I started reporting this column as a pissed off journalism student. It’s not that I’m ungrateful for the wonderful classes and professors I’ve had at University of Wisconsin’s journalism school. It’s that my experience there lacked something: in-depth training in data and digital journalism.
Like most journalism students, I’ve picked up those skills elsewhere, at internships and at The Badger Herald, where I was managing editor this semester. But expecting students to get that experience elsewhere helped create a department that, until this year, wasn’t fully committed to making significant curriculum changes.
Keeping a modern curriculum is an issue journalism schools across the country grapple with (seriously, there are lengthy reports and coverage of this). I should also note the more traditionally academic side of UW’s journalism school, which researches the industry, is among the best in the world.
But the practical side of UW’s J-school, which teaches students how to actually be a journalist, has failed to keep up with changing technology.
After interviewing students, recent graduates, professors and local journalists for this column, I’m no longer as pissed off. Because here’s the good news: The J-school recognizes the issue and is finally doing something about it.
Letter to the editor: Journalism school will focus on adaptability, work to integrate new mediaPolo Rocha has written a great column about the J-school. I may have a few quibbles here and there, but Read…
For those unfamiliar with UW’s J-school, this is how it works. Each semester, 120 students begin their training by taking the introductory six-credit J202 lecture, where instructors have the unenviable task of teaching students with varying levels of experience and interests.
J-school students then pick one of two tracks — reporting or strategic communications — and take an intermediate 300-level class in the track they choose (some students choose both tracks). This spring, two-thirds of J-schoolers enrolled in the strategic communications intermediate class, up from 58 percent in fall of 2010.
Finally come the advanced 400-level skills classes. Some of these focus more on writing and reporting while others cover new media, but many students only end up taking one or two of the skills classes (only one is required). So the students who get to enroll in the new data visualization class benefit greatly from it, but the rest of the J-school doesn’t.
The solution is revamping the introductory and intermediate courses, which is exactly what the J-school is finally trying to do.
Under a proposal awaiting university approval, J202 would be split into two classes. One class will somewhat resemble the current J202, introducing students to the practice of journalism; the other will cover finding information, analyzing data and telling stories with data. This change is expected to happen in fall of 2016.
Hemant Shah, the J-school’s new director, said the current J202 class doesn’t always meet its goal of helping less experienced students get up to par with others in the class, which gradually caused the 300-level intermediate classes to cover more basic material.
The plan, then, is to strengthen the introductory classes and in turn make the intermediate classes “truly intermediate,” Shah said.
But this can only happen if all instructors of J335, the intermediate reporting class, commit themselves to improving the class. Some earlier lectures spent covering the basics of what a story is, how to write a lede and how to ask questions should almost be a given by that point, or at least condensed.
Instructors must also try to align what they teach, as they often choose to prioritize some elements of journalism over others. This model has its strengths and is partly rooted on academic freedom, but it can also leave students unprepared in topics their individual instructors don’t cover.
To help with that, professor Lew Friedland has proposed a set of online modules that instructors could use in any J-school class. It’s an idea he stressed is still very much in the works (and needs funding for its development), but it could provide more training to students in areas the J-school currently falls short on.
If, in fact, the J-school develops those modules — which it should — instructors actually need to use them. Instructors shouldn’t shy away from these modules because they’re uncomfortable with teaching the topics. They also shouldn’t simply assume students know how to use technology effectively, because I guarantee most students don’t.
It’s a delicate balance to strike, as the J-school shouldn’t be the place to learn the bells and whistles of software programs. But every intermediate reporting student should leave J335 with a clear understanding of how journalism works in a digital world and how digital tools enhance reporting. Right now, only some do.
There’s little doubt that the J-school faces budget challenges, including losing the funds to hire working journalists to teach for a semester. It’s also losing 20 percent of its faculty next year, with Jo Ellen Fair going to another UW department and Molly Steenson, Shawnika Hull and Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum heading to other opportunities. But I applaud Shah and the J-school for finally finding a way to work within those constraints rather than assuming it can’t revamp its education because of budget issues.
Students are also a bit at fault here. We all know those J-school students who interview their friends or turn in half-assed work to their professors, in part because they know some instructors are more willing to accept work that a real newsroom wouldn’t.
But more prevalent are the students who don’t take full advantage of the opportunities the J-school and campus have to offer. For example, it’s rare to see many students (or for that matter, faculty) at journalism conferences on campus where you actually get to learn from people in the field.
And as Nick Penzenstadler, a J-school and The Badger Herald alum who’s now at USA Today, said, students also don’t reach out or follow up with the numerous J-school alumni and visitors willing to give advice.
Still, the J-school should make a bigger push to emphasize the importance of networking and attending conferences, as well as taking advantage of opportunities outside the J-school, such as free software training from the university or useful classes in other departments.
More importantly, the J-school should encourage students to publish their work, and it should further its partnerships with publications to ensure students get clips. The amount of stories that go unpublished in journalism classes is astounding, and students can’t use these unpublished clips when applying for internships.
I’ll make a plug for student media opportunities on campus, particularly the two student newspapers. I clearly favor joining The Badger Herald, as that’s where I learned to crank out four or five stories a day, helped develop a voice for the newspaper on social media and, most importantly, got to pass on the things I learned as a reporter and editor to younger student journalists.
It’s also where I learned to think about how journalism works as a business, how to understand who our audience is and how to reach them. It’s the question on every media outlet’s mind, and it’s one that a talented group of student journalists and I are figuring out as a fully independent student newspaper. Our move today to a weekly newspaper, as well as the growth in our digital content the past few years, reflects that thinking.
J-school students, I know your schedules might already be packed, but you need to make sure you get the most out of UW and its J-school. There’s a lot of debate right now over whether a journalism education is worth it. I still think it is, but only if you try.
Polo Rocha ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and journalism. You can reach him by email or find him on Twitter.