Twitter  Quartz found an unlikely inspiration for its relaunched homepage: The email newsletter.  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Cindy Royal: Are journalism schools teaching their students the right skills?

Journalism graduates need to be prepared to work intelligently on the platforms that will carry their work, according to the Texas State professor.

If you are a journalism educator or media professional, I have news for you: We work in tech.

I know: That’s not exactly what you signed up for when you entered the profession 20, 10, or even five years ago. But things have changed. While some of the tenets of the profession we formerly knew as journalism have remained, workflows, business practices, participants, and competitors are all very different. Because we work in tech.

Internet and web technologies don’t just represent a new medium where print and multimedia can live in harmony. The ways we communicate both personally and professionally have been profoundly altered. Communication is technology, and technology is communication. That’s the true convergence.

This month, two different conferences addressed this intersection. The International Symposium on Online Journalism held at The University of Texas brought together professionals and scholars around the topics of data, drones, media startups and analytics, while Journalism Interactive was being held at the University of Maryland for journalism educators to engage on digital curriculum topics.

Around the time Amy Webb of Webbmedia Group was delivering her talk on tech trends for journalism educators and recommending a summer syllabus for journalism educators at JiConf, I was discussing ways scholars could be more innovative in their research programs at ISOJ. The areas of emphasis I recommend include data, location, analytics, new curriculum design, and a general commitment to meaningful and innovative scholarship.

What both these presentations have in common is the reality that, as communication educators and scholars, we work in tech. Webb recommends a complete overhaul of journalism curriculum to have more aspects of a technology degree. I agree and have made some recommendations here and here.

But I think some clarification is necessary about what is meant by “tech.” Technology can mean a lot of things. It has meant things in the past, like the printing press or the pencil or even the invention of language. It can refer to innovation in automotive, aerospace, military, or a variety of other settings, like food, health, medicine, and more.

In a media context when we speak about technology, it usually refers to computing applications. It can mean hardware or software. It can mean programming or network management, websites, or mobile apps. It’s not that you’ll be building computers or making sure your department’s servers run properly.

There’s a specific angle of tech in which we must be focused. What everyone in journalism needs to understand about tech is the distribution platform made possible by the Internet, web, and mobile technologies. “Platform” is another term that can mean a lot of things to different people, but in this context, it basically refers to the systems by which content is distributed and shared. It specifies who can publish, who can share, and how easy it is for them to do so. But it’s also what has changed the scale, scope, business models, competition, and participation levels associated with media. I am talking about the leverage that digital media introduces, which is different than a digital-first (or mobile-first) mentality that emphasizes a prioritization of the workflow of a news organization.

The web itself is the original platform. Its open nature allowed anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of HTML to develop an online presence. Over time, the ability to do that was simplified by the introduction of blogs and social media, or the rise of the content management system. The barriers to entry keep getting lower.

As social media platforms matured, different features were introduced that allowed for widespread sharing and commentary. As these platforms grew in popularity, network effects took hold creating scale, or exponential growth in the user base. They became the new distribution channels for news as well as a lot of other content. But news organizations, which are the publishers of said content, no longer control these channels.

I have been known to say that the majority of my value in engaging with news is my ability to share it. Platforms make this happen. Basically, share it or it didn’t happen.

At the South By Southwest Interactive conference last month in Austin, former Nieman Lab staffer Zach Seward, now of Quartz, gave an enlightening talk called Platforms vs. Publishers: A Big New Theory. He described how media organizations shouldn’t be simply classified as either platform or publisher, but were instead now on a spectrum, reflecting the level to which they demonstrate characteristics of each.

Now we have a slew of new organizations that are attempting to enter the media space, each a unique hybrid of publisher, the old media model, and platform. They are trying to capture the scale of the platform with their own special spin on content. Sites like Medium, Quartz, BuzzFeed, Upworthy, and Vox, as well as Forbes and LinkedIn, are experimenting with opening their platforms to give a broader base of users access to their audiences. Users can include the general public, topic experts or influencers, but may also be companies and brands that are telling stories that reflect their products, services or thought leadership in their markets.

There are fewer things these days that differentiate what sites like Facebook and Twitter do from sites like Vox or Medium and The New York Times or Texas Tribune. And they’re all competing for attention.

But the biggest limitation to teaching about platform distribution and strategy is in the resources we have to teach courses that introduce these topics. Who will teach these skills to our students who, when they graduate, will work in tech? How strong of an emphasis should they have in our curriculum?

