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Thursday, August 6, 2009
Small Fry

Large J-schools may have the dollars, but smaller programs are also preparing students for digital convergence

By Mark A. Butzow

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly named the Truman State University student newspaper. The name has been corrected.

Managing editors have perhaps always had concerns that journalism graduates weren’t being taught the right stuff. With the dramatic technology shifts in the news industry this decade, both the pros and the professors have been struggling to decide what the right stuff is. Naturally, then, the pressure on journalism/mass communication programs has been immense.

Some large journalism programs have been able to move mountains by constructing buildings, reinventing the curriculum, and investing in state-of-the-art facilities and equipment that provide opportunities for students to dabble in multiple-platform news coverage. Those schools are more likely to recruit faculty who already possess Web-related skills and to provide existing faculty with time to retrain and reinvent themselves.

But don’t give up on the small journalism schools just yet.

“It does create a greater burden on professors to reinvent themselves, but it is totally possible,” said Ginny Whitehouse at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash. “We are still able to provide quality, student-centered instruction that leads to good jobs. The advantage we have is that our curriculum has always been converged. We have the challenges of integrating newer technology and figuring out the best equipment. We don’t have to reinvent the curriculum.”

Despite the obvious obstacles — listed here as “people, courses and things” — many smaller programs feel they’re successfully preparing their students for the “digital future” of news reporting and dissemination. Some examples:

• Mass communications majors at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, have eight courses available that focus on Web skills, online design and content, including a capstone online magazine course that’s won dozens of awards.

• At Whitworth, the journalism/mass communication teachers are revamping themselves without reinventing the curriculum and by relying on experts from the Spokane media market.

• At the University of Alaska-Anchorage, reporting classes are gathering assets (audio, photos) along with their text stories and broadcast scripts, and a Web site displays the best of the bunch.

• In Missouri, advisers to various student media at Truman State encourage student editors to collaborate and create coverage for multiple organizations plus a shared “media network” Web site.

• Stories for Grambling State’s campus media can be completed and “fiber-wired” from the new convergence lab, with students for the paper, radio and TV station working side by side.

All these schools see room for improvement. They’re not all offered up here as exemplars. But for programs yet to make much progress, there certainly are lessons to learn and advice to heed from their experiences. We’ll use the phrase “people, places and things” as an organizing scheme, adjusting it slightly to people, courses and things.

People (aka, get off your deadwood)

As Whitehouse put it, “We’re no longer going to even pretend to teach newspaper journalism.” For the hundreds, maybe thousands, of professors who have no experience with the new technology, that may mean it’s time to retrain or move out of skills courses. For some programs, personnel who can’t or won’t keep up are a roadblock, slowing or even stopping multimedia progress.

“They’re not bad teachers, and I have sympathy for them not wanting to retrain,” said Regene Radniecki, a professor at MSU, Moorhead. “I have to be sympathetic to people who have put in their time and taught well but now find themselves out of synch with what students need to know.”

Radniecki has been teaching herself Flash and other online skills since 1992, first as a graphics editor at the Naples, Fla., paper, then as a graduate student, and since 2000, at MSU.

Retirements and other vacancies may not occur that often, so mass communications programs have to keep up without being able to change personnel. And even when smaller programs have the opportunity to hire new faculty, it’s difficult to recruit faculty who fit the bill. Radniecki recalls a recent applicant who touted the use of PowerPoint for lectures as evidence of his or her media technology competency.

The key, at least while teachers are improving their own competencies, is to bring students into the process, Whitehouse said. “Let’s work together to figure out how to write to this new and evolving audience.” Students have a more sophisticated view of technology and bring a skill set that will augment the professor’s knowledge base, she said. In the meantime, learn from them and others.

“It is possible to revamp yourself, reinvent yourself,” Whitehouse said. Yes, it’s a steep, time-consuming learning curve, and Whitehouse, Krause and Radniecki all credit their institutions for supporting it. Whitehouse said Whitworth sent a colleague to the Poynter Institute and paid for her to learn nonlinear editing at a local TV station.

“I’ll learn more about running cameras used in the TV broadcasting class and will learn how to work with (equipment at) the radio station,” she said.

A sabbatical this fall will help Whitehouse achieve this, but she thinks she could have done it without the break from teaching.

Courses (aka, reinvent the curriculum?)

One of the objectives of Poynter’s annual “Multimedia Journalism for College Educators” seminar is to present the curriculum plans that the “top schools” are adopting to teach multimedia. Programs with barely a hundred journalism majors and only a few teachers watch with interest when Brigham Young University, University of Southern California, Ball State University and University of Missouri implement ambitious convergence curriculum plans. Surely, the “small fry” of the journalism world can’t compete, right?

When Radniecki took her job in Moorhead, she saw a huge opportunity and developed a robust online journalism emphasis. Existing print and broadcast courses such as desktop publishing and desktop video got a multimedia makeover. She and a colleague developed a capstone class that debuted in 2002. She and other colleagues have slowly added competency with Flash and Web design software, enough to host Web sites for course materials. The capstone course now creates an online magazine (HorizonLines.org) each spring that, since 2002, has won 28 national and regional awards.

“I love teamwork and collaboration,” Radniecki said. “I don’t teach; I facilitate.” And the result is students who still learn the craft of storytelling while getting a taste of several new tools.

Martin Edu, acting chairman of Grambling State’s Department of Mass Communication, is proud of the revamped curriculum there. “It has a greater focus on multimedia courses,” he said. The department also expanded the core curriculum and this year added multimedia imaging as an introduction/prerequisite to online writing and design.

