Eight things that journalism students should demand from their journalism schools

The new semester is well underway at almost all the nation’s journalism schools. Students have received their syllabi, explaining exactly what the school expects from its students during their courses.

But what should students expect from their schools? Sure, they’re getting classes and instruction, but those alone won’t be enough for most journalism students. Their educations must extend beyond the classroom syllabus if they are to have the best chance to compete in what has become a brutally competitive information marketplace.

Unfortunately, that experience can “fall through the cracks” of a college education, if students do not seize the initiative to demand it. So here is my list of eight things I believe every journalism student must demand from his or her journalism school:

Role models
Students should demand access to working journalists, in addition to the adjunct faculty. Most schools provide that, frequently bringing guest speakers on to campus. But such events often are not required, leaving students to take the initiative to attend.

Not only should they do so, they should let the school’s faculty and administration know what additional voices they’d like to hear from, too. Programming speakers can be a pain. Most schools would welcome students’ feedback on guests and events, despite many students’ reticence to speak up about them.

A mentor
Access to potential role models outside the school’s faculty is just the first step. At some point in their careers, students need to deepen their relationship with at least one role model, and adopt that individual as a mentor.

In teaching our “boot camp” for news entrepreneurs earlier this year, Tom O’Malia of the USC Marshall School of Business insisted that campers find a mentor to help guide them on their journey as news entrepreneurs. Mentorship provides crucial guidance in any professional’s lifelong education. Students cheat themselves of opportunity if they wait until mid-career to find a mentor, or if they never find one at all. (Not finding a mentor in my early journalism career remains my single greatest professional regret in life.)

Like a romantic relationship, a robust mentorship can’t be forced. It must develop, naturally, between two people. But that does not excuse students to be passive in seeking a mentor. They must actively engage with potential mentors during their time in school.

Employment contacts
Yeah, sure, education is its own reward. Yada, yada. But when you’re spending this kind of cash to get a degree, you’d better demand some help in getting a job once you’re out of school.

Job fairs featuring reps from newspapers that just laid off a quarter (or more) of their newsroom staffs shouldn’t count anymore. Students must demand that their schools begin engaging with publishers who aren’t laying off staff and losing market share. Sure, it’s nice to meet folks from the big newspaper chains. But journalism schools must start building relationships with emerging online news publishers in their communities, with people who can either hire their graduates or at least provide the entrepreneurial mentors that they will need.

Economic consolidation is coming in the independent online news business. The schools that build relationships early with the Scripps and Knights of tomorrow will be the ones who place more of their graduates with these emerging firms. No, they likely won’t hire as many grads as the old Scripps, Knights and Gannetts did back in their day. Which makes it all the more important that j-schools have a chair for their grads when the music stops.

A place to hack
Online is becoming the dominant news publish medium. And online publishing will not look the way it does today 10 years from now, just as it looks little now like it did 10 years ago. Students need forums in which to explore and test their interactive publishing skills. They need sandboxes in which to play.

While traditional syllabi train students in established story forms, students must demand time and access to explore emerging forms, in social media and whatever else they might dream up. Hacking isn’t simply programming; it’s an attitude that encourages people to find new uses for old forms. That’s something journalism desperately needs. If a school doesn’t provide those opportunities for its students, they must demand it.

Work experience
Every j-school I’ve ever encountered has a placement office where you can get applications and contacts for internships, part-time jobs, freelance gigs and full-time work.

I’m not talking about those.

Students need to demand directions to the school’s general placement office, where they can find jobs that have nothing to do with journalism. Every j-student needs to spend at least a few summers working outside the field, learning what work’s like for other folks. These shouldn’t be the type of jobs that other college students take to earn a few bucks; these should be the type of jobs that some people do for a living.

Great journalists draw upon a wealth of personal knowledge and experience. Work provides as much, if not greater, opportunity to develop that as the classroom does. I spent my summers as an undergraduate working at Walt Disney World. I never dreamed that job would affect my journalism career, but that experience eventually led me to start a theme park news website that’s become my primary source of income.

The fewer, or narrower, life experiences a student has to draw upon, the fewer such opportunities that student will have later in life.

Deep knowledge of a field other than journalism
I’m making the same point here, but from the academic perspective. Today’s publishing market has little place for the general assignment reporter. Readers have instant access to experts writing on any topic imaginable. A journalism graduate must be able to report with understanding and write with insight to compete with the many other available news sources online today. Academic study in one’s beat field provides the foundation upon which a journalism student can build a lifetime’s personal experience and reporting to help inform their writing.