Very strong, in my opinion. Webb’s summer syllabus includes some good readings and exercises that introduce the role of technology in media. I’ve formulated my own 10 questions with resources for gaining and practicing the tech perspective in journalism curriculum.

How much of your curriculum is dedicated to these issues?

1 Do you understand the history of computers, the Internet, and web and how they relate to the current state of platforms? (Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee; Hackers: The Heroes of the Technology Revolution by Steven Levy; The Internet: Behind the Web; Download: The True Story of the Internet

2 Do you understand new business models created by platforms? (The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson; Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing by Chris Anderson; What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis; The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen; Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy by Lawrence Lessig)

3 Do you understand the role of the user in a platform environment? (Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky; Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins)

4 Do you understand network effects that drive platform dynamics? (The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society by Manuel Castells; The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom by Yochai Benkler)

5 Do you know what technology entrepreneurs think about the news business? (The Future of the News Business: A Monumental Twitter Stream All in One Place)

6 Are you familiar with each of these sites or mobile apps for distribution of news? (Reddit; Medium; Vox; FiveThirtyEight; BuzzFeed; Upworthy; Circa; PolicyMic; The Intercept)

7 Do you know why you should care about and use social media platforms? (Facebook Paper; Twitter; Google Now; Yahoo News Digest)

8 Do you understand the role of data in telling a story? (The Data Journalism Handbook; Anyone Can Do It: Data Journalism is the New Punk by Simon Rogers; “Analysing Data is the Future for Journalists, says Tim Berners-Lee” by Charles Arthur)

9 Do you know how to: Make a basic website from scratch using HTML/CSS? Register a domain and get web hosting? Customize a blog platform like WordPress? Do basic video and audio editing? (Find basic introductory handouts.) Or do you have any of the more advanced skills of: JavaScript? Data viz tools, like Google Fusion Tables, Chart.js, or D3.js? A web development language like PHP, Python, or Ruby? Git and GitHub? SQL or MySQL database commands? (Find more advanced handouts.)

10 Do you pay attention to technology websites and publications? (Follow them on Twitter: Mashable; TechCrunch; Pando; Recode)

Once you have an understanding of digital and tech as related to platform dynamics, then you can formulate opinions as to how technology affects media as well as other areas: social issues, music and entertainment, legal issues, government and policy issues.

Where I teach in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University, we have a required class that covers many of these topics. Shouldn’t all journalism faculty understand the basic tenets of digital media, if this is what we are expecting our students to know? The future Nate Silvers and Ezra Kleins are sitting in our classes right now, but so are the future Zuckerbergs, Mayers, and Karps. Let’s give them the skills and perspectives they need to lead, disrupt, and innovate, not just work.

So it’s platform or perish. We’ll never be able to fully achieve a digital, technology-based curriculum until we have faculty who are committed to preparing students for the digital, technology-based world into which they are graduating. The sooner we all accept this, the better.

Because we work in tech.

Cindy Royal is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University and a 2013-14 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.

Photo of the UMass-Amherst journalism department by Lam Thuy Vo used under a Creative Commons license.

What to read next
Caroline O'Donovan    Aug. 20, 2014
Andrew Golis wanted to build a network for sharing stories that would provide relief from our contemporary content cascade.
  • Steven Eric Chappell

    I don’t disagree with the need for us as journalism educators to teach technology skills. However, they should not come at the expense of teaching journalism skills. Students still must know how to communicate effectively, think critically, perform in-depth interviews and conduct basic research beyond data mining and app development. I’m seeing more and more journalism departments and faculty abandoning those basic skills for the technology. The result is students who can’t compose a basic news story because all they know how to do is write code.

    Whenever you push technology skills in journalism, you must still reinforce the basic tenets of the field that make journalism important and worthwhile. Otherwise, we’re just churning out a world full of bloggers who have no idea how to accurately, fairly and effectively tell a story that matters.

  • Cindy Royal

    They have to understand how to communicate effectively within the
    medium, and having an understanding of platform dynamics is critical to
    that. As I say at the end, my goal is for students to lead, innovate and
    disrupt in their fields, not just work.

  • Chris Neill

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything you just said. Maybe I’m misinterpreting the sentence “the majority of my value in engaging with the news is my ability to share it,” but to me like the value of engaging with any news should be the quality of the reporting and it sounds like this is discounting content at the expense of the technology. Vox, for example, is not great because it’s a digital news platform, it’s great because of the unique level of in-depth coverage and analysis it provides. It’s important to make sure students emerge from journalism schools with the competence and intellect to give this sort of coverage as well as the technical skills to distribute that coverage.
    Ultimately, I think that Steven is right here – journalism schools need to be teaching their students these technology skills because Cindy is right as well, it’s the future, if not the present, of the industry. But schools can’t take for granted that their students will automatically become effective storytellers. They can’t let technology instruction crowd out other, equally important journalism classes or the future of the industry will be a plethora of stories on easily share-able platforms that aren’t worth sharing.

