Journalism classes that aren't regularly available but should be

Students learn. Now lets teach them something they need.
Students learn. Now let's teach them something they need.

My friend Sean Blanda once regularly wrote on the failures of journalism schools. It’s not exactly my territory because I studied politics, not journalism in school.

But, I’ve heard enough from friends and colleagues. It seems most everything they learned, I learned while working at my college newspaper.

The journalism school at Temple University, like many other top j-schools, is chock full of talent. Temple is dripping with accomplished reporters, so I long decided j-school is for contacts, not knowledge.

That’s never more true than now, because, well, most all professors at j-schools are from an era that digitization is fast making irrelevant (There are many exceptions, two at Temple being here and here). The rules are broken and more than ever, journalism schools are repugnantly, distastefully, woefully far from leading students to careers, aside from the Temple name and, yes, the contacts they make.

I’m nearly a year out and embroiled in a freelance career, so I thought up a few classes I’d like to see j-schools teach.

Here are some course selections I’d like to see become tried and true j-school classics:

  1. The Business of Freelancing — What’s a sole-proprietorship? What are all the tax implications of basing my business wherever I do? How do I and why would I get a business checking account, credit card and fictitious name? What is tax exempted? What isn’t? How can I make money on my car, my phone and my camera? This all has real world relevance. Students will finish the class with an EIN, just like they will a sense of pitching in e-mail.
  2. Web presences and reporter branding — If this could ever be done by folks who no longer find Facebook or Twitter novel, this would be key. Let’s talk about the future some suggest brands might have for reporters, both on-staff and freelancing. By the end of the class, students will have a simple Web presence, understand RSS feeds, have clips and their resume online and ready to send out. They’ll understand the link economy and why it matters.
  3. Journalism entrepreneurship — You see, 2008 was unsurprisingly a move toward young journalists being more business-minded. This year, with a sour economy and struggling print industry, we’re at it again. Friends and I launched Technically Philly. I’m contributing to — which, to be fair, was started as part of a journalism class. I am helping with research on a large-scale project I’ve yet to disclose, like I haven’t yet mentioned a couple other smaller works. The old model of climbing from small paper to medium paper is dead, at least in a print way. I don’t know where it’s going, but the most successful journalists are going to be smart brand-builders and heady business minds. For the kid who wants to start a magazine or thinks he can make money on a blog, here is the class that explains how and the obstacles ahead. Again, heavy in tax status, employee-implication and other science-heavy material.
  4. Multimedia journalism — And I don’t mean trot out a professor who can teach you writing for radio or how to do a TV news stand-up. That’s garbage. The future is the convergence of media, not the dominance of a more visceral medium. So, let’s talk real knowledge. What are the basics of video and photography and audio? Cram one media in a week. Blogging and other social media. Editing, etc. What camera is best, what are the aspects we need to learn or understand?
  5. Programming for journalists — Let’s face it. The Web is a language journalists need to know — yeah, the Web and Spanish, in my opinion. We don’t need to know it all, but we need to know what’s what. HTML, CSS, Flash, Java, and whatever the Hell else it out there. What’s the newsroom practicality?
  6. Newsroom culture and innovation — How many young people go to newsrooms and realize, wow, everyone hates them! Let’s talk bureaucracy and curmudgeon-culture. Let’s relish in the history of journalism, and the future everyone hates. I want to hear from old-heads. Teach me how they feel about me, this young guy. Why don’t we read everyday. I want to know what I’m getting into, how there will be great pushback in institutions against innovation.
  7. Local, Niche and Community — Everyone in the class has to highlight a niche community they want to cover or support. Cross-listed with entrprenuership journalism and in the business school. Each student needs a real business plan, a monetization strategy – non-ad based, I should add – and a coverage pattern. Tax status included. Contributors, etc. included. Why it can survive, what it’s sustainability is, etc. Then they launch it.

We are so done with the inverted pyramid. Fuck it, kids have to know how to write. We can teach the rules as we go — attribution, nut grafs and the rest. I picked it up through my peers at a college newspaper, so no longer can anyone think an entire major — four years of someone’s life should be devoted to it.

These other skill sets are important. They are things you can learn from places like Multimedia in Minutes.

But my point is practicality. I wanted to hit my head against the wall when a friend of mine, still a j-student at a certain large urban university recently ousted from the NCAA tournament, who was required to build a site for class. Cool! Oh, except, it had to be something entirely new and had to be hosted by the university. …So it dies after class. …No you can’t build a professional portfolio or a community-news platform. …That’s a waste of time. Period.

Practical learning is the best learning in the world, particularly for journalists, so students should get oodles of credit for freelancing, internships or other bylines. Writing for the college newspaper should be a given.

What’s more, students should come away with hard and fast lessons they learned – not theoretical stuff and not the equivialent of knowledge from a j-textbook from 1967.

Did I miss any classes? Is anyone teaching these or has anyone taken them? Any university want to pay me the big bucks to teach them?

