Journalism Schools' Dilemma: How to Train Students for Jobs That Don't Yet Exist?

Journalism Schools Uncertain Future
Journalism Schools Uncertain Future

I walked into the distinctive Armory Building at the University of Colorado at Boulder on Thursday morning not knowing what to expect. The Armory Building is the home of the

university's School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC), and several hours earlier, it had announced its plans to begin the J-school's "program discontinuance." In other words, the journalism school is being retooled: It could end up being shut down, or replaced by something altogether different.

I should mention this news affects me personally: The announcement came two days after I began to teach a course at SJMC.

In a statement, University Chancellor Phil DiStefano says the school's goal is to "strategically realign existing academic strengths and resources" in order to ensure that whatever comes after the SJMC will "meet the needs of our students, the labor market and our rapidly changing global society."

It's hardly news that journalism and the media industry have undergone profound and, for some news professionals, bitter changes over the past decade. A lot of journalism schools are attempting to rise to those challenges. They've been tweaking their formats to include courses focusing on information and communication technologies, so-called "citizen journalism," the blogosphere and social networking. From my limited perspective, it appeared the SJMC was changing with the times as well.

I came on board to teach "Multimedia Journalism for the Non-Major," also known as "backpack journalism." It's an inaugural course and has both journalism and international affairs students, who want to prepare for the uncertain media landscape that will confront them after graduation. They want to be efficient, self-reliant content producers, who can report, write, shoot and edit their stories solo.

But how does a teacher train students for future employment in an industry that's in the middle of a revolution, and in which finding steady work is far from certain?

The Skills it Will Take to Compete

David Hazinski, associate professor and head of the digital and broadcast news department at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, says it's important to prepare students for the changes awaiting them by focusing on core skills and more technology operations training.

"Journalism isn't hardware," he said in an email. "It is content and context. Someone is still going to have to go to that fire and shoot some video, interview the mayor, and analyze that stock report. Someone is still going to have to package it, if for no other reason than to save audiences time. Writing, interviewing, editing and working under pressure will still be needed skills. Ethics and standards will become even more important as the sea of opinion grows deeper. The content and context will be distributed over many platforms but someone has to be at the top of the information food chain. Those people will be skilled journalists, not technicians."

Hazinski, a former NBC correspondent, says many journalism educators are caught up in the bureaucracy of their work -- while teaching outmoded methods.

"We've let teaching schedules, research interests and heredity guide planning," he complains. "We're still following industry models even though the industries have gotten lost and the audience spread out. Race car drivers need to know how cars perform, not how to design the engines." And these "information students," he argues, will need to be grounded in a wide spectrum of fields -- writing, liberal arts, business, videography, editing and even performing -- if they are to successfully compete in the new media environment.

"A program like that doesn't exist today," he notes, "and I'm not sure academia, with its traditional structure, can even come up with it."

Popularity of Journalism Programs Is Up, Despite the Uncertainty

I asked my new class for their thoughts about the dramatic changes facing their journalism program. One student, Dana Anderson, responded later in the day by email (it had been a busy day for everyone), saying she's troubled by what's ahead for the SJMC, but also excited that her chosen field is apparently evolving in a new direction.

"Technology seems to be promoting a new level of individualism in journalism while at the same time enabling greater collaboration," she wrote. "I think journalism has the potential to become more influential. I also believe that it is crucial for journalists to be equipped with the necessary skills to not only stay current but to also shape the future of news production."

Other educators note that, nationally, journalism's popularity is growing despite the industry's uncertainties. "Enrollment is up, skill sets are up, new schools being opened," says Kip Wotkyns, assistant professor of journalism at Metropolitan State College of Denver. "Take a step back and look across any number of academic disciplines -- they're all in radical states of change."

Wotkyns says journalism educators are adapting to the sometimes mind-boggling changes facing their students and the industry. While the
future business model of journalism has yet to be resolved, he says, "schools have to face this dilemma of quickly-developing market spaces all the time. I tell my students that in their lifetimes, research has shown that they will have eight distinctly different careers. The stunning part is that four of those careers don't even exist yet. So things like critical speaking skills, foreign language skills, literacy, reporting and writing skills will prepare them for whatever they face. It makes investing in a college education worthwhile."