Top 10 Things College Journalism Programs Should Be Teaching (But Aren’t)
Journalism is a popular degree plan among many college students in spite of the fact that newspapers are dying. Students of today wisely realize that it’s a career path that can be quite lucrative, but unfortunately, they’re still getting taught based on an outdated model, oftentimes by instructors who no longer understand the lay of the land and still define their profession in terms of picas, Quark, and column inches. This thinking should have been let go in the first few years of the new century. Tomorrow’s journalism relies much more heavily on computers, mobile devices, apps, and more.
And that’s a good thing.
After all, the tools of today’s trade are much easier to use and understand than the tools that were in place when print newspapers were king.
No, if you want a true journalism education that will actually benefit you down the road, here’s what you need to know — other than how to write, of course.
Ten: The Difference Between Blogging And Journalism
Blogging and journalism are vastly different things, though many major news organizations no longer look at them as such. The fact that these two cultures have become so blended and intertwined, is all the more reason why tomorrow’s journalists should learn to do both. Most readers confuse the two with regularity, and many even get their news from bloggers instead of journalists.
So what the heck is so different?
Plenty. For starters, journalists report the news. They don’t give people a free pass for any reason. All journalists have a system of beliefs and ideologies, but when they’re working with their “Press” hat on, the good ones do not allow the story to become colored by their own personal convictions. They attempt, as best as possible, to report with an even hand, showing every side of the story without passing judgment.
Bloggers do not carry this same burden. Yes, part of what they do may include reporting the news, but they also have an angle. That angle could mean a variety of different things. They often connect a popular current event to the past. Like, for instance, Harold Ramis’ recent death. A journalist will report the who/what/when/where/why/how of the situation.
(“Harold Ramis, writer and director known for films such as Ghostbusters and Stripes, died on Monday of unknown causes. He was 69.”)
The journalist will strive to find out as much as possible about Ramis’ death, but the blogger may use Ramis’ death as a jumping-off point for a list-based piece like “Harold Ramis: His 5 Best Films.”
Journalists should inform without bias. Bloggers can inform and entertain with bias. Their ultimate purpose: to generate discussion and build their site’s sense of community. This can happen through stories, essays, comics, videos, pictures-with-captions, or a combination of one or all.
Since the day is probably coming wherein this job is one and the same, it’s worth it for today’s students to know the value and the specifics of each.
Nine: How To Avoid Getting Duped
Recently, long-time journalist/blogger Suzi Parker bit on a news story from the Daily Currant that revealed former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin would be going to work for Al Jazeera America. If you know anything whatsoever about Palin and Al Jazeera — as a journalist should — then this is about the time your BS detector would be going off. Parker ran with it, though, and ran a hit piece on Palin on the She the People blog at the Washington Post. It didn’t take long for commenters to point out that the Daily Currant was a fake news site. Parker was crucified by the conservative media (and Palin), before promptly losing her job with the Post. Lesson: always use more than one source, and make sure they’re established. If you’re reporting on rumor, then make sure that it’s known within the body of your piece.
Eight: How To Use The Internet To Make News, Rather Than Just Regurgitate
You don’t have to wear funny disguises and go on stakeouts to make news happen. You can do a lot from the comfort of a keyboard through tools like email, HelpAReporter.com, and the online newsrooms of various companies and government entities, which usually have a point of contact person, who can steer you toward more information than what you see in the press releases. You can also report on important studies from reputable organizations. There are probably a million ways to cultivate sources without leaving your office desk. Just remember: you have to go to where your sources are, and most of the time, you’ll find them online.
Seven: Use Of Content Management Systems
One word: WordPress. If you’re not being taught how to use this in college, then you’re well within your reason to demand a refund. (They probably won’t give it to you, but you deserve it.) See, the vast majority of websites today — at last count, 60 million — use WordPress as their content management system (CMS). It looks better, is more user friendly, and it doesn’t require a hugely expensive IT team to successfully manage and operate.