In spring 2008, Jim McPherson at Whitworth oversaw a hastily organized one-credit class in which students took ownership; decided they wanted exposure to video production, photo essays, audio skills, HTML skills, etc.; and arranged for experts from Spokane-area businesses to help them. Next spring, that experience will debut as a beefed-up, three-hour interactive journalism course that Whitehouse said will have students producing “more product” than the one-credit version did. But she said that any and all courses can be adjusted to have a multimedia aspect to them. Some students in her ethics course chose to turn in a required portfolio project in a paperless, blog format. In a more planned example, Whitehouse’s feature writing students have produced copy and images for an online magazine produced for the Alumni Office.

Paola Banchero, a journalism professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, attended Poynter’s “Convergence for College Educators” seminar in 2005, when the question of whether journalism programs should move toward a convergence curriculum was as important as how to do so. She said the university’s goal is to produce well-rounded students who are skilled in the way employers seem to want. The university’s journalism core now includes the news reporting and the electronic media writing courses, and teachers of both those courses have incorporated a WordPress blog into the assignment process.

“They write these stories and post them for the instructor to see,” Banchero said. “The professor then decides if any are worth publishing. If so, perhaps after some revision, the story is published on a site called Digital Seawolf. Only ‘A’ and ‘B’ stories are published.”

Banchero said students also upload “assets” such as short video and still photos, and the student paper and radio station are encouraged to look and decide whether to use these student-produced stories.

Truman State University has so far chosen not to add any multimedia-specific courses.

“We’re focusing more on where we want to be (what to gather) and not so much on how to technically code it,” said Don Krause, who also advises the Index student newspaper.

For TSU’s 200-level media writing course, students are required to have a digital camera.

“So some of these assignments are encouraging them to get still photos, moving video or sound bites,” Krause said. “Sounds like a lot of trouble, but it’s what a lot of regular reporters are having to do these days.”

Later writing courses are either team taught, pairing a print veteran with a broadcast veteran, or at least have a “print component and a broadcast component for the same assignment,” Krause said. Some of those class-produced stories get used on the student-run TV newscast, radio station, newspaper, travel magazine and arts publication. And, since last year, there’s the Truman Media Network, a separate media outlet that is more of an Internet brand. Krause said the thought was to pull content from the various student media and package it online, an idea they hope to execute better in its second year.

Things (aka, avoiding buyer’s remorse)

Let’s review. Sometimes, existing faculty are unwilling or unable (or both) to retrain. Sometimes, curriculum change is an obstacle, either because the process moves at a snail’s pace or because something else deemed vital would have to be eliminated to make way for multimedia courses. Sometimes, though, the troops are willing and the classes can be modified or added, but acquiring equipment is the problem.

Are the journalism curriculum and broadcasting curriculum separate? Are student media housed in a variety of locations or even off campus? Have budgets made it nearly impossible to keep the computers and software current? If so, then you might feel your multimedia goals can’t be met. Success stories are easy to find, but often it’s at schools with 1,000 or more journalism majors where the big, dramatic cross-platform media labs can be unveiled. What about for the programs with 200 or fewer majors without a supportive administration or a Letterman or Cronkite to up the ante?

At Grambling State, it has helped to get most of the players into the same building, Edu said. The student-operated radio station recently moved to the same building as the Gramblinite newspaper and faculty offices and classrooms. The TV station is a half-mile away, but Edu is proud to say that the department’s new convergence lab includes edit bays with Final Cut Pro, so projects and stories for the TV newscast can be completed in the lab and fiber-wired to the remote station. Radio and newspaper staffers work side by side in the lab, as do students working on projects for classes. Like the TV station, the newspaper and radio station are wired to the lab, so all the media units can communicate and exchange material. Edu likes to call the space GSU’s “convergence hub.”

Radniecki praises the supportive attitude of Minnesota State, especially in times of flat budgets or even recessions. At MSU, Moorhead, mass communication students have access to labs with Web design software, plus equipment and software for audio, video and photojournalism assignments. But she doesn’t think mass communication programs should expect universities to pony up for everything new and shiny, just as we know they can’t add faculty in tough times.

Whitworth has made some equipment purchases in the past several years, but Whitehouse said the school also encourages students to purchase cameras and other equipment on their own.

“How do I justify expensive equipment upgrades when technology is changing so fast? It all is updating faster than is reasonable for (universities) to afford,” she said. “Some of our equipment is not what I would like it to be.”

At Truman State, journalism students are required to have their own digital camera when they take the sophomore media writing course and the later reporting courses. The student TV station has Avid for video storytelling, and the department’s two labs and sound booths are outfitted well enough, with Audition for audio work, Soundslides for photo galleries and the like, Krause said. Also, having all the student media in the same building, along with the communication faculty, makes a difference.

“We’re trying to expose them to a lot of different ways of presenting stories, and we show them lots of examples of what professional places are doing,” he said.

This look at academic programs’ efforts at small schools left student media in the periphery. But college newspapers might be in a better position to adapt quickly than a department with one or more large roadblocks. After all, there’s no curriculum review process for independent student media. Most software and hardware purchases don’t have to go through a lengthy approval process, and quantities are lower. And, maybe best of all, the rapid turnover in personnel means there’s no “deadwood” problem.

Mass communication programs that aren’t making progress most likely have good reasons for their difficulty. But the only obstacle that can’t be overcome or worked around is a belief that the old model of providing journalism education is good enough. Turning out “digital-ready” news professionals isn’t just a good goal; it’s now our obligation as journalism educators. What’s holding you back?

Mark Butzow worked in TV and print news-rooms for 20 years before joining the faculty of Western Illinois University in 2004. In addition to worrying about how the Internet changes the skill set journalists need, he is working on a project analyzing the quality of media ethics courses and textbooks.

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