Don’t slide by with the minimum the j-school requires you to do outside the school. Students must demand, of themselves and of their schools, rigorous coursework in the fields which they will cover when they graduate.

Getting your name out there
Here’s a scenario I often described for my students, when I was teaching:

“Imagine that you are a news publisher. Your budget’s tight and you can hire only one j-school graduate this year. You’ve got hundreds of applicants, many with great clips. Some you have met, and like. And a few have started their own online publications already.

“Who ya gonna hire? The student with potential… or the student who’s already got 50,000 unique readers a month?”

A generation ago, no students brought an audience to the table. All anyone had was potential, and employers hired based on that. That’s no longer the case. Students who bring their own audience have measurably more value to an employer than those who do not.

Don’t get caught behind those students. Get your name out there, now. Find opportunities to publish your best work online, with your name and photo prominently attached. Engage with readers in comments and forums. Demand that your school provide its students with every opportunity to do so.

Journalism schools must act as agents for their students, promoting them to potential employers and readers from the first day they start reporting on campus. Developing potential isn’t enough in this competitive environment. Students need j-schools that will help them offer not just potential, but results.

Passion, not excuses
The worst thing that journalism schools can do to their students is immerse them in a culture of failure. Instructors do that anytime they complain about the state of the news business, griping how much better it used to be and how awful bloggers/forums/websites are.

Students need passion for their field they are about to enter, and complaints and excuses from those who have left it.

There are more news sources available today to readers than ever before. More eyes are watching our governments and our business institutions. The public can speak for itself to a global audience, moving closer to fully realizing the potential of democracy. Experts are becoming storytellers, offering greater detail and deeper insight to the readers who want that.

I can’t speak for you, but this fires me up. It should fire up every journalism instructor, too.

There are so many opportunities out there for our journalism students today. But they won’t be able to engage those challenges if they’ve been steeped in a culture of a failure, knowing no other way to work in journalism than to be hired by a shrinking newspaper chain.

Students must demand better than that from their journalism schools. Those schools owe it to their students to deliver.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    Great list. As a working journalist, I would add two items. The first would be Computer Assisted Reporting Skills — how to analyze a budget document or put together an investigative project using advanced Excel skills or Access. These are semester-long classes for journalists at some schools. I’m sure some schools don’t even offer them. The second thing I would add to the list is some basic familiarity with audio, video, Web-editing and maybe even picture-editing software, such as ProTools and Photoshop. Every newspaper may end up using different software, but familiarity with one type of software probably lends itself to adjusting to another type. A reporter who is intimidated by technology would have a tough time finding a job today.

  2. says:

    While I agree with all of these, the last one really resonates with me, as I am a current journalism student. When we have guest speakers come in and say things like “run while you can,”and “you’re crazy to get a j-degree,” I get incredibly frustrated. Aren’t these professionals supposed to believe in journalism as a pillar of democracy and a way for people to make informed decisions? Maybe they should go back to school and try to remember why they got into the field in the first place, because I’m pretty confident it wasn’t for the money then, and it’s not about the money now. Yes citizen journalism is becoming more prevalent, but that should give us a reason to step our reporting up a notch instead of laying down in defeat and whining about it.

  3. This is an excellent post, Robert. All 8 of these tools are relevant in a changing media industry, won’t become obsolete. It’s also great advice for leading a full and interesting life in general. The last one is key. Have passion and a positive attitude about the future. There is more engagement with news and information than ever and there are more opportunities to influence the future. It’s an exciting time to be studying media!

  4. says:

    Hey Robert
    as you know well, I gush about very few things in life. This is among the best advice ever written for jschools and not just for students. We-could-build-a-whole-new-school-around-this good. Imprint-it-on-your-brain good. Voices everything I have been saying to kids these days. Hope this gets circulated wide.
    Rafat Ali

  5. says:

    I have just taken on two ‘professional journalists’, one straight out of a Masters course, the other with a little mainstream newspaper experience. Their understanding of the drivers of a web magazine like mine (www.hoteldesigns.net) were very limitied. Their learning skills are good, but their ability is constrained by garbage learned in college.

