This feature celebrates one of SPJ’s four guiding principals: We are producers of journalism’s future.
These days, Robert Walz approaches his teaching in much the same way he did as a TV news anchor: with short bursts of information delivered in an engaging way. But instead of trying to hold the attention of people falling asleep to the 11 p.m. news, he’s trying to hold the attention of students who spend hours each day in Zoom.
“I try to keep it short and interesting. It’s like watching a 30-minute TV show where they can make comments if they want,” Walz said.
As college campuses shut their doors in mid- March, instructors such as Walz were left scrambling to figure out how to teach reporting, writing, editing, multimedia and other courses entirely from a distance.
How do you replicate the time spent walking around the classroom, looking over students’ shoulders as they write or edit a video? How do you keep the student newspaper going when students can’t get to the newsroom? How do you handle things like international reporting and engaged journalism?
No one has all the answers to those questions, but journalism instructors across the United States developed workarounds to make the most of COVID era education for their students. Along the way, they’ve discovered opportunities to rethink their own practices and make changes that better prepare students for life as a journalist in 2021 and beyond.
NEWS, MINUS THE NEWSROOM
Walz, an associate teaching professor at Brigham Young University, described his first few weeks of remote teaching last spring as “kind of a train wreck” as both he and the students adjusted to producing a newscast remotely. As things settled down, he realized that the pandemic-era might not be all bad.
“We haven’t embraced technology in TV news because we didn’t have to. Before the pandemic, we were still doing it the same way we did when I started 30 years ago,” Walz said. “I shifted my mindset and made my reporting class fully remote so students can do all of their writing research, B-roll, narration, editing, without ever having to come to campus.”
Walz said this mirrored the changes he saw happening in the industry as anchors set up studios in their homes and reporters shot footage on their phones. Like many professional news anchors, he turned his basement into a makeshift studio, complete with lights and microphones.
Nicole Clarity, assistant professor of journalism, media studies and public relations at Hofstra University, freelanced remotely for ABC News while teaching online during the pandemic and saw the parallel changes in the industry and in the classroom in real-time.
“We’ve been doing Skype interviews from the newsroom for a while, but it had to be ramped up, so now it’s that way for all the guests,” Clarity said. “It’s frustrating to do things a different way, but this is the same thing that’s going on in the industry.”
Once it became clear that remote learning would continue into the fall semester, Clarity ordered boom microphone poles that have become prevalent in socially distanced interviews and encouraged her students to buy ring lights for their phones to use for stand-ups.
Stefanie Frith, an associate professor of journalism and student media adviser at El Camino College, said the pandemic allowed her students to embrace their entrepreneurial skills and create a newsletter on Substack to offset the lack of a print newspaper, and they are considering starting a podcast — both of which can be done entirely from a distance.
The pandemic also brought an increase in traffic to The Union, the college’s news website. Frith said her students were the first to cover the college’s response to COVID-19.
“We increased the amount of stories and our commitment to covering the campus community,” Frith said. “Our editor always says, ‘It’s not about the clicks, it’s about the community,’ and he’s taken it as his motto for the semester.”
BALANCING SAFETY AND ACADEMIC INTEGRITY
While some elements of reporting were able to continue virtually uninterrupted, instructors did make some modifications to assignment requirements, particularly in the pandemic’s early days when shelter-in-place orders were in effect across the country.
“I quickly realized I would have to be more lenient for safety purposes and reimagine assignments to allow people to interview family or friends,” Clarity said.
Andrew DeVigal, professor of practice and chair in journalism and civic engagement at the University of Oregon, teaches a course on engaged journalism that typically involves meeting face-to-face with communities to understand their news and information needs.
He knew pretty quickly that he would not be able to replicate that experience virtually, so he instead had students do their own independent research on communities and used case studies from already-established engaged reporting projects.
“I had them visualize the intentions of a community that they wanted to work with,” DeVigal said. “The quality of the engagement suffered, but the general framework around engagement still came through and the students have a toolkit they can use later.”
DeVigal said workarounds like this are fine in the short-term, but he worries about what happens as remote learning stretches on and students never have a chance to be fully immersed in the field in the way that engaged journalism requires.
Susan Valot, who teaches audio production at Saddleback College, said pandemic- adjusted audio gathering was good preparation for her students to work with unexpected challenges in the field.
“A lot of what I’ve done relates to my world of public radio reporting where you just kind of duct tape everything together and learn how to deal with things like equipment breaking in the field,” Valot said. “The pandemic is a good reminder that we’re all in the same boat…it doesn’t matter whether you’re a student or a professional journalist.”
Valot showed her students how to set up home recording spaces in a closet or even under a comforter on a bed, using her own home studio as a model. Students had to upload a video of their set-up as one of the class’s first assignments.
She also demonstrated how to turn a monopod into a boom pole for in-person interviews and how to work with interviewees to get high-quality audio from Zoom or Skype interviews — all things that she was doing in her own work as a freelance radio reporter.
THE BEST-LAID PLANS…
The pandemic also peeled back the curtain on teaching and showed that instructors sometimes struggle to be ready for class just as much as students do.
