A College Degree In ... Online Journalism

By: Steve Outing

Here's an indicator that times are changing in the media business. At Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Penn., starting next year, students can opt for a degree in "online journalism." The school's journalism division starting fall semester 1996 will offer a B.A. in online reporting and editing, and an M.A. in online journalism. I believe this is the first school to put "online" in a journalism degree title.

The school had been teaching interactive media classes already, but the time has come to make it a formal program, according to the department's chairman, Clark Edwards, Ph.D. The program has not yet been formally announced and the brochures aren't printed up, but student demand is high; Five to six people per day are requesting information. Edwards initially intended to let about 20 people into the undergraduate program and a handful of graduate students, but probably will increase the size of the first online degree class to 40 undergrads and 10-12 grad students.

Duquette's journalism division, with a faculty of 10, has 104 undergraduate and 68 graduate students, so this would mean that a healthy percentage of its students would be pursuing careers in new media. In addition to traditional print journalism training, the division offers majors in broadcast, advertising and public relations. Up until now, most of its new media/Internet/online courses have been taught on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings, requiring students pursuing new media careers to put in extra hours outside of their regular course work. Many have done so.

The new curriculum

Here's what the undergraduate online degree program looks like. Required classes will include:

* Platform course -- This class is an introduction to the World Wide Web, with an emphasis on learning the hardware and software of online publishing. Students will learn how to write HTML; how to use Corel graphics programs, Adobe Photoshop and HTML editing software; how to use a scanner; and collecting and indexing news off of wire services.
* Introduction to news writing -- This traditional reporting course requires students to file stories for print, broadcast and in HTML for Web publication.
* Intermediate reporting -- Again, students are required to file their stories for print and online (in HTML format).
* Editing -- The traditional editing class, which is heavy in copy editing and graphic design, now includes Web site design as well.
* Advanced reporting -- In this upper-level class, where students report off-campus, their articles are produced for print and online. The Editing class serves as the copy desk for their stories, which are sent to the campus newspaper's print editor and to its online editor.
* Photography and digital imaging -- This traditional introduction to news photography class switches over at the halfway point to use of digital cameras and computer editing instruction.

The master's online program will include as requirements classes on ethics; introduction to philosophical writing; a graduate-level version of the platform (software/hardware) course; graphic design; visual theory; and media production. The latter is a "hard core" Web design course; students will come out of the class with the skills to run a publication's Web site.

'This is important'

Edwards says that students in his school "have a real sense that this (online/new media) is really important" to the future of media, as indicated by the interest in the forthcoming program. Even those students who are pursuing more traditional media work in the newspaper industry are watchful of the trends. "The newspaper people are always looking over their shoulder. They know that's something's going on," he says.

The bottom line is jobs, and those with new media training seem to have no trouble finding them. Edwards boasts that his upper-level students who have taken Duquesne's new media-track courses are much sought after -- and commanding higher salaries than those seeking traditional media jobs. One student, possessing Web skills and talented in graphic design and visual communications, landed a job heading up the newly created online department of a large company. He skipped over the entry-level positions normal for new college graduates.

Several Duquesne students have taken positions at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review with its new online publishing division, some while still in school. "I'm afraid they're not going to come back and finish their degrees," says Edwards. One of Edwards' graduate students started out as an intern for the Tribune Review and is now being hired as its online operations manager. Several other Duquesne students followed him to the newspaper.

The journalism division also has a new agreement with the Tribune Review, where Duquesne students are allowed to work alongside newspaper professionals in various departments. Advertising and public relations students accompany sales people as they go out on calls, for instance. And Edwards is working on creating an arrangement where newspaper and university may share equipment on their online projects, perhaps similar to the relationship of the University of Florida's school of journalism and the Gainesville Sun newspaper, which jointly operate an online service.

Edwards believes that the trend toward new media is breaking down walls between different traditional media, so he's literally breaking down walls. An architect is currently drawing up plans for a "virtual newsroom" in the journalism building that will bring together in one room the student newspaper, radio stations and online operation. Students will produce stories for each medium, and both print and broadcast reporting can end up on the school's Web services.

Not abandoning core values

The emphasis of the journalism program remains on producing excellent writers, editors, broadcasters, photographers, artists, and advertising and public relations people. Edwards says the technologies represented in new media must be mastered by tomorrow's journalists, and that is why Duquesne's journalism division has chosen to teach students some technical skills. "But it's just another tool," he says; producing quality journalism is still king.

That journalism professors are teaching things like HTML coding and how to maintain Web servers might seem odd, since that task might seem more appropriate to the computer science department. But Edwards says the journalism division likes to keep close control of the entire program. Hand that part of the program off and "you never know what will happen in the computer department," he says.

Why create an online journalism degree now? Edwards says that the second wave in new media is fast approaching. While the first round of jobs has been for the hardware and software development people, the next wave is content. All the new channels of information being created by emerging electronic media are starting to create a new wave of jobs for people who can fill up those channels.

The new U.S. telecommunications law, says Edwards, was actually a "jobs bill." He aims to train his journalism students to fill those jobs.

Contact: Clark Edwards, edwards@duq2.cc.duq.edu

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