At the University of Kansas, students in the beginning research and writing course learn not only to craft news stories and press releases but also to shoot and edit video and create radio spots.
At the University of Florida, advanced journalism students write text stories, make Web animations and photo galleries, capture and edit audio and video files, and create searchable online databases.
At the University of Southern California, beginning this fall, all newswriting students will take a story idea and do it for print on Monday, for broadcast on Wednesday and for an online audience on Thursday or Friday.
Across the country, a growing number of journalism schools are teaching students how to present news in more than one medium. They are preparing journalists for multimedia careers: to work for news organizations that provide information in print, as audio or video, and online.
From Florida Atlantic University to San Francisco State University, educators have created or retooled programs to emphasize media convergence – producing news for more than one “platform.”
“The news industry, journalists and storytelling itself are adapting to the behavior of a multiplatform audience,” said Andrew Nachison, who directs convergence training for media executives and journalism educators at the American Press Institute.
“Daily journalists need to embrace the 24-hour news cycle, with continuous deadlines,” he said. “And the story needs to be reported and produced for a multiplatform audience. That may mean delivering content first to the Web and cell phones, a streaming video broadcast later in the day, a TV talk-back interview still later, and a ‘second day’ interpretive story for the next morning’s newspaper.”
That emerging reality has profound implications for journalism schools.
“Students entering the journalism field these days need to understand how different media – written words, audio, video, graphics, photographs, interactivity – work together to tell a story,” said Travis Linn, interim dean of the journalism school at the University of Nevada at Reno. “The concept of integrating media, and using interactivity, is essential.”
But it can be an unwieldy concept. Some journalism educators and professionals view convergence with skepticism or hostility; others have embraced it with unbridled enthusiasm; and many are struggling to balance journalistic traditions with visions of a brave new world.
“No one has the answers, and we’re not totally sure what the questions are,” said Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota. One thing is certain, however: Change is imminent.
That is evident not only at large public universities but also at small private schools.
“The digital world is a revolutionary change, and we need to enable our students to think and imagine in this new world,” said Ham Smith, head of the journalism department at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. “Single-platform stories are rapidly being overtaken by converged ones.
“Both newspapers and television stations use their Web sites to boost the value and information they are giving their audiences. And this is a trend,” he said. “So I don’t think single-platform education, in which students learn to think about telling stories in only one medium, is most useful either for consumers or professionals.
“We need to approach a story recognizing that some of it is best told in narrative form, some by graphics, other parts by video – learning to select the best mode, and by inference the best medium, to explain the world to people.”
MULTIPLE APPROACHES TO MULTIMEDIA JOURNALISM
Journalism schools have different strategies for teaching this approach to storytelling.
Some schools expose students early to multimedia journalism. The University of Kansas, for example, replaced its introductory newspaper-oriented writing course with a class in which students create broadcast and print news stories – as well as multimedia PR materials and advertisements.
“Our program is more rigorous – not in terms of learning more AP style, for example, but in critical thinking skills that mirror all the processes in multimedia,” said Professor Rick Musser.
The course was part of a curriculum overhaul in which Kansas merged its broadcast and print journalism tracks. Students now work on all platforms, but they still specialize in one.
The University of Southern California also is injecting multimedia journalism into its core curriculum. In beginning reporting, writing and production courses, students will work in all platforms, said Michael Parks, director of the journalism school.
The news audience already is multimedia, and journalists need to catch up, he said. “Readers, viewers and listeners got up and moved; they’re making different sets of decisions on when, where and how they will get their news. We want to make sure that all of our students have the fundamental skills to provide news in all platforms.”
Some schools don’t have multimedia courses, but they encourage print students to take broadcast classes and vice versa. Other schools teach convergence in advanced courses or have separate tracks to emphasize multimedia journalism.
The journalism department at the University of Florida, for instance, has an “Online Media” concentration in which students learn video editing and Web design. The most important thing they learn is critical thinking, Professor Mindy McAdams said. “It all comes down to: What is the best way to tell this story?”
OBSTACLES TO TEACHING CONVERGENCE
Universities face many challenges in teaching multimedia journalism. The issue has stirred as much confusion in the academy as in the industry.
For one thing, many news organizations aren’t converged – or they simply shovel their print stories to the Web.
Moreover, news operations that practice convergence do so in different ways. In some organizations, a reporter may indeed be a one-man band, churning out a story for print, broadcast and online. But in other organizations, reporters work primarily in one medium and have only a limited role in other platforms.
