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Cindy Royal: Journalism schools need to get better at teaching tech where the girls are

“We are just at the beginning of understanding what the digital media curriculum of the future will look like. But we can’t let the constraints of accreditation and untrained faculty slow us down.”
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. Here Texas State professor Cindy Royal uses her own experience teaching technology within journalism courses to examine how the field might better engage its mostly female students.

At this very moment, there are dozens of job openings at news organizations around the U.S. that require people who can code in a digital media and news applications context. The needs of the industry are clear. As John Keefe of WNYC proclaimed at the end of his acceptance speech after winning an Online Journalism Award at the Online News Association conference in San Francisco, “Journalism needs more journalists who can code.”

But it’s not exactly clear where these people will be found. Should they be the rare computer science major with an interest in storytelling? Or the equally scarce journalist who has amassed a range of tech skills?

This problem of supply is comingled with and further complicated by the demographic makeup of the computer science discipline. Females and some ethnic minorities have been underrepresented in the traditional technology disciplines. While computer science enrollments are increasing, the representation of women among these programs’ graduates has declined to 11.7 percent.

There are many theories about why this may be so. Are women less interested in computing? Or is there something about the culture of computer science that is unappealing or unwelcoming to certain groups?

My experience in teaching web development in journalism programs for more than a decade has led me to conclude that it is much less about the former than we have been led to believe. With journalism program enrollment often in the range of 60-70 percent women, it’s common for my classes to be majority female. All of them recognize the value of technological skills — they wouldn’t be taking the class otherwise. While some enter the course a bit unsure about their computer savvy, all leave with increased confidence and an ignited interest in the role of technology in the future of media.

And — in my limited experience in taking computer science courses within the university environment, and speaking with colleagues about the mission and goals of the computer science academic discipline — I have begun to recognize the unique opportunity we have in journalism to contribute to a solution for the digital divide. We can increase women’s participation in technology if we teach higher-end technology skills in a communications context — in essence, teaching tech where the girls are. At the same time, we would be reaching male students who might have tech aptitude, but for some reason were also not attracted to a computer science degree.

There are several reasons that this alternative approach could provide different results. First, by teaching technology in a web context, we embrace the most basic values of journalism: the need to communicate and share. The web tools that students develop are more likely to match the interests of female students and the male students who wish to study and work in a more communicative environment.

Second, technology training can be delivered in a different manner in journalism and mass communication programs. We often find ourselves sneaking up on the students with technology instruction by introducing tech skills in reporting classes, discussing social media or requiring students to take web design courses as part of their programs of study. These may not be the subjects they envisioned learning about when they picked a communications major.

As faculty in these classes, we’ve developed techniques that facilitate learning. These students might be digital natives, but they may not have much experience in making things work or possess a high level of confidence in their ability to do so. We provide a supportive environment in which students are able to experiment with a safety net, with an experienced professor or teaching assistant who can assist when necessary. And we recognize when it’s time to start weaning students off that assistance by modeling appropriate troubleshooting behaviors. As we introduce the concepts of innovation and entrepreneurship, students gain a new understanding of the roles that technology will play in their future.

Third, as journalists and journalism educators, we understand the importance of facts and information. Using data is not new to the journalism profession. Modern data journalism rests on the shoulders of computer-assisted reporting; we have a legacy upon which to build these competencies.

Female students in our graduate New Media Concentration at Texas State University have gone on to a wide range of careers that engage digital media skills — from social media editors/managers at traditional media companies and innovative startups, to web developers and project managers at interactive agencies, to freelance web designers, to integral members of the staff of SXSW Interactive. These results support the belief that women are interested in technology and can gain the skills necessary to use technology in careers in which computers and communication go hand-in-hand. But we can do better by increasing the role of programming, data, and technology in our curriculum in ways that are relevant to the industries we support.