  • Beatriz Jean Wallace

    I love this article. I would add a bit about statistics, open source software and forward thinking industry analysis.

  • del2124

    Yeah, but such a broad understanding of “tech” means so does everyone else. everyone works in tech. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, mechanics. This is sort of a meaningless distinction.

  • menacingphantom

    The fact that you would use the ugly, faddish and ambiguous phrase “engaging with the news” argues that writing and rhetoric are still pretty important no matter what your platform.

  • dwillis

    “The result is students who can’t compose a basic news story because all they know how to do is write code.”

    I would love to see an actual example of a journalism student who fits this description. Can anyone point to one?

  • Cindy Royal

    It’s not meaningless when we have those who don’t recognize it. It’s an important shift of mindset.

  • danondisqus

    I think Reddit should be in its own category…it is nothing like Vox/FiveThirtyEight/Buzzfeed when it comes to news distribution. Also, I’d argue that it is distinct from typical social networks, because of the lack of identity customization and focus on anonymity, and more importantly, the user-created and self-moderated subreddits. Reddit is more similar to bulletin and discussion boards, but it is so much bigger than its size makes it a completely different kind of platform.

  • del2124

    I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t recognize that technology is an important part of contemporary life. Indeed, whatever technology was a feature of the age always mattered a great deal for all professions.

  • Cindy Royal

    Agreed. I was just listing some platforms for news distribution and engagement with which some may not be familiar or consider as such.

  • digidave

    I think the distinction is different: Teachers and doctors USE technology. I think (I wouldn’t put words in her mouth) what Cindy is saying is that news is fundamentally tied to technology now in a way the other two aren’t.

    The biggest tech companies (facebook, twitter, Google, etc) are media companies. The tech/media aspects are intertwined.

  • Will Yurman

    This all makes sense. Important skills students should know. I’m just curious, what do we stop teaching them to make room for all this additional information?

  • del2124

    Then I think that’s just wrong. Teachers and doctors have always been tired to the technology of the day in the same way that media is always tied to the technology of its day.

  • Erika Biga Lee

    Digidave, you are spot on. We want journalism students to not just be users but creators and makers and these days that involves a deeper understanding of technology than other fields often require. As Cindy said, students who will “lead, innovate, and disrupt their field”.. that is the right phrase.

    I don’t think Cindy is saying that we should teach technology skills at the expense of journalism skills, though that is often a worry. I believe she’s saying that journalism skills are closely interwoven with technology skills now, or that they should be, because that is how content is created, distributed and where the new storytelling platforms are being built. (Hope that does your story justice, Cindy!)

    As one who teaches technology and design courses to journalism students, I can add that if all you’re doing is teaching HTML and CSS, then yes, that is a shame, because it’s also an opportunity to teach students about the internet and web, multi-platform journalism, how it all works, the history behind it, how to problem solve, the first steps towards computational thinking, and I could go on and on.. but also CONFIDENCE. Most of my students are women and they take my course because they know they should be more technical, but they have no idea what that means. I do my best to take them from being mildly nervous about clicking things to scouring the web intelligently (at least most of the time) for answers to their own questions — questions raised because they are trying to create. For many of them, it’s a transformative experience.

    And without that confidence and feeling that they’ve been allowed to look under the hood, it’s hard to teach students to start seeing technology (whether that is the internet, social media, the web, programming, etc..) as a viable (and accessible to them) method for reporting and storytelling. We teach journalism students to understand appropriate design. We teach them to understand their audience. We teach them to structure content to match the need and to best tell the story.

    Cindy is right. We now need to give journalism students an *opportunity* to become more technical and have a broad foundation and exposure to what that means. Not all will do so. But it needs to be woven into the curriculum when possible and not just add-on courses from CS departments. Technology should to be taught to journalism students in context.

  • Erika Biga Lee

    Or even better.. the mythical Chimera. Students with the head of a coder, the heart of a designer and the tale of a journalist.

  • digidave

    Teachers, doctors and people who work in media are “tied” to the technology of the day – in that they use it. Nobody is disagreeing with you.

