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The news and online journalism industry through the eyes of a young Web publishist.

J-school & Web development: A perfect match

An interesting article was floating around Twitter a few days ago. It appeared in Editor & Publisher and was written by Seth Porges, who is currently an editor at Popular Mechanics magazine.

The subject he addressed was whether j-schools are adequately preparing students for the real world – and in it suggesting they’ve misstepped.

His thesis statement is that j-schools are too quick to adopt new media standards, such as basic Web coding, and are in the process throwing out pre-existing elements of core curriculum that should remain.

In this blog post I take chunks of what Mr Porges said, and give my thoughts and opinions.

The first stone thrown at the current j-school establishment is that it is over-emphasizing Web development in its curriculum. And that as a result of this, j-school courses are becoming less journalism-based and more Web-development based.

Journalism schools seem to be under the impression that Web savviness is synonymous with a technical mastery, and are top-loading course loads with classes on coding and production. Don’t get me wrong: Technical skills are useful, and knowing how to sling code will never make somebody a less desirable job candidate. But there are real problems with this emphasis.

When I first read the above paragraph, I had to pause and re-read it a few more times. I had a knee-jerk reaction of “What? Is he serious?” but I’ve since regained my composure. Mostly.

It’s a shame that more journalism students can’t do even basic coding. In a professional setting, being a reporter/blogger/employee of a media organization, you’re likely to have frequent interaction with the Web. You’ll probably even have a blog. Part of having a blog is knowing how to fix things if the break, add features if you want them, and be able to express yourself in the way you want to. Often this requires knowing basic code. Text editors on most CMS today take that out of the equation. Despite that, you should know how to embed something. What a paragraph tag is. And on and on.

The Web won’t just… stop. We should assume that the integration of journalism and the Web is in its infancy. Massive change is still on the horizon. As a journalist you need to be able to react to that. Being Web-savvy is a massive asset to have as a journalist. I’m of the opinion that every journalism program should require at least one module in Web development.

The media – print especially – is in the midst of an extremely uncertain time. The only thing people can seem to make heads or tails of is that the future of print media is, for the most part, not printed. It’s on the Web. Therefore I believe the emphasis toward all aspects of Web journalism – from writing, editing and shooting for it, to coding and developing it – should be extremely high. At this point j-schools are making up for lost ground.

Mr Porges disagrees:

It scares less technically inclined students away from the field (the same way a calculus prerequisite might scare away potential pre-med students). It also replaces much of a valuable editorial education with technical skills that can just as easily be learned online or at your local DeVry campus. Fact is, Web platforms come and go, and no coding language stays in vogue more than a few of years. Basic reporting, writing, and editing skills will never be obsolete.

This entire statement causes a knee-jerk reaction. Again. Breathe.

Less technically inclined students? I’m not really sure what that means. No one is expecting j-school students to be coding C++ or PHP. They can if they want to learn it. But the basics that j-school students should know how to do is the basics of HTML. If you don’t want to mess with CSS, at least know how to attach a stylesheet.

This is 2009. Look forward five years – do you think the expectations of journalists will be the same as they are today? I don’t. I expect they will all need to have a base level of knowledge in HTML. Maybe even basic CSS.

The other bit that caused me to pause was the last sentence – that basic writing, editing and reporting skills will never be obsolete. It may not seem like it, but that evolves, too. Are the ‘basic writing, editing and reporting’ techniques used today the same as they were, say, 20 years ago? They may be similar, but I don’t think they’re the same. The rise of New Journalism with its first-person style and more anecdotal nature changed the game. I expect the blog-style of writing will, over time, have a significant impact on news writing. Perhaps it’ll be New New New Journalism.

There are aspects of the article that I can agree with. Porges notes what it means to be  Web 2.0 journalist today:

A good Web journalist is able to predict what stories will work on the Web, how to package these stories, and how to make sure these stories reach a whole lot of eyeballs. If I were hiring a Web editor, my first interview questions would not be what programming languages they know, but what their strategies are for reaching out to blogs, improving SEO, and getting stories on Digg.

I agree. That’s what a good Web 2.0 journalist is. Today. In April 2009. This is what it takes. In April 2012? Nobody knows!

This is a new phase of grieving that people married to the print side have been going through, and its what blindsided the entire industry when the Web officially made itself known. The constant focus on the now. This moment. This second. This is what we need now. But aren’t you interested in what you WILL need? If you aren’t, you really should be.

And just as we’re getting on an even keel, he comes rushing in with another knee-jerk reaction-inducing note toward the end:

If I was a J-school dean, I’d offer classes on social media and blog outreach (something that is severely lacking from most J-schools), and teach students how to expand and adapt existing print stories for the Web.

What he’s saying is, if he were a J-school dean, he’d teach students how to sell the print product on the Web. Basically repackaged what appears in print, and put some bells and whistles on it so it is Web-ready.

What about teaching students how to conceive stories just for the Web? THAT is what’s sorely lacking – the ability of a journalism student to envisage a story for the Web in its entirety – plot out the multimedia, the story line, the word count, the number of pages, what links you want in the story, additional blogs, related content, guest blogs, graphic features, etc. Everything that goes into developing a story for the Web. That’s the bread and butter of Web 2.0 journalism both now and in the future. Not how to re-package print copy for the Web.

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Filed under: design, newspaper websites, social media, student journalism, , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. bloggingmom67 says:

    First, great, great post.

    Ben, totally agree with you.

    A few elaborations just because I can’t contain myself.

    J-school graduates will be entering a really competitive marketplace. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a reality though.

    These students will need to know it all — the technical skills, good writing, good reporting.

    Sure, technology changes, but that doesn’t mean J-schools shouldn’t teach basic coding. If the coding changes, so what. They’ve prepared students to understand the way the Internet works. If you understand basic HTML it will help you understand whatever replaces it.

    Part of the education should be to help students be so plugged into the virtual world, that they’ll notice the next big thing. The Web is fluid. What’s hot today, is passe tomorrow. But if you’re connected, you’ll be able negotiate changes better.

    One final note on Mr. Porges’ quote: That all the j-school technology focus “scares less technically inclined students away from the field (the same way a calculus prerequisite might scare away potential pre-med students).”

    It might be better if these folks are scared away. Like it or not, technology is part of the job. And those who will succeed embrace that. If a student doesn’t, perhaps another path would be better.

    Being a journalist has never been particularly easy or lucrative, and it likely will be even more challenging until the industry figures itself out. It’s not for the faint of heart. (Not discouraging folks, just being realistic.)

    The old days of having an IT person do all the computer stuff are gone. And if a student is scared by the technology, how are they going to handle it on deadline?

    In the old days, when I started — a journalist didn’t need to understand computers at all, except maybe to spell check. That’s not today.

  2. […] should j-schools teach? Ben LaMothe at Web Publishist has an interesting post about what journalism schools should be teaching these days. He’s […]

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