A journalism education worth paying for

Most journalism educations aren’t really worth paying for anymore, but there are some programs that get it.

Mindy McAdams has compiled a list of things she believes every j-school should be teaching their students right now. It’s important to note that myself, McAdams and basically everyone else arguing for change in journalism higher education believes that any good journalism education starts with the fundamentals of reporting. If a student can’t interview someone, properly fact check, know the appropriate law, have news judgment and understand journalism ethics (not the same as everyday ethics), then it doesn’t matter what other skills they have — print or online.

And yes, every journalism student should know how to write. But every college student should know how to write well too. Journalism education was never about writing — it was always about learning journalism. Journalism has changed and so too must journalism curricula.

Let’s assume that every journalism student knows how to interview and report. What skills does a student need beyond that? I’m a firm believer that every journalism student should be exposed to a vast array of different reporting techniques from writing to database to audio slideshows to video to audio to Flash and more.

It’s impossible to know which skills individual students will become good at or understand well (no one should realistically expect students to master all the skills I list below). So, rather than mandating that students know a skill or two, I believe students should be shown a wide array of what is available, and then students should be encouraged to hone in on a few skills.

McAdams lists several skills that she believes every j-school should be teaching right now. I’ve taken her list and expanded upon it a bit.

The journalism skills that every student should be learning today:

  1. (X)HTML and CSS – No one is arguing that journalism students need to become expert Web designers. Some might become very good at Web design, but every student should know the basic building blocks of the medium they are working on. I was taught page layout, even though my primary skill was writing and reporting. Schools should begin transitioning from page layout and other archaic classes to Web classes. The Web is here to stay, and having knowledge of how Web sites work is crucial for people working on the Web. This includes knowing what (X)HTML and CSS look like and how to code some of it by hand.
  2. Audio – Many print journalists already tape record their interviews. If you can interview someone for a print story, you can do it for an audio report. Audio reporting can be reasonably taught in on semester. This includes not only how to work recorders and external mics, but also how to edit audio to make it sound natural and of course how to make a standalone audio report. Adding audio to written content (with photos) can really make for a strong Web presentation.
  3. Photography – What college student doesn’t own a digital camera these days? None that I’d ever want to hire, I can assure you. Most students have experience with photography, but j-schools need to teach students how to take that to the next level with photojournalism. What makes a story? What are the ethics of photojournalism (especially the ethics of Photoshop)? How do you properly edit a photo?
  4. Multimedia skills – Once a student knows how to record and edit audio and take photos, it’s time to learn how to combine them together. McAdams suggests that every student should know Soundslides, and I agree. It’s an extremely easy way of combing (good) photos and (good) audio to make a compelling multimedia package. Just knowing how to use Soundslides, however, isn’t good enough. A good audio slideshow must tell a story. That’s what journalism schools need to teach.
  5. Video – Video has become the hot topic at many newspapers. While I disagree that video is that important, every student should be exposed to it. There is some very good video being produced on the Web (and a lot of very bad video). McAdams points out that teaching video is harder, and that she may struggle to teach it properly in one semester. Here is my recommendation to her: make multimedia classes (with photography and audio skills) prerequisites to learning video. If a student already understands photographic composition, it won’t be that hard of an adjustment to video. If a student already knows how to tell stories with audio and edit audio, the adjustment will be easier. The hardest thing to teach with video is taste. A lot of people new to video make some grade-A junk. J-schools really need to be able to teach students how to properly tell stories with video.
  6. Databases – McAdams does not discuss databases, but I believe it’s a very important part of the future of journalism. Obviously, you can’t teach MySQL to someone who has no Web or programming experience. But that doesn’t mean students couldn’t learn how to make some Google mashups, how to enter data into an existing database, work with data in a spreadsheet or learn how data can be used to tell a story. Perhaps databases should only be one facet of an online journalism class. Databases are an important facet, however.

There are other skills that j-schools woefully neglect to discuss. Perhaps it’s because few journalism professors know much about them.

The other skills that every journalism student must have:

  1. Business sense – Yes that’s business with a b. Ladies and gentlemen this is the Age of the Internet. You have to be able to read site analytics reports. You have to know which content is popular and why. You have to understand that journalism is in fact a business, and that the only way to succeed in business is to give your customers what they want, which means you have to know what they like in the first place. And for the love of God, you have to understand SEO. If you don’t know what SEO stands for, how could you have accepted your journalism diploma in good conscious?
  2. Entrepreneurial skills – This is the Web and this is the 21st century. I have news for you: the old-guard MSM is dying. Those jobs are rapidly disappearing. It doesn’t matter how many journalism skills you have if you don’t know how put them to use. This might mean starting new Web ventures. It might mean launching a blog with Google AdSense on it. It might mean a lot of things, but students need solid Web entrepreneurial skills to succeed today. Frankly, journalism needs more talented journalists to have entrepreneurial skills. Jeff Jarvis over at CUNY began teaching an Entrepreneurial Journalism class last fall. Students presented ideas for — get this — up to $50,000 in seed money for a start up. Business and money matter in 21st century journalism.

“The traditional path of a journalism career has clearly shifted. In the past, a journalism student would learn about being a newspaper reporter, then take a job at a small-town paper, eventually moving up to a medium and then larger paper. Now, the reporter might launch a blog, an audio podcast or video reports as a one-person operation, handling editorial and business duties simultaneously.” — Mark Glaser, MediaShift.

Media is shifting. J-school and journalists need to shift with it, or else journalism school will just become a bunch of history classes.

  • An excellent list, and it’s sad to say I learned pretty much nothing on it while in journalism school. Now, five years removed from graduation, I’ve had to teach myself or learn from others. Makes paying back my student loans slightly more painful.

  • pat


    I hear ya. I have more than $40,000 in student loans to pay back and I learned none of the journalism skills I listed above. Sure, I learned how to write, edit, about ethics and law, but I never learned any of the in-demand skills that are needed today.

    But I did learn page layout, which will take me places in this industry. In fact, I was required to take a class on publication design, but the class on Web design was optional (it sucked so I skipped it).

    Luckily, I have been doing Web stuff way longer than journalism, and I have attended a couple of seminars in the past year. But there is so much more to learn. I’m always trying to learn something new. Right now I am working on PHP and MySQL.

  • Will

    Sounds to me like this list is a recommendation to study something other than journalism.

    I think that’s the right idea.

    J-school for me was a one-semester affair, repeated for years on end. I’m fairly certain I could teach AP style and basic reporting to anyone in one semester.

    It was a minor for me, but as a minor I took all but three of the classes required of majors and offered through the department. See, the university I went to relied on English grammar and lit classes to stretch things out to four years. Otherwise it would be a 12-18 month program.

    What’s missing in a lot of today’s journalists (and photojournalists) is a depth of knowledge in some field other than journalism.

    I’d like to see people with backgrounds in science writing science beats, and people with backgrounds in business writing business beats.

    A minor in journalism should give would-be journalists enough of the basics to fit into a newsroom, and their other course(s) of study should allow them to run circles around staffers at papers who can just (barely) manage their beats.