Diane McFarlin walked to the front of a room filled with angry people. Furrowed brows. Arms crossed. Feet planted firmly.
“Let’s deal with the elephant in the room,” the dean said to the parents of students enrolled in the College of Journalism and Communication at the University of Florida. “You’re not happy your students are in journalism.”
The thought of spending tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for a degree that qualifies one to work in a dying industry—yes, one supposes this would mildly annoy any parent.
“The narrative you all hear is that newspapers are dying,” she told them. “But in many ways, this is the golden age of journalism. This is a good time to be a story teller.”
It would be easy to assume that the sad chorus of the decline of newspapers is accompanied by a declining orchestra in journalism schools, but that would be the wrong song. While journalism school enrollment is not exactly robust, the declines are slow and some schools are actually enrolling more students.
They key is developing a curriculum and career path that leads to a job, but not as a traditional rookie reporter in a newsroom. That’s a concept difficult for current newspaper journalists but not so hard for beginning students. McFarlin said, “A surprising number of students think they are going to work for a newspaper. But many more understand that they will practice the craft in a variety of ways.”
Indeed, to be a student in Florida’s school of communications and journalism, one needs to be fluent in digital languages. “They don’t all have to be coders, but they have to know what coders can do. The key is to know what is possible,” McFarlin said.
A look inside Florida’s Innovation News Center finds students preparing nightly newscasts, weekly newspapers, websites and blogs. They dip into the databases of companies that have nothing to do with journalism, and work partnerships with websites that are non-traditional. It all comes down to training for a single skill—accurate, interesting story telling.
“We emphasize storytelling and holding tighter than ever to the fundamentals of good journalism,” said McFarlin. “Our ethics curriculum is starting to evolve over social media, citizen-generated content. There is a great need for verification when you are dealing with that content.”
But what of the students? Many of the current aging crop of journalists came into college having breathlessly read “All the President’s Men” and looking to right the wrongs, afflict the comfortable and send scoundrels in government to jail.
“Maybe these students don’t have Woodward and Bernstein as heroes,” McFarlin said. “But they want to change the world just like we did.” Florida’s program in public interest communication teaches students not only how to identify problems, but report solutions as well.
What might be different about today’s students is the access to information is making them more determined and able to fully report a story. “We might have been taught to ‘Get the other side.’ These students are more geared toward getting the truth,” she said.
What you’re hearing is that there are students studying journalism. They are motivated and idealistic. And they are talented. But will they have jobs when they graduate?
Absolutely, say McFarlin and Randy Bennett, the school’s director of entrepreneurship and partnership. Traditional news outlets in broadcast and print continue to visit the campus and mine top students. Florida students still go to work at the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. But Bennett now talks to human resources and management executives in companies such as Mashable—digital news organizations that are hiring trained journalists. These companies offer internships where students learn video production, content curation and data diving.
Florida’s is a “teaching hospital.” “We have amazing venues for professional immersion,” said McFarlin. “When they leave it is plug and play. They have done it for several semesters under the tutelage of professionals. Nightly newscast. Newspaper covering 18 counties. Managing websites. Doing social media. A CNN producer told me that when they hire our graduates, there is no need for an orientation period.”
The Florida program, of course, is not the only journalism school breaking tradition and teaching to the new world. What’s encouraging about this mindset is that it adapts to the world. For too long, newspapers expected the world to adapt to us.
This is not your father’s journalism school, but he and Mom are paying for this one. And there looks like there might be jobs at the end of the tuition.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.