I spent 20 years as a professional journalist (writer, editor, managing editor, executive editor, VP editorial executive) at Rodale Press and the past 15 years as a freelance journalist and author.
While at Rodale, I looked at thousands of writer's resumes and hired hundreds of writers, including writers with J-school degrees. The thing that always surprised me about the J-school graduates was their lack of real-world experience; it didn't seem as if their education included much hands-on journalism.
Now, that may have changed in the past 15 years. But if I were teaching a class, I would have my students "imitate, imitate, imitate"--write articles for specific publications as if they were actually writing articles for those publications. And then the J-teacher would critique the pieces in terms of how they were or weren't a match for the voice and purpose of the respective pub.
And I would do that for a wide variety of outlets. Imitation is the way to learn. I would also have a class in ego-erasure; the worst fault of any would-be journalist is putting too high a premium on his or her words, and resisting rather than internalizing editing.
Yes, there are bad editors. But this particular fault is the hallmark of a journalist who is unlikely to grow and advance. That's my two-cents.
Bill Gottlieb is an author, freelance journalist, and book packager, specializing in health. His byline has appeared in many national publications, including _Prevention, Reader's Digest, Bottom Line/Personal, Health, Cosmopolitan, and Men's Health. His six books have sold more than 2 million copies. He is the former editor-in-chief of Rodale Books and Prevention Magazine Books (1986-1995). His website is www.drugfreehealing.com
Here are my ideas about how journalism can be taught:
1. It cannot be taught from a book. Try as they might, most instructors never really get anything out of a text. What professors need to do is conduct the classroom as if it was a newsroom. Students must meet deadlines. They must go out and develop contacts. They must maintain their contacts. They must write stories through real contacts they have made. They must go through the hassle of calling DCPI for a police story and getting no answer in return. They must understand what its like to be a real journalist. So, out of nowhere, the professor should pull from a real story and make it a late breaking piece...something small...but something that must be written in some form by the end of the class...or emailed to the professor by a certain time.
2. They must be taught journalism etiquette. Teachers should actually conduct mock scenarios where journalists deal with public relations professionals. So, while they are at their desk dealing with a story, the teacher should call them and pretend they are with a certain company and see how they respond to deadline pressure and how they deal with the interruption, because it will be a real interruption. Being on both sides of the coin, I know how frustrating it can be for a PR flack to call someone on their deadline day and I also know how it is for a journalist to just hang up on me. It is important that journalists know how to deal with these matters realistically.
3. All students must be required to attend a community board meeting or precinct council meeting and not write a story about the meeting. They should attend to develop their networking skills. They should take notes on different aspects of the meeting, bring back a list of potential stories to their teacher and have the teacher pick the topic he would like them to report further on. This forces the student to actually call back the contacts he made during the meeting, which requires him to get numbers and information from these individuals. Networking leads to future stories and students need to realize how important it is to cultivate a network.
4. All teachers should have guests talk to students about their careers in journalism. It should run the gamut, from those who went into community based reporting to those that went into major papers, like USA Today, Wall Street Journal...or even TV. They should also have writers who work for trade publications and magazines. And they should also have those who went into different careers, like myself, who credit journalism for getting them there, so students can see what kind of doorways might be opened through a career in journalism.
5. All students should maintain a blog about their class...this way they can be taught the difference between journalistic writing and blog writing.
6. If possible, a teacher should try to arrange through community papers opportunities for students to shadow a reporter on one particular day. These are just some suggestions I would have.
Jon Minners is the Communications Manager for Vault.com, the Web’s most comprehensive resource for career management and job information. Prior to that, he was the managing editor for one of News Corp.’s Community Newspapers (The Bronx Times Reporter) and has been a journalist for over 10 years.
In a nutshell, the best and really the only way to truly learn journalism is by doing it.
Lectures and textbooks will only take you so far; right off the bat, I send students out to practice interviewing, reporting, and writing. Offering detailed and constructive feedback is particularly important in journalism and its a continual process of improvement as students go from first struggling to master the basics of grammar and writing clearly and concisely to tackling more difficult and meatier topics.
Often I send students out on assignments with relatively little specific instruction, and a lot of the learning comes from critiquing their work and discussing what could be improved in class. Encourage students to read the news and in some courses, have news quizzes to give them the incentive - you cant be a good journalist if you never read any good journalism. I eschew tests - memorization isnt going to get you anywhere, really - in favor of writing and reporting assignments.
And of course, in this day and age, a strong grounding in the fundamentals - primarily accuracy and verification - is absolutely as critical as it ever was, but its not enough - students are increasingly learning multimedia and social media tools. I encourage my students to constantly experiment using these tools. I try to come up with a variety of different assignments that will get students out of their comfort zone, talking to a variety of different people and encountering different situations and challenges.
Here’s a blog post of mine that talks a little bit about curricula. Also you might check out the site by Mindy McAdams Teaching Online Journalism.