    I wholeheartedly agree that journo’s need skills with camera – video and still- which means a trained eye. They also need to be able to see that most blogs are lightweight and to be investigative. They also need to be very computer literate, not just able to write the story but also to envisage how the technology is going to lead to changes in the way they work.

    Being taught how it will look on the page of a printed publication is very backward

  6. says:

    I’m a second-year adjunct at NU/Medill after a long, satisfying career in print journalism — and much as I’d love to, I can’t come up with a single quibble. Great post.

  7. says:

    Interesting read. Btw I am not a regular journo student .. I am a freelance journo and kind of actually learning on the job ..but still i can see the the point you are trying to drive home .

  8. says:

    Great post. As a working journalist, I’ve heard and read too many college faculty pretend to be experts in an industry that’s changed radically in the last five years, despite the fact that they haven’t been working journalists in decades. A a result, they fail to realize that making connections between those who have experience in the field and aspiring young journalists isn’t just important – it’s vital, and one of the primary goals of a j-school education should be preparing students for and then fostering those connections. When I talk to students, I emphasize that the most important benefit of my j-school education was a connection that led to my first internship. That led to a second internship, then a third and eventually a part-time job covering sports for the college town’s daily. It didn’t happen because I had good grades. It happened because a publisher had a connection to my university.
    And to the journalism student, I share your frustrations with those who don’t understand why the growth of online media and more competition is better for the news. However, I’m also one of those who tells young journalists to think carefully before they finish college with a j degree. Chances are you’ll be in for some serious disappointment and frustration if you got into this to be “a pillar of democracy.”
    If you get a chance to work in traditional media – and given the job market, that’s a pretty big if – you’ll be fortunate to have a handful of opportunities to really make an impact on government or society during your 30- or 40-year career. Daily journalism is much more mundane: it’s drumming up feel-good features on local residents done good spending hours sorting through paperwork on school board and planning committee disagreements mixed in with coverage of community festivals and renaissance fairs.
    In exchange, you’ll be required to make some pretty significant sacrifices. While your friends who graduated with degrees in other fields are buying homes and settling down, you’ll be living paycheck to paycheck and barely covering your rent and expenses. It will be difficult to save any money, much less set aside a nest egg for retirement. And your perspective will really be challenged if/when you decide to start a family. To cover expenses both you and your significant other will have to work, which means the added cost of day care and missing out on your child’s formative years.
    You’ll also be faced with some terrible decisions because of your job. Do you cover the city council meeting and miss your kid’s T ball game or play? Do you meet with a source for an interview and skip out on dinner and time with your significant other? Do you sacrifice affording to send your children to good schools because you only earn a journalist’s wages? (There’s a reason Jim Bellows was divorced, what, five or six times).
    That’s the reality faced by journalists in traditional media, and it’s something students should know before they graduate college. It’s also why colleges should seriously consider the ideas in this article.

  9. Excellent piece, Robert, and I agree with the points of previous commenters. Two things I’ll add:

    — The value of a mentor can’t be overstated. Working journalists can help by reaching out to J-schools and also adopting a young journalist in their own newsrooms.

    — Your point about academic diversity is right on, and not jut for the professional opportunities it might bring, but for plain old personal enjoyment. I had a good college experience and was lucky to work as a reporter throughout my time in school. But I regret now that I didn’t spend more time diving into courses that might interest me, whether “useful” or not. I look at college now and think, wow, your job is to hang out reading and talking about ideas. How cool is that? I wish I could do that again — I’m sure I’d really appreciate it this time — and encourage students to make the most of their time on campus.

  10. says:

    How relevant-and valuable–is a research-oriented journalism professor who has a PhD as opposed to a j-school instructor who has years of experience in the field of journalism. This, to my mind, is J-schools” “dirty little secret.” Students are being taught a trade by people who (for the most part) have no idea (or experience) about being tradespeople in the field of journalism. How can these “teachers” possibly prepare students for careers in the fast-changing world of journalism when all they have done is completed PHD research-oriented programs? No wonder the industry is falling apart.

  11. The suggestion that I’m thinking the most about is your nudge to find a job that doesn’t involve journalism. It adds perspective that cannot be gained any other way and it’s a perfect fit for a group of people who walk around so curious all the time. My grandpa says “work on a fishing boat”. I’ve always imagined I would go back to India. It may just be time to go.

