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Bill Grueskin: News orgs want journalists who are great at a few things, rather than good at many

In the rush to build up training for digital skills, some journalism schools have asked students to go wide instead of deep, argues the dean of academic affairs of Columbia’s j-school.

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing their thoughts with you. Here’s Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, talking about the need for specialization.

For many years, striving journalists seeking their first jobs would consult the back pages of Editor & Publisher magazine. The Help Wanted ads went on for pages, filled with pleas from small-town newspaper editors who would often say they were seeking reporters “would could do everything.”

In those days, “everything” meant a day comprised of covering a town commission meeting, typing school lunch menus and, before leaving, emptying the tray of D-76 developer solution in the darkroom.

This one-size-fits-all approach demonstrates a lack of nuance about the tremendous transformations in our business.

Editor & Publisher is a much smaller publication now, alas, and the stench of D-76 no longer permeates newsrooms. But this idea of the “do everything” journalist has persisted into the digital age.

The phrase we hear now is the “Swiss Army knife” journalist. Meg Heckman, web editor of New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor, referred to this when quoted in an AJR article earlier this year, adding that reporters “need to know a little bit of everything.” LinkedIn features a number of journalists who tout their multiple skills. One describes himself this way: “Photographer, videographer, web designer, graphic designer….I was a Swiss Army knife in the office.”

Where the industry leads, journalism schools usually follow, and as a result, many of us have launched programs designed to imbue our students with a buffet of digital skills. Those have included photo, video, radio, web design, search engine optimization, social media, and data visualization. Thus armed with this wheelbarrow of talents, journalism graduates could tell employers that they were as adept at Final Cut Pro as writing nut grafs, as versed in long-form video as in short-form breaking news.

It’s true that some newsrooms do want one-size-fits-all journalists. And the reasons are clear and understandable. Many publishers face shrinking personnel budgets, as well as escalating needs to boost traffic to websites and apps. Given that advertisers are usually willing to pay higher rates for video pre-rolls than display ads, or that photo slideshows drive far more pageviews than articles, it follows that editors want young reporters who can cover meetings with a camera as well as a laptop.

But this one-size-fits-all approach demonstrates a lack of nuance about the tremendous transformations in our business. Yes, journalism is going digital. But that means many different things.

Crafting web video, deploying Twitter as a reporting tool, and presenting data-driven graphics all fall within the umbrella of “digital journalism,” but they have little in common with each other. Indeed, the skills barely overlap.

Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism has a robust Career Services office with a career expo that regularly attracts more than 100 employers a year. Those news organizations don’t often ask for “do-it-all” journalists these days, says Ernest Sotomayor, dean of students.

Instead, they are chiefly focused on students who understand the value of reporting, news judgment, and writing. They often say they want students who can demonstrate proficiency in a specific digital skill or two. Having additional skills is a plus, but without strong fundamentals, they don’t land top jobs.

And universal digital training belies pedagogical reality as well. Students usually come with, or develop over time, an intense interest in one or two formats. Asking them to become proficient at more than a few of them sets unreasonable expectations and, more importantly, deprives them of the need to excel at something rather than everything.

The Swiss Army knife is a useful tool on camping trips, but you’d be unlikely to use one in your kitchen if you have a great paring knife or corkscrew nearby. Journalism schools that send out graduates with rudimentary training in a large number of platforms are providing little value to their students, and are disserving the business that is fighting a battle for survival.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Digital Journalism

    Bill seems to say that digital journalism skills are taught at the expense of conventional journalism skills, that incorporating too much digital journalism in the curriculum will hurt the training of conventional journalism. 

    Looking at the dozens of journalism programs in U.S. that fully incorporate digital journalism in the curriculum, it seems that there can be a good balance between the two. I wrote a post discussing how to design a digital journalism degree program based on a survey of more than 500 journo programs in U.S.

    At the core of a “fully integrated” digital journo program, it is still the time-tested journalism writing/reporting/production courses, and digital training has been taking an increasingly important share of the curriculum. 

    The reality of the ongoing digital journalism revolution is that we cannot nail down one or two digital skills that are of enduring importance that we can teach students. We will have to expose students to a range of digital skills so that they can best adapt (one or two) skills needed at their job.

  • Robert Frump

    Interesting. (Though nothing ever is “comprised of” anything.)

  • donica

    Bill makes a compelling case that Columbia is doing exactly what it should be doing for its students, its community and the industry it serves. But a plea from the other side of the country: Just as the one-size-fits-all mentality no longer works for the newsroom, it doesn’t work for journalism schools either.

    The deep transformation of the industry means we don’t need a large army of journalism school grads trained in the same mindset with similar skill sets. Opening up journalism means opening up journalism school education so that our students are ready to do very different kinds of work, from constructing narrative to managing community, from analyzing data to programming visualizations — and much, much more. I hope this series on journalism education examines the diversity developing between journalism programs and an evaluation of many different approaches to educating future journalists.

  • Dan Cooper

    The lack of training if long form broadcast journalism is a serious problem at many graduate j-schools. Some years ago I have a very enjoyable and very lengthy conversation with a dean at a much-admired West Coast school. I was taken aback that students, at that time, were being trained to do local news. Taken aback is perhaps putting it mildly. As for long form, he told me “I could only put that subject matter in front of our most advanced grad students, certainly not our undergrads”. When I worked at WCBS-TV in the 1970s, several times a week I was given free rein to run 6 to 7 minutes with a story I was producing on the 6pm hour long news. Nobody thought they were boring. In fact, they were played across the half hour mark. It’s all very sad.

  • Nina Rayburn

    From the student perspective, I totally agree. More
    importantly, though, j-schools need to teach these concentrated skills via
    real-world experience. For example, a national client paid for my student ad
    agency to create a campaign this semester that they will then implement later
    this year. Not only does has this experience strengthened my classroom
    knowledge, but also honed my most important skill – adaptability. Because of the
    internships and professional network provided through my education, I’ve
    learned to ultimately teach myself
    whatever other required skills may arise in my future career.

    Nina Rayburn (Missouri School of Journalism)

  • Amy O’Leary

    I completely agree. For the last five years, when asked what digital skills journalists should learn, I frequently suggest the model of having a “major” and a “minor” — one thing you are world-class at, unbeatable — maybe that’s reporting, writing, research, storytelling or digital aggregation.  And then one should show proficiency in a second discipline, so you can take a competent photograph, or shoot a usable video interview clip along with the piece.  Lastly, everyone should dabble and let themselves be “bad” at some disciplines, so they have an understanding for, and appreciation of those other experts.