Six: Sourcing Free Photos
We’ll talk more in a moment about what you’re up against and why it’s important to keep costs as low as possible. But first, a preview: photos can get quite expensive when you work for a news organization that publishes 100 or more articles per day. (Good idea if you’re looking at search engine traffic.) Obviously, if you took each and every photo, you would need a number of photographers on staff in different parts of the world. (Not a good idea.) Furthermore, if you’re staying a little above water but trying to gain traction, you might be tempted to sign up for a service like Shutterstock. This, too, can drive costs up and put jobs in jeopardy. Luckily, there are several ways you can use free photos without getting your pants sued off. One: ask permission to use a photo that you like from a blog or news site with relevant material (provided they own the copyright). Two: use a service like Flickr’s Creative Commons, where photographers upload and grant permission for you to use their works for free provided you give the appropriate credit. (Wikipedia does this, too.) Finally: use marketing materials. Companies often provide free images if you’re writing about them. Movie studios rarely-if-ever go after you for using a scene from a movie or TV show. Get creative, and you’ll rarely have to pay for a photo.
Five: Internal Linking Strategies
This relates to our number four (SEO). Internal linking means that you have embedded another relevant link from your site into a piece of text from the post itself. This makes the body text that received the embed clickable, and it leads to more hits for a website. More hits means more prominent search engine placement, and a greater likelihood that you’ll attract readership. Internal linking should NOT be something left to IT. It’s too darn easy to do it yourself, and if you write anything on the web for money, then you ignore this skill at your own risk.
SEO, or “search engine optimization,” changes with regularity thanks to companies like Google always changing their algorithms to produce the most relevant search results for their users. Sounds annoying, but it really isn’t. In fact, more stringent SEO standards in recent years have been hugely beneficial for writers of journalistic-styled content. It’s freed you up to think more about the story you’re writing rather than the number of times you’ve used a keyword. And going back to No. 7, this is another reason why you should learn to use content management systems like WordPress. WordPress has a SEO pack that automatically analyzes your story once you’ve saved it, and tells you whether it’s good-to-go on the SEO front. And if it isn’t, it makes suggestions for what you should change to optimize your piece for the search engines. It’s truly no-brainer stuff, but many journalism students get out of college not knowing much about it.
Three: Maximizing Efficiency Via Productivity Apps
Chances are, if you’re in college, you have a smartphone, tablet, or both. On these devices, you’ll find a treasure trove of productivity apps — most good, some bad — that can really put your performance on steroids. Classics like Evernote allow you to add images, text, and more to your account, which you can then sync across a number of devices. You can plan your workload with free apps like Wunderlist. You can stay on task with timers/organizers like Unstuck. Write hand notes that sync to Evernote via Penultimate. And as a journalist, you can find a wealth of story ideas by checking out what’s trending on Twitter or building your own Digg Reader from keywords and categories that are important to your beat or profession. Using these apps, you’ll be able to write more content, for more people, and be ahead of most of the Internet (which brings traffic).
Two: What They’re Up Against
Want to know why there are so many news websites out there today? Because it’s actually a lucrative field. See, it doesn’t take much ad revenue to make a website profitable provided that you’re able to keep costs low and generate traffic. Newspapers have largely failed because they employ too many people, they don’t require their writers to learn multimedia, nor do they require their photographers to learn writing. They keep all the jobs separate from one another, often paying full-time salaries for things that websites can do with five or six people (and usually much faster). Most people get their news online because they know that by the time it runs in the paper the following day, it’ll be outdated information. Translation: newspapers are hugely wasteful and hideously slow, and there’s no evidence they’re any more accurate than what you read online.
One: How To Tap In To Their Inner Entrepreneur
Journalism has never been a million-dollar profession. Most of the time news organizations take advantage of the fact that journalists don’t have a keen business sense, being more wrapped up in the writing and research aspects of the job than the business end. But with all the new competition that the web has created, writers have a plethora of opportunities to choose from as both journalists and bloggers. College journalism programs owe it to their students to enlighten them on the business end and the vast pool of opportunity. Today, journalists can keep their options open and manage their time more effectively in order to take on more lucrative jobs and break the glass ceiling of their earning potential. But first, they need a little entrepreneurial spirit.
Like it or not, right or wrong, journalism has changed, and it will continue to do so at a rapid rate. In the future, you’ll see more newspapers go out of business even as more online news sites rise to prominence. If the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that people have an insatiable hunger for content, and this is great news for the savvy journalist, who knows about the opportunities available, and where his own skills fit in to the ecosystem. It’s about time that college journalism programs started preparing their students for the future rather than holding them fast to a dying (if not dead) model of business. If you find that your college or university is not teaching you these things, then you should consider transferring to a new school or changing your major to something more lucrative and simply minoring in journalism. As long as you have strong writing skills and you continue to hone your research skills, the future is yours to command. Best of luck!
[Image via TellingtheStoryBlog.com]