An ideal journalism curriculum for undergraduates?

The consensus on preparing tomorrow’s journalists is this: They have to be able to do everything: write well, handle digital still and video cameras proficiently, edit photos in Photoshop, edit video with FinalCutPro, produce podcasts, produce slide shows, blog, promote themselves and their employers on social media. Have I left anything out?

And underlying those skills, there’s more – the skills that journalists have always needed, the reporter’s fundamental mindset. Tomorrow’s journalists, like today’s, like yesterday’s, need to spot stories in the world around them, find out what’s been published or aired on those stories, figure out new angles and follow-ups, research people and topics, synthesize information swiftly, write quickly and gracefully, revise their own and others’ copy, analyze and use numbers, conduct all kinds of interviews, be prepared to wrestle with ethical dilemmas, possess a broad knowledge of history and current events, meet deadlines. Accuracy, brevity and clarity, the ABC’s of journalism – they sound simple, but much study and practice are needed to achieve them.

From an educator’s standpoint, a key question is this: How do we weave the fundamentals and the technology together in a curriculum that not only teaches students to compete in today’s media job market but also how to think and reflect and write? The follow-up questions come thick and fast. Do we start by teaching students how to shoot and edit video? Do we have them produce stories in multiple platforms from the beginning? Or do we start with a focus on the fundamentals, the writing, research, interviewing, revising and numeracy skills? Is it possible to do everything at once?

The answer to that last question is the only easy one: No.

Spread the material too thin, try to cram too much too fast into students’ brains, and you end up with students who can do nothing well. There may be a superficial technical glibness, but the content, the storytelling, suffers. The ability to tell important stories accurately, quickly and clearly comes first. The platforms come second. And writing is still the best way for students to demonstrate their mastery of putting a story together – whether writing for “print” or writing “broadcast” scripts or writing directly for the web. (Those are air quotes. Nearly all “print” and “broadcast” work ends up on the web at some point.)

My dream journalism curriculum looks like this.

First-year students focus on the ancient liberal arts of grammar and numeracy, learn what journalism is, study interviewing and researching, and become news-literate. Not all of these need to be full-semester, three-credit courses.

  1. Writing class. Because U.S. primary and secondary schools have abandoned formal grammar instruction, students must learn it in college. All journalists need to know how to write, and they need to know the names of their tools – words and sentence elements – and how to use them correctly. Knowledge of tools is fundamental to any craft. So – a course on grammar, Associated Press style rules, usage and conciseness, a basic writing course tailored to newswriting rather than to essays and argument.
  2. Numeracy class. Review of those simple, arithmetical ideas that too many journalism students forget once they leave seventh grade, percentages and ratios and so on. Basic statistics, so that they can think critically about polls and studies.
  3. News literacy. Students learn to differentiate among advertising, marketing, propaganda and news; the difference between assertion and verification; how to identify their own and others’ biases; the importance of journalistic independence; the role of journalism in a democracy.
  4. Introduction to journalism practice. Topics include finding story ideas, finding sources, research, shorthand, current events and interviewing. Class practice includes deconstruction of news stories to tease out the reporting process. Readings include prizewinning journalism of the past and present.

Having demonstrated a commitment to and an ability for journalism by successfully completing these courses, students may declare a journalism major or minor.

Second-year students begin to apply these skills to actual reporting and writing. Journalism majors take all of these courses; minors don’t take newsroom classes.

  1. First semester: a semester-long course on newswriting for print and another semester-long course on writing scripts for audio and video journalism. The stories produced in these classes are basic hard-news stories: fires, accidents, police, obituaries, research and survey findings.
  2. Second semester: introduction to the newsroom. My ideal journalism program has a large newsroom, an open space with many computer workstations surrounded by a few small offices and a conference room. (The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism is a good model.)
    CUNY's newsroom

    CUNY's newsroom

    My newsroom is connected to a television studio. Daily output includes an ongoing multimedia news report, a 1 p.m. radio report, a 7 p.m. television report and a real newspaper. Second-year journalism majors cover breaking news and produce one longer enterprise piece, all under faculty supervision. They spend one six-hour day and three hours on a second day in the Intro to Newsroom class. Mostly, they write, but they also go out on shoots with upper-division students. Toward the end of the semester, they begin contributing photos and audio reports.

  3. Second-semester students also take a semester-long course introduction to visual journalism, including still photography and shooting and editing video. They learn both Photoshop and FinalCutPro.

Third-year journalism majors take Newsroom II, rotating through broadcast, print and online desks over two semesters. During the broadcast and online segments, all students are general-assignment reporters. During the print segment, students cover a beat.

