I have a big, fat radical idea for the MU School of Journalism:
Do more journalism.
In other words: Instead of only one or two required semesters for students at any given newsroom — how about three full years?
In light of recent discussions and in anticipation of tomorrow’s forum (flier above), here are the facts, the problems and my totally radical ideas.
Don’t know how the MU School of Journalism works? Here’s a fast run-down:
- Under the “Missouri method,” students in the print/digital news, photojournalism and magazine sequences must report for The Missourian/VOX Magazine for at least one full semester. Depending on their sequence/in-sequence track, students can then work for The Missourian/VOX in reporting, photography, editing and/or design for another semester or two or three. By the same token, students in the radio-television sequence must report for KBIA and KOMU, each for at least one semester. This amounts to “real-world” newsroom experience before graduation.
- Most students do not begin their sequence coursework until they’re either second-semester sophomores or first-semester juniors. This means that, while they’ve done some very basic reporting in their required, pre-sequence classes, students will have not had any intensive reporting/storytelling experience until they are practically halfway done with college. (Unless, of course, students are enterprising and proactive enough to work for the campus newspaper, the college radio station and other small outlets.)
- Journalism faculty are working on a new required, pre-sequence class that would teach freshmen and sophomores basic multimedia tools — such as the fundamentals of photography, video, audio and software like FinalCut.
As far as I know, this has been the working model of the journalism school for many, many years. Students first take a lot of gen-ed courses and acquire a basic understanding of journalism through classes with titles like “The Principles of American Journalism,” “Cross-Cultural Journalism” and “Communications Law.” In their last two years in college, students actually do journalism.
Last Monday in my “Photo Editing and Picture Desk Management” class — which is instructed by Missourian director of photography Joshua Bickel — we went a little off-topic when we spent the entire class period talking about the journalism school, The Missourian and journalism school curriculum.
We disagreed over what each newsroom can feasibly do and what can be reasonably expected of a student over four years of coursework. But more importantly, most of us agreed that this journalism school is far, far behind other journalism schools in embracing and innovating in digital media, social media, technology and other fast-growing areas.
Jason, who recently attended a News21 conference in Arizona, asked why we at The Missourian at least aren’t innovating in different modes and deliveries of storytelling. He cited The Las Vegas Sun, whose sports section is now entirely on-line and caters to its audience by producing interactive stories that readers actually enjoy — and not just straight-up news articles. “Why can’t we expect our student reporters at The Missourian to do something along those lines?” Jason asked.
I answered that Missourian reporters and photographers simply aren’t actively at the newspaper for a long-enough period of time to move beyond basic reporting and become more intimate with subjects and more comfortable with advanced storytelling techniques.
Which leads us to…
My totally radical ideas
Halfway through the discussion in class, Joshua asked us what, in an ideal world, we would want from the journalism school.
Here’s what I would want:
- Stop forcing students to sludge through two years of required, pre-sequence courses that, for the most part, do little to enlighten and excite and do more to induce sleep and frustration.
- Instead, force students to sludge through those “I believe in the profession of journalism” courses… in their first semester of freshman year.
- Teach second-semester freshmen basic reporting, multimedia and other hands-on journalism-y skills in a lecture/lab structure. (Currently, all pre-sequence students must take J2100: News Reporting in their sophomore year.)
- Students then spend the next three (or more) years of their collegiate careers in whatever newsroom best fits their media preference.
- The entire time, students are fulfilling gen ed and other upper-division requirements.
This applies to all sequences except strategic communications/advertising, since I have no idea how that sequence works. Therefore, print/digital news and magazine students would work at The Missourian/VOX for three solid years, broadcast students would work at KBIA and/or KOMU for three solid years and photojournalism students would work at whichever newsroom best fits their individual needs.
This would also allow more flexibility and collaboration between the different sequences and newsrooms. Currently, inter-newsroom relations are tense, if not dead. There’s little to no collaboration between The Missourian, KBIA and KOMU, and students in any designated sequence are hardly permitted to take intermediate-to-advanced courses in another sequence. Under my radical idea, students could work at two newsrooms at the same time or switch back and forth. The only constraint would be sheer time; otherwise, the structure of his/her in-newsroom work would depend entirely on the student’s interest.
