J-Schools caught between multimedia and traditional journalism

by Melissa Perreault
Journalism schools and the industry are at odds about how much multimedia should be in the curriculum. Newsrooms believe students don’t have enough multimedia skills.

by Melissa Perreault

Approximately 40 graduating journalism students trickle into the large auditorium at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Facing them are six professors ready to talk about the practical workshops that highlight the school’s one and four-year journalism programs.

Professor Tim Currie walks up to the podium with paper in hand. He proceeds to explain why his online workshop will be beneficial to all students by providing valuable multimedia skills.

King’s was the first journalism school in Canada to teach a course in online journalism. In that way, it was ahead of the curve. But now, like other schools, it faces pressure from employers to enhance its focus on multimedia skills. And that, in turn, is making some professors nervous. They fear too much emphasis on teaching multimedia skills could erode education in the fundamentals of journalism.

Different schools, different programs

Many schools have followed King’s lead, and include some form of online or multimedia training in their curricula.

Ryerson University in Toronto has an online and multimedia workshop that now lets students choose more than one medium to study.

Likewise, the University of British Columbia has a multi-platform course called Integrated Journalism. Its aim is to give students experience in a multimedia newsroom.

The journalism program at Concordia University in Montreal requires that students take a Digital Tools course, which was once an elective. It teaches students how to use new software and computer systems.

King’s itself is gradually introducing a multimedia course in which students in other media will work as a team with online students. The program is looking at merging courses in print, TV and radio reporting and incorporating those techniques into a multimedia course.

Skills from all angles

But some newsroom leaders say the programs aren’t going far enough.

“Too many schools are taking only tepid steps,” Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, wrote in an e-mail. “They aren’t noticing how newsrooms have changed and they’re treating digital as some sort of appendage instead of the central medium.”

The skills to which LaPointe refers include photojournalism and the ability to edit audio. This focus on skills from different media is called cross-platform journalism. It requires students to include content from different media in one story.

“The ones (schools) that don’t have this constant outlook of modifying course curriculum…are going to find that the students that they produce won’t be bringing the skills forward into the newsrooms,” he said.
Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press, has worked at CP for 30 years and has witnessed many changes to the skills that are required. “If I was coming into this as a 21-year-old I would want to make sure that my skills in all of these things, including photography, are pretty good,” he said. “And you know what, I think it’s way more exciting.”

White said if students are writing a print story, they should think about how it would work as a video, on radio and online.

Kim Kierans, the journalism program director at University of King’s College, acknowledges the changes taking place in the industry.

“When we get into this idea of ‘all I can do is print,’ you know you’re not going to have a great or long career because print is becoming something different,” she said.

Kierans has worked in many areas herself, including newspaper writing, photography, radio, television, and online. She reminds students to keep an open mind and try all media types.

The professors at Ryerson also know that cross-platform journalism is the future.  “When you say newspaper now, you’re not really just talking about the old sort of ink and dead trees thing,” said Paul Knox, Director of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. “A newspaper now is an organization that has both a printed product and a strong presence on the web.”

Criticizing the curriculum

The debate over journalism school curricula is hardly new.

According to the book “Pulitzer’s School” written by James Boylan, Joseph Pulitzer was one of the first to encounter this issue when he established the first journalism school at Columbia University. His goal to turn journalism into a respectable profession to be taught at university was not welcomed by many academics.

So there has always been a gulf between the academy and the day-to-day world of journalism, one that continues today.

Andy Guess, a reporter for Inside Higher Ed, explains this as a tension between traditional and modern. Schools want to teach journalism basics while industry moguls want the schools to teach new technological skills.

Indeed many Canadian journalism professors are afraid of going too far with technology. The fear is they will stray from teaching fundamentals in order to make room for the technological and multimedia classes.

“We try to keep in mind that the technology can’t overwhelm the larger desire to teach you how to think like a journalist,” said Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communication Chair in Journalism at King’s, where he has been a professor since 1983.

The concerns come to a head when there are suggestions to teach students new computer programs. At Concordia for example, there is a debate over whether to introduce a web design class. “Newspapers…run a printing press but we don’t need to teach our students to run a printing press,” argues Mike Gasher, director of journalism at Concordia.

Knox describes Ryerson as minimalist when it comes to technology. Like Gasher, he believes there is a limit to how much technology can be incorporated within the curriculum.

“I think you would try to not be seduced by too many bells and whistles,” he said.
Some students, however, wish there was more emphasis on skills.

Lyndsie Bourgon graduated from the four-year program at King’s in 2008. She feels it would be beneficial if she knew more technical things such as how to use Flash (animation) and write Java programs.

“It would be useful these days to kind of market myself as a journalist and web developer because it’s appealing for papers and websites to think they’re hiring for two jobs with one person,” she said in an e-mail.

Joshua Clipperton, a recent journalism graduate of Carleton University and now a reporter for The Canadian Press, said that his school did not emphasize the important multimedia knowledge that the newsroom required.

“The fundamentals of journalism learned at school are invaluable, but the real world is so different,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The idea of having to report on a story in three different mediums at once didn’t hit home until I started doing it.”

Clipperton believes that schools should incorporate mandatory online media courses to provide students with technological and multimedia skills.

But again, journalism educators aren’t all so sure.

The difference between incorporating lots of technology and keeping it minimal is the difference between a trade school and a journalism school, Knox said. He said journalism schools focus on storytelling while trade schools put more emphasis on production values.

Knox believes schools must make a decision on how heavily they will invest in technology and how much they will incorporate that in their teaching.

“You don’t want to leave them [students] technologically illiterate,” said Knox. “But you don’t want to abandon the fundamentals either.”

Guess agreed.

“I think that some of them are going in that direction (intensive multimedia) because they want to show people ‘hey we are embracing technology. We are all about the web and the Internet so you’ll just learn everything when you come here,'” he said. “The result is that they don’t really know how to be journalists.”

With such conflicting views, journalism schools are struggling to find where they are going to fit in the new media world.

It’s difficult to find a middle point that will make both journalism schools and newsrooms content with the skills and lessons that are taught in the classroom.

Newsroom demands

None of which would likely damper the enthusiasm of the students hearing Tim Currie’s pitch for the online workshop at King’s. It has grown to be one of the most popular workshops at the Halifax school. What was once a tentative step into the future is now very much a part of the present.

Said White of The Canadian Press, “This is the world we live in now.”

Related Links

This Canadian Press work shows different multimedia elements that can improve a story.
“The best multimedia stuff compliments the written word, it doesn’t duplicate it.”
~ Scott White, Canadian Press Editor-In-Chief

The Vancouver Sun managing editor says they are doing things that were unthinkable a couple of years ago.
“In a way what we are trying to do…is bring the website close to the newspaper in terms of its capacity to produce material in a timely fashion and of course we do other things to the website. We are producing videos every day, we have audio files, we have pod casting, we have photo galleries, a lot of interactive material, databases.”
~ Kirk LaPointe, Managing Editor.