How to develop a forward-looking digital journalism program?

A digital journalism program should merge conventional tracks (print/broadcast), incorporate multiple digital journalism courses, and offer selected beats for students to develop in-depth knowledge on specific topics. This is how a forward-looking journalism program can innovate its curriculum to meet the changing needs of both the industry and the students.

For a quick reference to key points discussed in this post, see an infographic at the end.

Journalism programs need to merge conventional tracks such as print and broadcast

Traditional journalism tracks, such as news, news/editorial, print journalism, broadcast journalism and photojournalism, need to be merged so that students can be proficient with every platform.

Having separate tracks in journalism education is a reflection of how the “old” journalism industry has been structured – newspaper is newspaper, TV is TV, and photo is photo. However, with Internet and digital technologies, the demarcation between the traditional sectors is being done away with – nowadays a reporter is expected to write articles, shoot photos and videos, and be versed with web tools.

How are the journalism schools and programs adapting to the changing industry structure? Not fast enough. Based on my study of more than 500 journalism and communication programs in United States, the majority of journalism programs still have tracks or concentrations in print, broadcast, photo, magazine, etc.

When talking about hiring in the digital age, a director at The Atlantic said everyone is now an editor in chief, that everyone is expected to do a little of everything:

report and write stories; write headlines and deks; select and crop photos; fact check and copy edit the work of others; make charts and graphs; oversee social media; manage outside writers. (And hey, can you do some coding?)

Journalism curriculum needs to embrace the digital revolution

A recent PEW national survey shows that news consumption has been migrating from print and broadcast to the web and mobile devices. However, journalism schools and programs have been slow to respond – in my survey of more than 500 journalism and communication programs in U.S., only 107 programs require students to take courses in digital or multimedia journalism.

Then what should a “digital journalism program” look like? In other words, how to design a forward-looking curriculum?

At the core of a digital journalism program, it should still be the “old-fashion,” time-tested journalism courses in print and broadcast. Amid the digital revolution in the industry, some specific skills should be incorporated into the curriculum. Thus, the basic journalistic skill set should consist of the following:

Core courses

  • News writing and reporting: it is not a journalism program to start with, if basic writing and reporting is not part of the core requirements.
  • Video production: basic field production, digital editing and publishing. What matters here is not how to operate the professional cameras and gears, it is about essential shooting/editing techniques, as multimedia journalists are more likely to use portable, consumer level equipments on the job.
  • Photography/graphic design: in a recent post, I argued that as the web and social networks are getting more and more “image-driven,” photography should be part of the essential skill set of a digital journalist.
  • Intro to digital journalism: concepts and tools for digital storytelling; the “Convergent Journalism” class I teach is one such introductory digital journalism course.

Advanced (elective) course clusters

Students can choose courses from different areas, or choose to focus more on one specific area. For instance, Emerson College journalism program asks students to choose at least one course from several platforms: broadcast platform, writing platform and multimedia platform.

The following clusters, among others, could be the areas where students need more or advanced knowledge and training:

  • Advanced print journalism
  • Advanced video journalism
  • Advanced digital journalism: data visualization, coding, emerging digital technologies, and long-form digital storytelling. Programming/coding is a growing field of digital journalism, and recruiters are having a hard time finding enough qualified programmer journalists.

Digital journalism students need to choose a topical beat

While abandoning platform-based tracks such as print/broadcast, journalism programs should consider requiring students to choose topic-based tracks or beats.

In an interview about CNN’s hiring practice, the managing editor of CNN’s digital operations says coding and multimedia skills are becoming more common among new hires, but that specialized knowledge is getting hard to find. The managing editor said, “the resumes that show specialized interest and experience in a beat or topic are increasingly rare and precious — health, foreign affairs, science, education, religion, to name a few.”

The above-mentioned director at The Atlantic also emphasized the importance of specialized knowledge in a beat and beyond:

In interviewing business writers, we might ask about tax policy and retail trends but we’re most interested in how candidates think about non-business topics–and whether they have the instinct to apply a business or economics lens to everyday subjects.

Some journalism programs have had this requirement in their curricula. For instance, the journalism program at University of Texas at Austin requires students to choose from traditional beat reporting courses in areas such as cops, courts, city hall, schools and state government.

However, one course for one beat may not be enough for developing a “specialized interest” in a topic. We used to have multiple courses for “print journalism,” why can’t we have multiple courses for, say, “science beat,” “education beat” or “foreign affairs beat?”

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (, a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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