New Courses for New Media
J-schools are tapping talent from other departments and from online newsrooms to teach survival skills for today's fast-evolving media landscape. But there's still a heavy emphasis on the fundamentals.
By Chris Harvey
Harvey, a former AJR managing editor and a former associate editor at
washingtonpost.com, teaches Web writing and publishing at the University of Maryland.
A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, Paul Grabowicz began hearing about some of the problems recent graduates were encountering when they went off to practice journalism at news Web sites. Nothing monstrous, mind you, but case after worrisome case in which marketing and advertising discussions had slopped over into the newsroom.
"It wasn't just us reading it and chewing on it" anymore, says Grabowicz, the new-media program director at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. "It was [former] students saying, 'That's what happened with Company X.' "
Grabowicz figured students needed a better idea of what they were getting into. He began creating a class that would give them time inside a new-media company, studying its problems--editorial and financial--and recommending solutions. But he knew he couldn't pull it off without help from outside the journalism school. He was a longtime word guy, not a financial whiz--an investigative reporter who had slid in increments into full-time teaching.
So he approached Berkeley's Haas School of Business and persuaded Amy Shuen, a visiting professor with a background in high-tech business strategies, to join him in a cross-disciplinary effort. The following spring, when he taught the class again, Grabowicz signed up Pete Deemer, then a general manager with the Internet publisher ZDNet, for an insider's perspective on problems facing new-media companies.
Soon Grabowicz had classes of 35 to 40 students--from the schools of journalism, business and information management and systems--listening to the trio's talks on new-media strategies. With each class, he'd send students out in teams to become intimately acquainted with companies that had agreed to the special attention. Sometimes the firms' executives would have a particular issue they'd ask the students to address; other times, the students would zero in on topics they'd decided needed an outside perspective.
The collaboration produced some amusing culture clashes, Grabowicz says. The MBAs had "their boxes and theories and arrows" to assess corporate difficulties. The journalism students were "all over the map" with their thought processes, weighing information from multiple directions.
Despite their differences, the students learned from each other. J-schoolers began to understand the "MBA mind-set," Grabowicz says. The business types began to understand journalism's value systems and its perplexing mission to often produce a product sprinkled with stories that make readers uncomfortable.
And the online executives--well, they seemed to get what they asked for. George Shirk, editor in chief of the San Francisco-based Wired News, which provides online analyses of technology companies, welcomed student teams into his newsroom.
"I was happy to have them here," Shirk says, "not so much to say, 'Here, we've found the Holy Grail,' but to enter into a discussion."
G RABOWICZ'S RELIANCE ON HELP from beyond the journalism school faculty is something other new-media teachers are learning is key to survival. With a subject matter that's rapidly evolving and a field that requires an understanding not only of reporting and writing skills, but often of several mediums and computer coding, cross-departmental teaching teams and professional partnerships are becoming more commonplace.
Equipment, as well as expertise and innovations, are on the swap-block.
"It has to be multidisciplinary," says Larry Pryor, director of the online program at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and former editor of the Los Angeles Times' Web site. "It's a waste of resources for J-schools to try to do what other schools do best."
Sometimes the teamwork has a futuristic bent: It's designed to show students the possibilities for news reporting and delivery in the 21st century.
At Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, John Pavlik, executive director of the new-media center, has teamed with colleagues from computer science to introduce technologies developed in those labs to his students. One such innovation was a 360-degree camera--an unpretentious-looking marriage of metal and glass that could pass for a flashlight on steroids.
Developed in 1996 by a computer science professor and later produced commercially, the camera reflects light off a parabolic mirror and into a single lens to capture a circular, unbroken view of a scene.
Why would anyone want to? you might be wondering right about now. What possible uses might this technology have?
Students in Pavlik's News Laboratory class used the camera in 1997 to shoot the protest and arrest of gay marchers who had been banned from New York's St. Patrick's Day parade. Viewers who clicked on the students' video, which had been loaded onto the Web, could zoom in and out of the scene to observe the interaction of police, protesters and parade-goers.
Last year, students in Pavlik's class used the camera to pinpoint the spot where West African immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot to death by members of the New York Police Department. (Police said they thought Diallo was a suspect in a rape case and that the wallet he was holding was a gun.) In a still picture later displayed on APBNews.com, Columbia students captured the Bronx apartment vestibule where Diallo was shot, the bullet holes left by the shooting and notes written and left by police inspectors and other visitors.