    But the question is where the greatest advancements have come in the last decade and therefore the greatest disruption to an industry.

    If nanotechnology advanced at the rate of communications technology – then every doctor would be able to do the kind of work that only research laboratories can do currently. And if that were the case – then every doctor would defacto need to understand nanotechnology to do their job – because that would be the standard and part of their job in day-to-day doctor care. But this isn’t the case. Nanotechnology hasn’t advanced and we don’t expect our physicians to administer nano-tech health solutions. In this sense – they are not technologists. They use technology (all mankind uses technology – even if it’s just a spindle to make a fire) but the doctors in reality are not using what is the bleeding edge of technology in their field.

    But communications technologies has advanced to the point where there has been a great leveling of the technological playing field. To work in media/communications today in a serious way requires you understand where the latest technological advances are – because everyone has access to it and if you want to compete (in a serious way) – you need to understand what the technology is and how it applies (or disrupts) the way things are being done. It’s not just theoretical tech in a lab somewhere – it becomes part of your job description.

    Doctors use technology – but they are not expected to be leading the technological advances that apply to health or even do more than perhaps read up on the “literature.”

    Journalists use technology and they ARE expected to be leading the technological advances that apply to communication or at least be adept at applying it in real life situations.

  • del2124

    Well there’s a difference between “media companies” and journalists. Much as there’s a difference between “the medical industry” and doctors. Technology matters for all industries, ad always has. Facebook, twitter, Google, etc. are media companies, but they’re not journalism.

    The same skills (investigative research, telling a good story, and using the technology of the day to facilitate the transmission of that story) have always mattered for journalism. Technology matters no more for journalism now than it ever did.

  • dougmitchell

    I gave this a quick (but not thorough which seems ironic, a bit) read and then read through some of the excellent comments.

    Radio guy here: I’ve long understood that we use technology to help us gather and distribute stories. I got this understanding from the day I used a cassette recorder/player in college for reporting a radio story at the NPR station where I worked. Technology is infinitely more sophisticated today and hence, we need to be much more in tune (pun intended) with how current tech can be used to tell and distribute stories. It used to be putting stories up on a satellite and listening to them at appointment time on the radio, either in the office or in the car. Much of that habit remains. People still get most of their information from tv, which is now either through over-the-air HD signals and/or cable and satellite..
    I think what Ms. Royal is saying (and was said in one of the comments) that students who want to become tomorrow’s leading journalists should have a very firm grounding in how and why today’s devices and distribution systems work for or against us in the creation of media as well as some grounding in what I like to call an “under the hood” understanding of how tech works. I don’t think she’s proposing an “either-or” scenario.
    My main concern (also expressed in some of the comments) is forsaking the “art” of storytelling, the art of sound gathering and usage, the art of visuals and a reduction in our public service mission of reporting on government, politics, business, sports, religion and even, ourselves as media. This is happening right now, the finer parts of (my background) public radio storytelling, being lost. I will say professionals who have a stake in the future of media should be working as closely possible with journalism educators in their (our) own self-interest. We all need to be collaborating much better and more plainly and transparently.
    We all need to be able to construct sentences in ways that inform, we need to critically think, develop healthy skepticism, ask questions, evaluate answers and synthesize all of that into something that makes sense and serves a purpose. Then, push it out to consumers in the myriad of ways available today. Today’s technology helps greatly with this as we all know and will continue to do so as long as we remember why we’re here in the first place.

    Everyone still needs an editor :)

  • digidave

    I think we will have to agree to disagree.

    Correct Google, Twitter, Facebook are media companies not journalism. But all journalists work in media – an industry fundamentally transformed by the earlier co’s mentioned. People find content through them. This is why a few years ago journalists had to understand SEO and now are starting to lob onto social media virality. Journalists didn’t need to understand the shipping industry or how it impacted the way people got their news. They do need to understand the technology behind internet communication now – since it is often under their purview.

    I agree that the skills you mention (research, telling a good story, etc) are important. But the relationship with technology I would argue has changed such that it’s not just about knowing how to use the technology of the day to facilitate the transmission of that story. A deeper understanding is required in order to tell the story (video, data based journalism, etc) as well as OWN the transmission of that story (building a website) rather than just using a typwriter to get words on a page and send them off to a technologist who runs the printing press.

  • del2124

    I don’t think there’s really any disagreement about the facts. I just think the use of technology is part of a long process of how we tell and transmit stories, rather than any big dramatic shift.

  • paulhem

    Here you go… “Why I’m Learning Journalism and Coding: To Tell Better Stories”

  • Ken Payne

    One word of caution to all of journalism education – competition. We can’t compete with “free.” All of the thing you list above, Cindy, are completely knowable and teachable through thousands of internet sources free of charge. I’ll use my 14-year-old daughter as an example. She’s never taken a journalism class. a tech class, or asked me a single thing about media, distribution channels, page rank, or content sharing. But she can – without any assistance from anyone – post to Tumblr, tweet, share on Facebook, curate information, role play, use HTML5 and CSS code, write long-form narratives, and do all this on at least 3 screens. She contributes original art to Deviant, and collaborates (via Skype) with other artists Japan, England, and The Netherlands. She has a keen understanding of networks because she builds them herself. And she doesn’t need Henry Jenkins to explain convergent culture because the book is about her and her friends. She doesn’t care where the internet or the web came from because it’s always been here – like air and sunlight. All free. All self-taught. All a mouse click away. What she does ask me to do from time to time is critique her drawing, check her writing, help her respond to a nasty comment, or help her decide if her administrative approach to a member not pulling her weight is good for the group. If journalism education starts down a path that ultimately competes with free, we will all be looking for work elsewhere.

  • Cindy Royal

    Dave is expressing my points accurately Thanks. I am talking about media professionals and the industry into which journalism students are graduating. Yes, other industries are affected by tech, but I am specifically addressing the effects that platform dynamics have had on media companies. It will be important for anyone working in the media industry to be aware of these unique elements, because they will be expected to create and innovate within a platform infrastructure. The use of technology is a long process, but the current attention to platforms is what needs to be comprehended.

  • Cindy Royal

    We don’t have to stop teaching anything that is still relevant. We have to figure out how to integrate the teaching of media economics associated with platforms and the skills necessary to tell stories on these platforms with the basics of writing and reporting. Text still makes up the majority of content online. We just have to introduce it in the context of platforms. One of my links above addresses this integration, and I think it will require a new approach to curriculum.

  • Cindy Royal

    Yes, Erika. You have my intentions expressed precisely. And I can agree with you wholeheartedly on the importance of using computational thinking as a platform for confidence development, particularly for female students. I am definitely in favor of teaching more technology skills in journalism because of the high percentage of females in our programs. They need context and support that we can uniquely provide in journalism curriculum.

  • Cindy Royal

    Hi Doug,
    Thanks for the comments. I just think we have to teach the art of storytelling within this new context created by platform dynamics – sharing, interactivity. And for that reason, I see a necessary overhaul in journalism education.

  • Cindy Royal

    Hi Ken,
    That’s fantastic for your daughter. But these are the things that journalism educators need to know to provide a foundation for curriculum. Not all students come into my classes knowing ALL the things you describe. Even if they know how to tweet or post on FB, they may not have the professional perspective on social media. And having an understanding of the history and how tech works is important for insight and decision-making, skills that media professionals will need in the future. It’s great that so much information is freely available. But educators need to be able to pull information together to have meaningful discussions and provide advice to students.

    As others have said, this is not an “either-or” distinction. We have to teach fundamentals and critical skills within the context of the technological environment. And there are certain unique dynamics that have been introduced by platforms.

  • Cindy Royal

    I’d like to thank everyone who participated on this discussion, read or shared my article. It’s great to see so many people interested in the future of journalism and journalism education.

  • Jurnid

    Not on the list is Jurnid (, another platform fostering entrepreneurial journalism and mentorship. Educators, students, media professionals and brands work collaboratively in the same space. An option worth exploring.

  • Eduardo Riveros Quiroz

    Teach about new technologies and platforms in journalism is not impossible, only infrastructure and academic with passion in new technologies is needed, but difficult is to teach “courage” to journalists to do reporting especially in conflict zones … I can program, I can nice write, but be brave is very different

  • Joni Hannigan

    You did a great job, Cindy, of pointing out the obvious. And yes, there are those who really don’t get the notion that good journalism today CANNOT be taught in a vacuum without various degrees of technology. Likewise, however, there is a great concern that many are jumping ahead to various aspects of technology and hoping it will make up for a severe lack of foundational skills. Many are fighting for resources for their journalism departments so they may continue to develop and grow while at the same time maintain the integrity of good, solid reporting and storytelling. My belief is that journalism educators should join forces with other creatives in combining curriculum where they are able in order to tighten and streamline any overlap, and to lead out in creating new possibilities for increasing opportunities to teach more about information gathering, interviewing, storytelling and reporting.