By: Jean E. Herskowitz
Forget the power of the pen.
The cornerstone of a journalism education these days is in the power of the keystroke — or video recorder.
Writing, research, and editing may have been the bread and butter of J-school curriculums back in the day, but schools are now knocking themselves out to top one another with diverse offerings in computer technology, interactive media, and new business models.
J-school guerilla tactics include getting student work exposed, interactively, at a rate never before experienced — and transforming good, solid citizens whose only goal was to tell good stories into semi-geek techies who can wend their way around the World Wide Web with aplomb — a fusing of right brain and left brain. Some journalism schools are even joining forces with their universities’ computer science departments. Two primary goals of all these innovations: to keep journalists marketable in a world where traditional outlets are dwindling quickly, and to keep J-schools in the black.
New York University
In an industry that’s never been famous for having a surplus of job openings, undergrads in NYU’s journalism department are wisely required to be double majors. Like many of the new academic offerings, this requirement has been in existence for less than 10 years — fitting the time frame of the shrinking magazine and newspaper industry. “A minor will not get you to the most intensive courses of another discipline,” said Professor Brooke Kroeger, director of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Journalism requires the know-how to “mine the body of knowledge that exists within other disciplines,” she said.
Kroeger also directs the Global and Joint Program Studies, known as “Glo-jo.” She vets applicants from across the globe for a joint degree: one in journalism and one from a selection of eight “something-larger-than-myself” degrees, such as Near East Studies, Asian Studies, or Religious Studies. Instituted in 2007, Glo-jo had 100 applicants compete for the 15 available slots in the fall 2011 class.
And in a nod to the inevitable, the university plans to implement a Computational and Digital track for journalism undergrads — five courses in computer science and one in journalism — scheduled to begin in the coming year. “I’m pretty bullish about it,” Kroeger said.
NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen said the new dual-degree is an attempt to meet demand. “People from the news industry, especially in New York, call us, write us all the time asking if we can recommend people with programming skills to work in their newsroom. So this is a response to that and to the fact that journalism today requires more creativity with technology.”
Rosen directs Studio 20, a three-semester, project-based program for grad students. He said the program “emerged out of my frustration with the boot camp model of journalism school.” Inspired by the studio classes common in arts programs, Studio 20 has students working on projects with sophisticated media partners (The Economist, ProPublica) “to build things, invent things, push the practice forward while getting a solid grounding in the fundamentals of journalism,” Rosen said. Media celebrities also regularly address classes.
The Local East Village blog, which began last September, is one of the department’s cutting-edge projects incubated by Studio 20. The school partners with The New York Times, which provides them with space for and assistance with an interactive website covering New York City’s East Village (EastVillage.TheLocal.NYTimes.com). Student work is currently published on the site, and members of the community submit story ideas and tips, and soon will be able to submit whole articles for publication if their work passes muster with the students and the Times.
Rosen sees The Local East Village as an educational amalgam: “Teaching and doing; the news industry and the university; big city journalism — because it’s The New York Times — and neighborhood journalism — because it’s just about the East Village. It’s also new media because it’s Web-only and interactive and very influenced by blogging. So, to me, it’s an ideal learning experience and hopefully a kind of laboratory for The New York Times as well.” Rosen said the project represents where journalism education has to go. “Learning how to engage with community contributors while at the same time producing high-quality reporting yourself is a key skill that our graduates need, to prosper in the next era of journalism.”
As for the student head count in the journalism department, Kroeger said, “We’re not seeing any dip … Things are robust, and I believe that is true at other schools as well.” Rosen, a 25-year veteran, said: “Maybe 10, 15 years ago it started to go up, and it hasn’t really gone down.”
While it’s too early to provide hard job numbers for this year’s undergraduate class, Pamela Noel, director of the Journalism Institute’s career services, said they see signs of increased employment opportunities — full and part time — for recent graduates. Although some students step right into jobs, Noel said, “It still can take a few months or more for students to find jobs after graduation.” She added, “Good internship experiences remain important to finding employment.”