    Thanks for the suggestions, Robert. It’s helpful for a young up-and-comer who is not in journalism school (but regularly wonders ‘if…’) to know where j-school students should put their priorities. (This blog is a lot more affordable, too. Thanks, Knight.)

    — David

  12. says:

    Good advice

  13. says:

    Your title should also include the words “Or go out and get for themselves.” I agree with most of what you wrote regarding skill-sets and experience, but expecting any of that from an undergraduate or masters journalism program is a waste of energy. Too many people expect these things to be laid at their feet. I know journalists who are waiting around for their company to provide them training on video editing software, when there are thousands of 14-year-olds who learned that skills years ago by picking up a camera and teaching themselves. Guess what — those journalists are still waiting.

    I understand the attitude that if you’re paying big bucks for a degree, you expect it to be useful. But you also have to work within your reality. You can be the young journalist who learned some useful skills through your own initiative, or you can be the one who sits around saying, “They never taught us that in j-school.” Take your pick.

  14. Excellent post, I totally agree.
    Should be printed and nailed on a wall in every j schools.

  15. says:

    Good list, with a very important set of skills. One minor thing, though, there’s nothing on this list that you can’t get on your own without having to spend the money on school. I particularly like the points about working outside of the field and developing expertise in other lines of work. For all the optimism and opportunities for the future out there, reality is that working journalists are likely going to need other sources of income, at least in the short term. But at this point, j-school seems like a waste of money. You can achieve everything you listed on your own and avoid spending all that money in tuition and such without going into debt. It’s going to be very important for aspiring journalists to keep their personal expenses and debts under control to give them the freedom to learn the craft in a shrinking pay market. It doesn’t make much sense to create a massive debt load right out of the gate, especially when the actual paying portion of the industry is continuing to shrink.

  16. says:

    I also think that there should be an effort to teach the business of news organizations. Especially at a time like this, students need to understand the idea of profit margins and creative destruction. News organizations need innovative people who understand business models. At UNC, Penny Abernathy just started a course like this last year.

  17. says:

    One thing to add to the list is students should pay attention to the professors

  18. I think the keyword here is “demand.” Several students I met in j-school seemed to expect professors to lay these new skills at their feet. If you really want them, you have to act like it.

    Great article, Mr. Niles!

  19. says:

    I’d change the title to eight things journalism students should demand from their universities. And the parents and alums should be demanding it too. Every decent J-School wants to do all these things. Getting the larger institution to fund the people and resources is another story. J-Schools don’t produce megamillion-dollar research grants and scores of goldmine alums like med schools and business schools and science departments. It takes a lot of work and support to get a J-School to the front of the academic trough.

  20. says:

    I’d like to say something to the journalism student who, God bless him or her, spoke with passion . . . and in a manner that only a J-school student could.

    Only thing is, I can’t in the confines of a combox. But I can in the more expansive format of a blog, where I can go on at length and embed cool stuff.

    So, my response is here:


  21. says:

    Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University does all eight of these things and more…

  22. Sharon Henry says:

    Great post Robert. Reading through it, I mentally checked the items in your list that matched my J-school experience. I never realized how fortunate I

  23. says:

    All great points, especially the ones about having experience outside of journalism (anyone who has to work to help pay their way through school can get this, however) and having a mentor. There is one addition I would make, though: Training in basic business skills. I’m not talking about these new “entrepreneurship” classes that talk about building one’s own brand, etc. I mean real business training: Understanding of what business models actually are, what makes people interesting in buying things (i.e. content), and the differences between revenue, expenses, startup capital and profit. No one is going to earn any money in new media until they can figure out how to make new media profitable. And that takes some understanding about how business works — on and off the Web.

  24. Thanks for the list of things I should be getting out of my journalism school. I am going to be a graduate at TU this winter and in going over your list I was able to check of all of the items. It gives me confidence that I am getting the best education and expereince in my field. Thanks agian for the list.

  25. I think employment contacts and the opportunity to offer real work experience are sometimes left out. My brother attended a journalism school here in Austria, but although the school demanded their sutdents to work for magazines and newspapers they could not offer much help to get such jobs …

  26. I think journalism and marketing in some sense will, for better or worse, continue to have their borders blurred in the years to come. The explosion of free news mediums, blogging and content has seen to that. Students should demand that their journalism school embrace these new formats and provide forecasts of what’s to come, including the technologies that people are and will be using to spread their messages as well.