Advice for this year's incoming journalism students

I’m making this an August tradition, so here is my advice for this year’s incoming journalism students. These tips are given to encourage new students to look beyond the typical j-school curriculum, to help them develop the skills that they will need in their future careers, but that j-schools too often fail to teach.

Take at least one laboratory science class

I’m not talking about those general, survey courses that university science departments typically offer non-majors. Cajole your way into an actual lab science class – a physics, chemistry or biology class with a weekly lab session. Learn about the scientific method – how scientists develop a hypothesis and test it using observational data. Then compare and, if applicable, contrast that experience with what you are learning about reporting in your journalism classes.

Much of what passes for “objectivity” in news reporting would be laughed at as naivete in the much more rigorously tested world of science. Learn what objectivity really means by spending some time in a science department. Think about how you might apply what you observe and learn there in your reporting.

Learn how to run a business

Get involved in a student organization where you need to handle cash – raising income from sales and budgeting expenses. Watch how others make decisions about how to get money and how to spend it. Be attentive, and work hard, so that you can move into a position where you have budget responsibilities.

Journalism schools frequently bring guest speakers onto campus. Ask every one of them about the business side of their publication and organization. Learn about the various business models in publishing (and not just in journalism publishing).

Ignore anyone who tries to lecture you about “the wall” or the impropriety of editorial employees knowing too much about the business side of the news industry. Those individuals’ time is past in the journalism field, and while they might be able to teach you some editorial skills, the skills they can teach you are incomplete for what you will need as a journalist.

Get an internship or a part-time job before you graduate. When you do, seek out the people running the business side wherever you work and ask them about their jobs. Ask them what they see happening in the industry and how they are reacting to it. Then ask them how they wish they could react, and what’s holding them back from doing that.


A journalist is only as good as his or her network. Without sources, you are a novelist. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Use your non-journalism classes to build your personal network. Use your student organizations and jobs to build your personal network. Invite guest speakers, professors and fellow students into your network. Publish on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus. Blog. Video blog. Make meeting and conversing with people your addiction.

But whenever you do meet and converse with people, online or off, do so with the knowledge that anything you do, say and write may be retold or republished to anyone else. Conduct yourself with intent, with dignity, intelligence and professionalism, at all times. This might be the most difficult of all the tasks I’ve recommended to you. But this is what will earn you the personal respect that you will need to encourage others in your network to invite into opportunities in the future. Fail to network responsibly, and all the smarts in the world won’t help you succeed.

Good luck, best wishes and don’t ever think for a moment – even after graduation – that your education is complete.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    Personally, my favorite tip would be to know you resources. The Student Press Law Center ( has some really useful stuff on media law and First Amendment rights. Their “Know Your Rights” section ( is a must-read before heading into student journalism. I first came across the SPLC in high school when dealing with a pushy department chair trying to yank my article, and I’ve used the SPLC countless times since then.

    I’m also subscribed to their blog and news flashes to keep up with what’s going on in the student press world (they do podcasts too, if that’s your thing). Generally speaking, it’s just a good resource to have in your back pocket for background info and in case you ever come across an issue you need help with.

  2. says:

    Robert: I agree that students should learn about and eventually interact with the business side of their journalism organization. But they also need to know the difference between interaction and subjegation. The quickest way for any journalist or publication (digital or analog) to lose their audience is to be carrying water for advertisers – especially when that information is not shared with the audience. There is enormous pressure to do just that at many publications. The publication may die, but your reputation as a shill goes with you.
    — Gary Warner, The Orange County Register.

  3. Lifelong learning is not just for journalism students – but for journalism educators. Most of the time, we keep up. In fact, the ACEJMC accreditation standards require more than 75 percent of a j-student’s work be taken OUTSIDE the j-school. The theory behind it is good – go explore. The practice, however, is to take whatever everyone else is taking. Those who don’t follow the lemmings find rich offerings in business, arts, sciences and in so many other areas. We hope they do!