As newspapers die, journalism schools turn online to find new life

Sometime in the weeks between the shuttering of the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post Intelligencer newsrooms, it dawned on me that not having a Facebook account (or texting capabilities for that matter) might actually make me less credible as a journalism professor.

I realized I needed some self-examination, and our journalism program needed some updating.

At the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County, the journalism program for which I’ve taught the past eight years is part of a healthy department of communications, where we have had a decent record of readying graduates for the “real world.”

Amid newspaper closures and projected closures, surveys showing dwindling newspaper readership, and the lousy economy, we – with journalism professors across the nation –are trying to figure out what to teach our students about the Fourth Estate and the news business, and how to retool with the hope of staying ahead of or at least in step with the mercurial news media market.

Despite the dramatic contraction of newspapers – with an estimated 5,000 newspaper jobs lost last year, many more projected for this year, and 16 percent of newspaper staff positions lost since 2001, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism – journalism school enrollment since 2001 has continued to climb, according to the Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Enrollments. And faculty at J-schools across the country say even this year, applications rates remain strong.

“Applications are up here,” said Duy Linh Tu, new media coordinator and assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

“Why do people want to go to school in a dying field?” Tu asked.

For a variety of reasons and at various stages in their careers, he said.

Many of today’s students are mid-career journalists who “grew up in the age of newspapers,” having never picked up a video camera or used their computers for more than word-processing and e-mail.

“They are back to get a new job, or retain their current job. We’re (also seeing more) kids straight out of school. Normally we get those who have been out working a few years. Partly it’s the economy, but it’s a pretty exciting time to enter journalism. For better or worse, you have a chance to make a big splash early in your career,” Tu said.

Under the old formula, young journalists often had to pay their dues starting in low- paying reporting jobs in small rural newsrooms and work their way up to major metro newspapers or TV stations.

“Today, as a 25-year-old kid, I could make the front page of the website,” Tu said. “With journalism school you buy into a club … you have more credibility.”

Still, predicting the skills that will be needed by journalists of the future is challenging educators at journalism schools across the nation, who are trying to address uncertain demands in a variety of ways and learn new skills alongside the students.

“Whereas 20 years ago students were pointing themselves toward certain kinds of newspaper, magazine or television journalism jobs, now they are really broadening their horizons and developing a skill set that will travel well,” said Paul Voakes, dean of the journalism school at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“It’s more likely a 20-something journalism grad is going to have a brilliant idea for a Web-based product. She needs to know how to develop it, take it to market and make a success story out of it for herself and her friends.”

In spring 2010, Boulder’s journalism school will offer a course in entrepreneurial journalism.

“We’ve come to terms with what would have been anathema 20 years ago,” Voakes said, adding that his students are not only learning to be nimble with the various print, broadcast and online storytelling tools, they are also developing their business and marketing skills.

Another new course at Boulder specifically responds to citizen journalism and reader participation.

“When we think about training the journalists of tomorrow, we need to give more attention to training them to be editors,” Voakes said. “If the whole idea of user-generated content is not a passing fancy, then the people in charge are going to have to generate a new skill set of social responsibility and ethics. Unlike the old model where you worked with highly trained professionals, now you need to work with people who don’t know a lead, don’t know basic principals of media ethics.”

For the course titled “The Resolving Door,” advanced journalism students at Boulder will practice those skills on a community of students who not journalism majors.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison’s school of journalism did away with “the old platform-based boxes” that used to separate print, broadcast advertising, PR and research in 2000. “We’re in the second wave of reforming the curriculum,” said Katy Culver, who heads the six-unit “boot camp” Mass Communication Practices.

“The boot camp cuts across all media,” Culver said. “We teach news gathering, writing and editing for print, audio, video and online.”

The course involves two hours of lecture, six hours of lab, and 12 hours of outside work. The course has evolved over the years as the technology and demands of professional journalism have changed, Culver said.

Following boot camp, UW journalism students split off into just two major tracks: reporting or strategic communications.

Culver said that the UW faculty adopted the converged curriculum earlier than some schools based on research they’d done in the ’90s on the Internet.

“(They predicted) the whole world would change because of the Internet. So they rolled the dice,” Culver said.

Continuously updating her course to stay current, Culver also addresses effective and ethical ways to use social media in reporting.

The University of Kansas has a similar philosophy and similar two-track program.

Ten years ago KU’s journalism school had seven different majors, said Mike Williams, associate professor of news and information.

