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Shaping the Future of News: Journalism Schools Evolve in the Digital Age

By:  Darren Dahl Mar 24, 2014
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Rumors of journalism’s demise are greatly exaggerated. So, too, is the notion that any dollar spent on journalism school tuition is a wasted investment in our post-print media era.

In fact, there is a sea change now underway as J-schools – as they’re known among aspiring journalists – evolve to arm students with the skills and tools needed to thrive in the coming years of the digital age.

“Journalism schools are updating their curricula because it’s a different world today,” says Paula Poindexter, president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) and associate professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. “We have to keep changing or risk being left behind.”

Balancing the Old With the New

There has long been a romantic notion linked to being a journalist. Perhaps it started with movies like His Girl Friday, where reporters in gray suits smoked cigarettes and sported fedoras emblazoned with “Press” tags. Or maybe it’s the notion of how the press plays a key role in checking government power as we famously saw in the wake of Watergate. It might even be the lure of adventure and purpose.

Whatever the draw, the foundation every great journalist builds upon remains the same as it did 50 years ago: ask the right questions of the right people, add context to the answers, and then relay these responses to the audience in a compelling, coherent fashion.

What has disrupted the profession, though, is the proliferation of technology and devices in our daily lives. Smartphones, tablets and social media have changed how we consume and share the news. That, in turn, has forced journalism schools to adapt in ways that help prepare their students for the workplace ahead.

“The digital age has given us many more tools to create journalism than we had in the 20th Century,” says Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on the future of media. “I think these changes are potentially a great opportunity for journalism schools and educators if they recognize them properly, because there are a lot of news organizations in the midst of trying to adapt to disruption. They may not be in the position to look far ahead and do some of the long-range experimentation that can occur in an academic setting.”

Rosenstiel believes J-school programs can operate like business incubators by uncovering the next great innovation in journalism – thanks in part to the fact that colleges and universities are working directly with the next generation of media consumers.

“Students can see around the corners at trends that haven’t reached the marketplace yet,” he says.

However, Rosenstiel cautions that for schools to capitalize on the opportunity, they need to hire faculty who are adaptive and forward thinking, rather than nostalgic and stuck in the past.

Embracing a 21st Century Skillset

The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California is changing its curriculum to expose students to a variety of ways to create and distribute stories using existing and emerging tools.

“As technology continues to evolve faster and faster, we need to teach our students the skills they’ll need to report, write, edit and produce stories across all platforms,” says Michael Parks, professor and interim director of The Annenberg School. “Twelve years ago, someone might have wanted to become a newspaper reporter. Now, we teach them digital journalism skills as well, like how to shoot, edit and create a TV package. We don’t expect anyone to become a one-person band, but you need to be conversant because today’s news rooms are multi-faceted operations.”

Journalism School students

Columbia students in a radio journalism class.

That’s part of a trend that Gary Kayye, adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication, which first began offering classes in new media several years ago, calls “backpack journalism.” The days of specialized work in the newsroom – say, someone who sits in the front of the camera, while others shoot, write the script and edit the finished product – are long gone.

“We have embraced the idea that everything is now meshed together,” says Kayye, who also runs his own digital media publication, Rave Publications. “We talk more about storytelling instead of just writing or shooting.”

Another program that has revamped its curriculum to embrace technology is the Columbia University School of Journalism, where the walls that once separated students pursuing careers in print, TV, and radio journalism are blurring. Whereas students used to select a single career path focused on their preferred medium, today’s J-schoolers are exposed to a broad range of skills needed in the modern newsroom.

“We want every student to have some digital understanding,” says Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs and professor of professional practice at Columbia. “The boundaries are dissolving very quickly when you begin to see the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times making videos and ABC News hiring people to write their blog. A lot of it comes down to simply understanding that the traditional ways of producing and distributing journalism are rapidly changing and we are making changes to our program to stay ahead of them.”

Connecting with an Evolving Audience

A key challenge for future journalists is that the consumer or audience they are trying to reach is evolving as fast as technology is. “That means you need to offer a matrix of options so different people can get different information from different sources at different times for different reasons,” says David Hazinki, associate professor at the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. “The audience is picking up information in different ways and we need to produce journalism when and where they are looking for it. That means you have to embrace doing different presentations for different content, including tweeting and Facebook and other social media.”

Hazinski’s point helps explain why schools like Columbia now offer multiple courses in using data for journalism, and why the University of Texas now teaches app development.

Mobile phone

An augmented reality (AR) app USC Prof. Robert Hernandez built with his students for the Los Angeles Public Library. The program enables the public to interact with rare books.

Students at USC can even experiment with tools like augmented reality (AR) and Google Glass, and learn coding languages to create new forms of multimedia journalism that seek to go beyond “Snow Fall,” the breakthrough multimedia story format published by The New York Times.

“The technology is changing as quickly as we are experimenting with these new forms of storytelling,” says Robert Hernandez, assistant professor of Professional Practice at USC, who teaches multimedia and AR storytelling classes. “We’re trying to take advantage of a new medium. These technologies are not mainstream yet, but it’s about to go. My interest is getting ahead of the curve and defining how best we can use them to create good journalism.”

With new demands on both teachers and students to embrace digital tools, many schools have updated the equipment in their newsrooms – especially video and audio equipment as well as editing software – or even added new high-tech facilities altogether to keep up with emerging technology.

Schools that have made recent investments in building new facilities include The University of Texas at Austin, which opened its 120,000- sq. ft. Belo Center for New Media in 2012. USC is scheduled to open the new Wallis Annenberg Hall this fall.

Then there is High Point University in North Carolina, which opened the Nido R. Qubein School of Communication in 2009, a state-of-the-art facility that includes two high-definition TV production studios, a multi-track audio recording studio, editing suites, computer labs, a surround-sound theater screening room, and an interactive game development studio.

“We have some of the best equipment I have ever seen in any newsroom,” says Dr. Yan Yang, assistant professor of communication at HPU, “which helps us teach our students the concept of convergent journalism, which it is the incorporation of multiple media platforms in news reporting, including print, broadcast, online, and social media. Our students have to write, report, shoot, and edit all by themselves. We recognize the trends and want to teach students so they are better prepared to land a job when they graduate.”

The Future is Bright

Time will tell if these kinds of infrastructure investments journalism schools are making will pay off in drawing future enrollments. But, when you take a step back to recognize the digital storytelling skills graduates will have upon graduation, it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn that today’s graduates are in high demand -- not just in newsrooms, but in Corporate America as well.

“We are hearing that there is a recognition that the skills students are learning can be applied to many different occupations,” says Poindexter of the AEJMC, which is the largest association in the world for journalism educators, graduate students and media professionals. “It has opened up a whole new world of jobs because skills like gathering facts, verifying information, writing, editing, shooting video and using social media are in great demand.”

Today's students also have an edge when they enter the job market. They’ve built their resumes with published stories, videos and audio clips, unlike students of the past who might have been simply left with typewritten pages slashed in red ink. That’s a big plus for employers, including newsrooms, who, due to a lack of time, resources or patience, prefer to hire workers who already have the skills needed to do the job.

“The work we do is not limited to the classroom," says Hernandez of USC. “That era is over. We are working journalists who just happen to be students. We no longer have to wait for the newspaper. We can publish things in real time. That empowers the students and creates fantastic opportunities for them.”

Earning that kind of experience promises that journalists of the future will play a key role in both storytelling for media outlets and brand publishers like Coca-Cola, as well as in curating content to help consumers separate the news from the increasing amount of noise generated in the online world, where it can be difficult to know who or what to believe.

“Citizen reporting and blogging have opened up the world to millions of people,” Hazinski says. “But what many people don’t understand is the ethical obligation to do everything they can to get the facts right. The key skill and market of the future will not be in collecting information, it will be in limiting it.”

Parks agrees, noting that the role of journalists in society has always been to make sense out of things by telling stories. And by doing so, journalists add great value to society – something that may become even more valuable over time.

“We might now be entering a Golden Age of journalism,” Parks adds, “because there are so many opportunities ahead of us.” 


Editor's note: This article kicks off a Coca-Cola Journey series exploring the future of news in a shifting media landscape.