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Aug. 11, 2014, 10:52 a.m.
Reporting & Production

After a summer Back in the Newsroom, journalism professors are headed back to the classroom

Five journalism profs who spent the summer embedded in major newsrooms are revamping their lesson plans based on what they learned.

Students in Howard University journalism professor Yolanda McCutchen’s intro to broadcast journalism class have, in the past, focused solely on learning to report, write, and produce segments for television. But when her students return to campus this month, they’ll also be required to learn a new set of skills: producing video stories specifically for the web.

The added focus on web video is a direct result of McCutchen’s participation this summer in a new program, Back in the Newsroom, run by the International Center for Journalists. It paired five journalism professors from historically black colleges and universities with news organizations across the country for fellowships in their newsrooms to refresh their approach to journalism while also working to improve newsroom diversity.

McCutchen, who was a broadcast journalist before entering academia, spent her summer at The Washington Post. She was embedded with the Post’s PostTV video staff for half her tenure at the paper, and it was there where she said she got a sense of how her students needed to be able to grasp the differences between traditional TV broadcast news and video specifically for the Internet.

“I believe they need to do both because you never know where you’re going to end up after graduation,” McCutchen told me, adding that she now planned on also teaching her students mobile reporting techniques. “You need to be prepared. Even if you end up at a TV station, you could end up at the digital department.”

From the newsrooms’ perspectives, by partnering with the journalism professors, they’re helping ensure that potential new hires have the skills and training they’re looking for. Along with promoting diversity, Back in the Newsroom also serves the paper’s best interests by promoting more up-to-date journalism education, said Tracy Grant, the head of newsroom recruitment and development at the Post.

“We need to have students being trained in the skill set we need them to have, and if you’re being taught by a professor who hasn’t been in a newsroom in five years, you might as well be taught by a dinosaur,” she said.

Along with the Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and CNBC also hosted professors. Many had been away from newsrooms for a number of years already or had never worked in a large multi-platform newsroom, and they said that working alongside journalists in those newsrooms allowed them to realize the skills their students would need to succeed and actually get jobs in journalism after graduating.

“I will return to the classroom with the understanding that, if the ultimate goal is to educate and enhance the learning experience for students who want to be employed, in order for me to see decent placement numbers, we have to start teaching a little bit of the technology along with the core principles of journalism,” said Hampton University professor B. DaVida Plummer, who spent her summer at CNBC.

Back in the Newsroom was funded by a $183,000 grant from Knight Foundation (disclosure: Knight also supports Nieman Lab). John Bracken, Knight’s director of journalism and media innovation, said it was too soon to determine whether the program will continue to be funded since ICFJ hasn’t yet formally reported back to Knight about how it went.

Still, ICFJ is hopeful that it’ll be able to continue the program, said Elisa Tinsley, who ran the program for ICFJ. Most of the fellows and participating organizations spoke positively of the experience, offering suggestions for small tweaks like encouraging more collaboration and discussion between not only the fellows, but the newsrooms as well. This summer’s fellows spent time at the beginning and end of the summer together for an orientation and then to debrief their experiences. They then spent nine weeks in their respective newsrooms.

One other goal: to open up new pathways for students at historically black colleges and universities to reach some of the top newsrooms in the country. “They tend to go to the usual suspects for their interns and for their hires,” Tinsley said. “And [the professors] are hoping that after this program the news organizations will come and recruit in person at their schools.”

Though the job market for all recent journalism or mass communications graduates is tough, fewer minority students are getting jobs right out of school, according to a study released last week by the University of Georgia. Just 55.1 percent of minority students with bachelor degrees who graduated in 2013 reported having a full-time job, the survey said — a drop from 60.3 percent the year before. Compare that to non-minority students, which remained steady from 2012, at 72.8% of respondents reporting employment.


Los Angeles Times fellow Michael Douglas, a professor at Florida A&M University, said one of his main goals after the fellowship was to encourage FAMU students and recent alumni to apply for internships at the Times as well as to the Tribune Company’s Metpro program, which is designed to attract minority journalists.

Douglas said he’s already planning a presentation to the rest of the FAMU journalism faculty to describe the Times’ programs and to encourage them to seek out their top students to apply for the opportunities. He’s already introduced some students to Tracy Boucher, the Times’ director of news development, at the recent National Association for Black Journalists conference in Boston, which they both attended. “He brought me so many students to greet,” Boucher said. “He made it his mission to reach out to other historically black colleges.”

“Here’s a great opportunity for them to apply,” Douglas said, describing his plan to work with other faculty to reach out to FAMU students once they get back to campus in the fall. “Maybe we can get a solid 20 applicants to apply, and we can have that open portal that our better quality students, who are really into graphics or journalism or app development, can go places that they’ve probably never even thought about going.”

And beyond a potential job pipeline, the professors and newsrooms hope to continue their relationship in other ways. Howard, where McCutchen teaches, is located in Washington, so she said she’s hopeful she’ll be able to bring her students into the Post newsroom to see the PostTV studios and have Post editors come to campus to speak to her class. She also mentioned preliminary discussions ongoing to potentially publish some of her student’s work covering the local D.C. community in conjunction with the Post.

“That was one of the goals of the program overall, for us to come up with projects and ways to build up some long term relationships between the universities and the media outlets that we went to over the summer,” McCutchen said. “They’re still in the proposal stage, and we’re still trying to work out the details, but hopefully we’ll be able to accomplish both of those.”

Photo of The Los Angeles Times’ video set by Michael Douglas.

POSTED     Aug. 11, 2014, 10:52 a.m.
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