You took the buyout or were laid off. Maybe you retired. In any case, you’re left thinking, “What do I do now?” If teaching college journalism is the answer, stop and ask yourself another question: “Do I have the multimedia skills to teach today’s students?”
Journalism programs across the country are redesigning their curriculums to meet the industry’s technological shift, and they want instructors — part-time and full-time — who can teach search-engine optimization (SEO), social networking, Web portal operation, backpack journalism and the like, along with the fundamentals. Tight budgets are constraining much of the hiring these days, so having multimedia skills on your resume is crucial if you want to stand out among job seekers. If all you have are the fundamentals, thank you, but there are definitely no openings for your skill set.
The people who run journalism programs say the 20- or 30-year practitioners they interview seem shocked that the kind of experience that comes from lengthy careers alone isn’t enough to get them through the classroom door. But today’s academy is demanding more than old-style teaching and war stories, said Dorothy Bland, director of the journalism division at Florida A&M University.
“It’s not like we’re teaching math where two plus two still equals four. The whole nature of journalism is that it should not be static,” Bland said.
What are the programs looking for? Dale Cressman, associate chairman of undergraduate studies at Brigham Young University’s Department of Communication, spoke for most: Desirable job candidates are those who are “nimble” in the new ways of reporting and distributing news. Journalists who are looking to get into academia should take up skills others don’t have. If you want to make yourself valuable, he said, “you’ve got to add to the valuable repertoire of skills you have.”
Program directors are quick to acknowledge respect for career journalists and the news judgment and ethical decision-making that comes with long experience. But they’re looking for more.
“I desperately need people who understand what SEO means and how to write headlines and leads that will incorporate those magic words that put our story at the top of the search-engine pile,” said Scoobie Ryan, associate director of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications.
These are the journalists programs are looking for but finding to be scarce, most likely because media outlets need them, too, and can pay them better than most colleges or universities. Whether in academia or the industry, one-trick ponies are not attractive. When ABC announced pending layoffs earlier this year, one staffer told The New York Times that more of the network’s journalists would be handling cameras, microphones, lights and interview questions at the same time, and that “single-function” journalists had the most to fear from the cuts.
“It’s a sad irony for people who are getting pushed out of jobs,” said Jim Foust, chairman and associate professor at Bowling Green University’s Department of Journalism and Public Relations. “The people who are needed in both places are the people who have those skills. They’re the last people to go.”
Every school wants multimedia experts on their faculty, but some recognize those with at least a willingness to learn. Lyn Millner, assistant professor of journalism at Florida Gulf Coast University, is hiring journalists skilled in using interactive tools for a program that’s about to go multimedia. She is giving second looks to those who have traditional broadcast or print backgrounds and who are independently upgrading their skills, even if their efforts are not supported by their media outlet. It’s a mistake, she said, to say, “I’ve been in this business for 20 years. I’ve got a lot to offer,” and leave it at that.
“A lot of it is not difficult to learn. It’s just being open to exploring it,” Millner said. “It’s not as intimidating as it sounds.”
It’s a similar situation at Buffalo State College, where an interest in multimedia and meaningful experience with it counts, said Communication Department Chairman Ronald Smith. An example is an adjunct professor who is a traditional print columnist who added a blog to his daily reporting. That kind of real-world use of multimedia brings experience into the classroom and builds credibility with students, Smith said.
If journalism programs are being particularly exacting in their hiring, it’s not being done to narrow teaching opportunities. They are under tremendous pressure to prepare students for an industry in a state of flux. To address this, many are overhauling their programs by flattening longstanding print and broadcast silos and requiring students to learn writing and audio and visual skills. It’s reasonable to expect the same of the instructors, but when they look around the faculty, they see gaps, frankly.
Some programs are looking to part-timers with multimedia skills to fill voids. Some are cross-training full-timers and sending them to skill-building workshops. As Ryan of the University of Kentucky put it: “It’s easier to teach someone who I know is dependable, gets fantastic teacher evaluations and is willing to learn than it is to go out searching for someone to take a chance on.”
Buffalo News reporter Mary Pasciak recently incorporated audio editing and is considering adding narrated slideshows — self-taught skills — into the print news-writing course she has taught at Buffalo State for six years. Students need to understand the potential for a story beyond a single platform, she said.
“I feel like students really should be getting more skills, because realistically, if all they can do is write a story, they’re just not getting a job,” Pasciak said. “The reality is, when editors look to hire reporters, they’re looking for somebody who can offer the full package.”
Bowling Green has hired Toledo Blade sports reporter Donald Emmons to teach an introductory reporting course for a semester. He’s bringing 23 years of print experience to the classroom, along with Web development skills he got while getting an MBA and the workaday familiarity with recording news conferences, writing updates and posting them online. He might have envisioned journalism’s trajectory, recalling that in the mid-1980s his college instructors predicted a 24/7 news cycle. Though they also envisioned widespread use of word processors, the clear message was that expertise with advancing technology would be an important part of job preparedness.
“None of us,” he said, “should be surprised.”
Annemarie Franczyk is an assistant professor in the Communication Department at Buffalo State College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org