J-Schools Must Change, Add ‘Specialization’ and Second Major

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By: Ron Martz

Over the next few weeks, hundreds of colleges and universities will send thousands ? if not tens of thousands ? of aspiring, but ill-prepared, young journalists out into a communications environment that already is over-populated and under-resourced.

As the number of traditional communications vehicles decline, and the need for large numbers of workers with journalism or mass communications degrees declines with it, it might be time for colleges and universities to re-think their approach to preparing students for the new news business.

In the four years since the current crop of journalism graduates began their degree pursuit, the business has changed so radically as to be almost unrecognizable. While some schools may have had the foresight to begin preparing their students for the challenges ahead by offering multi-media courses, the harsh truth is that the news business can no longer support the number of journalism/mass communications graduates being produced each year.

By continuing to offer journalism or mass communications majors in which students train almost exclusively in the particulars of news gathering and writing, colleges and universities are doing the students, and the news business, a disservice.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2005 and 2008 the newspaper business eliminated 20 percent of its work force. Thousands more jobs have been axed this year as newspapers, radio and television struggle to find their places in the new news universe.

Journalists have been taught in school to be generalists and the news industry to a great extent encouraged generalization over specialization. How many times in how many news organizations have reporters settled into a beat only to be told they are being moved to another beat because a ?fresh approach? is needed?

The new news business should encourage specialization among its reporters and editors rather than generalization. By extension, colleges and universities should do the same thing by making journalism or mass communications no more than a minor degree track or, at the very least, require a second major ? journalism and another discipline such as the law, business, psychology, military, criminal justice, or any number of other disciplines.

Specialization brings expertise that often has been missing in the news business. It has been my experience that those who bring outside expertise to the news business produce far more interesting and in-depth work.

My thoughts on this began to crystallize last year after I took a part-time job teaching writing for the media and serving as the adviser to the student newspaper at North Georgia College & State University, a school of about 5,500 students 65 miles north of Atlanta.

The school has no journalism program, no journalism facilities and no budget for a newspaper. Yet, I was asked to get students to produce a campus newspaper on a regular basis. During the previous school year only two editions of the student paper were produced ? both in print.
I had five students in the newspaper class the first semester. Four were English majors, the other was a sociology major. Not a single one had ever written a news story. But it was then that I began to discover the value of the outside expertise and experience that students brought to class.

One student in that first class frequently used graphics in her job outside school and she designed a masthead for us. Another student had magazine layout experience and helped us with page designs. Another had interest in marketing and she went to work looking for local advertising. Still another had experience and interest in fine arts and she wrote extensively on that subject.

It took us two months of planning and preparing but we finally published our first edition on Oct. 30 through a national Web site that publishes about 650 other college papers. We did it all at no cost to the university because of the national advertising on the site. We have been publishing online exclusively every week since then, except over winter break and now over the summer break.

This past semester, I had 12 students in the newspaper class. A number were English majors but brought other skills to the table. One worked as the sales manager for a construction company and reported and wrote with great expertise on school expansion and new construction.

Another was a history major who had written for a sports blog and brought that expertise to the staff. One student was a computer science major who was also studying Chinese. He worked on technical issues related to the paper. I also had a psychology major, a business administration major, and a studio art major, all of whom contributed significantly to the growth of the paper that first year because of the expertise in other disciplines they brought to journalism.

As society and business have gotten increasingly complex, journalism has failed to keep pace by failing to properly educate, or insist that reporters be properly educated, about the intricacies of what they cover. The basics of journalism ? interviewing and doing the who, what, when, where, why and how ? can be taught. And as my students and many others have demonstrated, it is something that can be learned by those willing to make the effort.

What traditional journalism students cannot learn is expertise in another field, unless they bring that with them or are required to learn it in school.

Until traditional news outlets become more demanding of their reporters in terms of what expertise other than journalism they bring to the job, and until major colleges and universities stop pumping out journalistic generalists by the thousands every year, the industry is going to continue its free-fall into irrelevance.

That?s why colleges and universities should re-think journalism and mass communications as a sole major course of study and insist that those with interest in the news business acquire expertise in another discipline as well.

Continuing on the current path is not helping the news business, or those who would be part of it.

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