The new journalism syllabus?

I was pleased a couple of days ago to see a good debate on Mindy McAdam’s excellent Teaching Online Journalism blog. When you read through the entry and the response comments it’s easy to see that journalism educators are struggling with what should be in a 21st century journalism curriculum.

On the positive side, there’s some interesting and useful suggestions being made and some neat stuff being trialled in various journalism schools. The generosity of those who are willing to share what are, essentially, trade secrets is laudable.

I’m not going to repeat all the suggestions and advice here, but I thought an annotated aggregation of the links might be useful.

Mindy McAdams is the Knight chair of journalism and technologies at the University of Florida. Her original post, Testable, measurable skills, argues that making lists is all well and good, but the question is what’s testable and measurable in terms of assessment. But the first spark for the discussion seems to be an earlier piece by Amy Gahran, who blogs at contentious.com. Amy is a freelance journo and trainer based in Boulder, Colorado.

Amy’s post was actually about whether or not journalism is a good career choice in 2008, it has some interesting comments in it; basically that journalism students need to know a hell of a lot more about mobile media and non-mainstream media because the mainstream media is basically going down.

Amy argues that journo students now need to be more entrepreneurial as well as having good digital skills. Amy links to a couple of interesting new journalism education projects:the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship in the Walter Cronkite journalism school at Arizona State University; Barabara Iverson in Chicago and Kim Pearson in New Jersey.

Amy’s point seems to have sparked this discussion thread:

It’s such a shame that most j-schools still are not teaching new journalists crucial skills they’ll need to act entrepreneurially in media: content management systems (including blogging tools), mobile tools and mobile media strategies, social media, business skills, management skills, economics and business models, marketing, SEO, community management, etc.

So there’s the list and now the discussion. MIndy was asking for concrete examples and ideas about how the new skills could be measured. I’m not sure why the focus on metrics. It’s important at one level – to ensure that students are capable and have met the learning outcomes for the papers and courses that they’re enrolled in. It’s also perhaps important in the sense that it sets a goal and helps us to build a curriculum that achieves those goals.

Amy came back the following day with a comprehensive explanation of the key aspects of her list and the point about entrepreneurial graduates.

This is an interesting point, but as several comments on that thread and Mindy’s point out, it is not easy to fit all of this into a semester, or even a course. I have suggested that it might be a useful option/major for some students, but are we yet in a position to abandon the mainstream media yet? We don’t know when newspapers and broadcast news might disappear, if ever.

I also think that we need to teach some critical skills too. Amy is keen that journalism students learn business skills, but I’m more inclined to teach them a mix of that and some critical political economy, particularly around digital media.

By teaching business skills in the current climate of market capitalism we are actually helping to perpetuate that system of economics and all the contradictions and inequalities that it generates and sustains.

We’re actually moving much more into a world of convergence culture and all sorts of social relations are under pressure to change. The dialectic of the digital age puts all relations into a state of tension and flux and I think this is a key intellectual issue that we and our students need to grapple with.

There’s another good thread around this developing at Innovate this, which is a shared blog from staff at the Charlotte Observer. I particularly like this observation:

So too much emphasis on the latest technology — Flash, or editing video for a particular outlet like Youtube — won’t last. The first, primary skill any student or worker needs is the ability to continue to learn.

This ability in lifelong learning is the key. It’s what allows people to move from job to job and develop a portfolio career. It also fits in with my emphasis on critical thinking skills. As Andria (the writer of the Innovate this post) argues too research and evaluation skills – which are not really techno-depedendent – are critical.

So, there’s general agreement that there are core skills for journalists, even if there’s not the same level of agreement about what they might be, or how quickly they’re changing.

To wrap, here’s a brief list of core skills and additional ‘good to haves’.

Core skills

The ability to read and write well. Literacy is fundamental to good journalism

The ability to hold and lead a conversation: Interviewing skills are still important in journalism. The ability to talk to people, to have a small amount of charm and charisma, or to be persuasive and convince a reluctant source to talk to you are key skills that are social not technological.

A level of confidence and an outgoing personality. This is really a social skill that develops as someone becomes more competent with the tools of the trade. In the j-school context I talk about it as a process of socialisation into the newsroom.

For me, the newsroom is a classroom and the classroom is a newsroom. So a combination of exercises and “live fire” assignments is necessary to build both techno-skills and social skills for emerging journalists.

Shorthand. See previous posts on this topic here and here at Ethical Martini. It’s not an issue so much in north America, but in the UK, here and in Australia there’s still strong attachment to shorthand for notetaking and so on.

Basic competence with a range of digital technologies. This is now bog-standard and it should be. News technologies are now firmly in the digital realm – everything from wordprocessing to the manipulation of audio, video and images. It is crazy not to put this technology at the centre of the curriculum in my view. All classes should naturally have digital applications in them.

Good problem solving and analytical skills. This is where Andria’s list (see above) becomes important. The research and retreival skills are essential, but not just in google scholar and so on, but also the ability to find your way around analogue data collections.

Add ons

The “add ons” are more related to particular digital skills and particular applications and all of them are handy, but as several commentators around this issue have pointed out, the technology itself is changing so rapidly that to build a syllabus around the technology, application or platform itself will soon be out of date.

Social and thinking skills in journalism are just as important as technical skills. This is the real value-add that j.schools provide to the industry. It is in my view also the least appreciated.

One last link, Pat Thornton’s The Journalism Iconoclast: a simple question about intellectual curiosity that is not so easy to answer.

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5 Responses to The new journalism syllabus?

  1. Andria Krewson says:

    Hi, Ethical Martini:
    Nice summary. Interesting ideas about shorthand. In the U.S., I’m afraid it’s a skill that is rapidly disappearing, if it hasn’t already.
    It’s something my mom (now 70) learned how to do, and something that was discouraged early in my career because of the idea that anyone should be able to read one’s notes, if one had to pass them on in a deadline situation. Not enough people knew the language.
    Nowadays, texting is adding new language for those people about age 15 and younger (or others who live online or on their phones).
    We’ll see where all that goes.
    Thanks for the link.

  2. Dr. Sanford Aranoff says:

    If you want to be a good journalist, the you should know how to communicate. See the new book on amazon.com: “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better”.

  3. [...] facing. (Thanks to Mindy McAdams, James Ball, Paul Canning, Andy Dickinson, eGrommet, the Ethical Martini, Innovate This, Monitorando, and José Renato Salatiel for their contributions, to the many [...]

  4. [...] Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The new journalism syllabus? [...]

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