“I was barely one step ahead of the class at one point,” Nicole Clarity said. “I’m changing things until the last minute to make sure the assignments cover the same skill sets but in a different way.”
Across the board, faculty say no digital solution can compare to in-person classroom interactions. It also presented logistical challenges when it came to providing feedback on assignments.
A comment that would have taken a minute or two to make in class or in a lab took five or 10 minutes to type out in an email or through a learning management system. This added pressure to what was already a busy semester, trying to figure out how to prepare for lectures in a whole new way.
Walz estimated that he spent at least an hour per day reviewing student assignments, much more time than he did when teaching in person. But, not having meetings and other obligations means he has the time to do it.
“Every night of the week, I get five or so stories and spend some time reviewing them,” Walz said. “The extra attention and feedback has improved their writing even more than it would have if we were meeting in person.”
Valot eventually moved to offering feedback via video, which she found preferable to writing comments, but it still required a lot more effort than giving feedback in real-time. She estimates that grading now takes 30 minutes per piece, compared to 10 minutes pre-pandemic — all while not being able to guarantee that students are taking the feedback seriously.
“If they watch the video, I can show with my cursor where they should make changes in their audio,” Valot said. “The ones who want to learn will get a lot out of it, but the ones who just want the grade won’t take it seriously. At least in class, I can see if they are doing something that they’re not supposed to be doing.”
By the time the fall semester began, many colleges were welcoming students back to campus and offering hybrid courses, with some students in the classroom and others tuning in online. This arrangement presented its own set of challenges for instructors like Gerri Berendzen who teaches in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.
Berendzen was used to teaching online and said the hybrid course created more work as she tried to get everyone in the class what they needed. She used pre-recorded videos where possible and brought the entire class together in Zoom when she needed to make sure a message came across clearly.
“I always felt like I had to split my focus between students on Zoom and students who were in class,” Berendzen said. “But, I really felt like the students who were coming to class needed it. Even if it was just two people, they were there because they needed to be doing more than just sitting in their dorms.”
MISSING — AND MAKING — CONNECTIONS
In some cases, not having to travel to campus opened up doors that might not have existed otherwise. Adriana Lacy, an instructor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, taught two classes in the fall for the first time because she didn’t have to spend time commuting to campus from downtown Los Angeles.
Lacy used Slack to communicate with her students and scheduled office hours through Calendly. These tools helped create connections in a way that worked for everyone’s schedules.
“I had students in India and South Korea, so I had to be flexible with everything,” Lacy said. “You never know what students are facing, whether it’s a family member getting COVID or feeling lonely and isolated away from campus.”
Frith also used Slack to communicate with the newspaper’s staff and quickly found the lines between work and home life becoming nonexistent as everyone adjusted to working on their own schedules.
“There’s never a break because they’re working at all times of the day and I’m trying to be available to them,” Frith said. “They know they can reach me within seconds; it’s almost like I can look over their shoulder as they’re working.”
Mark Beckford, assistant professor in the Cathy Hughes School of Communications at Howard University, said he appreciated the flexibility of holding office hours outside of the normal 8 a.m.–5 p.m. window as his own schedule changed while working from home. He sees opportunities for that flexibility to continue as life slowly gets back to normal.
“It helps that you can still have class if you have to travel to a conference or for a reporting assignment,” Beckford said.
Instructors took advantage of the fact that many professional journalists were working from home to invite colleagues into their Zoom classrooms as guest speakers. Doing this helped break up the monotony of remote instruction and gave students the opportunity to hear about changes in the industry as they happened.
Beckford was scheduled to lead an international reporting trip to Ghana in mid- March. The trip was quickly canceled as the pandemic spread and Beckford used Zoom to bring in the guest speakers students would have met with on the ground.
Clarity did something similar for the group of Hofstra students she planned to take to Italy last spring. She required the class to reach out to people living in Italy and conduct interviews over Zoom or Skype.
“They had the ability to drop the course or work out other options and only one or two students ended up dropping out,” Clarity said. “I was skeptical, but we did what we could to bring people into class and let them learn a little about the culture.”
Another side effect of not seeing students in person? Not recognizing them outside of class in the way that you might bump into someone on the campus quad or in a coffee shop. Walz recalls standing in line at a Wendy’s for lunch after teaching one day and hearing someone in line say, “I think you’re my journalism teacher.”
“I don’t get to talk to students about their families or what else is going on in their lives,” Walz said. “There’s no interaction beyond the task at hand.”
Given how easy it is to get caught up in those tasks at hand, Beckford said he spends much more time talking about work-life — or in this case, school-life — balance than he did before the pandemic. He hopes that some of those lessons will stick with students when in-person classes resume.
“The pandemic has put a strain on all of us emotionally and physically,” Beckford said. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and I’m always reminding my students to go outside, drink water and take some time for themselves.”
Jenna Spinelle is a writer, podcaster, and journalism instructor based in State College, Pennsylvania. She hosts and produces the Democracy Works podcast, teaches at Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and writes for local and national outlets. Find her on Twitter @JennaSpinelle or at jennaspinelle.com.