What they’re teaching in J-school today

One of the most frequent discussions among my fellowship of disaffected print journalists these days (besides the maximum bodily tolerance for whiskey and the availability of internships in ether the Laserdisc or American auto industries) is just what in the hell people in journalism schools could possibly be telling kids these days. I found out the answer this week, sort of.

UMDs j school building

UMD's j school building

Journalism schools traditionally are very print-oriented, and the University of Maryland’s (which I attended) was no exception. This print-centric approach, in my mind at the time, was a great thing. I  am biased toward the  importance of print media over other forms anyway, and it allowed us to share intimate classroom space with some of the DC area’s greatest living journalists: David Broder, Haynes Johnson, Gene Roberts, David Lightman (not Mathew Broderick from War Games) and others. Broder brought Dana Milbank and Mike Leavitt (and his daughter) into class unannounced on separate occasions. Friends told me



Haynes started class telling about the lunch he just had with Condi Rice. The day the Iraq war started, some classes were canceled because professors had to go cover it. Lightman told me that if I could get embedded to cover it, he’d give me an A and excuse the rest of the semester. You don’t get that kind of in-the-trenches awesome sauce in the American Studies department.

But what could j school professors be saying in this day and age, when newspaper job prospects are plummeting almost daily, and their online replacements so far offer either well-funded breakthrough success or long hours slogging away into the either on a blog for little financial incentive?

I posited a hopeful thought in a previous post that surely more intensive online reporting and multimedia classes must be popping up at j schools by now, seeing as adherence to the old model is about as useful as teaching students to use a hot-type press or a Linotype machine. Then I got this comment from James over over at Knox Road , a CP- and NY-based music blog (READ IT … if you went to Maryland, you know you have fond memories of Knox Road, or at least fell in a sinkhole at one of its parties):

Online journalism in college classrooms? Certainly not at UMD. I’m going to be a first semester senior and I JUST was able to get into the online class. There are “advanced” courses, but I’ll never be able to take them.

They still don’t like giving credit to online-only clips. They still expect everybody to get internships in order to graduate. Nope, I’d say things haven’t changed much.

And, from a follow-up e-mail conversation:

JOUR353 only admits six kids and 355 admits 17. Yes, it’s ludicrous. Yes, people are crowding Diamondback GA meetings. I’m on my second try at 320 [advanced news reporting] because I couldn’t get enough clips last time. It’s absurd and not enough students realize it. Kids are still graduating with virtually no multimedia skills thinking they’ll be fine, because that’s how the school prepares you. You’re preaching to the choir.

So, reporter’s hat (with a feather of mild righteous indignation) on, I e-mailed one of my old professors, Chris Harvey, who headed up some of the online classes and news bureaus at Maryland. My e-mail was long and rambling and full of the same old malaise about the industry and digital innovation that I’ve verbalized lots of times before (I’ll post it here, if you are so curious), though I did note that other schools such as UNC seem to have developed advanced multimedia programs that are placing their students high in the field after graduation). I also stated my disappointment that a school as good as Maryland’s wouldn’t be trying to rush ahead on this front. This is of particular interest to former Maryland J schoolers, but also to J school alumni all around, I think.

Here’s her response:

Tim, I only have a minute right now, but suffice it to say we have re-built our curriculum in the past five years, and continue to do so. Your blog poster wasn’t in command of many of the current facts.

JOUR 100 students blog, and are told right from the get-go that this is a digital world.

JOUR 328G (soon to be re-numbered as a 200-level) is required of all incoming undergrads now: It’s 5 weeks of digital video, 5 weeks of digital photo, 5 weeks of digital audio. It’s taught by big-deal professionals in the D.C. area.

JOUR 352 or 350 are also required of all incoming undergrads; each has a digital component. (352 is completely digital)

JOUR 353, 355 and 354 are all advanced, three-credit, new-media courses; 354 is flash and Web interactives and visuals, and holds up to 18 kids a semester. 353 and 355 are the online news bureau (multimedia reporting and editing), and can hold up to eight kids a semester.

In addition, all incoming undergrads are required to take a multimedia capstone before graduating. In addition to the news bureaus — all four of which offer multimedia elements now — we have a Baltimore reporting class and an overseas reporting class. All publish on the Web –including the TV news bureau. All push kids into multimedia.

We continue to win first-place regional and national awards in multimedia; if you check out the SPJ Mark of Excellence contest, you’ll see what I mean.

And we’re one of 12 schools in the nation awarded Carnegie-Knight grants for a digital innovation projects this summer. The project is called News21; four of our faculty (including me) will be working this summer with 12 students awarded fellowships to build a cool project.

Anyway, if you check the journalism site, you’ll see lots of interesting new stuff.

I checked the courses offerings on the school’s web site, and they don’t go into specific detail about the online/multimedia options, but I will take her word for it. There’s also this class, a new one since I graduated in 04:

JOUR 458M Media Use of New Technologies An examination of the monumental shifts in media use and information exchange with an emphasis on the roles of mobile technology, social networking and multimedia in the production, communication and learning of information. Students examine the technological tools used to convey information and investigate, discuss and critically analyze the pros and cons of interactivity.

Definitely on the right track, though I would hope that kind of thinking is suffused throughout all the school’s classes these days. I forwarded her e-mail back to James and here was his response:

Well maybe that’s new. I came to the school in 2006 and I’ve haven’t had any of those requirements. So maybe these kids who are graduating in 4 years will be prepared for the real world, but those my age won’t be.

My follow up questions for Chris were: when were curriculum changes actually added? And what kinds of internships are students able to get these days before graduation? Some of the places our class relied on for clips or internships (the old Prince George’s Journal, for example) don’t even exist any more.

I’d be interested to hear what other J school grads (Maryland or otherwise) think of all this. Will  the changes the schools are making over the past few years be enough to still encourage kids to go into the field? And, will it prepare them with enough skills for their work to remain relevant in the changing landscape? If not, then what should be done?

I’ve long maintained that journalism isn’t something that can be taught out of a textbook — Everything I learned about reporting came from hounding sources on the phone at the college newspaper, and the most useful classes at Maryland in my view were the one on ethics, involving long winding discussions of standards and real-life decisions, and law, a practical primer any reporter should know. Do multimedia skills fall into that category now too?

Those of us in the fellowship I mentioned before also feel like we’re in a unique generatonal position: the people older than us in the field are too entrenched in their ways to bother trying to fight for a new model of journalism; the generation after us is too aware of the changes to even bother getting into the field in the first place. Those of us in the middle were prepared for the old system, met head on with the new one after a few years out of school, and don’t know how to reconcile the two.

That’s caused a lot of talented journalists I know to give up entirely and leave the industry, which is sad. It’s still too important to just walk away from, but who can blame them?

3 responses to “What they’re teaching in J-school today

  1. I’ve always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder regarding the J-school, obviously. But I don’t think all this “multimedia” training will amount to much. I don’t see a sudden wealth of these job openings either, particularly during this industry downturn. Any kid going in and out of that J-school — or any of them — right now is one of two things: fucked or lucky. Either they won’t find a job or they will. None of those degrees will provide them any security at all, however.

  2. Pingback: “Traditionally very print-oriented” « Curious in Chicago

  3. Pingback: You said it, sister « Inverted Soapbox

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