SPECIAL REPORT: J-School Confidential

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By: Joe Strupp

Since Claire Harlin became editor of The Daily Texan in June 2007, the University of Texas’ student newspaper has added a six-person multimedia team and two more bloggers ? and expanded its use of audio and video to at least one offering per day. “That’s how students get most of their news,” says Harlin, 24, a senior majoring in journalism and Latin American studies.

The Texan has also drawn readers into the process, says Harlin, whose staff in February solicited online video questions from students

for a Democratic presidential debate on campus, then packaged the video and shipped it to CNN. While the cable network didn’t air the questions, she says, “it was really cool getting people involved.”

But ask Harlin how much the university’s curriculum and faculty are helping online journalism, and the answer is: not much. “You can essentially go all the way through without ever having to learn Flash or shoot video,” she says. “The journalism school lets students choose which route they want to take.” Even as recently as two years ago, she adds, “multimedia was not a necessity.”

That view is shared by numerous students, professors, and newspaper editors, all of whom have a stake in the current state of college journalism.

E&P interviewed dozens of those hoping to pursue a career in news, those who are teaching them how, and those who are combing the ranks of graduates to fill journalism openings. The findings show that most incoming cub reporters are being trained in digital media on their own or through student news outlets, and not so much in class.

“Journalism schools are always [trailing] behind the industry, and today it is more so,” says Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star. “Most J-Schools have faculty who have no experience” with multimedia, he adds.

Contrary to what many may fear, there is still a great number of J-school students who hope to land a job at a newspaper, although they realize the format is forever changing ? and job security has been diminished.

“I still think newspapers have a really important role to play,” says Andrew Kroll, a junior at the University of Michigan and a staffer at The Michigan Daily. “I would love to start out at a mid-level newspaper.”

Neil Henry, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees. “Newspapers are still a passion of a significant number of our students,” he says of his program, which includes some 120 enrollees each year. But that percentage, he notes, is on the decline: “When I started teaching 15 years ago, 50% to 75% of students were desiring careers in newspapers. Now that is down to one-third, with one-third in multimedia and the rest in magazine, broadcasting, and documentary [work].”

He adds that “the pressures of teaching students to stay technologically current has ratcheted up a great deal.”

Newsroom leaders and college instructors, meanwhile, find that the budding newsies are more worried about the long-term viability of the profession than they were 10 or 20 years ago. “There is a lot of anxiety among students,” says Bruce Porter, a longtime professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. “They don’t see where they will be at mid-career.”

Some of the same journalistic elders say the basics of reporting and writing are still the most important tools, and admit that some campus correspondents often lose sight of that in their rush to get into the news game. “I have noticed what I see as a decline in their writing,” says Pam Maples, managing editor of the St. Louis Post- Dispatch, which still draws from Columbia, Medill, and the nearby University of Missouri. “I don’t know why.”

Others, such as Scott Sines, managing editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., theorize that because they have to learn so much technology, some students focus less on the writing and reporting basics: “They are eager to work, but they are not all with us in the traditional ‘five Ws’ part of what we require.” That shortcoming, he adds, “has never had the potential to do the damage it does now.”

Is the training sufficient?
In selecting college journalism students to interview, E&P tapped those who are newspaper-focused and among the UWIRE 100, a newly minted list of the country’s “most promising student journalists” as picked by UWIRE.com, a nine-year-old Web site devoted to promoting campus journalists and posting content from student news outlets. UWIRE.com sought nominations from online readers for its ranking, with its five-person editorial team sifting through some 350 students who were nominated for the honor before determining the winners in May.

“The kids who are working at college newspapers are digitally focused, but they really want to go to a newspaper,” says Ben French, UWIRE.com’s 32-year-old general manager. “The newspaper students realize that the Web is there, but still have the romanticized view of working for a newspaper.” But French, a 1998 Indiana University graduate, adds, “I don’t think kids fully recognize that it may be difficult to maintain a career in newspapers.”

It is also clear that the student publications vary in their digital capabilities for students hoping to join the professional ranks. Some have greatly improved their online offerings, while others remain somewhat primitive, with text and photos and little updating.

Others claim that students aren’t learning essential reporting skills at the university level. “I think they are still being trained very poorly,” says Chris Carroll, co-founder of the Center for Innovation in College Media and director of student media at Vanderbilt University. “For the most part, they are way behind. They are not getting it in the journalism programs ? there are so few places to get the training.”

Ryerson of the Indianapolis Star says today’s J-students “seem to have a good mindset for the future,” but it’s “another thing whether they all have the skills, such as writing for the Web ? or even such basics that we break news online, and follow up in great depth [in print] the next day.”

Sean Blanda, a senior at Temple University and a magazine journalism major, says he does not get great digital training in class but believes The Temple News has given him some good experience and better online options. “I haven’t been trained for the digital revolution in the classroom, because a lot of the people teaching it are just starting to grasp it,” he says. “I have been told I should learn Flash, but I have yet to have a tutorial on it.”

