SPJ Reading Room
Seven questions you should ask (but no longer have to, because someone else did for you) about where your career is going
By John Patrick
SPJ Generation J Committee
OK Generation J, let's get straight to the point: We’re well on our way to grabbing the proverbial torch from those who came before us and running long and hard to carry on traditions vital to our democracy.
But let’s face it. Our ability to make that torch our own has much to do with our forerunners' trust in us. We need to consider our strengths and weaknesses and to understand what the nation's newsrooms expect of us. Once we have this information, we can be true innovators who take journalism into exciting new directions.
That’s why I’ve posed to SPJ's National Board of Directors seven questions that one of my J-professors, George Keeler of the University of La Verne, posed to newsroom executives and reporters in Southern California’s Inland Empire. These questions are designed to help us young journalists understand how our predecessors see us.
1. What do/will newsroom executives look for in journalism graduates?
The overall feeling of the respondants was that newsroom execs are looking for reporters who can easily move among formats. The skills future journalists will need are “adaptability ... along with good writing/reporting skills,” said Sue Kopen Katcef, the board’s campus advisor at large and a journalism instructor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism in College Park, Md. “With the mojo’ (mobile journalist) the apparent coming thing’... journalism students will simply have to do it all’ in ALL formats!”
However, Region 3 Director Holly Fisher, electronic media editor of the Charleston (S.C.) Regional Business Journal, said mastering the basics is vitally important.
“Writing and reporting skills are always number one," she said. "Regardless of medium, reporters have to know how to report a story — how to conduct interviews, find sources, do research and ask the important questions."
2. How can journalism schools meet the needs of newsrooms?
Here the general feeling was clear. It is time for j-schools to change — and to do so quickly. Nearly every respondent emphasized that schools should teach every journalism student, regardless of whether he or she is focusing on print or broadcast media, the technology skills needed in a world where the Internet has blurred media lines.
Director at Large Sally Lehrman, a California freelance writer who also serves as chairwoman of SPJ's National Diversity Committee, shared recommendations outside technological bounds. She thinks journalism schools should teach students to report with inclusion and sensitivity to various cultures and perspectives.
3. What is the biggest strength of young journalists?
Here respondents said flexibility and a knack for adjusting to new technologies are, by and large, what set the young journalist apart from the seasoned reporter.
“They get the new media,” said Richard Roth, SPJ's Region 5 director and senior associate dean of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. “They understand that people get information from podcasts and cell phones and the Web, as well as the traditional media, because that’s where and how they get their information.”
4. What is the biggest weakness of young journalists?
SPJ's National Secretary-Treasurer Dave Aikens, a reporter for the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times, cited professional inexperience as the young journalist’s biggest weakness. National President Christine Tatum said young journalists usually don't have the life experience that adds richness and depth to the reporting of their older colleagues. Roth said young journalists' chief weakness is their adherence to old ways of doing things. Lehrman said some young journalists fail to notice or question their own assumptions.
5. What opportunities do college journalists have that professional media reporters do not?
Lehrman said young journalists should take advantage of “professionals willing to give their time and a hand up. (Young journalists) have access to some groups to which professionals find it harder to gain entry. They also have an opportunity to learn multiple platforms and use many types of tools, compared with older generations who specialized by medium.”
6. Are college journalists taking advantage of the opportunities before them?
The respondents' resounding answer: the smart ones are — but most are not.
7. How best can journalism students prepare for the future?
The answer from Region 6 Director Gordon Govier, a veteran radio journalist now working as Internet editor and media coordinator for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Madison, Wis., summed up the respondents' sentiments: “Learn to write well in a variety of platforms. Be aware of what's happening in the news and in the news business.”