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What newsrooms wish students learned in journalism school

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Journalism changes at a rapid speed, and universities struggle to keep pace.

The system for updating curricula is often so bureaucracy-laden that by the time a new journalism tool or skill makes into the classroom, the next big thing has already been trending on Twitter for months.

In an effort to bridge this gap, the International Center for Journalists is placing journalism professors from universities with large minority student populations Back in the Newsroom in newsrooms to help them build their digital journalism skills.

Five educators are spending the summer at top digital news outlets -- The Los Angeles Times, CNBC, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post -- to learn the latest skills needed for their students to thrive after graduation.

In preparation for their "internships," the teachers chatted with professional journalists as well as recent grads to find out what's missing from journalism education. They honed in on a few key areas that need nourishing in the classroom:

  • Specialization

As the definition of journalism expands, it's easy to think you need to be expert at photo, video, text, coding, and more to make it. University programs pushed students to learn a range of skills and to be as versatile as possible. But that may leave grads without a marketable specialization.

Corrine Chin, a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, said the pressure persists in school to have to know how to do everything, causing many of her peers to graduate without a clear focus.

"They knew the basics of how to do everything but they didn't get far enough into any one of those mediums to really know what they wanted to pursue," she said. "You have to be good at writing, coding, video, photo, but you still have to be an expert in one of those in order to market yourself to get a job that you like doing.”

Whether you're specializing by medium or topic, mastering a niche can help you stand out.

“Being this great generalist is not as effective anymore," said Beryl Love, editor of USA TODAY Network National News Desk. "From a local news organization standpoint, there’s been a big shift in focusing on issues that matter most to that community and letting other sources provide the commodity information. So a lot of people coming in, especially from j-schools, they have no topic area of expertise, and that’s what a lot of newsrooms are looking for right now.”

  • Storytelling

“With all the bells and whistles [students are] expected to learn these days, I don’t want them to forget to focus on the core of what journalism is," said Tracy Boucher, director of news development at the Los Angeles Times. "I’m finding a lot of these students who want to be reporters forget to learn how to write, do the basic reporting and get the ethics down.”

Now that longform, multimedia-packed narratives are the norm, it's vital to put storytelling first to take full advantage of the format. "It requires a storyboarding approach to conveying the information in the best way possible,” said Love, who hasn't found many new hires with that skill. “The technology leapt beyond where we are as storytellers.”

  • Don't shun the small market

Don't wear your rose-colored glasses to graduation. Be prepared to work your way up to a large news organization.

“[Students] walk in and think they’re going to become a star," said program fellow Jerry Bembry, assistant professor at Morgan State University. "But they don’t know they have to go into small markets [for a few years] to get to that level.”

This comes from a lack of understanding of what the market sizes mean, said fellow B. Da'Vida Plummer, assistant professor at Hampton University. "They don’t understand the national platform versus a local station. You have to sort of break [their expectations].”

Joshua Hatch, senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education and adjunct instructor at American University, said going to a smaller market at first isn't "a reality check. It’s actually a better thing for you," since as a journalist you will be able to do more from the get-go.

  • Take an internship, or make something of your own

Hands-on experience is key to getting hired by newsrooms.

"It’s hard to get your foot in the door and get that first internship," said Lisa Villalobos, executive producer at CNBC. "I don’t necessarily judge if someone is a junior coming in and they haven’t had an internship before, but I want to see that they've done work other places. I want to see that they've actually created something on their own."

“There’s no reason why you should only be creating content as an intern," Hatch said. "The tools are available" to create content on your own. Even if it's a personal blog or other project, "it’s still practice, it’s still learning, it shows a passion and an entrepreneurial spirit and it can be a difference between getting something or not."

IJNet Editorial Assistant Margaret Looney writes about the latest media trends, reporting tools and journalism resources.

Image courtesy of ICFJ's Alana Morro.

What newsrooms wish students learned in journalism school

I am a journalist in Kerala, India, at the same time heading a Journalism Institute run by the journalists. This is a unique experiment which we journalists are doing for the last 45 years with the help of academicians and experts from various Universities. I think such endeavors can solve the problem which Margaret Looney is discussing.

