As today’s journalists struggle to keep up with changing technologies, news production cycles and business pressures, many within the industry are looking to hire young journalists who will help them keep pace with change.
At the same time, journalism schools are struggling to keep curricula current without abandoning the basics of good journalistic practice.
For the past three years, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., have surveyed journalism educators and journalism practitioners about the skills needed to prepare students for jobs in today’s newsrooms.
Participants were asked the following each year: “We would like your opinion regarding some of the skills, training and course offerings that you might regard as essential to be included as part of the education of students entering journalism for the first time. Below are listed a number of skills that are often carried out by practicing journalists. For each item, please indicate how important or unimportant you feel it is that journalism schools offer courses and training to undergraduate students, pertaining to these skills.”
Consistently, both practitioners and educators have ranked four of the 15 skills listed as the most important every year: basic journalistic writing, reporting, ethics and interviewing.
No surprise there, right? The more troubling news for educators is how far off the mark practitioners think schools are when it comes to teaching students the skills evaluated by the survey. In addition to the skills-ranking question, the two groups were asked the following: “For each of the skills listed below, please indicate how effective or ineffective journalism schools are at training undergraduate students in these areas.” In all three years of the survey, 2004-06, educators have given themselves what amounts to a grade of B on each of those four skills. In contrast, practitioners say educators deserve about a C.
Factors contributing to the disconnect
Caesar Andrews, executive editor of the Detroit Free Press and former editor of Gannett News Service, says some of that disconnect is natural and has always existed. But he is encouraged by what he sees as “more discussion than perhaps ever before” between educators and the industry about how to best prepare young journalists to work in the profession.
He said more educators need to show up in newsrooms to get a visceral feel for what is happening … and more journalists need to visit classrooms to gain insight into journalism education and its challenges.
Andrews said he wonders, however, whether the real issues go beyond the traditional debate of whether students know the fundamentals such as critical thinking, writing, reporting and ethics.
He said future journalists need an outlook and mindset that fits the reality of what newsrooms are up against. If the discussion goes no further than the traditional debate, the real issues will remain unsolved, he said.
He said the industry needs journalists who are nimble-minded and understand the demographic change in the United States and lifestyle shifts. As more focus shifts to the Web, he said, he is not sure editors have been clear enough about what they need regarding graduates who are conversant with changing forms of journalism, including online.
“The industry needs (journalism) graduates who can help us rethink what our role must be to survive,” Andrews said.
Graduates are needed who can absorb the traditional, maintain and extend that, and help find new territory, new ways of telling stories. The challenge is to develop and identify great talent, and steer and encourage and direct people toward possibilities, he said.
Andrews and others interviewed said journalism programs are in many ways positioned to help the industry and in some cases may be ahead of the industry in developing solutions to industry issues. Chris Peck, editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., said, “In many ways, the contract between journalism and society is being re-written. … This needs to be understood in newsrooms and in classrooms.”
He said a number of schools that have the resources to go beyond the basics are grappling with the challenges. The thinking is more advanced in some journalism schools than in the industry, Peck said.
“Working journalists who are very steeped in traditional habits need help from journalism education in getting their arms around these issues,” he said.
A number of journalists and managers also stressed the importance of improving the basic skills of journalism graduates as part of ensuring that news organizations will be able to thrive in the 21st-century media frontier.
In an e-mail interview, Michael Schwartz, manager of editorial training for COXnet and Cox Newspapers, suggests that educators need to do a better job of helping students pick up the pace of their reporting and interviewing.
“In the online world, and particularly in the ever-important area of breaking news, speed must be emphasized in interviewing, reporting and writing. For the first time in decades, newspapers — through their Web sites — can be in the driver’s seat when it comes to breaking news. This is particularly true during daytime work hours when workers can access newspaper Web sites more easily than television or radio. So incoming journalists must be able to work with greater speed than ever before,” Schwartz said.
This need for speed means solid training in ethical decision making is more important than ever before, Schwartz said.
“At the same time, they (students) also must know that accuracy cannot be the victim of speed, and this goes to the issue of ethics. It must be emphasized that some shortcuts are unacceptable, whether it’s using information pulled from unreliable Web sources or lifting information from other sources without the appropriate attribution.”
Steve Klein, a longtime online and print journalist who now teaches in the electronic journalism program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., says that part of the problem may lie in the perspectives brought to the classroom by educators.
“I think it’s a matter of coming from two different points of view, the different point of view between academicians and people who’ve been in the field. Some academicians don’t seem to understand what they (newsrooms) need because they lack real world experience,” Klein said.
On the other hand, Ginger Carter Miller, a professor of mass communication at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Ga., says the lack of perspective cuts both ways.
“I do not think they (many practicing journalists) know what we do in our classrooms.”
More two-way communication is needed between journalism programs and the industry, she said.
“Smart educators are the ones who are visiting newsrooms and talking to top producers and reporters and editors to find out how to make students competitive.”
The Educator-Broadcaster Divide
Interestingly, in all three years of the VCU study, broadcast journalists have found the schools least effective overall — ranking them lowest among all practitioner groups. Though broadcasters are closely aligned with educators on the importance of basic journalistic writing, reporting and interviewing, they perceive the biggest disconnect in the schools’ effectiveness.
