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April 28, 2014, 10:10 a.m.

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.

POSTED     April 28, 2014, 10:10 a.m.
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