Texas A&M Resurrects Journalism Major, But Focuses on Tradition Over Digital

    by Angela Roe
    June 19, 2014
    Texas A&M University enrolls more than 53,000 students on its College Station campus, but hasn't had a journalism major for a decade. Photo by Stephanie on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    A little over 10 years ago, journalism students at Texas A&M learned their major was being cut because of a lack of funding. Budget constraints loomed over the department, and they didn’t have the resources to keep up the program. The news came as a shock to many. Although the institution is widely known for its science and engineering programs, Texas A&M, with more than 53,000 students, should surely be raising up future generations of storytellers through a competitive major, according to students and faculty who protested the shutdown of the major.

    But this fall, the journalism major is coming back to the flagship university after a long bout as a “minor” offering, thanks to the persistence of professors and a fresh perspective on preparing students for careers in communication during the digital age.

    "If you don’t know how to work within a database or how to find reliable sources and digital information, it doesn’t do a lot of good to be able to operate a drone." - Dale Rice

    After the then-dean of A&M’s College of Liberal Arts decided he couldn’t sustain the operation any longer, the journalism “department,” as it was, disbanded. The department became a “program” under the Department of Communication umbrella, only available to students as an 18-credit minor. During the last decade, though, the program has done its best to keep aspiring young journalists engaged through its academic coursework and media internship requirement on a limited budget, while trying to adapt to the ever-changing news landscape. To call it a “challenge” would be a vast understatement, but as Director of Journalism Studies Dale Rice told me, resurrecting the journalism major is an exciting new start for the school itself.



    Beginning in August 2014, Texas A&M journalism majors will pursue what is being called a “Liberal Arts Degree in Journalism” through the university’s College of Liberal Arts. As part of the program, students will be required to earn two minors – one within Liberal Arts and one outside the college, in addition to their comprehensive journalism education.

    “We looked at the avenues that were available to us that made sense for where journalism is headed in the 21st century, so we decided that we would bring journalism back to the College of Liberal Arts through the university studies program,” Rice said.

    Though the Journalism Studies program had been adding more digitally focused courses in recent years, the re-imagined major is a substantial departure from what was being taught in the old major, Rice said.


    “In some ways, we started from scratch because we are not replicating in any way, shape or form the old journalism program. It’s very much a new journalism program in a new format. It restores the journalism major, but it has allowed us to do it in such a way that meets the requirements of the way journalism is practiced today,” he said.

    texas_am_logo_lgeThe course requirements are rigorous and focused on developing critical thinking skills in young reporters. Classes cover American mass media, gathering and disseminating information, basic media writing, interviewing, blogging, media law, editing (including video), political reporting and literary nonfiction. During their senior year, journalism students take a capstone course called “Journalism As A Profession,” which allows time for job searching and offers seminars from successful professional journalists. Students must complete a media internship for credit and have the option of conducting journalism research, as well.

    “It’s a modern-oriented program that is reflective of the way journalism is being practiced today, but for students who want a broad educational background,” Rice said.

    But despite all the buzz around the budding program, the major will stay small, at least for a little while, with a cap of 100 students total and only 25 freshmen accepted each year.


    A&M is known for its traditions, and though the journalism major focuses some on the digital realm, the concepts taught will remain traditional in nature. In other words, you won’t see students enrolling in any Google Glass classes or drone journalism experimentation courses. When asked how the department would help prepare students for the digital world and the technology-laden direction journalism is inevitably headed, Rice said, “I think that’s making a big assumption.”

    “Look at what is happening in the journalism industry. I’ll use Texas as an example: weekly and small daily newspapers are doing very well. I know two weeklies that hired within the past month all because we had students who were finalists for those jobs,” Rice said.  “I know that right now they are looking for people who can report and write and who have an understanding of the additional sorts of things they can do for the web.”

    It’s not that he doesn’t see value in teaching journalism students how to use new digital tools for reporting. He just thinks mastering the foundations of journalism are paramount.

    “For the most part, the kind of skills you need to be a web-based journalist, you first need to be a journalist – that ability to collect information, sift through it, determine what’s important and put it in an understandable way. Only at the end might that format be print or digital,” he said.

    Kathleen McElroy, who graduated from Texas A&M with a broadcast journalism degree in 1981, is one of the most decorated journalists to have ever gone through the program. Currently a Ph.D student at the University of Texas at Austin, McElroy was an editor at the New York Times from 1991 to 2011, and her father, George McElroy, was a pioneering African-American journalist.

    She said it’s important to remember that for nearly a century, “students entered print journalism programs already knowing how to read, write, listen and ask questions — yet schools spent four years teaching them how to report and write in a particular ‘professional’ fashion … I would agree that executing the basic tenets of reporting and writing (which includes thinking critically) are crucial tools for the aspiring journalist.”

    Broadening the Curriculum?

    But perhaps the breadth of journalistic writing curriculum should be widened for the times.

    “Let’s say that ‘writing’ can be a blanket term for the actual production of news content — writing for the web, mobile, and social media, television and print, as well as writing code that produces journalism and actual web production, handling audio and video and producing graphics for a variety of media,” McElroy said.

