at state universities receiving smaller slices of the budget each year.
As a result, many programs are hiring lecturers and contract professors from the local market to teach many of their skills courses. There’s a positive to this move in that professionals have recent experience. But this leads to higher turnover among instructors, and could cause the quality of education to decrease.
Some journalism programs are also partnering with local media organizations to have reporters and editors teach their classes at no expense to the university. The media organization gets exposed to the students and is able to recruit the best ones to come work for it after graduation. And the program saves money that can be spent elsewhere.
4. More schools have become content producers
The “teaching hospital” model of journalism education espoused by the Knight Foundation has taken hold at many journalism programs, which are now having their students produce content – either in the form of print or video – distributed to the local media for them to use. Some media are even providing spaces in their shrunken newsrooms for the students to work.
These classes are typically capstone courses for seniors that require them to cover a beat as well as market their stories to the local media organizations. The students get published clips while the media gets cheap (often free) content. As an example, last year I started the North Carolina Business News Wire.
In some cases, this puts the journalism program in competition with the student newspaper, which can be a tricky relationship, especially if the newspaper is not independent of the university.
I’d like to see a future where programs start selling advertising on a website where this content is posted, allowing them to generate revenue that can be put back into the education of journalism students. It would also allow programs to experiment with journalism business models themselves.
5. The lecture is not dead, but it’s on life support
This should go without saying, but it’s no longer functional for a journalism instructor to simply walk into a classroom and spend 45 minutes lecturing about AP style or the inverted pyramid to students. The millennial student will zone out and start scanning Snapchat, Twitter and other social media on their phone.
The best journalism instructors today incorporate video, gifs and other technology into their class time. Whether we like it or not, today’s journalism student also wants to be entertained. If you can get their attention by using new and unusual teaching strategies, then they’re more likely to pay attention to the importance of checking facts.
I’m bullish about the future of journalism, and I’m bullish about the future of journalism education. In the past few years, I’ve taught myself – and my students – how to do basic coding, create a website, produce email newsletters, shoot and download video, and build an audience on Twitter.
And I’m still teaching my students the journalism basics I learned more than 30 years ago as well.
Chris Roush is the Walter Hussman Sr. Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism and the chair of the AEJMC Standing Elected Committee on Teaching. He was the School’s senior associate dean from 2011 to 2015 and director of the master’s program from 2007 to 2010.