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.


Tools for new journalism educators

I woke up New Year’s Day feeling pretty excited about the year ahead. After 14 years as a print reporter in New Mexico, I resigned in December to have time to complete my master’s in digital journalism and design at the University of South Florida. It’s a big change after so many years as a reporter, but I felt it was time. I will also have the chance to continue teaching journalism at the University of New Mexico, which I have done part time for about two years.

My new roles also mean I’ll have more time to focus on learning and teaching the newest tools journalists and journalism students use to report, analyze and publish the news.

While I believe basic journalism skills are as important as ever, there is an increasing focus on the tools that reporters need to know to break news, engage readers and produce quality reporting.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen journalism become as much about tools as it is about reporting and writing and editing. Journalism is about software, hardware and online presence as much as it is about shoe leather, traditional paper notebooks and physical newsrooms.

I started this blog to talk about the tools and techniques I used recently in my reporting and how I can teach those same skills — and more — in my classes. The tools I write about this week might soon be as obsolete as typewriters, but I’m going to list, in no particular order, the things I’ve found most helpful so far. I hope you will share yours as well, and I hope to write new posts about what I learn as the year goes on.

Twitter for journalism students

Twitter is great for catching up on all the latest fashion. And football. And food. But forget all that. Twitter is incredibly powerful for news. Reporters use it to find sources, get story ideas, educate themselves and see what other writers are doing. Newspapers use it to promote upcoming stories, to cover breaking news and to interact with readers. But why should journalism students use it? What can they learn from putting 140 characters out into the world?

I think students can learn so much that I’m going to argue Twitter is one of the most important tools for student reporters to learn. Here’s why.

Twitter, especially when used to cover an event as it is happening, teaches students how to write on deadline. And that skill is one of the top things editors look for in a reporter. Updating readers quickly with information is critical in situations like wildfires, political debates and all kinds of breaking news.

Beyond that, though, Twitter (and live tweeting exercises you can teach in your class) teaches students how to think on deadline, and to focus on the most important parts of a story first. For students who are just learning how to outline a lede, a nut graf and some transitions, this can prove tough, but I believe that skill is as important as writing for print.

Indeed, when using Twitter for breaking news, reporters immediately must sift through and report the most important information. Who is being evacuated? Where can they find shelter? How many homes have burned, and which ones? (And where is the interactive map of those homes?) Students who can pick out the most newsworthy events, quickly summarize them and publish them will set themselves apart.

Using Twitter to cover an event live can help students in another way, and I think it’s one that’s often overlooked.

When an event is over and reporters then start to look through their notes, a glance at what they’ve tweeted should give them a good start, if they were on track in tweeting about the most interesting and important parts of what they covered. I think having that outline of key information helps student reporters as they head back to this newsroom with a ream of notes from the regent’s meeting.

Twitter, and live tweeting in particular, is also a lesson in keeping up. In having charged batteries. And snacks. Those of us who have live blogged an all-night legislative debate, for example, can appreciate the work that goes into following along and making sense of a slew of complicated amendments at 2 a.m.

More on how you can teach your students to live tweet here, and a shout out to @herbertlowe, a Marquette University professor who has mastered Twitter in education.

As an educator, you can also use hashtags for your class as a way of highlighting stories and information you think your students should see. I’ve used it to promote student work, and I’ve seen others hand out assignments on Twitter as well.

Screen Cast O Matic (http://screencast-o-matic.com/)

I was lucky to attend Poynter’s Teachapalooza 2012. In short, it was a world of geeky goodies for journalism nerds. (I think that was even the name of one of the panel names.) One of the tools I’ve used the most since learning about it at the conference is Screen Cast O Matic. It’s a program that allows you to make a video of whatever is on your screen. You can add just your voice, or you can include your tired teacher face as well. I found this extremely helpful for short instructions that I wanted students to view outside of class. I know other instructors have used it for tutorials to which students can refer after a lecture on how to use Photoshop, for example. I plan to try to use it this year to send oral feedback to students on their writing.

I haven’t seen students use it yet, but I think it’s got a lot of potential uses in the newsroom, including for tutorials for new reporters on how to use complicated programs or software. Here is one early example I did, on how students can generate follow up story ideas.


Storify (@storify)

Storify is an easy story curation tool and teaches students to identify and cull information from social media. Large newspapers often use Storify as a digest of reaction to a big event, or of continuing coverage of a big topic.

I haven’t used Storify as much as I could as I sometimes found it running slow and buggy, especially during busy news times. The day the Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act, I scurried to create a Storify for the newspaper I was with. I gave up in frustration about how slow it was, but I will say that once I tweeted my gripe, the company tweeted back to see if I was still on deadline and asked what it could do to help.

But it’s got great potential and some of my students really like it. I also like to read the Storifies that big papers do of big events, to see what information they pulled in — and what they left out.

Here is one example of how I used Storify to show students how to think critically about news coverage.

[View the story “Lessons in ethics + critical thinking from #sandy” on Storify]

IAnnotate App

In my work as a writing coach, I critique five student newspapers a week. At first I did this by hand. As in, I used a red ink pen, the way my mentors and editors did back in the day.

I now use IAnnotate, a nifty PDF reader and editor app for the Ipad. (Yes, it has a “red pen.”) Once I download a PDF of the newspaper, I can “write” on the document as I please, and that includes the (sort of) old fashioned copy editing symbols students should get to know. I then use an Ipad to project the papers each week during my critiques.  I also can save my marked versions to Dropbox if students want to access them after class.

I haven’t seen students use this much in journalism, but it would be great for marking up large PDF documents to be used in reporting.

As I get to know those tools, there are so many more I plan to check out in 2013. I’ve been wanting to participate in the #satchat events, a live Twitter chat with other educators, and #wjchat, a chat for web journalists. I also need to focus more on Google Apps for Education. And the list goes on. I’m not into New Year’s resolutions, but learning more tools is high on my list.

In the meantime, I’m planning a two-day journalism bootcamp for local students in January. I hope to be able to post feedback and thoughts on what worked and what didn’t for anyone else planning something similar next year. Send me your tips!

See you in 2013.