Friday, April 11, 2008

What j-schools should teach

Mindy McAdams at the University of Florida challenged her blog readers to share ideas about measurable skills that journalism students (and journalists) need.
The problem for j-schools has always been to teach up-to-date skills that will help students get jobs while at the same time giving them longer-lasting skills and ideals.
I learned how to use a proportion wheel and count headlines at the University of Georgia. The longer-lasting skills came from ethical discussions over beer after work at The Red and Black.
So too much emphasis on the latest technology -- Flash, or editing video for a particular outlet like Youtube -- won't last. The first, primary skill any student or worker needs is the ability to continue to learn.
Still, here's a small list, from a journalist and mom of a soon-to-be college freshman, broken into core classes and j-school classes. The j-schools can't and shouldn't do this work alone. Full colleges need to evaluate core requirements for the new generation of "net natives," who live on Facebook but just might not know how to make a balance sheet.

Core curriculum:
1. How do you identify and evaluate "good" information? Students should learn this skill starting in elementary and middle school. But public universities can't count on that education being deep and strong enough for future journalists. This class can be part of a library sciences curriculum, a liberal arts curriculum, or a science curriculum. Genie Tyburski asks that question in the syllabus for JOMC 714 through the UNC j-school's distance-learning program this fall.
2. How do you write a business plan or grant proposal? (Echoing Amy Gahran) This question can naturally evolve from students' (or their parents) efforts to get into college in the first place, or their efforts to pay for it. Navigating the maze of financial aid forms is just the first step. I know a freelance photographer mom who has told her musical college son that he can do anything he wants -- as long as he can get someone else to pay for it. That's the grant-writing part. The corporate/capitalist side is knowing how to quantify the cost of a business idea, write a business plan and make a sales pitch. Prerequisite: Accounting 101, Excel proficiency.
3. How do you organize, archive and share research? New tools are rapidly evolving here, from Google apps to institutional software available to students at specific schools. Plan a course for freshman year (or for re-entering grad school students) that mirrors middle-school organization classes -- electronic "notebook" checks, note-taking and citation-saving skills. Teach how to break down deadlines into small checkpoints. Teach the importance of deadlines for personal time management, not just for external requirements.

Journalism curriculum:

1. How do you evaluate and bring sense to raw data? Database information is proliferating, and is often available free from nonprofit organizations like the Sunlight Foundation or directly from government sources. Many organizations are finding new, cheap ways like Caspio to publish that information, but few are crunching, mashing up and analyzing the data. The easy way out is to stick it in a database ghetto on a website and watch the web hits come. Journalists need to evaluate that information and the sources and know how to mash it up into maps and categories to find patterns. Example: Binyamin Appelbaum, Ted Mellnik and friends at The Charlotte Observer demonstrated that skill with home foreclosure information long before other outlets jumped on the mortgage crisis. Prerequisite: Accounting 101, Excel and perhaps Access proficiency.
2. How do you continue to find and evaluate new tools for searching and sharing of information? Tyburski's class at UNC in the past has envisioned what life would be like without Google. Former colleague Leslie Wilkinson blogged for class about the challenge. Many journalists have at one time or another had to deal with email being down or having another crucial tool unavailable. This track would focus on alternative ways of finding and sharing reliable information when the standard methods don't work. Evaluating Twitter and mobile tools is key as technology and business evolves. Figure out how to find new tools and evaluate their effectiveness in terms of efficiency and usability.
3. Where do you draw the ethical and legal lines these days? Mindy lists an online ethics class. Going a little further and playing off Amy's post again, give students some up-to-date case studies involving business and ethics. As media companies try to find new ways to make money and also explore new roles for "citizen journalism," explore where the ethical line is now. (How to test and measure success in this class? Toughie. It would be a seminar class, with discussion, group work and papers.) Real-world examples:
A. Private corporations are buying up student newspapers. What are the ethical and business implications of the move? Will it affect what information campuses can produce and receive? What are the implications for other media in college towns?
B. The Hoya at Georgetown wants to go independent, but the college wants the paper to change its name so the college can retain the Hoya name. What's right there? How much is a name worth?
C. Should ads for egg donors be allowed in campus newspapers but ads for condoms be disallowed?
D. Should a newspaper publish the last names of children in a photo caption submitted by a reader if the reader prefers no last names because of concerns about privacy and safety?
E. Should a newspaper ignore or publish photos from an event staged by an activist group to bring publicity to their cause? Is there one standard if the photo comes from the wire versus a "citizen journalist" with the activist organization itself?


Mindy McAdams said...

Great post, Andria! There's a lot here that could be integrated into existing courses at many j-schools.

Your business examples are some of the best and clearest I have seen so far. Being particularly weak in that area myself, I really need some examples to help me improve what I can offer to students.

Andria said...

Thanks, Mindy.

I earlier read -- but have lost -- a story from UGA about students approving a fee increase to continue to get NYT, USA Today and Banner Herald free in campus kiosks. The students wanted their NYT and were willing to pay for it. Heartening.

But made me wary of Gannett's urge to grab that huge, huge market from the student newspapers who are often the most honest, independent sources of news, for students and their parents. Where can students and parents find the most transparent reporting of campus crime and drinking issues? Student newspapers. Where can they find the most honest reporting on faculty issues? Student newspapers.

Using business and ethics examples from these student papers also hits the students directly where they live.

Thanks for all you do. Your thoughtful questions will help j-schools across the country.