In both cases, Pavlik says, the tool enhanced the storytelling. "The tools shouldn't be about having gimmicks or gadgets," he says. "There has to be a reason for them."
Pryor has also proposed that the School of Fine Arts offer a class in design to journalism students. "They've been teaching the principles of design for years," he says. "Why should we try to reinvent the wheel?"
Rich Gordon, hired in January to chair the new-media program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, has been tapping the expertise of new-media professionals and a computer science teacher for a capstone course he's offering graduate students.
For years, Medill's grad students in the magazine sequence have been required to take a course in which they create full-scale prototypes, complete with editorial content and marketing and business plans. Gordon adapted the course this spring and summer to new media: His students worked in teams, immersing themselves in the launch of Web sites. Two staffers from Tribune Interactive guided them in developing business and design plans.
During the two quarters, 21 students developed seven sites on subjects such as health advice to teens, financial guidance to twentysomethings and offbeat news and information about Chicago to visitors. "Considering we're in our infancy, we did some pretty cool stuff," says Gordon, the former head of the Miami Herald's new-media division.
To create one site, three journalism students asked for permission to team with two computer science majors who could provide advanced programming skills for interactive elements. Gordon signed off on the idea, and a computer science professor oversaw the tech students' work, giving them credit for independent studies. The site the team created, Metromax, provides entertainment options for Chicago-area college students. It's organized into categories by the amounts of disposable cash students might have, in words they can definitely relate to--including "Broke Ass" and "Getting By."
Matching up students from Medill and computer science "resulted in a much richer site," Gordon says, "and it gave journalism students the experience of working with tech people"--a skill guaranteed to come in handy when they move into editing and production jobs on the Web.
T HIS SYNERGY IN NEW-MEDIA classrooms hasn't grown up in isolation; it reflects the partnerships being struck outside university gates.
Spurred in part by their quest to bring not just text but also quality audio and video to the Web, the last few years have seen deals struck between a number of media titans, including the content-sharing alliance between the Washington Post Co. and NBC and MSNBC and the pending merger of America Online and Time Warner (see "Get Big or Get Out," ). The AOL-Time Warner deal would join the world's largest commercial Internet service provider with one of the country's largest cable companies.
Already print reporters for some media companies are pulling double and triple duty: doing stand-ups on their top stories on sister cable stations and writing shorter versions of those print stories for the Web. And increasingly, reporters and editors with backgrounds in traditional mediums are gravitating into Web jobs. "You may be hired to work at the New York Times as a reporter, and, in a year, be working on the online version," says Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, immediate past president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. "How do we prepare for that?"
There's no cookie-cutter response at the nation's journalism and communications schools. But all the corporate deal-making has forced academics to reevaluate not only the way they teach Internet journalism, but also how they teach basic reporting and editing. (See "Superhire 2000,")
A number of schools have done away with traditional "sequences"--in which students are taught how to be a broadcast or a newspaper reporter--and are instead encouraging experimentation with courses rooted in different mediums.
The University of Kansas has taken it a step further: In the fall of 1999, its journalism faculty approved a curriculum overhaul that not only scrapped sequences, but also requires majors to take basic skills classes that teach newsgathering and writing across mediums, beginning with the very first reporting class. "We decided we needed to prepare our students for careers where they're good writers and critical thinkers, where they can do analytical work and be able to work on multiple platforms," says James K. Gentry, dean of the journalism school.
So in the converged Research and Writing class at Kansas, students create a classified ad; gather research online for a story; write a print story based on an in-class event (for instance, someone hits Professor Rick Musser in the face with a pie); conduct on-camera interviews; edit video; collect audio on tape; create a Web page using a Web-editing tool; and write an out-of-class, multiple-source story.
Brilliant strategy? Or recipe for disaster?
"We're...on the ragged bleeding edge," Gentry says, "but we'd rather be there than in the back."
L EST YOU THINK some of the traditional skills might be getting lost in this New Age tango with technology, take solace in this: The top J-schools are still emphasizing the basics--reporting, writing and ethics--even as they grapple with the needs of the future.
"Finding the appropriate role for new media in this particular school remains a work in progress," says David Klatell, an associate dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia. "But we've learned a couple of things," he says, in the six years since the launch of the school's new-media center.
"This school never was and never will be about technology.... This is not the engineering school or the computer science school. Our criteria toward our...curriculum is it should be first and foremost about [journalistic] standards and practices.