This summer, NYU will also offer a Hyperlocal Newsroom Summer Academy for high school and college students.
The City University of New York
CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism is a newbie in the academic field, having only been around since 2006, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. “It was a real blessing to be able to create a curriculum from scratch,” said associate dean Judith Watson. “It can be harder to add new courses to established programs.”
Watson has reason to be satisfied. The master’s program, which takes a year and a half to complete, started with 50 students. It welcomed 90 last fall. “Journalism isn’t going away. There’s a lot more interest in news today, because there are so many ways to get it. It’s still marketable, and we make sure our graduates have all the skills they need in the 21st century.”
The average age of the grad school’s students is 27, and students must maintain a 3.0 average to stay enrolled. One third of them come straight from college, one third are second-career people, and one third are those already in the journalism industry. Of the last group, Watson said, “They know what they want and are recommitting; it’s forced them to go back and reconsider how they operate as news people, and it always improves their skills.”
The curriculum offers a number of digitally oriented courses, including Interactive Journalism — a three-level course that more than two-thirds of the student body is currently enrolled in. Like NYU, CUNY has a hyperlocal website with The New York Times (FortGreene.TheLocal.NYTimes.com).
The school’s most popular concentration right now, Watson said, is International Reporting. As an aside, the Sports and Society class was dropped from the roster: not enough play. Watson doesn’t believe it was a lack of interest; only that students realized they have limited time and space in their academic schedules.
Summer internships are an innovative and invaluable requirement of the master’s program. Most students find an internship on their own, but for those who can’t, the school provides them with $3,000 to support themselves for the season while they work as unpaid journalism interns. The money is raised from private donors. Many students continue working for the same enterprise during their last semester, albeit on a part-time basis. One-third of the 2009 J-school students who landed jobs right after graduation (and 16 percent of the entire 2009 class) obtained those jobs from the internship, Watson said.
Watson said the school’s job placement may have dropped off a little this year but is still “ahead of the curve” and close to other schools. In the past two years, the percentage of CUNY grads employed in journalism after six months was 79 percent for the class of 2008 and 78 percent for the class of 2009, not counting those who went to full-time freelancing. A majority of the graduates who find part-time journalism jobs actually work two or three journalism gigs that add up to more than 40 hours a week, according to Watson, who added that the part-time positions often turn full-time. “We anticipate that more journalists will end up as independent operators,” she said.
To this end, the school instituted the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism — a certificate program — less than a year ago. It is funded by a $10 million grant from The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and supplemented by additional foundation grants and in-kind J-school staff and technology contributions. By the end of the five-course program, each student, including many mid-career journalists, develops a viable news enterprise. They master the steps of getting an enterprise started, finding funders, selling the enterprise if they wish — “soup to nuts,” Watson said.
University of Missouri, Columbia
Like many other J-schools, the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia publishes its own newspaper. However, that paper, the Columbia Missourian, also doubles as the morning paper in the two-newspaper town of Columbia. As such, it gives students more than just a writing and publishing education — it entrenches them in real-world issues, such as financing. And newspaper wars.
Although the region’s daily afternoon paper, the Columbia Daily Tribune, has a much higher circulation, Jake Sherlock, assistant professor and print editor for the Columbia Missourian, points out that the Tribune has to compete with an enterprise that is supported by the university: The Missourian has an (unpaid) student staff and is overseen by professionals, like the professor, whose salaries are covered by the school. In addition, Sherlock said, “If you’re the Tribune, your chief complaint is probably the fact that we do suck up some advertising dollars that I’m sure they would love to have.”
Today, the almost 103-year-old J-school newspaper can also be read on ColumbiaMissourian.com, and the publication progresses constantly. It now includes an entertainment magazine (VoxMagazine.com) and MyMissourian.com, a website that lets readers write their own stories, many of which are published in the print edition of the paper.