Rich Gordon, who chairs the New Media Program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, recently toured much-touted converged newsrooms in Orlando, Tampa and Sarasota, Fla. “What I saw there was that jobs haven’t changed very much,” he said. “Print reporters are still focused on print. TV reporters are still focused on TV.
“Print reporters now have to go on air to answer questions about their stories, but that, to me, is hardly multimedia journalism.”
If the industry doesn’t agree on what new skills journalists need, it will be hard for journalism schools to know what to teach.
There’s even disagreement over what to call these skills. Journalism schools use a variety of names: new media, interactive, digital, multimedia, convergence, online.
The private Sage Colleges in New York call their program Information Design. “The idea for our graduates is to be first and foremost a storyteller, but one who can tell that story in virtually any medium, both existing and only imagined,” said Kevin Stoner, coordinator of Sage’s communications programs.
He said his students learn streaming video, Web production and cross-platform publishing – after they have learned writing, research and critical thinking.
Educators say the foundational skills for journalism today are the same as ever: to recognize news, gather information and write accurately and clearly.
“Fundamental skills will remain essential to journalism – reporting, interviewing, writing on deadline, ethics and values, grammar and basic editing skills,” said Nachison, director of The Media Center at the American Press Institute and editor of NewsFuture, a monthly e-mail newsletter.
Beyond that, educators often disagree over what specifics to teach.
HANDS-ON SKILLS VS. MULTIMEDIA THEORY
Many educators believe all journalism students need hands-on experience in shooting and editing video and in creating Web pages.
“All journalism students should learn how to build a simple Web page or site for their stories,” said Jane Stevens, who teaches multimedia journalism in the graduate program at the University of California at Berkeley. “In the real world, it’s not likely that they’ll be building Web pages, but they’ll need to know their limitations, and to put together a rough idea of how a page should look so that designers can put together a finished product.
“They should also learn how to do their own shooting and video editing. … They don’t have to be documentary-quality shooters and editors to include good video information in their storytelling mix.”
Larry Pryor, director of the Online Journalism Program at the University of Southern California, echoed that view.
“All journalists don’t have to be expert in all media. But they should be able to perform on at least two platforms and know how the others operate,” said Pryor, who also is executive editor of the Online Journalism Review.
But other educators believe that instead of hands-on skills, journalism students should learn simply to recognize a story’s cross-platform potential. Print students, for instance, should feel comfortable speaking in front of a camera, know when a story needs video and think about submitting a video assignment as they would a photo assignment.
Gordon says journalism schools don’t need to teach hands-on multimedia skills to all students.
“In introductory/core courses, the goal should be to teach an appreciation of different forms of journalism – not to try to develop technical proficiency in the tools of multiple media, or the art of storytelling using these tools, but instead, an understanding of what kinds of information/content different media require,” he said.
In other words, he says, lower-level courses should “force students to think about how they would report the story differently for different media” – the video images they would need for broadcast or the related links they would need for the Web.
Only in upper-level courses, Gordon says, should schools identify and train “the ‘cross-platform journalists’ of the future, the ones who are both interested and open-minded enough to want to experiment with stuff that isn’t really being done very frequently in the profession – yet. … These are the classes where the student work would be real ‘multimedia journalism.’ “
Other factors complicate the debate over whether to teach multimedia skills or just a multimedia mindset.
There is no uniformity over what the skills should include. Should students learn how to write hypertext markup language, the code for Web pages? Or should they learn merely how to use a Web page editor like Macromedia Dreamweaver, which automatically generates the code? What about database-driven Web sites? Or Web animation software such as Macromedia Flash?
On the theory side, some educators and professionals believe journalism schools should teach the economics that are driving convergence – including the need for marketing and cross-promotion of a news organization’s products. “This is increasingly important for online journalists and editors,” said Hugh Martin, an editor for several news Web sites in Australia and a journalism instructor there.
Above all, he said, journalism schools should teach “fearlessness in the face of new technologies. I don’t believe it’s practical or wise to teach a complete range of regularly updated applications, but students need to understand they will come into constant contact with new apps, and they need to be adaptable and adventurous in their approach to unfamiliar software.”
At Florida, McAdams believes that fearlessness comes from working with sophisticated software; her students must figure out how to use complex programs. They are “learning to learn” so they won’t be afraid of ever-changing technology, McAdams said.
Bill Kovarik, a professor at Radford University in Virginia, says educators should distinguish between journalists – the writers and content creators – and production people, who will carry out the journalists’ ideas. Radford has combined its print and broadcast journalism tracks, so that all students learn about both platforms and the Internet.