We are just at the beginning of understanding what the digital media curriculum of the future will look like. But we can’t let the constraints of accreditation and untrained faculty slow us down. The “teaching hospital,” model, which has been touted by many over the last few months, is admirable — but only if it engages professionals who can move curriculum in this direction. This has to go beyond a few electives offered at some institutions. I envision a series of modules that deal with topics relevant to programming, data, and mobile development that can be plugged into existing classes, used to develop new courses and workshops, or implemented as the foundation for new sequences or degrees.

Our students will learn what we teach them. We need to start aligning our curriculum with the future needs of the industry. In doing so, we can assure the mostly female population of mass communication students that they will be prepared to be active and valued participants.

“Portrait of a Woman Blogger, after Frederick Carl Frieseke” by Mike Licht used under a Creative Commons license.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 15, 2014
Plus: The Gannett spinoff and the future of newspapers, dealing with abusive comments at Gawker, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • del2124

    DOZENS of job openings hardly require systemic change.

  • emk2

    @del2124:disqus  What Dr. Royal is describing here is the tip of the iceberg.  There are newspapers (and other publications) small and large all over the U.S. who have just started realizing they sorely need professionals in the journalism field who have these skills.  Job postings for these skills may not bountiful yet but they’re coming, without a doubt.  Figuring out how to bridge the gap of technology in a field of study that is primarily female is an important step. 
    I have been one of the students mentioned above and I never thought I’d learn how to code an entire website by hand using html. (No prior experience, either.) Definitely not what I first envisioned as a communications student but it was one of the smartest choices I’ve ever made. Extremely valuable skills.

  • SGB

    I’m a little baffled as to why this is a female student issue, or why these kinds of classes need to attract more female students. Technology skills are useful to all journalists and should be taught regardless of gender. Saying this is an issue solely for female students is a little, well, short-sighted and exclusionary to the few males students who actually go to graduate school for journalism. 

  • Cindy Royal

     Not true. I discuss this in the female context, because we have a high percentage of females in our discipline. And women are underrepresented in the computer science discipline. It is a real problem. But I also state “at the same time, we would be reaching male students who might have tech
    aptitude, but for some reason were also not attracted to a computer
    science degree.”

  • AMT

    SGB, it’s an issue for female students more than male ones because it’s well known that women are far less likely to learn how to code or to be interested in the nuts and bolts of technology than men. They are less interested in learning this stuff (I am female, I speak from experience). So why not introduce it at J school, in a context that makes it clear why being tech savvy is so valuable? I teach as well, and like the author I notice the majority of the class is female. The author is not being exclusionary, she is simply pointing out that given most students are female – and that women are *in general* tech-resistant – it’s a good idea to teach this stuff.

  • Gillian Ladley

    I’m not in the market for another Masters degree, but want to gain journalism skills, so I enrolled to do the NCTJ distance diploma in journalism. The course itself is basic, so I’m trying to teach myself some coding skills too. Code Year is helping, along with advanced CSS books from the public library.

    I’m a female who went to University during the economic boom and felt I was steered towards more ‘academic’ subjects. Although I liked designing websites etc in my spare time as a teen my school didn’t really know what to do with me. I really wish I’d done something more along that field now, along with journalism skills. Still, I’m trying to make up for lost time in my own time now!

  • Paul Bradshaw

    The interesting thing here is that journalism classes tend to have more female than male students. My own experience on the MA Online Journalism at Birmingham City University is pretty even: there’s no male-female split on doing data journalism or HTML coding. That might be because they have already selected a course they know will have a technology focus, but like you I also introduce it as embedded in journalism practices, rather than something extra and abstract. A telephone is technology and there’s no problem with people using that.

  • ng43

    Another angle to the problem that data journalists/news applications developers are almost exclusively white males is that highly qualified female journalist/coders are not being hired and eventually stop applying. Perhaps, the men in hiring positions may prefer to work alongside someone who looks just like them, that’s their call and their insecurity at work. It is an unspoken truth that many women managers are worse to female employees than men are. This blind lack of diversity (gender and ethnicity) is what undermined newsrooms for years. Now it is repeating itself in the emerging and vital world of news developers.