But Martha Steffens, a former top editor at Gannett and now an instructor at the University of Missouri Graduate School of Journalism, argues the digital components are improving. Her school began a convergence curriculum three years ago, and it now offers a bachelor of arts in journalism with an emphasis in convergence.

“We have been tweaking it over the years to match it up with journalism and the skill sets,” she says. “You have to be nimble, but you can’t forget the basics. There is always a lot of conversation about [students] knowing they have the basics.”

What jobs do they want?
Meanwhile, with the newspaper market in such flux and in financial trouble, even those students prepared for a career in the Web/print mix of newspapering are more worried about job security ? and even first-job opportunities. That makes it more difficult to steer some students into the newspaper ranks, and offers a mixed pool of applicants for the few newsrooms that are hiring.

“Students are interested in newspapers, they would love to have a strong future in journalism,” says Brad Hamm, dean of journalism at Indiana University and a 20-year instructor at the college. “But they know they need to be prepared for any form of journalism, and that will change as quickly as it has in the past 10 years. There is a difference in the profession today ? it isn’t as interested in hiring as it used to be.”

Despite the willingness of some of the UWIRE 100 students to pay their dues at traditionally smaller publications, Hamm contends most would rather go to work online somewhere right away or be a small fish in a big pond at a major or mid-sized metro: “People today are less likely to go to small towns. It is not their goal.”

Porter of the Columbia School of Journalism cites a similar anxiety about the future of traditional newspapers that keeps some students from going that route. “I don’t think in the past they gave that any thought,” says Porter, who runs the Columbia News Service. “Now, they fear the profession might fall out from under them.”

David Levine, a veteran top editor at several smaller papers and an instructor at Kean University in Union, N.J., adds, “There is an intense interest in broadcast ? many of them use journalism as an adjunct into it. Newspapers have lost their cach?, and we have not done enough to promote journalism and newspapers as we once did. In the old days, teachers and editors used to promote the hell out of it.”

Several editors noted such fears among job applicants, while others point to some of the same concerns about a lack of online training. Ryerson in Indianapolis argues that students reluctant to go into newspapering need to be shown that the digital revolution has reached the daily miracle: “The message we need to get out is that newspapers are doing all of those things.”

The Commercial Appeal’s Sines agrees that students arrive with a lot of multimedia skills, but don’t always put them to the best use in basic reporting. “They are being handcuffed by the college newspapers and the old regime of the academy ? those who teach have not been in the business for a while,” he says.

Kevin Kaufman, editor of The Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo., which recruits heavily from the nearby University of Colorado, says incoming grads are technologically trained but “they are not as prepared for video as we need.”

Frank Scandale, editor of The Record in Hackensack, N.J., has been an editor at various newspapers for nearly 20 years. He says new recruits are as hungry as ever, but says their writing “is not as tight as in the past.” More of them end up covering hard news in general, he adds, because they’re used to writing online in a brief, direct style.

Joe Grimm, recruitment and development editor for the Detroit Free Press and a top Gannett recruiter, says the gap between the best and worst of college grads is widening. “The top is higher than it used to be, but the bottom is much worse,” he explains. “We could use more people who are the whole package ? multimedia and greater reporting and writing.”

Colleen Eddy, director of the Poynter Institute Career Center, adds: “College does not prepare them for the real-life experience of communicating.” One consistent problem she sees is that students don’t ask enough probing questions.

For Ben Marrison, editor of The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, not enough j-school grads are willing to go the extra step of thorough reporting beyond doing an Internet search. “They are part of a Google generation where they type in a question and get the answer,” he says. “That is not enough. They are not asking enough questions, checking sources, getting multiple sources, and having that sense of wonder.”

Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal Editor Bruce Winges agrees, but says it is up to the newsrooms to make the recruits stretch their abilities: “They are given the skill sets, and as long as you emphasize reporting and command of the English language, you will be all right.”

Karin Winner, editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, also praises today’s graduates, saying they possess more advanced multimedia skills than most editors. But she says not all of them can also handle the demands of basic reporting. “Some people do not have the ability to juggle a lot at once,” she points out. “We are talking about different personal and different technological styles.”

But not all top editors are lamenting the under-trained, shrinking pool of graduate candidates. Leonard Downie Jr. of The Washington Post says the top graduate schools are still among his paper’s best candidate sources. “There are programs engaged in real aggressive preparation of people to work in journalism,” he says, citing Columbia, Northwestern’s Medill School, and Berkeley. The students, he notes, “seem to come from diverse educational backgrounds. All young people are more versed in electronic stuff because that is more how they live.”

David Ledford, executive editor of The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., has recently hired four college graduates from Kent State University, Penn State University, Northwestern, and the University of Missouri, a rarity for his newsroom. “In many ways, they are better than past graduates,” he says. “I like how multidimensional they are. They are not afraid of doing both print and Web tasks.”

Bill Marimow, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and former editor of The Sun in Baltimore, also praises the journalism students coming out today. “I am impressed mostly by their nimbleness,” he offers, “going from ink on paper to Web work with great speed and agility.” He also believes that students are as interested in newspapers as ever: “I am seeing a group of people who are more committed ? because they are seeking me out.”

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