Naturally, this radical idea hits a few snags pretty quickly. Not all students travel at the same pace — some enter their sequence earlier than others, some transfer into MU in the middle of the year, etc. — and media-specific coursework would have to be restructured partially if not completely to accommodate this three-years-in-the-newsroom plan.
Additionally, some students may not even want to work in any newsroom for three years while in college. But to that, I say, “Deal with it.” If you want to be a journalist, this is what you do. Even for a student who plans to go into independent/advocacy journalism or free-lance, I think that learning to work within an innovative, progressive newsroom model is still a basic necessity.
- Students get a lot more experience under their belts and a larger line on their resumes upon graduation. The journalism school always boasts that its students have real-world experience before they graduate — unfortunately, that experience is typically limited to one year. Under my radical idea, the experience becomes three years.
- Three years in the same newsroom (or two) means the students gain better grounding all around. They become better reporters because they know their subjects better (and their subjects are more comfortable with them). They become better storytellers because they know their beats and subjects so well that they’re freer to be more innovative in their mode and delivery of storytelling. They become better coworkers because they’re stuck with the same people for three years and have to learn how to be professional, efficient and team-players.
- Students can tailor their newsroom experiences, with limitations. I wouldn’t personally enroll to work in two newsrooms at the same time, but if a student wants to do so and is reasonably confident of his/her time management skills, who’s to stop him/her? Also, students could hop between newsrooms to get a more varied experience in different news media. No more sequence restraints or constraints.
- This isn’t going to happen. At least, I don’t see it happening in the next 10 years. From what I can tell, there’s a lot of red-tape bureaucracy from Jesse Hall and a lot of politicking within the journalism school itself. Each of these is a huge hindrance to the change and innovation necessary to get the journalism school back into competition with other journalism schools around the nation.
- A huge rehaul in curriculum, journalism school structure and, most dauntingly, faculty members’ ways of thinking is required for anything like this to happen.
- The newsrooms would overflow. Having three years’ worth of students in one newsroom, all at once, is just a lot. Shifts and beats and everything else would have to be configured, but who knows? This could become a “pro” if students learn to enterprise beyond beats and get more in-depth with the community.
- Again, some students simply may not want to spend three out of four college years in the newsroom. Again, either deal with it or get out. It’s hard, time-consuming work that will suck your soul and destroy your personal relationships, but that’s what you sign up for when you go to journalism school and, eventually, go out into the real world.
Why do I care about this? I’m graduating in almost three months. Better yet, why should you care about this?
We should care because, believe it or not, the quality of journalists in forthcoming years depends largely on the quality of journalism schools from which they graduate. I’m not asserting that good journalism schools make good journalists or that good journalists come only from (good) journalism schools. Nor am I asserting that journalists learn everything they know about journalism from journalism school.
But a journalism school that is so far behind in the times, technology and innovation of today can hardly help the next generations of journalists. I am not condemning the MU School of Journalism as “bad” or “poor quality,” but let’s face it — it is lagging behind other journalism schools, and the longer it takes to reshape curriculum and structure, the farther behind it will fall. Already as an almost-graduate, I feel hardly ready to tackle the exponentially changing journalism and news industry. If no changes or innovation occurs in the next year, the next two years of journalism graduates will be at least five years behind everyone else.
Would my radical ideas solve everything? Absolutely not. But implementing a three-year newsroom system with more flexibility and collaboration would foster innovation and provide journalism students with a far more complete and valuable experience before graduation.
I did not include these following remarks in my above arguments because everything would have become too muddled.
The journalism school must also implement more classes in business practices, personal branding and entrepreneurship. At least in the print/digital news and photojournalism sequences, many students are geared up to join newspaper staffs — which are currently laying off staffers by the dozens if the newspapers aren’t folding altogether. The more proactive and enterprising students are learning about personal branding and other practical uses on their own. But the journalism school needs to step up and help enable soon-to-be graduates to work and earn money outside of college and without relying on the shrinking newspaper industry.
The journalism school powers-that-be should also consider evaluating its entire directory of faculty and staff. Anyone who is not on-board with the changing times or who impedes efficiency or the learning process in the newsroom should have his/her employment re-evaluated. I don’t believe in letting a long-standing faculty member go simply because there’s someone fresher and newer on the market, but journalism instructors and editors who hesitate against progress and innovation are doing no favors for students. Period.