Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

“What processes are you establishing that will allow your program to remain current over time? What’s preventing you from taking action? Is it accreditation standards, university bureaucracy, or faculty interest/competency?”

As I began to ponder what I might predict for 2018, I kept returning to an assignment submitted this semester by a first-year master’s student in our digital media concentration. The post, “My BA is Obsolete” by Sean Smith, was written on the topic of product management in journalism. “I just graduated with my bachelor of arts in mass communication in May,” he wrote. “You’d think I’d be primed and ready for a career as a modern journalist. I’m not.”

He said he recognized that the world of journalism had expanded beyond reporting, writing, and editing: “My concentration in multiplatform journalism sounded all-encompassing. I was excited to be well-versed in several fields.” He thought his degree would improve his job prospects upon graduation.

“It didn’t,” he wrote.

At Texas State, we’ve been enhancing our digital curriculum at the graduate level for many years, and that success led us to propose and get approval for a new undergraduate degree in Digital Media Innovation that was launched in 2016.

I asked Smith, who is also a graduate assistant for our Fundamentals of Digital and Online Media and Web Design courses, to elaborate on what inspired him in writing the post.

“While I’ve only just completed my first semester in a digitally focused program, I’ve learned so much about how innovations in technology, digital media, and the internet affect communication,” he said. “I already feel better prepared to work in the current communication landscape by having some basic understanding of these issues. Programs that focus solely on print and broadcast news are not preparing their students for jobs now, and definitely not in the near future.”

This isn’t meant to be a critique of Smith’s undergraduate experience specifically (he received his degree from a different Texas university), but I fear that his sentiments might be more broadly reflected by a cross-section of graduates.

This summer, I hosted a pre-conference workshop on Bringing Digital into the Curriculum at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication gathering in Chicago. I presented an inventory of topics for participants to rate each one’s presence in their curriculum. It included major categories in basic digital concepts, visual, social, mobile, data and innovation and included Internet history, digital business models, analytics, web and mobile development, coding, data journalism, 360 video, drones and design thinking.

I recall one participant commenting that her program got “goose eggs” in most of these categories. I don’t think her program is unique. How are these topics covered in your program? If the answer is “they aren’t,” then your curriculum is obsolete.

As a result of two curriculum planning exercises I participated in last fall, I created a broader taxonomy of digital terms and phrases that journalism programs must adopt into their vernacular. How many members of your faculty are comfortable with the majority of these concepts? If the answer is “not many,” then your curriculum is obsolete.

Sometimes I hear people say things like “digital is just skills,” or ask “isn’t data journalism just journalism?” or “what comes after digital media?” Digital represents a vast shift in the way we communicate, requiring professionals and educators to understand new products and platforms and comprehend the broad scope, scale, competition, and economics it introduces. It’s more than learning to edit video or to write code. It’s a vast change that requires an innovation and creativity mindset. And while data journalism is definitely journalism, most programs haven’t gone far enough in introducing the new ways in which data can be explored and presented in a digital age. Many people are eager to get to the “after digital” moment, without serious reflection on and preparation for the steps it will take to get there.

What is your journalism school doing, beyond small tweaks, to reflect the world of digital communication that’s rapidly evolving around it? What processes are you establishing that will allow your program to remain current over time? What’s preventing you from taking action? Is it accreditation standards, university bureaucracy, or faculty interest/competency? Does your department face other priorities that are standing in the way?

In 2018, journalism and mass communication programs will need to answer these questions and move more urgently toward meaningful curriculum redesign — because otherwise students will begin to flee from their programs and seek out other degrees at their university or more innovative degrees at other schools. At a time when understanding the role of media in society has become essential, we must continue to invest in and innovate media education to prepare professionals and educate the public. We need curriculum that empowers, rather than disaffects, students. What will you do in 2018 to ensure this happens?

Cindy Royal is a professor and director of the Media Innovation Lab at Texas State University.

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