How to Build a Better School of Journalism


Alma Matters is a Poynter newsletter designed to provide ideas, news and ideas to members of the journalism education community. Subscribe here to get Alma Matters delivered.

Last week I asked you what you would do if you could reinvent journalism schools, and I heard from all kinds of people – professors, editors and former journalists.

Here is a sample. I’m saving a few for next week, so there’s still time for you to share your thoughts.

I hope we can start conversations on campus about our willingness and ability to change. I hope there is something here for the people who have helped shape the future of our industry and its educators.

Breanna Cooper, former journalist, @BreannaNCooper

I think one thing that really needs to be emphasized in J-school is the importance of self-care in the media. As a journalism student (graduating in Indiana in 2019 and spending two years working at a newspaper), I knew the field was hectic and could be stressful at times. However, I don’t think we’ve had adequate conversations about work/life balance, especially in a time when everyone is chronically online.

I feel like it’s considered a rite of passage, sort of, to burn out. I got the feeling among my colleagues that if you were well rested and not running constantly, you weren’t working hard enough at your job. It was that mentality that basically drove me off the field. I don’t know what it would look like in a classroom. Maybe lessons on how to engage with an audience via social media without feeling like you’re constantly “on the go” or a course focused on trauma-informed reporting and how to take care of yourself and people you talk to.

Mallory Carra, Assistant Instructor at USC Annenberg, @MalloryCarra

One thing I would definitely change about the state of journalism is to put more emphasis on the business side of freelance. I got a bachelor’s degree in journalism from NYU, where my professors emphasized pitching…but nothing else on freelancing. I also have an MFA from USC film school which also puts more emphasis on the creative than the commercial side.

So when I started freelancing later in my career, I faced a steep learning curve. I had all these degrees but I didn’t know where to start. I had to learn from friends and mentors how to find gigs, bill and do my own version of accounting. Eventually I got the hang of it and was hired full time by a few clients. Later, I took business classes at a junior college to make up for the learning that seemed to be lacking in both of my degrees.

Now, as an adjunct professor at USC Annenberg, one of the biggest questions I get from journalism students is what the process of freelance journalism looks like, especially the business side of it. This spring, I gave a workshop on this subject which several students said they found useful. In the future, I would love to see journalism education include a course on this topic to better prepare students for a career as a freelance journalist and to double presentation courses – maybe even provide a freelance track for those students. Freelancing is increasingly a mainstream choice for journalists and I just wish journalism education would reflect that more.

Dustin Dustin Block, Head of Audience Development at Graham Media Group, @dustinblock

I don’t have much information about college journalism departments, but your newsletter today came just as I was thinking how much I hate journalists who joke that they would never want their children study journalism. (As you ask a colleague, “What does your student plan to study?” Followed quickly by, “Please don’t say journalism.”)

I want more journalism students to learn how to tell stories, think critically, build community, and inform the public. It feels like the job market is fragile, and that’s undoubtedly the case for many companies, but everyone I know in the industry is struggling to find talent, and there’s more more resources than ever to support startups and community journalism experiments. Perhaps J-schools can help by challenging students to build the future rather than slip into a decaying past. I hear journalists talk about programming as a key skill to remain essential in today’s newsrooms, but perhaps the reverse is also true. Journalism skills – the ability to verify information, ask questions, listen and share the story clearly – are essential to any industry and any subject in the world. We need more people to do this than ever, and serious students can find great value in this degree.

Jane Elizabeth, media consultant and adjunct professor at Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism, @janeeliz

Students must learn the fundamental history of any profession. But more importantly and more frequently, they should study the challenges facing the profession and learn the steps to take to accomplish organizational change. Focus on creativity, management, leadership, ethics. Remember, student journalists in today’s classrooms aren’t just writers and photographers — they’re the leaders and change agents in tomorrow’s newsrooms. They must also be prepared for this role.

And I would redouble my efforts to hire high quality assistants who have current experience in the media industry. Treat them with respect, pay them fair wages, offer classroom support and training if needed. Give them a real voice in discussions about changes/improvements to the school’s journalism curriculum. Yes, I speak as a journalist who has taught as an adjunct at four universities, but I speak for just about every journalism adjunct I have known. They provide incredibly valuable education to students, but are generally ignored by their departments and paid an incredibly low salary, even at the most expensive colleges. It would be amazing to see journalism schools leading the way in improving the auxiliary role in higher education.

Valerie Gibbons, Senior Paid Media Specialist, McClatchy @valeriegibbons

I’ve waited decades for someone to ask me this question. I spent 17 years in the newsroom and hired many young journalists right out of college for various positions – and another seven years on the business side.

First, I would hire award-winning practitioners who are good at training their peers, regardless of their academic background. Full stop.

Second: The objective would be to produce graduates who are equipped to start their own entrepreneurial business who are generalists in a large organization.

Third, I would build it around five main areas with workshops, presentations, and critiques required in every class except for first-year core writing.

  1. Interpersonal skills: Examples: a whole class on interviewing (I would have killed for that), project management (a must for the industry now), interpersonal and group communication.
  2. Visual skills: Requires basic courses in photography, video and graphic design.
  3. Writing Skills: Require a basic writing course for all (syntax, sentence construction, etc.). The second required course would expose students to all forms of writing for various platforms. Also provide courses on narrative structures, alternative narratives and the long form.
  4. Technical skills: requires front-end development (via JavaScript), application development and monitoring.
  5. Data Analysis: Required courses on the lifecycle of data, cleaning and working with spreadsheets up to and including basic SQL and Python, loading data into Tableau and/or creating an infographic and the presentation of the results. Optimization. Research Methodology.

More ideas:

  • Build short electives around key skills: think like a lecture, host on the web, and do outreach for top instructors.
  • These key skills: construction of a business plan, audience development, revenue development, geodata, marketing operations (programmatic, research), negotiation of reporting bottlenecks, requests for public records, difficult interviews, art of revision, psychology of trauma, etc.
  • The final year would consist of entirely short internships (think of the Coro Foundation model) and several individual projects for their portfolios.

Some elements missing in the current model:

  • Mix traditional Mass Com 1 class with outdated theory.
  • Then, throw out the history lesson and replace it with a case study lesson.
  • Ethics and law would be prominent themes throughout the program, not just one class.
  • Courses specific to tactics (i.e. writing for social media) are also lacking. They are integrated into larger themes.

Phew! It’s a lot to take in. I’ll keep the rest short. You can tell me if you agree or disagree, or send your own ideas. I’ll do more answers next week.

This sports photo contest rewards equipment vouchers and mentorship.

From Trusting News: A thread from our team on what journalism students learn by talking to the public about their perception of the news. (Teachers: Steal this homework! Students said it was surprisingly fun!)

Here is a student media organization commit to best practices around transparency.

And here is an introduction to build an effective microcourse from a guy who knows.

“The way we teach them? Well, we don’t really. That’s sage advice from last week’s guest author, North West student Andrew Rowan, on how his news station trains new staffers (spoiler: they teach them a ton). Rowan describes a five-step process that other newsrooms can use or steal directly.

Subscribe to The Lead, Poynter’s weekly newsletter for student journalists, and encourage your students to do the same.

In this week’s free professor’s press pass, we ask students to consider a hypothesis drawn from a case taken from recent headlines: How far can college sports fans go while being allowed to express themselves?

This case study is brought to you free of charge through our partnership with the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.


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