Don't dismiss journalism schools just because newspapers are in trouble

Larry Atkins teaches journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University.

In light of the decline of newspapers, you would think that college students would be staying away from the field of journalism in droves. Thus far, that’s not the case. But will university journalism schools change their approach in the way they teach future journalists?

According to Inside Higher Ed, applications to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism have gone up around 40 percent higher than last year. Applications to Temple University’s Department of Journalism have remained steady over the last few years. In March, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported that due to student interest and potential demand, the University of Pennsylvania is working to propose a journalism minor.

But how are the Journalism schools and departments accommodating this interest to the changing realities of the journalism profession?

According to Dr. Andrew Mendelson, Chair of Temple University’s Journalism Department, “In some ways, we anticipated the new reality. Six years ago, we changed the curriculum to add more multimedia exposure. We require students to do reporting in all types of areas—print, Web, audio and video. In addition to this cross-platform format, students specialize in newspapers, magazines or photojournalism.”

“In addition, we recently added an elective in Entrepreneurial Journalism, started by Professor George Miller, in which we teach students how to become their own business model by freelancing or starting their own websites.”

“We’re also doing more career workshops. Some are with the Career Center and deal with networking and preparing resumes. We also have business practices workshops, which deal with legal issues, contracts, and how to market yourself.”

A recent trend of journalism programs is getting students out of the classroom to cover events and issues in the community. Five years ago, Temple established MURL, the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, in which journalism students work in a newsroom setting where they experience all aspects of news production, including print, broadcast, Web and digital media. MURL’s mission is to tell stories of the multicultural, diverse voices in the under-covered urban Philadelphia neighborhoods. MURL students concentrate their news coverage in a targeted neighborhood, then service it with targeted information.

La Salle University will launch a capstone course in community journalism next fall, in which students will be doing multi-media reporting about community issues in Germantown.

As Huntly Collins, a La Salle Journalism Professor and former Inquirer reporter, says, “Ironically, this comes at a time when Germantown has lost its community newspaper [The Germantown Courier] and when nearby Mt. Airy has also lost its paper, the Mt. Airy Express. I would love to see our students help fill the vacuum, perhaps with financial backing from a non-profit organization.”

Another emerging trend is that journalism schools are starting to teach social media. As reported by Vadim Lavrusik in Mashable, The Social Media Guide on June 19, 2009, journalism professors are teaching how social media like Facebook and Twitter can be applied to aid in reporting and producing the news. Among the approaches being taught include promoting and distributing content, interviewing, news gathering and research, crowdsourcing, building community and developing a personal brand.

Other emerging trends in teaching journalism include global journalism and interactivity. Drexel offers a BA in Global Journalism, where students are taught journalism skills they can use on a global level. Arcadia University, which emphasizes study abroad programs, recently started a Visual Culture in India Project, where communications students travel to India and then create multimedia projects that are posted on a website. Villanova launched “The Zone,” which is an interactive portal run through the Communications Department and also broadcasts live streaming radio shows created by students in the Radio Production class.

Jody Ross, English Professor at Villanova University and Advisor to the Villanovan student newspaper says, “We have not changed our program; in fact, more students than ever seem interested in studying journalism. I love to teach the subject because, regardless of whether or not our students will find jobs as newspaper reporters, they learn to be informed consumers of news and they become advocates for newspapers. They learn to think, report and write accurately and fairly to distinguish fact from opinion and to carry the sensations they see, hear, smell, touch or taste directly to the reader without adding assumptions or conclusions. Best of all, they learn to write well. Journalists are the most passionate aficionados of grammar and usage and accurate phrasing the world–more even than college English professors or attorneys. Whether our students become news writers, public relations professionals, business executives, doctors, teachers or lawyers, their journalism training always pays off. Dozens of them stay in touch with me, and their passion for journalism never wanes.”

Will Bunch, a Philadelphia Daily News reporter who writes the popular blog Attytood, believes that journalism schools need to continue teaching the traditional core values of reporting, but that they need to emphasize the concepts of audience involvement and entrepreneurship. “You can look at it two ways,” Bunch says. “The core values of journalism aren’t really changing. You have to understand what makes a good story, how to report it, and how to report fairly and with integrity. It was the exact same with Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper 150 years ago or with newfangled websites. That hasn’t changed.”

“What is radically different are important secondary things that schools have to account for. Journalists today need to understand that news is now a two way conversation between you and the audience. Don’t talk down to the audience. Audience members are active participants—they comment on stories, participate as sources, and provide information and tips. Schools can maintain their core values and work on that.”

“Schools also need to teach that journalists need to think as entrepreneurs. You don’t just write a story; you have to find an audience for it. That’s been ignored by many journalists, and it’s critical today.”

So what career advice are university journalism and writing professors giving their students?

Mendelson says, “I encourage students to do multiple internships and diverse types of internships in which they learn a lot of different things. You need expertise and strengths, but don’t follow just one path. Getting experience with newspapers, websites, television and radio will strengthen your resume. It’s a scary, but exciting time. The paths are not clear and obvious, so you have to create your own paths.”

Al Filreis, Director of Penn’s Kelly Writers House says, “Young writers often ask me about which genre of their interest – journalism, novel-writing, poetry, screenwriting, etc. – is the one they should follow. The journalists still want to report on their stories, make their short deadlines and all that, but they seem to know, first, that the jobs are fewer than before and, second, that print journalism is a dead end. There’s a revival of interest in the traditionally unrenumerative genres of writing, fiction and poetry. This has its own other causes, but one cause is surely that journalism, which seemed a salaried avenue, no longer guarantees anything. Writers, even young ones, sense intuitively that the bad market frees them to do anyway what they really want to do. This is purely anecdotal, but I see a lot of students who want to be full-time writers and the seem actually happier.”

Huntly Collins of La Salle says, “Over the past two years, we’ve had great success in placing journalism students in internships and jobs. How that will play out in the future, however, is an open question. I suspect the best student journalists will land jobs in the news industry, but they may have to move to growth areas of the country. For others, I think it’s going to be tough.

One advantage we have at La Salle, however, is that our students are broadly trained within the communication field, including public relations. So even if our journalism students can’t find jobs in the news business, they will have the background they need to get plum jobs in public relations.”

Bunch says, “I would advise students to go into journalism. If they have a passion for news reporting, by all means go for it. They just need to understand that the format is changing. But that’s always been true. Blogs didn’t exist for me when I graduated from college 28 years ago. It’s an even more rapid change now. But if you care about writing about news, there will be a place for you.”

About Larry Atkins

I am a journalist, a lawyer, and a university professor. I have written over 300 articles, Op-Eds, and essays for many publications, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Baltimore Sun, B