    Dale Rice spent a 35-year career in journalism, including a stint as the Austin American-Stateman's restaurant critic.

    Dale Rice spent a 35-year career in journalism, including a stint as the Austin American-Stateman’s restaurant critic.

    Cindy Royal, associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University, has documented extensively her thoughts on the future of J-school education. She said journalism educators should teach students an “understanding of the scale and economics that digital introduces.”

    “Students need to graduate with an understanding of the role of user engagement and interaction in a mobile and data-driven environment,” she said. “They need to have experience with a range of storytelling techniques that include visual and interactive elements.”

    But Rice said there’s a danger in training young people too much on the means by which they’re reporting, rather than the intricacies of reporting itself: gathering necessary and accurate facts, talking to the right people and doing it ethically.

    “If you assume that the means of communicating becomes so important that you concentrate on the means and the way to operate those means, I think you may end up doing journalism students a disservice in the long run,” Rice told me. “If you don’t know how to work within a database or how to find reliable sources and digital information, it doesn’t do a lot of good to be able to operate a drone somewhere with a camera onboard or Google glasses or other kinds of cutting-edge technology.”

    Royal says classes don’t need to be constructed solely around Glass, the use of drones or a particular news app to be effective.

    “[Digital curriculum] should mean being curious about the role of new technology and encouraging students to experiment with and explore their possibilities,” she said. “While I applaud the efforts of Texas A&M in developing a program that is strong on critical thinking and liberal arts, I don’t feel that this approach needs to preclude teaching those elements in a digital context. I think they have a unique opportunity in starting a new program to introduce some more progressive elements.”

    Getting an Ethical Grounding

    Most students are more comfortable with social media and digital tools than we give them credit for when they show up to Journalism 101, Rice told me.

    “The typical 18-, 19-, 20-year-old person coming into a basic journalism class is so incredibly familiar with various types of social media, you don’t have to literally teach them how to use it,” Rice said. “What you do is talk to them: ‘How as a journalist would you use this?’ ‘What is appropriate for various types of communication?’ Digital is not one single means of communication.”

    It’s more important that journalism students are ingrained with a good ethical background and the ability to pursue proper verification processes when using content from the web or crowd-sourced material, he said.

    “That is something that we teach throughout our journalism classes now.”

    Through her experience at Texas State and as a Stanford Knight Fellow, Royal sees three main types of job opportunities for students in the digital age: newsroom jobs heavy on digital skills like data interpretation, roles within tech companies like Google or Facebook, and entrepreneurial positions at media startups. These are the genres of jobs J-majors should prepare students for, she says.

    “Academic institutions should embrace the startup mentality and experiment with new models in developing media curriculum. This could include new types of courses, faculty who can introduce new concepts, non-traditional formats (like shorter workshops or online and hybrid offerings) and experiential projects that emphasize digital approaches,” she said. “There’s more work to be done across our discipline if we want to truly embrace the potential – and address the challenges — that digital has to offer in the ways that we tell stories that support the needs and interests of our communities.

    As for Rice, he has received countless emails and phone calls from students with a newfound interest in attending A&M, now that the major is returning. “It will get more and more competitive,” he said.

    Angela Washeck is a freelance writer and editor based in Dallas. She is a proud graduate of Texas A&M University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communication with a journalism minor. Angela also writes for MediaBistro’s 10,000 Words blog and TexasMonthly.com, and she interned with the TV news magazine “Dan Rather Reports.” Her work has been republished on Editor & Publisher, the American Press Institute and more. When Angela is not busy with PBS MediaShift work, you can find her watching “How I Met Your Mother” reruns, watching Aggie football and attending indie/folk concerts in Dallas. Follow her @angelawasheck.

    Tagged: cindy royal curriculum dale rice innovation journalism education kathleen mcelroy texas a&m

    8 responses to “Texas A&M Resurrects Journalism Major, But Focuses on Tradition Over Digital”

    1. Sara f Peralta says:

      I read this article and immediately got an email from NPR social media staff on mandatory social media training for content (aka news) interns. A&M is so disconnected from reality its not even funny.

    2. Shannon Delaney says:

      Cindy is absolutely correct about the three types of jobs available to graduating journalism students. By not focusing on digital, Rice and the College of Liberal Arts will be doing them a disservice.

    3. Shawn D says:

      I think it’s very important to know how to write. I’ve seen too many younger reporters for websites that are terrible writers. For journalism, knowing how to write a story is crucial. I also think it’s important for upcoming journalists to understand how to write for every format (mobile, blogs, etc) and understand that, in this day, visualization added to a story is almost a necessity.

      I had Dr. Royal as a professor at Texas State, and she made sure we had an understanding of both elements: digital and “traditional” journalism. Honestly, the only places I can think of that would have hired me with just my print journalism degree would be small newspapers. You need to have an understanding of new media and web design to even write for online publications. That’s why I ended up with the job I have now (running social channels for SAP). I had a good grasp of new media, but I use everything I learned of journalism to write our posts, blogs, etc.

    4. Dale Blasingame says:

      As a fellow faculty member with Dr. Royal at Texas State, I also congratulate A&M on relaunching the journalism program. I worked with several talented journalists who came from there.

      The issue here, I believe, is that this isn’t an either/or discussion. Of course students need to know how to write and report. On top of teaching classes involving digital media, I also teach intro writing classes. No one is disputing that. But not preparing students for the digital landscape they will encounter – and they will encounter it, whether it’s immediately or down the road – is really doing them a disservice.

      Since when was it our job to teach students less? How does that make sense?

    5. jonzmikly says:

      I am also a faculty member in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State with Cindy Royal. I think A&M had the perfect opportunity to restructure their program to cater to digital communication (which I think is THE “means of communication” in today’s market), but as Dale (below) expressed, they chose one side of the coin. As the NYT Innovation Report explained, journalists can write the best stories in the world, but without distributing and disseminating that news well via social media, creating effective apps, using Google Glass, or whatever the platform, they won’t be discovered, shared or read.

      I teach a fundamentals of digital media class (core class in our school) where we teach students the *right* way to use social media, for branding, for community engagement. I have found most of my students (digital natives) may walk in with a basic knowledge of social media, but it IS a skill that needs to be taught, along with how to change and evolve within the fast-paced environment they’re entering. That they don’t need to be taught those skills, in my opinion, is “a big[ger] assumption,” and it’s dangerous.

      I completely agree that students need to be taught the traditional journalism skills, but we need to prepare students for a journalism 2.0 world – where the story is never completely done, where the audience plays a vital role, where articles are moving, breathing stories that can change as new facts roll in, where the standards of coding are taught alongside the standards of grammar, punctuation and spelling. It’s a new storytelling environment, and my fear is that more j-schools only prepare students for half of their future jobs.

    6. Allonsy Alonso says:

      As a journalist major at another major university, it was interesting learning about the journalism program at Texas A&M University especially since they are restoring the major with traditional journalism. This is extremely fascinating since many other universities are trying to update their journalism programs with more technologies and digital media. In today’s society, digital media is being used more frequently. I wondered why the university would teach based off of a more traditional basis, however, after reading the article I understood. In the article, Rice makes some comments that the university is going with a more traditional approach because there is no point in teaching students about digital media when they are already familiar with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. This proved to be a valid point, however, I think that the university should be teaching both forms of media. It is important to understand the basis of journalism through traditional journalism, however, it is important to be engaged with new digital media as well.

    7. Liz Kit says:

      Congratulations to Texas A&M University for resurrecting this program.

      I agree completely that strong writing skills are critical to success in a journalism or communications career. However, I also agree that not ensuring future journalists have a foundation of understanding of how technology and digital platforms are changing the landscape is extremely short-sighted and doing a huge disservice to students. They are going to face enormous hurdles in finding employment without at least some digital skills. Please, I urge you to consider including at least basic elements of digital journalism in this program. Not highlighting how some of the most world-renowned publications, such as The New York Times, are embracing digital would be a travesty. Young undergrads knowing how to post images to Instagram does not mean they know how to effectively use it as a professional communicator.

      I was a student of Dr. Cindy Royal as well, and I am very grateful for the digital skills I gained, and I didn’t even take the entire tech-oriented course load! Less than six months after graduating with a Masters in Journalism and Mass Communication from Texas State, I was on a freelance project with a big company as a Marketing Communications Editor, working closely with an experienced web designer and graphic artist. When the executive requested “responsive design”, I had to explain what that term meant to the web designer, who was older than me. Sure, he had the tech skills to do it, but he didn’t initially recognize that term. I was absolutely astonished.

      Don’t send the new class of journalism students out into the world to start their career woefully unprepared.

    8. Jason Cain says:

      I have to agree with Jon. My thoughts after reading this, especially the bit toward the end, is that it is a huge mistake to assume that how frequently 18, 19, and 20-year-olds use social media is any indication of their also truly understanding how to effectively communicate to an audience through it.
      Or more simply, the ability to get 1,000 likes of a pic playing beer pong does not indicate this person could get then get 1,000 people to care about a news piece. It seems a rather simplistic way to gage how much something should be stressed to undergrads.

      I think the general opinion at Florida, where I have been teaching for four years, is that students do understand an incredibly diverse number of social media and apps, but only in a very superficial way that is limited to what they personally use them for. It’s my understanding from the workplace that knowing the qualities of news and how to write a lead is not enough to make a student competitive in the job market. When I look at our grads who really have done well since leaving Florida, those who have done the best really understand how to use social media to create brands for themselves and capture an audience.

      One last note, social media may change, but the digital part of the equation will not. The ability to produce and disseminate independently as well as the consumer choice introduced by digital is the tent under which the rest of this operates. Even if Facebook and Twitter change or disappear all together, the need to understand how to function in a digital information economy will not. Students really need to understand the landscape, in my opinion.

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