Other required courses, for both majors and minors, include two first-semester classes, history of journalism and media law and ethics. In the second semester, both majors and minors take a class on the evolution of the news industry. This completes the journalism minor.

Seniors focus on editing and production and on a senior project that requires storytelling across all platforms, assembled on the web. Throughout their fourth year, these students are in charge of the newsroom. They are the editors of the newspaper and the online news report and the producers of the television and radio shows. In the first semester, they also take a course on the principles of editing – essentially, a course on news judgment that includes case studies of difficult stories. In the second semester, they complete on their senior projects.

Electives, open to third- and fourth-year students, include HTML and News Graphics, Photojournalism II, On-Air Presentation, Narrative Writing, Copy Editing and Presentation for Print, Long-Form Audio Journalism, Long-Form Video Journalism, Data-Driven Journalism, beat-reporting classes on courts, sports, business, government and so on, and any other specialized courses that the faculty chooses to offer.

That’s my dream curriculum. What’s yours?


    • Ann Horbey
    • November 5th, 2010

    I love the syntax of this sentence:
    “Tomorrow’s journalists, like today’s, like yesterday’s, need to spot stories in the world around them, find out what’s been published or aired on those stories, figure out new angles and follow-ups, research people and topics, synthesize information swiftly, write quickly and gracefully, revise their own and others’ copy, analyze and use numbers, conduct all kinds of interviews, be prepared to wrestle with ethical dilemmas, possess a broad knowledge of history and current events, meet deadlines.”

    Its length–conveyed without taking a much-needed breath–perfectly conveys the burden of education for students and their instructors.

    Nice work, B.

    • carol
    • November 6th, 2010

    I’ve often felt that students were trying to stretch in too many directions at one time, the result being lots of skills but lots of lapses. I like your idea of having them build, layer upon layer. This is comprehensive, scary and thrilling all at the same time — sort of a journalism utopia.

    • Nicole P.
    • November 10th, 2010

    Mmm, I’m drooling over this … if only such an ideal curriculum had existed for me!
    If it makes you feel any better, though, my fellow graduates and I are doing well despite not having been introduced to many of these skills in undergrad/grad school. We’ve been able to learn a lot of these skills — and then some — on the job and in internships. Plus, many of this generation’s incoming journalists have been raised with Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and the like, so they have a pretty decent grasp of basic HTML and posting photos and other material on the Web.
    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much schooling you get (even from great profs such as yourself!) — nothing compares to what you learn in a real newsroom, writing for a real newspaper/magazine/TV or radio station/podcast/website on deadline.

    Cheers, and keep up the good work!

    PS: Today’s writers may also have to learn how to write their own heds and deks, write snappy photo captions, set up photo shoots and do stand-ups for video — not to mention go on TV to talk about their pieces! (I’ve managed to dodge that last one, so far.)

    • erinjayne
    • November 11th, 2010

    I’m not sure what primary schools people are going to, but mine taught me everything I need to know about grammar and numeracy. I also learned everything I need to know to be bored out of my mind and frustrated with a “college-level,” superficial instruction of the subjunctive, or a basic explanation of the “average,” not mean, without any description of standard deviation.

    These really aren’t college-level concepts, and we need to stop teaching basics and start making kids know the basics on their own. For instance, they should have to pass a test on grammar and numeracy in order to enter a journalism program in the first place. They could take the test as many times as they want, but it would be a firm prerequisite to News Writing I.

    Training in every aspect of news media (print, online, audio AND video) is too broad. We will become jacks of all trades, masters of none. Students should pick which medium interests them the most, and they should run with it.

    Then, I’d like to see a required minor in a completely different subject area, not a choice of 18-credit concentrations. Journalists need to be encouraged to open their minds because that’s how brilliant people come alive.

    • Ann Horbey
    • November 11th, 2010

    Erin: We must consider the ramifications of requiring students to learn grammar on their own. Perhaps it’d be worthwhile to allow students to enter the program directly if they passed a grammar proficiency test, but eliminating the grammar lab wouldn’t likely suit the SOJ as a whole.

    Almost all public schools in New York lack formal grammar instruction in favor of a whole language curriculum. Because the majority of SB students are the product of N.Y. public schools, we must assume they haven’t learned about grammar.

    If the goal of the SOJ is to prepare journalits for the industry, we should equip them with the most basic skills to ensure their success. From there, we could offer more advanced courses that focus on stylistic grammar–for the students who already mastered the more elementary concepts.

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