What grad school taught me about teaching journalism students

When students come to see me just before they graduate, they are often a bit afraid of what their job prospects look like. Each year, I tell them I can relate to their fears, especially about the journalism job market. Never has that been more true than this year. In May, I completed my master’s degree in digital journalism and design, and I know intimately what the market looks like, both for journalists and journalism professors. Right now, it’s bleak for students who don’t have advanced digital skills to go along with their solid journalism acumen. Jobs in traditional news outlets are tough to come by. But the news is mixed: while those legacy jobs may be shrinking, digital journalism and journalism-related jobs exist like never before. A 2014 Pew Research study found that 500 digital news outlets employ almost 5,000 full time employees. That tally suggests that opportunities abound for those who combine their news savvy with their computer skills.

‘Journalism-related jobs’
So what are journalism-related jobs? And what can journalism programs do to prepare students for them?

Having taught college journalism for almost four years and having worked as a reporter for almost 15 years, I have thought about those questions a great deal. I spend time pondering how journalism programs prepare journalism students. I teach undergraduates, but I also just finished a nearly brand new graduate program. In one role, at the University of New Mexico, I help students write cover letters and resumes for the entry level jobs they are seeking, among other things. In some cases, I look at job ads to see if my students are a match for open positions. In my other role as a graduate student at the University of South Florida, I took classes that taught me skills that the directors of the program considered pertinent to students wanting to work (or teach) in digital journalism, including web publishing, data journalism and entrepreneurial know-how. The two universities are pretty different, but the experiences have helped me come up with this list of skills I think are most important for future reporters to know.

First, think about the web editor, or the person building/designing/maintaining and promoting the website of your local newspaper. In many cases, that person is not a journalist in the way we traditionally describe the person who does original reporting and produces content. But, you bet that he or she is using journalism skills to make phone calls, investigate tips and write copy as part of his or her work. And journalism programs by and large do a great job of teaching those kinds of basics. But it’s the other part of the web designer/editor’s work that many programs are missing. Students interested in journalism but perhaps not being the city hall reporter need coding, design and multimedia skills to work in jobs such as web producer or manager.

Or, think about those cool interactive graphics you see on websites like the New York Times or the Guardian or a favorite of mine, La Nacion of Argentina. The folks on the teams at each paper that produce infographics, interactive graphics and more have solid journalism credentials. But they also have related skills that took them to where they are. Those skills include (again) coding and design, but they also involve critical thinking and analysis and firm understanding of data, something that isn’t commonly taught as part of journalism curricula. That is changing, as more schools realize the value of data journalism (and facility with data in general), a recent special series of articles on the PBS EducationShift blog showed.

At the same time, there’s been a lot made of the importance of teaching journalism students journalism-related entrepreneurial skills. I’m mostly on board with that, although I think the number of journalists starting their own companies (vs. freelancing or working for a company) tends to be overestimated. Nonetheless, I believe it’s key for students to know what the economics are behind the news business. They should know what a new tablet or a nice DSLR camera costs, if only so they can be cognizant of how lucky they are when someone hands them new equipment — or of how many lattes they will have to skip to buy their own. Students also should understand the digital marketplace that can be key in determining who sees and buys their content.

Another theme I’ve seen at recent journalism education conferences is that students need to learn how to keep learning. That means many different things, but to me it means students must become comfortable enrolling and participating in online classes, whether the smaller for credit classes nearly all universities now offer, or the much larger Massive Open Online Courses offered by larger universities, often for a certificate instead of credit. Why? The technical savvy needed to operate (and troubleshoot) a learning management system is important, but so is the ability to communicate remotely, through live web cam video, virtual presentations and discussion boards. Doing that with ease is key for students who might work for a company that’s based in another city — or time zone. Along with the conversation of how students should learn what they need to learn (in person, online or a bit of both) comes the discussion of how we should teach. That’s an important part of what I’m outlining here, but I don’t think it’s the only discussion. If a student can learn basic coding for a news app at a school that doesn’t subscribe to the teaching hospital model for example, I think that’s great, even though I support the newer models of innovative teaching.

A separate set of skills that comes to mind as key for about-to-be graduates are those of the mobile journalist. I don’t consider those journalism related, however, I consider them the manifestation of journalism in its modern form. The dated definition of print journalists — those who simply wrote a story for the printed edition and went home — has been updated to mean reporters who write a story for the web, do some tweeting and then write a story for print. In the past five years, however, reporters’ workloads have increased again, with the expectation by top news outlets (print and broadcast) that students will report, produce, edit and publish from the field, and not with the help of a satellite truck or a even a laptop. Instead, many professionals use nothing bigger than an iPad (and often times smaller) to post complete video packages or live text updates to the web. That means students need to work independently to use, maintain and troubleshoot mobile equipment, apps, file storage and publication. And journalism students should learn about those in the setting of a journalism class, where context, privacy and accuracy are discussed in detail. This helps set trained reporters apart from everyone else in the world who can upload a photo, video or tweet to the web with a mobile phone or tablet. Along with mobile reporting, mobile design is a huge consideration for the world’s next journalists and those who work with them.