All journalists should be able to write a newspaper story, report for the Web and do a decent standup – tasks that don’t require high-level computer skills, Kovarik said.
In addition, he said, “Each journalist should be a modest expert in at least one production technology,” such as pagination, video editing or Web design.
‘FOCUS ON JOURNALISM’ AND TEAMWORK
Perhaps the most critical trait, Kovarik said, is teamwork; journalists need the ability to collaborate with people with more specialized skills. “Journalists need to learn how to work on teams with all kinds of production people – photographers, graphic artists, broadcaster producers, Web designers,” he said.
Mary McGuire, a journalism professor at Carleton University in Canada, agreed. She said students need a firm foundation in the basics of journalism, a familiarity with different platforms and a strong sense of teamwork.
“Students should be taught how to find, develop and present stories in print, radio, television and online – and understand how to adapt stories differently for each of the different media. But they should be assigned to work with technicians in radio, television and online so that they understand their role is to focus on the journalism first and foremost.”
For example, Carleton does not teach students software such as Flash. “Instead, we have a Web designer who works with the students. They are responsible for coming up with ideas about how to present their material in an interactive way and working with the designer – who does know Flash – to bring those ideas to life on the screen,” McGuire said. “Students working towards a journalism degree should focus on developing journalism skills – not Web design skills.”
They must learn the best ways to report and tell stories, not what buttons to click, says Eric Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois.
“Far more important than mastering some particular tool is mastering the concept of exploiting technology, present and future, to accomplish journalistic goals,” he said. “Today’s means are not ends in themselves.”
Journalism students must learn how to find and evaluate information and how to present it in the best ways – as text, photos, video, charts and searchable databases, Meyer said. Then they should apply this “news-gathering literacy” and “news-presentation literacy” through “hands-on experience in several very carefully chosen projects,” he said.
“If you have already instilled a proper background in the statistical, informational and visual literacy, teaching video editing and Web production is a snap” and can be done in just a few hours, Meyer said. If students know how to deconstruct a story into elemental facts and reconstruct them in nonlinear fashion, they can quickly pick up online presentation.
“Classrooms shouldn’t be places where individual pieces of technology are laboriously drilled into someone’s head. I don’t teach programs. I teach students how to learn programs on their own.”
‘TECHNO-WIDGETS’ OR JOURNALISTS?
If schools emphasize software over news literacy, their graduates “will be mere techno-widgets who function like trade school clerks, not real journalists,” Meyer said.
He criticized as “well-intended window-dressing” courses that have students do the same story for different platforms.
“Making everything vague and shallow – the classic ‘write a city hall story and shoot some video with it, too’ – teaches only how to do two things superficially and often puts more emphasis on the technologies than why they are used. It could be that the story most appropriately could be told as a still-picture photo essay, or a tabular fact box, or a Q-and-A.”
Deciding what to teach is only part of the battle. Educators also must address other issues:
• Accreditation – Accreditation rules limit the number of hours of journalism instruction that schools can require. Curriculum revision is a zero-sum game; if schools add courses in multimedia journalism, they may have to subtract courses in traditional reporting.
The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications is allowing schools to require more journalism courses, however. Also, some schools are “offloading” technology courses – having students learn computer skills before applying them in journalism classes.
• Faculty training – Most professors don’t have multimedia skills. To teach across platforms, schools will have to rely on team teaching and using adjunct faculty. For instance, Radford uses local professionals – a television news anchor and a producer – to teach or team-teach multimedia courses, Kovarik said. Moreover, professors must become learners.
“I acknowledged that I was more of a learner than an expert, that students had lots to contribute, and that my job was to help coordinate the learning experience rather than hand down the timeless wisdom,” Kovarik said.
• Equipment and facilities – To teach multimedia journalism, schools need still cameras, video cameras, audio recorders and a system for maintaining and checking out the equipment. They also will need computer labs with Web design software, video editing software and other programs.
If schools can overcome such obstacles, they can shape the next generation of journalists, such as Mark Young, an editor in Congressional Quarterly’s new media department. He received a master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University in August 2001.
Thanks to that training, Young knows how to report and write stories for the Web – and to augment them with video and audio. He said that knowledge is critical for journalists today: “If they know the additional capabilities the Web offers, they’ll be better equipped and more likely to take advantage of the Internet’s strengths.”
Jeff South is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va., and a member of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee. June Nicholson is an associate professor in the VCU School of Mass Communications and chair of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee.