Critical Thinking: Are J-Schools Properly Preparing Journalists for Today’s Newsroom?

By: Nu Yang

Critical Thinking: Are J-Schools Properly Preparing Journalists for Today's Newsroom?

As the demands of the professional journalist shifts into multimedia storytelling, data analytics and Web coding, are journalism schools properly educating and preparing young journalists for today’s newsroom?

Christine Rushton, 21, senior, Washington State University (Pullman, Wash.)
Rushton is working on a double degree in communication with a journalism emphasis and flute performance. She is a member of The Daily Evergreen, Washington State University’s student-run publication, where she is now designing a new Web and social media manager position. She previously held positions as the editor-in-chief, managing editor, copy editor and a reporter.

‘Learning on the fly,’ captures the motto of journalism. Animating the stories of cultures and people, journalists live to tackle the unfamiliar. In a moment’s notice, the world’s storytellers must have the ability to document their surroundings. But like any surviving chameleon knows, the colors of the environment change. I entered my print journalism program in the fall of 2010 styling one color. In May, I will walk out with a palette of skills I can use in the digital media industry, and people will ask where I learned how to tackle print, digital and Web reporting. The answer? From the mentors who pushed me beyond the classroom.

The print, photography, video and online media that fill the media world in modern society evolve at a rate rivaling mach speeds. Journalists receive classroom training on how to dig beneath the façade of their subject, but mastering those skills comes from jumping on opportunities universities should make readily available.

In the last decade, journalists have tacked on resumé skills in photography, video, online design and Web coding. Most of these line items start in the classroom, but develop in the field.

I learned to report working at a Seattle newspaper. I learned how to shoot photos and video on the ground with a professor in Cuba. I learned basic HTML, Web design and social media management from an internship at in Boston.

And where did I pump vibrancy into those colorful skills? At The Daily Evergreen, my college student newspaper.

Journalism programs range in quality when considering the availability of technology and experienced knowledge of faculty. However, the rate of funding in the bureaucracy of higher education cannot match the rate of change in the professional industry.

University programs that throw high percentages of money into curriculum do their students a disservice. I believe those that excel in preparing students invest in networking, study-abroad programs and professional work experiences.

My professors and student newspaper advisor taught me a lesson not available on a syllabus: Always jump on opportunities, even if it requires learning on the fly.

Rex Smith, 61, editor, Albany (N.Y.) Times Union
Smith has been editor of the Times Union since 2002. He was previously editor of community newspapers in Indiana and upstate New York, and spent more than a decade at Newsday as a reporter and national correspondent.

Some editors look for technical skills when they’re hiring young journalists. And it’s great if a job candidate has a full package of abilities. But you have to be careful what you wish for. I wouldn’t trade the kind of thinking I look for in a reporter for all the technical training a journalism program might offer.

I buy the idea advanced long ago by my mentor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, Mel Mencher, that a reporter ought to be the smartest person in the room. We may not always meet that standard, but the first attribute of a journalist must be intelligence. The second should be energy: a determination to go the extra mile to find the full dimension of a story—the nuances, that is, that often separate ethical journalism from superficial storytelling. The third attribute must be curiosity, which translates into a thirst to find on any beat the story behind what you see or hear or are told.

Turning out young journalists who exhibit those three attributes is the fundamental task of journalism education. Only when professors and deans are convinced that their institutions can do that should they focus on the more advanced skills that modern journalism increasingly needs: multimedia storytelling, data analysis and visualization, and even Web coding. We’re delighted when young journalists bring those abilities into the newsroom. But technology moves so quickly that today’s training could leave students equipped to use what soon will be yesterday’s tools.

A few of the best journalism programs do it all nowadays. But too many instill neither technological capacity nor the fundamental underpinnings of ethical practice. And the most important task for a j-school—or, for that matter, whatever path a young person follows into a newsroom—is to teach smart students how to think like a journalist.

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