To wrap up, we must teach students more design and data. Along with that should come coding, and not just for web sites. Students who can design or build news apps are a step ahead of those with knowledge of HTML, CSS, Javascript and server-side languages. This strong need for technical know-how and computer science prowess as part of journalism education has become clear to me in recent years as not only increasingly important, but necessary for both students looking for work and for journalism departments looking for more students. Countless others, too, have advocated for adjustments to journalism programs, while others have conducted studies of what skills educators think are most important. Implementing such changes, of course, isn’t easy, but we need to continue the discussion about how we can best prepare journalism students not just for the jobs of the future, but for work that many of our students could do now.

P.S. Many of you have asked about my own plans now that I am done with grad school. Along with teaching news writing at UNM, I’ve got one big project lined up for this fall and next spring that I can’t wait to reveal. Check out my next blog post for details as soon as I can announce it.

Tips and tools from the Journalism Interactive 2014 conference

I’m just back from Journalism Interactive, a two-day conference at the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. In short: it rocked. In long: if you care about the intersection of journalism and technology, you have to go next year. Picture the country’s best journalists, technologists and educators all in one place. Add some caffeine and a good measure of geeky excitement about technology and that pretty much sums up the event.

There were so many high-caliber speakers with great tips and thoughts, I left with my brain stuffed with new ideas about what I can and should be teaching my students. These are my ten takeaways. (I could have written 100, but Dan Reimold already has that covered at College Media Matters.)

ONE: We need to teach students to create journalism that’s interactive. Not too long ago, creating interactive graphics was the domain of those who know code. Not anymore. Thinglink is a cool (free) little tool that allows students to place text and video over a still image to make them interactive. The possibilities are pretty much endless with this simple software.

TWO: Why Google it when you can Wolfram Alpha it? Amy Webb of Webbmedia gave a wonderful presentation on six tech trends and showed us the Wolfram Alpha search engine. I’ve seen it before, but never used it much. A few weeks ago, I watched a presentation from Stephen Wolfram, and now that I know Webb uses it, the site is high on my list to show students as not only a great search engine example, but what can be done some clever coding and math.

Webb’s whole presentation, which has many other goodies and is worth your time:

THREE: Speaking of coders, they are the most sharing people you’ll meet. Journalists need to get to know more of them. I had already gotten great advice from Michelle Minkoff’s blog before I got to meet her at a session on web scraping. She made the point several times that coders are more than willing to share what they know with others. If you are not the most techy journalist, coders are good people to know when you want to do that cool thing that’s going to take more than a Google spreadsheet to do.

Michelle Minkoff, an interactive producer for the Associated Press, helps Serena Carpenter with a question about web scraping during Journalism Interactive 2014.

Michelle Minkoff, an interactive producer for the Associated Press, helps Serena Carpenter with a question about web scraping during Journalism Interactive 2014.

FOUR: Wearables are here to stay, and students need to know about tools like Google Glass. Professor Jeremy Littau gave a presentation on teaching with Glass at the conference and his links are worth checking out, as is his presentation.

FIVE: Another interactive tool that students can easily use is Infogr.am. Students can create info graphics or charts without much hassle. It’s a low-tech way to build high-tech looking visuals. Another speaker, Richard Koci Hernandez of UC Berkeley, mentioned a bunch of other great storytelling tools and techniques. His presentations is worth watching here.

SIX: Robots are here to help journalists, says NPR data journalist Jeremy Bowers. They can automate the most tedious tasks that reporters have to do, like checking local seismic activity data or quickly editing stories for the web. When they notice changes in data, they can send you alerts or even write short stories. If you teach sports writers, remind them that much of what they write relates to data, and then show them the New York Time’s Fourth Down Bot. Check out the panel on data-driven journalism here.

4thdownbot

SEVEN: Computer science is inseparable from journalism. So get your kids (and by that I mean any preschooler you know and/or your college students) all the computer science exposure you can. Specific recommendations at the conference included Code Academy, School of Data and Coursera MOOCs. While many tools are out there like Infogr.am help students produce visuals without coding knowledge, students with coding skills will be the best prepared to create custom work that sets them apart. One way to help expose students to computer science is to team teach with other departments or have CS professors speak in your classes. Apart from code, students need to know about topics like anticipatory computing and algorithmic accountability.

EIGHT: Stay connected with likeminded others. Sounds more than obvious, right? But I can’t say enough about the virtual networking and groups that are a part of the journalism and tech community. There are hashtags to use throughout the year (#edshift, #wjchat, #jiconf, etc) and groups to join (Online News Association, NICAR, data journalism groups on Meetup.com, etc.) Apart from tip sharing and camaraderie, some of the groups, like ONA, have grants. Yes, money, for journalism! I’m part of a group at the University of New Mexico that won an ONA Challenge Fund grant, announced at the conference. (Follow @nmnewsport for more details on our project.)

