How universities and student media organizations should modernize themselves

Part of me can't believe we're still asking this question. It comes from Patrick Thorton:

Student news organizations have traditionally existed to give students experience before entering the workforce. The kinds of journalism jobs and journalism companies have changed considerably in the past 10 years, and most student news organizations are set up to mimic traditional print or broadcast news outlets. How would you set up a student news organization in 2013 or how could an existing college news organization modernize itself?

It's the same thing we were asking when I graduated in 2009. I wrote a letter to my j-school about what they should do to modernize by revamping existing tracks rather than creating new multimedia ones.  I wrote a post urging other student newspapers to not be afraid to break the rules. A group of us around the country hosted an open chat between students and educators about risk-taking.

And here we are, five years later, dealing with the same struggles.

Except that many educators didn't listen back then, and our 2009 urgings are already long out of date. Catching up is now that much harder. What's a j-school to do? It starts in the classroom.

Create curriculums that are concept-based

Technology changes quickly; approval for curriculum changes does not.

You can't create classes based on certain platforms or strategies. Classes need to be concept-based to allow flexibility of easily swapping out technology as the times change, and focusing more specifically on goals to achieve rather than tools for achieving.

A few examples:

  • Rather than having a class about how to use Twitter, create a class around finding sources and doing solid reporting, which touches on elements of engagement and community. Twitter can be a part of it, but not the focus. 
  • Rather than having a class about video editing, focus on visual journalism, the elements of visual storytelling. Editing a video can be a part of that, incorporating a ton of self-teaching (more on that soon).

The tools are just the vehicles that get us to the heart of what we do as journalists. The tools don't define our journalism.

Teach self-teaching

You can never teach students everything they need to know because two months into the workforce, the tools will have changed. And students, you shouldn't wait around for your professors to teach you what you need to you know. Ideas I'd integrate into classes without telling students how to accomplish the following tasks, or which tools to use:

  • In a basic reporting class: Tell students to create a searchable database. 
  • In a visual communications class: Have students plot data on a map.
  • In a narrative/features writing class: Have students creatively integrate multimedia into the narrative process.

The point would be for students to figure out how to solve the problems, using whichever tools they have at their dispense. It doesn't matter how they get there, so long as they do it in a way that is accurate, usable, elegant. Extra points for mechanisms that are reusable, integratable, responsive, etc.

Programming isn't about presentation

At the same time, remember that coding isn't just about what you see as an end user. I've learned from spending time with students that this is often the misconception. "Why would I want to build a website to show my work? Won't other people at my news org be responsible for that? I want to focus on the storytelling," is a question/statement I've been asked when speaking to journalism students. Programming is also about what happens on the back end. It's about how information is organized, and how we use it. It's about using technology to bridge the gaps, to make our jobs more efficient, to tap into information we could never access.

Which leads to the next, related point...

Data, data, data, stats, stats, stats

Why wasn't a data analysis / statistics class a requirement for my journalism major? It should have been. Multiple classes of it. Not as electives. With the wealth of information that's publicly available, and the wealth of information for us to record ourselves, how are we still teaching interviewing as a primary source of information-collecting? Students should be learning how to find data, scrape data, analyze it, make sense of it, display it.

More innovation labs

And to tie all these concepts together, we need more safe places for students to collaborate and experiment. Bringing it back to the original question about how student media organizations can modernize, they need to function more like innovation labs, implementing all of the core functions I've outlined above. I've always pointed to how college should be environments ripe for disruption and failure and experimentation. It's theoretically a safe space to try new things, though the culture can often be as stagnant as professional organizations because of business implications.

How to bring the innovation lab idea to life at a news organization:

  • Partner with other departments (computer science, software engineering) to do projects on a quarterly, or even a monthly or twice-monthly basis. 
  • Add an advertising/business student to that mix.
  • Rotate reporters/editors into those teams throughout the year to give everyone exposure to the team.
  • Make it a goal to release code into the open source community quarterly.
  • Kill the print publication all together, or cut it down to just once a week.
  • Create brand new products that are completely separate from the publication itself (think: Circa, reddit, Evening Edition).

And if I was a student today, you know what I'd do? Ditch the traditional organization all together and create my own news start-up on campus.

What I look for when it comes time to hire

Yes, a website/portfolio helps. I immediately look at a student's website to find a sampling of their "clips." These clips should come in the form of links to the student's projects, and hopefully some blog posts that explain how the projects were done, and what plans are for the projects moving forward. This doesn't have to be anything overly-fancy. I just want a place where links are easily collected. Even a Delicious feed works.

No, I don't care if you can use Tweetdeck or Google Analytics. So can my 12-year-old cousins. Where are you pushing the boundaries? How are you thinking outside of the box? How are you reinventing? Don't show me how you can use tools that other people made. (Derek Willis writes about this more eloquently than me in, "The Natives Aren't Restless Enough." Just stop now and read that instead.)

Write about your ideas. Share you knowledge. Spread your knowledge. Ask questions. Deconstruct concepts we all take for granted. Contribute to the community. Contribute to the greater good of this mission we're all working toward. Then I might give you a call.