“The Transition” is an experimental, intensive program at the journalism school, created to meld students into a digital mindset. The program emphasizes the differences between creating print media and creating digital media. One of its more unique concepts is to maintain a pronounced physical separation of the Missourian’s newsprint department from its online department, while keeping them in the same room. The psychology seems to be working: ColumbiaMissourian.com has seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in hits since The Transition began.
In The Transition, copyeditors often share the work of Web producers. Sherlock, a former editor, believes the role of copyeditor must change to meet today’s needs. “In the old days the copyeditor was the quality control person to make sure grammar was accurate, facts were correct — basically to make sure you’re not doing anything to embarrass yourself,” he said. “Now that journalism is so much more than text on a piece of newsprint, we find that there’s not as much demand for traditional copyediting. We want to make our students critical thinkers. We want them to be able to converse with readers, to share content online, to use social media, and to find additional sources for stories; to basically engage readers in a way that they want to engage in with all the new technologies that have come out in the last 20 to 25 years.”
Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism is also jumping on the techie bandwagon, offering a dual-degree in journalism and computer science this fall.
According to the J-school, one of the benefits of the dual-degree is that it will help students become “data-mining experts for journalistic applications.” Although this may be a belabored way of saying they’ll be really good at Internet research, there is no overstating this skill for media jobs. Most of what is on the Web today cannot be found through commercial search engines; only through specific online sources. The ability to obtain that information is key to investigative journalism.
Julia Hirschberg, professor of computer science at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, explained the need for the dual-degree to Wired.com: “The IT department at a news organization comes up with software programs that the journalists don’t use. The journalists ask for software that is computationally unrealistic. We aim to produce a new generation of journalists who will understand both fields.” The school’s website says the new program will provide a hands-on approach for information design and how to build a site, section, or application from concept to development.
The new dual-degree will join the school’s existing journalism dual-degree programs, which include business, international and public affairs, law, and religion. The J-school is also enjoying an increase in students. In 2008, the number of applications jumped 40 percent, according to Elizabeth Fishman, associate dean for communications.
Is good editing taking a back seat to the need for speed? “I think it’s fair to say that the time you have with your editor may be diminished in the workplace these days,” Fishman said. “There has been a falling off of mentoring in the field, because things are on such a tight turnaround. That may well be the reason we’ve had an increase in applicants to the journalism school. Students know they’ll get intense one-on-one editing with their professors.”
The new media and tech offerings in Columbia’s curriculum seem to be reaping benefits. According to the journalism school’s career services website, the number of students on graduation day going into “internships, fellowships, full-time jobs, or other part-time employment such as freelancing, or continuing in academics” was 69 percent in 2010 — but that is a bounce from previous years. The statistics for 2009 were 64 percent; for 2008: 63 percent; for 2007: approximately 60 percent. In 2006 the number was “about 52 percent.”
Since Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism is one of the top J-schools in the country, it stands to reason that if it was seeing only a 69 percent job rate (including students who were working for free and those not even job-searching because they were continuing their education) in 2010, this fairly low number is a trend in J-schools — thus the rush to revise and improve curriculums. It appears that the field of journalism is attracting, as it always has, a group that is not necessarily in it for the bucks, but who has a desire for the art, for the power of the story, whether it be news, entertainment, or academia.
“I don’t know that it’s ever been easy to get a job in journalism,” said Professor Kroeger, director of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. “This is something people really want to do.”
Giving Employers What They Want
So, with all the adaptations J-schools are making, are their newly hatched journalists prêt á travailler? Stuart Marques, senior managing editor of the New York Daily News, has observed that many newer journalists are much more tech and Web savvy than previous generations. On the other hand, he said that many of them are “comfortable with various platforms and shooting their own video, but I find some often lack basic reporting and digging skills that come from covering a variety of things, ranging from politics, to cops and courts.”
Asked if he thinks the definition of a journalist has changed in the past 15 years, he emailed, “The definition hasn’t changed, the skill sets have. A journalist is someone who reports thoroughly and objectively, who is by nature curious and skeptical, is versatile, and who can write clean copy that is clear, concise, and precise.”