17 thoughts on “Journalism classes that aren't regularly available but should be”

  1. Can’t take too much time to comment because I’m on online newsdesk duty this morning for the site where I work part time — oops, that couldn’t be true, could it? — I’m one of those out-of-touch journalism professors who is clueless about the Web. Please watch your generalizations! You do acknowledge “exceptions” but you are clearly unaware that organizations of college journalism instructors are aware of and dealing with these issues as best they can. And a huge constraint is the budget — nobody can afford to pay you “big bucks to teach” these classes! I also suggest that spelling and punctuation counts on the Web as it does in more traditional media (but you didn’t study that).
    Defensive? Yes — But I’m tired of people who proudly declare they didn’t go to J school bashing what they perceive is being taught.

  2. Sydney:
    Thanks for reading and thanks more for commenting.

    Your criticism is rightly taken and not lightly. Yes, I did mention exceptions, but perhaps I didn’t do so strongly enough. There are a couple profs I personally know who I think are doing it right — understand. But, I hope you can see how frustrating it is for a young kid like me to come out of college in this industry and find even those who studied *it for four years don’t know what direction to go. A little scary, no?

  3. You know what? In today’s economy (or during any challenging economic times of the past generation!) people don’t know what direction to go, and it’s not the fault of a single source (person, place, academic department, politician . . . pick one or more).
    I have been a professor only a short time, so I don’t claim to have all the answers (at what point does one achieve that status?). But I do offer our students and graduates encouragement and suggestions, along with the best training I can. I proofread resumes and pass along any tips I hear. I stay plugged into the industry as best I can, but I also remind them that the word is changing and that they need to be willing to explore and improvise!
    I remember how frustrating it was in the dark ages when I was job-hunting and was told I needed “more experience.” It *does* get easier when you have some items on your resume. We encourage students to do several internships, and require a very structured one before graduation.
    Sure, it’s scary — but it’s also largely the responsibility of the recent grad to take control of what can be controlled and stick your neck out and try. Nobody gave me any engraved invitations, and I made some bad calls along the way, too. But learning shouldn’t stop with graduation.
    So — keep plugging away. And don’t be looking for fault, look for opportunity. Keep looking.

  4. Hi Chris,

    I am a class of 1986 Canadian journalism school grad. I worked as a magazine editor of a couple of small publications after graduation and then migrated into advertising management. For the past 13 years I have been a successful self-employed internet marketing consultant. The lesson I learned very quickly in my evolving career is this: no experience, whether that gleaned from J-school or the school of life, is ever wasted. Although you are dead right when it comes to the need for J-schools to stay relevant by keeping current and teaching students about the latest digital technologies, social media etc, much of this learning has to be self-directed by students since technological changes are so rapid and dynamic. J-Schools, like any institutions, have to struggle to keep up.

    I am middle-aged now, and in the past 2 months I have learned how to Twitter and blog Looking forward to new lessons next month. We all just need continuously re-invent ourseleves and our skill sets to stay relevant and employable. But these are exciting times in which to live!

  5. Some of that is happening at J-schools. We’re being forced to learn print & broadcast simultaneously, which is hard while doing it, but makes sense in the long run, and then we have to take both of those and put them together for an online class. We’re also offered a minor in “multimedia literacy,” which is optional but it’s there if you want to take it.

    The entrepreneurship business side of things is a little lacking at the undergrad level, but syllabus changes (from what we’ve heard) will include Econ classes with entrepreneurship options, and more suggestions to take the entrepreneurship minor from the biz school.

    Newsroom culture, well, that’s something a student will have to find a way to learn, I think. I’m doing it by working at my college paper and that works out pretty well. And Local, Niche and Community simply follows along (or works with the Grad school which is doing some hyperlocal stuff.)

  6. I visit other j-schools fairly often and talk with others who teach these online, digital, and multimedia journalism skills, and I would like to chide Sydney — a little bit — because he’s got to know he’s an exception.

    Just two days ago I was told by a journalism instructor that the photojournalism professor at his/her school refuses — refuses! — to teach digital photography. Aiiieeeee! All right, that is an extreme example (and hey — the school in question is NOT a small one!), but there are a lot more of those extreme examples, scattered about the field of journalism education, than is fair or right.

    Now, I agree with Sydney that a student who depends wholly on others to tell her what she ought to learn is not very smart, and it’s not fair or right for that kid to lay all the blame for her ignorance of digital technologies on her professors.

    But there’s a middle way here, and I think maybe too many schools are failing to find that middle way.

    Even if you can’t replace all your faculty overnight (and of course you can’t), you can institute changes to ensure that every journalism student knows the score in today’s media environment. To do that, you’ve got to guarantee that the score is counted, announced, illustrated, demonstrated, in more than one class meeting, in more than one course, and certainly not only in special online electives.

  7. Partial list of things I wish I had learned in J-school:

    1. Economics and budgeting. They tell you to follow it, but few journalism professors/trainers teach how to speak the language of money. Useful when you’re a reporter, essential when you move up to being an editor and have to manage a budget.

    2. A language other than English. I can’t count the number of times knowing Spanish or Cantonese would have made covering San Francisco easier.

    3. Management. Some journos will spend their entire careers as writers, but others will move on to positions where they manage other people. Most who do won’t be prepared for it.

    4. Elementary marketing and PR. For working journos, helps to know how you can be spun. Odds are you won’t stay in the biz forever, though, so this also helps when you need to make a living after leaving it.

  8. That’s a great list, Tom. The point should be made again and again that there are great professors and schools doing work in journalism, but the education still needs challenging. Thanks for it.

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