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J-Schools Reboot For Next-Generation Needs

By Meg Heckman via

ImageThose summer interns who just arrived in newsrooms across the nation may be enrolled in journalism schools, but the schools likely little resemble the j-schools their supervisors attended.

Journalism education -- much like journalism itself -- is in the middle of a massive reboot, one with the potential to redefine how news is produced and consumed in the decades to come. Students still learn the basics, but computer coding and entrepreneurship often are taught alongside copy editing and beat reporting. Digital is the default, and the most innovative schools are churning out students with skills newsrooms may not yet know how to use.

"Right in that first journalism class, they're going to be posting on the Web," says Mary T. Rogus, associate professor of electronic journalism at Ohio University. "They learn to shoot and edit video. They're starting out their freshman year being exposed to multiple tools, which is how we have to think of the platforms -- just another tool to tell a story."

Finding and telling meaningful stories remains the focus for most journalism educators, but the practicalities of that mission are more complicated than ever. Teaching journalism today means facing uncertainty on multiple fronts. What kinds of news organizations will employ students after graduation? How will those young journalists be paid? What tools will they use to do their jobs?

The best journalism programs haven't just accepted uncertainly, they've embraced it, making it an integral part of their curricula by adding courses focused on technical innovation and entrepreneurship. Still, challenges abound. It's hard to recruit faculty with both digital skills and advanced degrees. Classrooms, computers and student newsrooms may be woefully out of date. Textbooks seem obsolete as soon as they're published, and even the most tech-savvy professors struggle to stay up to date.

"Everybody's trying to figure out that anticipation piece," said Victor Hernandez, a news futurist at CNN who often advises journalism schools on ways modernize their programs. "What's next? Where are we headed in the next two-three years? Universities aren't the only ones trying to play catch up. We all are, and it's going to take the collective to move the needle."

Hernandez is always on the lookout for new grads with the skills newsrooms need, but he also sees partnerships between news organizations and journalism schools as a way to "grow a pipeline" of digital talent. Those partnerships, he says, may be as focused on the faculty as on students. For instance, five journalism professors from historically black colleges will spend this summer working as interns in digital newsrooms, thanks to a grant from the International Center for Journalists.

"I would love to see deeper integration with established put forth some training programs, just sort of tap into the education of the educators so they're more attuned to the changing technologies and the changing skills sets that we look for in the next generation of journalists," he says.

Shaking things up in academia can be daunting because of the many rules, regulations and standards that govern degree programs, but a growing number of j-schools are making sweeping structural changes. At Ohio University, a switch from quarters to semesters at the school gave the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism the chance to overhaul its course structure.

"Curriculum is a hard thing to blow up," Rogus says. "We jumped into digital in a big way."

Gone are traditional concentrations in magazine, broadcast, online and newspaper journalism; instead, the school now offers a single journalism track full of digitally-focused courses designed to teach students to report, edit and innovate. Students can still select courses that emphasize a certain type of journalism, but they're also encouraged to learn how to crunch data, curate social media and pitch ideas for startups.

"It's really the ultimate flexibility in terms of what they want to take away from here," Rogus says.

Smaller scale changes also carry challenges. Sara Magee, an assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland, is spending the summer re-imagining a broadcast course she'll teach this fall. That means deciding not just what to add, but what to subtract. For Magee, that means teaching the broad concepts as opposed to individual pieces of software. Students are expected to use video tutorials to brush up on tech skills, allowing Magee to focus on storytelling and preparing the students to keep themselves current long after graduation.

"It's really letting them teach themselves," she says. "In the real world, if there's some new piece of equipment, you're not going to have time to have someone sit down with you and show you step by step."

It's hard to quantify how many journalism schools are making similar changes. The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications has approved 116 schools. The council doesn't prescribe specific courses, technologies or curricula, but programs are expected to be "current." That doesn't mean having the fanciest software and big-name journalists, says Susanne Shaw, the council's executive director, but schools do need to respond to at least some digital changes.

"Not every one of the schools are on the cutting edge of the world that we live in, but the world is changing so rapidly that it's hard to keep up," Shaw says.

Keeping up is only part of the equation for some journalism educators. Robert Hernandez, an associate professor at USC Annenberg, wants to go beyond equipping students to write, take video, tweet and code. His goal is to give graduates skills that newsrooms aren't yet sure how to use. Academia, he says, can "leapfrog" the journalism industry by experimenting with platforms, partnerships and emerging technologies like Google Glass.

"I am creating an army of journalists that is going to infiltrate newsrooms and change them whether they like it or not," he said. "They're coming out with skills the newsroom doesn't know it needs."