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Designing a journalism curriculum for millennials

Designing a journalism curriculum for millennials

Margaret Looney | July 07, 2014

While journalism professors who want to update their courses face slow approval processes in academia, the field is rapidly evolving, prompting many to wonder what a journalism school should look like today.

Corinne Chin, graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and Tim Devaney, Cornerstone University journalism graduate, joined five journalism educators taking part in the International Center for Journalists' Back in the Newsroom fellowship program to discuss gaps in their education.

As part of the fellowship, the educators are stepping away from their posts at colleges with large minority student populations to spend the summer at top-tier newsrooms - The Los Angeles Times, CNBC, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

The professors will bring back to their classrooms the skills that their students will need to survive in the digital era. They'll also build a bridge between these news organizations and colleges that could serve as a source of interns and potential hires for a more diverse newsroom.

Chin and Devaney offered a few suggestions for carving out a journalism curriculum for the next generation:

  • Freelancing

“Whenever I think about wanting to do freelance, I don’t know where to start," Devaney said, now policy reporter for The Hill.

Chin, who's now working with The Associated Press in Kenya, took a five-week freelancing course with broadcast and print students, which featured a presentation from a freelancer during each class. She learned about the pitching process, but she wanted to learn more about the day-to-day processes of a freelancer. It was an elective, but she said she thinks it should be mandatory.

"I encourage my students to start freelancing now," said Yolanda McCutchen, assistant professor at Howard University and Back in the Newsroom fellow. "There’s this mindset of ‘I’m going to be a journalist when I graduate’ but start now so you’ll be a working journalist when you graduate."

  • Networking

Depending on where a journalism school is located, the opportunities to network with professionals in your field can vary. And as they say, it's all about who you know.

Chin and Devaney said they didn't learn much about networking in college, and would have appreciated more opportunities to do so. Even just a nudge in the right direction from a mentor could help, like knowing to set up informational interviews before sending out a job application.

Many of the fellows said universities are working toward doing this by tapping into their respective alumni networks.

  • Tech skills

Many professors give their students' youth too much credit, Chin said. Reporting from a smartphone or using a camera doesn't come naturally for all students. "I know a lot of professors think ‘these young people know how to do this; they’re native to it.' That’s not true, and it’s especially not true in grad school.”

Devaney said he uses his smartphone in his job now to write up quick stories for the web, and having a course focused on mobile reporting would have been helpful.

But it's not just all about the latest tools. Hatch said all students should have basic technical literacy. "I’m not saying they have to be programmers or computer science majors. They should know how to use the tools of the trade. And if you need to know how to use one specific thing, know how to use Excel, because there’s a good chance you’re going to use it a lot."

  • Writing for the web

Devaney said a class focusing on writing just for the web would have been helpful. In his current job as policy reporter for The Hill, he's writing three to four stories a day, whereas in school he usually only had to do one story a week for certain courses. He suggested a course that would match daily deadlines expected of you in many online newsrooms.

“I feel like having some kind of a requirement for a blog where you’re having to update it every day of the week, or maybe even just a couple times a week, but having to write two to three stories on those days, would be helpful.”

  • Entrepreneurship

Chin said she had only one course in grad school where she had to think about the business side of the journalism world.

“In school we always think about what will be better for the audience when we decide how to tell a story, but what about advertising?," she said. "We don’t really think about what will help the publication get to the next level. We just think about what’s best for the reader."

  • DIY journalism

Chin said she wished she were able to tailor her degree more in line with her career goals. "I wanted to do New York Times Op-Docs. I wanted to do web-native video, and I didn't take a single class until my capstone that let me do what I want to do," she said.

"Identifying what you want to do and catering to that is really important and many graduate programs aren't long enough to do that, and that’s why so many of us are without jobs for many months after graduation."

Related reading: What newsrooms wish students learned in journalism school

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

@margylooney

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via CollegeDegrees360.

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