"That's an old-fashioned notion; some would say a stodgy notion," Klatell says. "But we'll live with that--wear it as a badge of honor."
The two full-time new-media teachers at the University of Florida--a pioneer in teaching online journalism--express similar sentiments.
"Because our online concentration is firmly within the journalism department, [students] are journalists" when they graduate, says Melinda "Mindy" McAdams, who joined Florida's College of Journalism and Communications a year and a half ago as a Knight Chair in Journalism Technologies and the Democratic Process. In other words, McAdams adds of her students, "They can write."
Students concentrating in online journalism at the University of Florida will understand Web tools and Web coding language, they'll get the importance of file sizes and download times, and they'll be able to "pick up a software package and teach themselves to use it with no help," McAdams says. "I'm teaching them to be versatile in a rapidly changing environment."
But both McAdams and colleague David Carlson, director of the school's Interactive Media Lab (and a former columnist for AJR), say their students will also be able to craft a strong headline and caption, write a story quickly and accurately and break someone else's story down into a succinct brief. They'll also recognize the difference between an important story and--how do we say it politely?--a dud.
Those skills are honed in core reporting, editing and ethics classes required of all University of Florida journalism students and in Carlson's hands-on new-media course, Applied Interactive Newspapers. In that class, students work in a state-of-the-art lab where they edit, hyperlink and package wire stories while producing a weekly online newsmagazine.
"I put a lot of emphasis on news judgment," Carlson says. Students rotate during the semester between jobs as content producers and news editors. When they're functioning as news editor, they help a graduate teaching assistant who's serving as managing editor to decide which of the week's top stories moving on the wires will get most of their attention.
"I try to loosely model [the newsmagazine] after the old National Observer," Carlson says. It has five sections: Global, National, Tech, Health/Science and Entertainment. "What we try to do is a big takeout on whatever the news of the week is."
In other words, the top news online, as in an ink-on-print newspaper, gets top play.
New medium. Old principles.
I F EARLY RESPONSES to a survey of new-media professionals are to be believed, schools like Florida's that blend journalism basics with some technical skills and a fearlessness of new technologies are on the right track. ###
Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, joined McAdams this summer in surveying online news professionals. Early findings in the study for the Online News Association suggested basic journalism skills--especially those traditionally associated with copyediting and other editing jobs--are deeply prized.
Online managers overwhelmingly reported that they want recruits who can edit, rewrite and copyedit text and update time-sensitive material. Researching skills--the efficient use of Web search engines to find relevant links--were deemed exceptionally important. Editors want their staffers to be able to distinguish between a personal homepage and one produced by a more reputable source. A majority also said they wanted new hires to be able to write HTML, the code that allows pages to be designed, posted and linked on the Web.
"It's business as usual, but the business isn't usual," Paul says. "That's where the challenge is: helping students understand the business environment they'll be working in."
She adds the trick for educators will be in "developing media-sensitive journalists who understand how each of the media can be used in different ways, and how the audience is looking for different things from various news providers--print versus online versus broadcast." Wordsmiths don't have to be trained to be great videographers, Paul believes, but they do have to understand how important video can be in some storytelling.
Rich Jaroslovsky, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Online and president of the Online News Association, agrees. "I know some schools have flirted with emphasizing the whiz-bang technology aspects," he says. "It could be useful, but it's a mistake to do to the exclusion of basic journalistic skills.
"The technology will change. It already has changed. Tools from three to four years ago are already being overtaken. What you really need, and what I'm looking for when I hire, are fundamental skills. Beyond that... an openness to learning new technologies" and what they can do.
For his part, Berkeley's Grabowicz is trying to fill the orders from the professionals. They sound simple on the surface but can get downright confusing when parsed. Teach the concepts, but also teach the basics. Introduce the students to the technologies, but don't necessarily teach the technologies.
Every night, Grabowicz says only half-jokingly, he has a nightmare. And there are two versions of it. Either he's not teaching enough about the tools and codes: HTML and Dreamweaver, Photoshop and Flash.
Or he's teaching too much.
"It's all very muddled right now," he says. "In 10 years, the division of labor" for teaching online journalism will be much clearer.
At least, he says, his colleagues on the Berkeley faculty, in the heart of dotcom country, recognize that this coursework is important.
"How do you take a stand against this when you're at Ground Zero?" Grabowicz asks, not expecting a response. "It's exploding all around us here."