Nancy McKenzie Dupont is starting a new job this fall at the University of Mississippi. She worked in television newsrooms for nearly two decades before going back to school to get her Ph.D. several years ago. She thinks educators may be grading themselves higher than practitioners because they’re working so hard.
“We see that we’re devoting every hour of every day to instilling those skills in students,” she said.
But, Dupont also thinks practitioners may not realize how little time educators actually have with the students.
“In a typical program you may have 3 to 4 classes specifically devoted to teaching broadcast journalism,” Dupont said.
Stephen Adams agrees. Adams is longtime broadcast news professional who now teaches at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He says the size of the school and the journalism program can be a factor.
“I’m at a small college. We teach one broadcast news class; we don’t have a whole course in reporting or ethics like larger universities do. That means for interviewing skills — I can only devote a small amount of time to teaching interviewing skills, and then I send them out to interview. We teach them writing skills, but students may have to do 100 stories before they can even think about getting good, so it really depends how much time a program gives students to practice their craft.”
Mary Rogus is another broadcast journalism veteran, now teaching at Ohio University, which has one of the larger broadcast journalism programs in the country. She points out that educators are sometimes caught in the middle of two competing forces.
“I think we have to be very careful as educators not to get too caught up in the technology. When you have a TV reporting class, you’re usually also teaching them to shoot and edit. It’s very easy to get too caught up with learning the technology, and that’s what the kids get caught up in, too. They’re not focusing as much on the actual reporting skills.”
Rogus and Dupont note that news directors get caught up in the technology, too – expecting “camera ready” journalists.
“With all due respect for practitioners, there’s not the time to spend in training anybody on the job that there used to be. There used to be a little period of time when someone was learning at work. With the pressure of ratings and budgetary constraints now, it’s my impression that you have to hire someone who can hit the ground on the first day,” said Dupont.
However, many small-to-medium market news directors say they do recognize the need to do some on-the-job training for broadcast journalists who are fresh out of school. Christine Tanaka is a first-time news director at KIMT-TV in Mason City, Iowa. She says what she can’t do is take the time to teach new journalists “how to think.” She says she’d rather give up “camera ready” in favor of “journalism ready.”
At her station, Tanaka gives potential job applicants a current affairs test that also includes a series of questions that force students to reveal their ethical decision-making abilities. She developed the test in response to some disappointing hires.
“For example, they were going out in the field and staging news; they didn’t have a clear understanding of what staging is or even sourcing. Those students may be being exposed to that, but it’s not really registering.”
Kay Miller, the news director at WWSB-TV in Sarasota, Fla., shares Carr’s frustration, but she thinks the problem may start as early as middle school and high school media programs where they choose “the prettiest people and put them on camera to read school lunch menus.” Miller said.
“I would think by now that most teachers and educators would not be teaching that message and instead teaching that there are so many other opportunities — producers, graphics people, special projects areas, Web sites. I don’t think there is enough emphasis placed on the actual journalism product.”
Miller of WWSB-TV feels very strongly that the profession could work more effectively with the academy when it comes to educating future broadcast journalists. One suggestion is that the industry as a whole, perhaps under the leadership of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, begins to standardize the internship experience for students.
“I have developed an internship curriculum with a strict schedule and a project for the student due at the end of every week. We only take one to two interns at a time who want to be on air, and they get no chance to go out with the reporters until the very end. Before that they’re doing a rotation. We’re mandating that they learn about different areas of the newsroom,” Miller said.
Miller also makes time for her staff and herself to talk to any student groups that ask, but she also said that no college journalism program has ever seemed interested.
“I have never been invited to speak at a college, and I would pay my own way,” said Miller with a laugh.
There have been several initiatives over the years to help bridge the gap between journalism education and the profession. Ginger Miller of Georgia College and State University worked as a reporter for six weeks in the summer of 2004 for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune as part of an ASNE fellowship program for journalism educators. She said the experience was invigorating and that she brought back a wealth of ideas and examples and perspectives that she could use in the classroom.
On the broadcast side, the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation Educator in the Newsroom Fellowship program places educators in TV or radio newsrooms for a month to give them a sense of what today’s practitioners are up against. Many of the educators go on to revise classroom materials to meet what they perceive are the needs of a changing broadcast news environment.
Individual schools have designed their own programs to help their curricula stay current. At Ohio University, the Broadcaster in Residence program brings in one or two broadcast professionals on campus each quarter. Whether it’s a reporter, producer, anchor, sports or weathercaster, they come to spend three to five days on campus.
They speak in all the broadcast classes and work one on one with the students in producing the school’s noon newscast. They go to lunch or dinner with students and faculty members for more informal mentoring as well.
Rogus said, “It’s great for the kids. They feel like they get to know these experts and can use them as sounding boards. Every professional has loved the experience, too. They say it’s a great opportunity to reflect on what they do every day, and they usually come away with a new sense of journalism education saying, ‘Wow! It’s a whole lot better than we thought.’ ”
Dupont also says journalism practitioners need to contribute something to the education process as well.
“I think every time a news director comes into one of our classes, he is working to bridge that gap. The more contact they’ll have with us and will let us have — by opening up their newsrooms and letting us work with them — those kinds of things do create understandings and allow us to have career-ready students coming out of college.”
Debora H. Wenger is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va., and chairwoman of SPJ’s Professional Development Committee. June O. Nicholson is an associate professor in the VCU School of Mass Communications and chairwoman of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee.