Lessons learned from teaching online journalism

Throughout my career, I’ve worked to communicate science and produce newsletters and website content for the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Since I earned a Ph.D. in 2003, I’ve been able to teach Journalism and Mass Communication classes as a part-time (adjunct) instructor at universities throughout Texas and Louisiana. In the spring of 2007, I taught the Online Journalism class in-person for the first time for the Mass Communication Department at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

Sam Houston State University uses the Online Journalism course as a capstone for seniors in the print journalism track. To qualify for the course, students must first take a series of prerequisites, most of which are in print journalism and mass communication. As a result, 10 or fewer students are typically enrolled in the class each semester.

The intent of the course is to prepare students for careers in the rapidly-evolving field of online journalism where news organizations from the traditional realms of print and broadcast media are developing constantly updated Web-based efforts. The focus is to teach students how to use the skill sets needed in journalism, along with new technologies, to carry out excellent reporting and writing. In contrast, it’s much less important that students be able to create great-looking webpages, especially if the quality of writing and reporting is not up to high standards.

Developing the course

The course has been taught for a few semesters at Sam Houston State University. Previous instructors focused on providing students extensive hands-on instruction about how to use specific technologies (i.e., Flash, DreamWeaver, etc).

I was given considerable freedom to structure the course the best way I saw fit. After looking at the few textbooks that cover the field, I chose Online Journalism Principles and Practices of News for the Web by James Foust (published by Holcomb-Hathaway). I chose this book because it stresses the changes in the way journalists will have to think when working in converged journalism. Also, the book is supplemented by a website with several links to additional sources of information.

One of the most difficult choices I had to make was the extent to which students would work on technologies in class (i.e., writing code for various programs) vs. being exposed to emerging issues that will affect the future of news organizations. Ultimately, I settled on deemphasizing the amount of in-class time the students would spend on the mechanics of specific software programs. I wanted to avoid turning the students into technicians who would only learn a skill-set that could easily become obsolete if workplaces were using other programs and as new technologies emerged. Instead, I focused on teaching students the essentials of how to work in online news organizations.

The key elements that influenced the most students’ final grades involved the quality of their digital portfolios, their scores on a final exam, and a research paper in which students described how the lessons learned in this course would affect their careers in online journalism. In addition, students scored and ranked the portfolios their colleagues developed and presented in class. Students were encouraged to offer constructive comments that could benefit one another.

Teaching the course

Over the course of the semester, I taught eight students, all of whom were seniors focusing on print journalism. The class met on Tuesday and Thursday nights (the only times I was able to be on campus). In-person instruction was supplemented by a Blackboard site that featured reading materials and a forum where students could ask questions and discuss the issues.

On the first day of class, I gave the students a survey to learn their proficiency in using Internet-based technologies to produce Web-related content. I assumed that most of them had grown up around Internet technologies and had probably already worked extensively to create webpages.

However, results indicated that not only did most of the students say they had little experience with DreamWeaver, Flash and related technologies, they were also worried about their ability to master these programs. I also used the survey to learn if students had worked with creating and editing digital audio and video and formatting it for the web. The ability to create and manage digital audio and video was essential, as students were expected to produce an online journalism that includes their use of audio, video, and multimedia. However, only a few students had taken traditional broadcast news courses or had worked with digital filming and editing.

Because of these limitations, I gave the students the option of creating a digital portfolio using applications other than DreamWeaver and Flash. As a result, only a few of my students created pages in DreamWeaver from scratch. Several of them made portfolios with downloaded DreamWeaver templates or using software to create blogs.

To overcome these obstacles, I brought in technically-proficient guest speakers from the Sam Houston State University Computing Services Department who were skilled in Internet publishing. These guest speakers demonstrated some of the basic and more complex applications of DreamWeaver, Flash, and related technologies. Better yet, they made class members aware of on-campus resources (e.g., computing labs and commercial programs that could be downloaded with a student ID). Students were encouraged to take advantage of these resources in their out-of-class time. I also tried to make students aware of teachers, technicians and resources they could use to produce their own audio and video and convert it for use on the Web. However, I could not bring any campus experts to demonstrate their work in this area because these people worked during the day and my class started at 6 PM. Though students were encouraged to meet with the broadcast production staff outside of class, few took advantage of this opportunity.

To give students with a perspective on how online journalism is practiced on the job, I invited practitioners working in online media from throughout the region to guest lecture and share their experiences. Guests who addressed the class included the Web content editor of a daily newspaper, a TV journalist who files lengthy versions of her stories online and decides on which stories will be placed prominently on the station’s webpage and a Web designer for a company that creates innovative webpages for sports teams and leagues and other organizations. The goal was to give students an idea of what skill sets tomorrow’s journalists will regularly need.

My overriding goal was to give students a broad understanding of how they will have to develop new skills and new ways of thinking to succeed in online journalism. Because the field is so changing so rapidly, I regularly introduced news items from the mass media (i.e., the interactive timeline developed by Cable News Network to describe the massacre of college students at Virginia Tech). In addition, students were regularly introduced to breaking developments in the trade media, including materials from The Online Journalism Review, The Bivings Report, The Poynter Institute, The CyberJournalist, and Teaching Online Journalism (among others).

Some of the topics we spent a lot of time discussing and debating included the following:

  • Trends facing the news industry,
  • The rise of citizen journalism,
  • The advantages offered by online journalism (i.e., being able to supplement plain text with audio and video and presenting news stories in greater detail),
  • Whether journalists are the sole arbiters of what is newsworthy or whether the public should be involved in defining and shaping news stories,
  • The ability to be proficient in multiple media,
  • The need to be able to continuously update news stories,
  • The need to work on shorter deadlines,
  • The ability to carefully select and use links to other sources of information,
  • Whether the act of creating blogs makes one a journalist,
  • Differences between blogging and journalism.

    Observations from teaching this course

    Now that the semester is over and I can look at how my students performed from a distance, a number of observations come to mind that might be of benefit to other instructors.

  • It’s best if the instructor has at least a working knowledge of how to walk the students through the basics of using the latest Internet-based technologies. As I presented information to the students, I tried to show them how DreamWeaver and Flash were being applied to create news-oriented websites. However, when students asked about specific aspects of how to code or program, it was pretty clear I was in over my head. On the other hand, when I showed the students my blog and when I offered to place the various digital portfolios on a common webpage, this increased the credibility I had with the students.
  • Take advantage of the rapidly-changing and dynamic nature of the online journalism field and use it to your advantage when teaching. Over the semester, I was able to provide students with timely information related to the redesign of the USA Today website, results of eye-tracking studies, the move of the White House to invite bloggers to press conferences, and many more breaking developments. The worst thing you can do in an online journalism course is to teach old and stale knowledge that doesn’t mesh with news developments that students are seeing each day.
  • Don’t presume that the students are going to be comfortable with or adept at new Internet-based technologies simply because they are young. Even though all of my students had FaceBook and MySpace accounts, they were intimated by DreamWeaver and Flash.
  • If your students have focused on a print journalism track and have not taken many courses in broadcast journalism, don’t assume that they will take the initiative to capture, edit, and place on the Web-original audio and video they produced. Many of my students chose to simply place video they obtained from YouTube or other sources rather than carry out their own broadcast news reporting.
  • Be flexible enough to realize that there may not be one perfect way to create a digital journalism portfolio. For example, many of my students used variations of blogging software to create their projects and many of these were done creatively and in a high-quality manner. In other words, don’t push students to using specific technologies (i.e., DreamWeaver and Flash) and don’t punish them for using a different approach.
  • Keep on reminding the students that the essence of the course is to practice excellent journalism. Although points were awarded for the functionality and design of the student portfolios, even the most attractive sites could not compensate for spelling and grammar errors and a lack of in-depth, high quality reporting.
  • Impress on the students that the product they produce in this class should be something that is portable (i.e., saved to a flash drive or a laptop) or something that can be accessed during a job interview (i.e., by logging on to a website). Convince the students that this portfolio, together with their resume and interviewing skills, will play a major role in whether or not they land a job that leads to a career in converged journalism.
  • About Ric Jensen

    I have a PHD with an emphasis in public relations from Texas A&M [2003], where I studied public perceptions of the importance of university research. I have done case studies and focus groups to understand public perceptions of science and the environment.

    I now teach Principles of Public Relations for the Journalism Department at Northwestern State University in Louisiana.


    1. I’m very interested in the subject as now I need to learn how to teach it 😉

      In my university, here in Ukraine, they tried to give us skills how to build a site, but not how to fill it with an appropriate content. And I don’t how to deal with such people, who can build a site but cannot adapt the information for the Web. I mean to find the best way to present it to the readers – using all the advantages and particular qualities of the Web.

      It seems to me, that understanding how content management systems work and comfortable usage of blog platforms is quite enough for them. Why should they know how to use Flash or DreamWeaver? Isn’t it the work for technical support team, not journalists?

    2. It sounds like you had a lot of software instruction in your class. That’s always the tradeoff, the balancing act — how can you get the students to produce journalism online without teaching tools? And yet, tools instruction takes away from the time you have to refine and critique their journalism.

      I have found that getting them started on blogs and wikis (for groups projects) is very productive and successful. Then I do not even introduce Dreamweaver or HTML in the class at all! We do have some Photoshop instruction for basic photo editing for the Web and, of course, audio editing in Audacity. But that takes a tiny amount of time.

    3. Bernie Russell says:

      Fascinating article. I think all online journalism educators struggle to get the balance right between the online and the journalism.
      At the Lincoln School of Journalism,(University of Lincoln, UK) the students start online in their second year, and they produce a web site as part of a group project.
      It can be on whatever topic they like, but they have to sell it to me.
      They pick up basic journalism skills – news-gathering, research, writing and subbing etc., in other units.

      The year two online unit runs over one semester and comprises:
      an introduction to the history of the internet, stressing how that history affects the way we design, build, and write for web sites, and looking at things like protocols, URLs, etc;
      an introduction to HTML and the joys of hand-coding [which the students just love…];
      learning how to use Dreamweaver – because, insofar as there is one, i is the industry standard;
      the principles of web site design, touching on issue like usability, user-control, use of colours, the typographic limitations of the web, interactivity;
      looking at the web as a medium for journalism, and how we need to tailor copy for that medium.

      We discuss current topics like content management systems, blogging, multimedia, citizen journalism, convergence, etc. as the semester goes on.

      This is really an introduction.
      In their third year, the students can stretch out and produce a much more extensive and imaginative web site.

      There are problems. We don’t have access to a web server. so students either get their own web space or deliver their sites on CD.

      We don’t do much multimedia. That’s something we’re looking at over the summer break.

      And we don’t cross reference with other media much – though I’ve just come back from a podcasting course, so we should be able to build that in next year.

      University purchasing procedures are very cumbersome; the network guards won’t let the students download and play with freeware or shareware; they don’t even like them using chat programs.
      I know there are good reasons for this – network integrity and all that – but it can be frusratinng.

      It must change. All in all, there is an awareness that whatever we’re doing on the web, we need to do more, and we need to do it in a much less constrained way.

      How that will pan out, I don’t know.