Along with staying connected comes staying charged. And by that I mean your electronics. I learned two pro tips related to powering your smart phone. First, from someone in the back of the room whose name I didn’t catch: putting your iPhone on airplane mode charges it faster. Second, a nifty USB charger called Photive allows you to recharge without having to plug in to a wall.

NINE: Mobile reporting skills are key. Carl Corry of Newsday gave a presentation on mobile reporting technology. In short, reporting with phones and tablets is a key skill students are expected to have to work at any type of news organization. He mentioned the site of WTOP reporter Neal Augenstein, which has some great how-tos and insights on using the iPhone.

TEN: Keep learning. It’s up to us to keep our students on the cutting edge. That means attending conferences like this, but it also means homework when we can’t travel. Consider Amy Webb’s summer course for journalism instructors.

Here are more takes on the conference from others who attended.

American Journalism Review’s take.

Post by professor Katy Culver on PBS Education Shift.

Professor Tiffini Theisen’s blog

14 takeaways by teacher Aaron Manfull.

Storify curation by Professor Jeremy Littau

What journalism students know — and want to know — about the role of social media in news coverage

In an introduction to media writing class I teach at the University of New Mexico, we had the chance to talk Tuesday morning about the role of social media in the coverage of the Boston bombings.

Following up on a lecture I gave two weeks ago about how journalists use social media, I touched on how Twitter, Facebook and Storify played major roles in how people learned about Monday’s tragedy. 

I asked students if any of them had waited to read about the bombings in this morning’s paper. No hands went up.

Had anyone waited until the 5, 6 or 10 o’clock news to learn of the events? A few hands.

Did anyone hear about it on social media? Many more hands. Students mentioned Facebook and Twitter as their sources of information.

I showed examples of Storify curations about the explosions done by papers small and large, and I displayed my Tweetdeck column with the updates to the Boston Marathon hashtag flying by.

I pulled up a Vine video of the moment of one of the bombings that had gone viral, so students could see how anybody with a cell phone could become a “journalist” in a moment’s notice. I pointed out a Youtube channel of videos of all kinds — from all kinds of people — from the event.

As a grad student in the Digital Journalism and Design program at the University of South Florida, I find all of this very interesting, on so many levels. That’s a whole other blog post.

But what I found even more interesting were the questions my students had about all of this. These mostly freshman journalism students just starting their study of reporting asked questions about digital tools that journalism education leaders need to know.

(I think I answered all of them, but I mentioned that a few of the topics didn’t always have clear answers and could be the subject of whole semesters of study.)

Some of the questions were about the proper or ethical use of social media information posted by others. 
One student wanted to know if the media or just anyone can take a social media post — whether it be text, photo or video — and reuse it?

Another wanted to know if retweeting something libelous could get the individual passing on the bad info in legal trouble.

A few questions had to do with the mechanics of using social media. Who creates or chooses a hashtag for a big event? Can just anyone do that?

Another asked about who manages curations like those on Storify. Does anyone edit that work?

A tangential topic had to do with how television news was presented, and a student asked why an NBC reporter mentioned the nationality of a person of interest in the case. A discussion ensued about needing to fill up air time in a 24-hour news cycle — a topic for another day.

The bombings also made me think about what skills journalism and media students need to know to get a job and stay employed these days. Yes, it’s (deadline) writing and reporting and critical thinking. Yes, it’s photography and videography and audio. And it’s how to make graphs, maps and charts.

But the role of digital tools and social media can’t be overlooked.

Students need to know the basics of social media hashtags to be able to join in a conversation about an event, or at least read and learn from it. They need to understand how to sort through social media posts for true information and leads for other information.

Students need to know how to shoot decent photos and videos with a smart phone. They must be able to edit and upload them  from the scene. Knowledge of other equipment such as DSLRs, video and audio equipment is even better, but many students these days will only ever use a cell phone as a reporting tool.

Students need to understand other technology used in a major event like this, such as the Google people finder that was set up to connect runners with family members, or alternative blog sites that were set up when the Boston Globe site went down.

It also might help students who are interested in the developer side of news to understand the advantages and the limitations of mobile information. During our discussion on how students got the news, one asked about designing a mobile news website vs a native phone app — a key distinction to think about for big stories that have large photo galleries or video files.

As they learn information gathering skills, students need to figure out what to do with all the reporting they gather on their mobile phones in case cell phone service slows to a crawl or is cut off. That’s where the old fashioned approaches to journalism come in as handy as ever.

I could add more skills to this list, such as creating heat maps with Twitter data of the locations of most of the tweets about the marathon. Other data visualization and informational graphics abilities are also a plus.

Along with other lessons from the event, I hope the Boston bombings help journalism professors rethink how we teach journalism students to prepare to be the reporters on the scene of the next big news event.