“We took the curriculum … looked at it from every angle and realized we needed to be platform agnostic. That (journalism) was about good content and good management,” Williams said.

He said students in the KU journalism program learn not only the skills to produce stories in the various media, but the judgment to choose for each story which media would be the most effective for telling that story.

“A particular story may be better told with video than with still photos or a long-story format… Now students are more nimble,” Williams said.

To address faculty skill gaps, Williams said many of the courses at KU are team-taught. Many of the faculty at Wisconsin and Columbia participate in workshops to increase their multimedia literacy.

At other journalism schools, changes are coming at varying degrees of speed and success, said Regina McCombs who teaches multimedia journalism to journalism instructors and professional journalists at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“Educators … have to retrain, to increase their own education,” McCombs said. “Everybody in journalism is going to have to develop skills they haven’t got.”

The idea of temporary incompetence can be daunting. And many programs report at least initial resistance, McCombs said.

“They have to learn new things. When you first are trying a new thing you say, ‘I suck at this…’ You have to go through sucking at it.” McCombs said.

Several journalism programs have addressed the need to offer multimedia training – and some faculty’s lack of versatility – by offering five-week, one-unit courses in Web editing or digital video editing.

That approach, some feel, takes care of concerns about depth of training vs. breadth.

“You have to be careful you’re not morphing into a computer technical school,” Voakes said. “You can never take your eye off the fundamentals of journalism. Short intensive courses, which are hands-on and skills oriented don’t take up all the credit hours.”

Another reason to focus on the fundamentals of reporting, writing, history, law and ethics rather than technical skills is that most of the technical skills learned today will be outdated tomorrow, whereas even the skeptics agree that good ethical journalism will survive.

But what form will it take?

Williams of KU believes 10 years from now we’ll get all our breaking news on personal iPhone-type devices while other journalism educators are less certain.

The University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, where researchers work alongside students, is “conducting experiments in how to do journalism in an age where journalism is chaotic,” said Dean Mills, professor of convergence journalism and dean of the Missouri School of Journalism

Culver of UW Madison suggests educators embrace social networking technology.

And says Tu of Columbia: “We’re not fortune tellers. We don’t have to have a viable business model. Academia doesn’t have to. (At Columbia) we stick to the core values of reporting (yet) here students can put together a package of stories that would never run on a site ‘out there,’ because it’s too big… We do a lot of experimentation.”

As for the University of La Verne, while we do currently offer Web, video, audio and “digital documentary” courses along with the traditional reporting, ethics and law; on our drawing board are multimedia editing, a blogging/opinion/Web writing course, and hopefully in the near future an entrepreneurial journalism course.

Oh, and I’ve promised my students I’ll sign up for Facebook this summer.

About Elizabeth Zwerling

Formerly an award-winning newspaper reporter, currently an associate professor of journalism at the University of La Verne, I left the newsroom for the classroom in 2001. At ULV, I advise the Campus Times newspaper and teach Media Ethics, among other courses. And I continue to write, most recently for Ms. Magazine, Women's Enews, Pasadena Weekly and public radio among others.


  1. says:

    Ohh dear. This is just so ironic. I just finished reading an interview series with various journalists and academics on the future of journalism – and ironically, they gave newspapers the same advice. Very interesting interviews:

  2. says:

    As a journalist myself, I know how hard it can be to stay in the industry. My advice to students would be to not specialise in anything – be a master of all trades. You can’t afford to tell an editor that you are a business corr or a news reporter or purely online hack. You also have to be prepared to re-train in a few years time. In these pressured times the burn-out rate is rising and the risk of being made redundant before you have time to start paying off your student debt is high.
    I am happy to see that Universities and Colleges are taking the initiative in gearing their students up for the real world. Being able to create content whether it be in print, blog, or video, then editing that content and being able to post it online and manage comments is a great skill to have. Recently graduated students are also cheap which makes them attractive to employers.

  3. says:

    The idea of fundamentals too often gets lost in the discussion. It’s well worth repeating, though.

    It’s also worth pointing out there are a number of community newspapers practicing good journalism that don’t fit so neatly into the oft-repeated notion that newspapers are dying.

    Our readership remains strong as we move into multiple platforms for storytelling.

  4. Dear sir,

    As being a student and lover of journalism it is very heartbreaking that our field is dying day by day,but in life we have to tackle with different things so we have to find a way to survive.

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