JournalismPR & Journalism Education

Preparing the Next Generation of Journalists

I have a little Twitter poll going on right now: Which Journalism School Will Best Prepare The Next Generation of Journalists? 111 Twitter followers have cast their votes so far, with “other” leading the poll. I clearly overlooked some great institutions. If you haven’t cast your vote, I encourage you to do so. The poll is open through the end of the month, and I will share the final tally on the blog (along with many of your comments).

More important than your opinion on which school will do the best job is the bigger issue of preparing a future generation of journalists. I’ve seen dozens of posts on this topic, with many of them focusing on skills related to online journalism and social media. While these skills will be useful for some journalism students, I don’t think everyone needs to know how to format a photo for a blog post, nor do they have to understand HTML. I think media organizations will continue to hire support staff that can support journalists with these tasks.

I think the fundamentals of journalism remain the same. Journalists entering the profession in the future need the same skills they’ve always needed, solid fundamentals in the art of journalism. I’ve talked a bit about the basic journalism skills needed recently on this blog, but it’s important to reinforce this issue. First and foremost, journalists need to understand how to produce great news content. This starts with mastery of reporting and writing fundamentals.

Beyond the basic skills taught by any accredited journalism school, there are job-specific skills based on the type of job a student wants to get out of school; their specialization. While the types of jobs available have changed dramatically, many of the fundamentals of journalism education remain the same. Back then, if you wanted to work in journalism, you needed experience in your desired area of specialization. If you wanted to work as a newspaper reporter, you needed basic reporting fundamentals and a few internships with some newspapers. You needed writing samples and some real-world work experience. If you wanted to work in broadcast journalism, you needed to have some on-camera training. And for one more example, if you wanted to work in layout, you needed some basic design and desktop publishing experience.

Have things really changed that much? Today, if you want to work for a major blog like The Huffington Post, you should have a solid track record of blogging – ideally, have a blog of your own with a large audience. If you want to work for a top 10 daily, your chances of getting a job are much better if you know how to write for the Web and have a basic understanding of HTML, online video, SEO, and even social media. But there are still a lot of journalism jobs out there where just knowing how to write good news content could be enough to get that first job.

I think the key for students in journalism programs today is to determine a career path early. You need to decide on a specialty faster than in years past. This gives you more time to hone your skills in school, to pursue and land the right internships, and if necessary, to build your portfolio with blogging and social media skills. I’d take an entry-level journalist with a six-inch thick portfolio of writing samples over a candidate with HTML and YouTube knowledge any day. It’s easier to teach technology skills than reporting on the job. That said, I’d hire the blogger with 8,000 RSS subscribers and 1,000 blog posts under their belt over both the former candidates.

While this may be the case, I do think there are a new set of skills future journalists need to be successful, particularly around business fundamentals and marketing. Journalism students would be well-served to take courses that teach them more about business models and audience management. The more a journalist understands writing for specific audiences, the better prepared they will be to serve their readers or viewers. There is far more interaction between journalists and consumers today, and new journalists need skills for managing the constant feedback they will receive in response to the content they write. Similarly, new journalists need to understand how their organization generates revenue, and how they can most contribute to the bottom line with their content. This may be as simple as identifying gaps in coverage the active audience members are looking for, or the more complicated aspects of generating traffic and comments for online content.

Journalism education should not revolve around technology fads, but rather the tried and true disciplines of journalism that make us all want to read, subscribe and interact with great content.

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