Radha Krishnan

What newsrooms wish students learned in journalism school

Pieces from a recent speech I made:

Retired American journalist, Bill Moyes once said: “A journalist is basically a chronicler, not an interpreter of events. Where else in society do you have the license to eavesdrop on so many conversations as you have in journalism? Where else can you delve in to the life of our times?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against comment, opinion, interpretation and analysis – I’m a paid columnist for goodness sake - but it should be left to columnists, commentators and feature page writers and current affairs programs which are clearly marked as such. It’s all a part of the journalism/news mix. What I am concerned about is the watering down of that mix, the promulgation of one viewpoint to the exclusion of others; and the deliberate manipulation of news stories to reflect particular viewpoints.

You think our current affairs programs are balanced when the smiling ahead of some journalist, commentator or academic appears and begins pontificating? I can’t believe it is coincidental that Joe Blow, our guest commentator in so-and-so, or Professor Fred Nerk, the head of this or that department or think-tank, so often mirror the thoughts of presenters and producers? Are they selected because of this?

Just how easy is it to influence outcomes by neglecting or ridiculing opponents to your point of view and even creating panels of so-called “experts” who reflect the views you want promulgated?

I think it is a great shame mainstream Australia all too often is portrayed as uneducated, red-necked, racist, bigoted and reactionary. Most ordinary Australians I know are anything but. Through my column, I am in a position to warn people of the dangers I see in where Australia is heading. All I wish to do is tell people to be careful, listen and read what is put before you, examine it, think about it and make up your own mind.

Journalism today, both print and electronic, I believe, is in crisis, a crisis of its own making in which its credibility is almost rock-bottom. I haven’t got a lot of time, so I can’t go into a lot of detail or spend time building my case. I’ll simply make a few points.

Remember Jack Webb, the stone-faced detective of Dragnet and his famous saying: “Give me the facts maam , just the facts. ……… and that’s how I was taught journalism at the Geelong Advertiser as a cadet. It was how journalism was taught throughout Australia and in the UK back in the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1980s. I spent nearly six years as a reporter for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh and as Scottish correspondent for The Timers and business correspondent for the Sunday Times between 1962 and 1967. We were told to be impartial observers, to report only the facts: give both sides of the story; always give a right of reply. We were told it’s not your job as a reporter to interpret, comment or add in adjectives. Let readers make up their own minds on the basis of the facts.

I’ve always been proud to be a journalist, and it makes me angry when I see that journalism, when measured in terms of credibility by annual opinion polls, rates near the bottom of the pile along with used car sales people and politicians.

At the end of the day, all journalists really have to sell is our integrity, our credibility. If we don’t have that, we have nothing and maybe that’s what our critics are telling us. We’ve lost our way!

The role of a journalist and the newspaper, television channel or radio station for which he or she works must be first and foremost to be a provider of information and news; and then a public forum and educator through backgrounder and feature articles, columnists and commentators, the Editorial Opinion and Letters to the Editor.

I know there are people who won’t agree with that, but I think it’s a reasonably fair and accurate summation of the role journalism. I am not a fan of advocacy journalism, of using news stories as vehicles to promulgate propaganda or personal and subjective viewpoint.

I suppose I’d best define what I mean by “advocacy journalism”. Briefly, the definition is: “advocacy journalism is a genre of journalism which intentionally and transparently adopts a non-objective or biased viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose.

I have no argument with advocacy journalism if it restricts itself to Editorials, to columns such a mine and other Opinion or feature pieces, but I think it is very dangerous when it creeps into news stories as it has been doing over the past couple of decades or so.

As I said earlier, the editors and sub-editors who taught me my craft drummed into us all that the role of a reporter is to report fairly, impartially, fearlessly and to give everyone concerned a fair go.

A fair go ………… that’s what too often is lacking today. We were told to respect the intelligence of ordinary people and put all the facts before them so they could make up their own minds on issues.

What newsrooms wish students learned in journalism school

This is so true, I can sure relate. I am a journalist working in Zimbabwe and hear this all the time where media houses complain that "what are journalism students being taught at their universities!"

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