Why there has never been a better time to be a journalism major

The explosive growth of digital technologies brings with it an ever-growing demand for contents, and content production is at the core of journalism training. At a time when everyone can reach out to a mass audience, people need journalistic skills to produce quality contents that engage target audiences.

Journalism needs to be redefined to reflect changing reality

The current definition of journalism cannot keep pace with the changing reality and it often misleads young people in choosing college major and planning their careers.

Per Merriam-Webster dictionary, journalism is defined as “the activity or job of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio.” Journalism is associated with, or confined to, the declining legacy media industry; that’s why we’re hearing louder and louder questioning by some students and parents: why study journalism when newspapers are cutting jobs and folding down?

I always say this: newspaper is a medium, journalism is a profession; the medium may come and go, but the profession stays and even flourishes with new medium.

If we redefine journalism as “the profession or practice that collects, produces and distributes information,” then a whole new world awaits journalism majors – imagine the huge demands for such a profession, especially in this digital day and world.

Past and now: Changing demands for journalism skills

Where there is demand, there is job. The diagram below shows that in the past, only the news media need journalism skills; today, institutions and the public, along with the media, need journalism skills to produce contents that engage audience.

journalism skills

Journalism skills include information collection (interviewing/research) and production (writing; audio/video production); in the past, demands for such skills usually come from the news media (newspaper, radio, TV) which monopolize the distribution channels.

That was a time when only the news media have the means to massively distribute contents to the general public. For all other social institutions and individuals to reach a massive audience, they have no choice but to depend on the news media. For instance, to promote an event, an institution has to ask the media to send in a reporter, who has the skills to interview people, take photos/videos and get the story written/produced, and then the news media distribute the story to a massive audience.

Today, anyone can produce contents and reach out to a mass audience, altogether bypassing the news media. An institution or individual can share news via a multitude of platforms such as website, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, etc. However, we know that not everything on the web gets noticed and shared; to engage target audience, people need journalistic skills to produce quality contents.

Journalism programs need to adapt to changing demands

To reap the benefits of the growing demands for journalism skills, a journalism program needs to adapt and offer a curriculum that has the desired ingredients.

Based on what employers and recent graduates are telling him, a journalism professor compiles a list of skills demanded by the current job market:

  • Multimedia storytelling skills. Producing slideshows with sound, shooting and editing video and photos, writing for the web.
  • Data and statistical skills for storytelling. Collecting, editing, analyzing and interpreting data to produce compelling interactive maps and graphics.
  • Audience development skills (formerly known as marketing and circulation) such as managing online communities, interpreting data on audience behavior, crowdsourcing for information, interacting with the audience.
  • Basics of programming. How to create compelling pages that attract web audiences.
  • The business of media. Journalists can help a news organization generate revenues without compromising their ethics, and today that skill is more important than ever.

Skills on this list show a heightened demand on production such as multimedia, data and programming, as well as a new demand for journalism majors to effectively distribute contents, in the forms of audience development and business growth.

My own research shows that more and more universities are gearing up to teach those skills. In 2012, I surveyed more than 500 journalism and communication programs in U.S. for the type of digital skills courses offered; based on the survey findings, about 20 percent of the programs have a curriculum that incorporates some of the skills listed above, but few, if any, programs have all the skills covered.

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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 (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), 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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4 Responses to Why there has never been a better time to be a journalism major

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  2. Ron Hoenig says:

    The real issue is not the skills but who ‘owns’ them. The traditional mass media has many faults but there is still, or was until recently, paid time to do work in the public interest – investigative journalism. Who is going to pay for that in the increasingly corporatised online world?

    • Mu Lin says:

      While professors are concerned about issues such as ownership and public interests, the journalism school administrators are more concerned, if not worried, about making sure their students can find a job upon graduation. Unless there is a new business model emerging, we can no longer hold the newspaper industry, as much as we have in the past, up against the lofty ideal of being a watchdog for the society.

      • Melanie Thomas says:

        Unless there is a new business model emerging, we can no longer hold the newspaper industry, as much as we have in the past, up against the lofty ideal of being a watchdog for the society.

        I wholeheartedly agree with you here. I was out of the media business for a while but I’m now back as a freelancer for a community newspaper. There’s too much office/newspaper politics at many small town or mid-size metro papers or it’s all about the advertising. Also some papers, even though they are formatted broadsheet, their content is more tabloid. So I totally agree that many newspapers aren’t always living up to their role as a watchdog as its traditional term, the Fifth Estate. The media is being accused of being leftist and as getting its marching orders from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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