Journalism teachers are failing their students

The students Wayne MacPhail sees know practically nothing about the online world or emerging media; their journalistic training reaches only a tentative few feet beyond the same traditional media it always has. He thinks that j-school training needs to be something more.  The students Wayne MacPhail sees know practically nothing about the online world or…

Wayne MacPhailThe students Wayne MacPhail sees know practically nothing about the online world or emerging media; their journalistic training reaches only a tentative few feet beyond the same traditional media it always has. He thinks that j-school training needs to be something more. 

Wayne MacPhailThe students Wayne MacPhail sees know practically nothing about the online world or emerging media; their journalistic training reaches only a tentative few feet beyond the same traditional media it always has. He thinks that j-school training needs to be something more.

I am writing this article on an iPad which is tapped wirelessly into a
coffee shop's wifi. The device knows where it is in space and, if I
allow it, will broadcast that information to any application I choose.
Nearby, a young man browses the web on his iPhone. A woman is using a Blackberry. We are all online, all wireless and all capable of sending video, audio or text anywhere in the world.

In an instant, I could convert my iPad into a magazine-style
newsreader using one of a dozen applications such as Flipboard, River
of News, Early Edition or FLUD. Beautifully formatted pages, filled
with images and videos which my social media friends have flagged,
will flow and slide across the screen.

The young man could do the same using applications like Reeder or The Pulse on his mobile phone. Our news packages would be culled, collated and laid out not by editors and graphic designers, but by crowds and CPUs.

This is neither new nor uncommon. It is becoming the norm as millions of  people snap up iPads and smartphones and a dozen new tablets wait in the wings – a new one from the Waterloo-based RIM being just the latest offering.

But, despite that, much of the fundamental (and sometimes final)
training we offer journalism students is dished out as if none of it
were happening. As if the boulder-sized granularity of the news cycle
had not melted in a quicksilver stream. As if the line between author
and audience has not been smudged to grey and as if, really, nothing
much had changed about the fundamentals of journalistic narrative
despite a wholesale remaking of the information landscape.

Many journalism profs, I'd wager, have never used Flipboard, done a
podcast, played with foursquare or Gowalla or have really seriously
engaged in an online social community. Nor have they paid attention to
the videoblogs and online networks that bear as much resemblance to a
traditional television studio as a unicycle does to a Hummer.

How do I know this? I teach 3rd and 4th year and post-grad level
online journalism courses at two Ontario universities. Over the course
of the past 15 years, I've done the same at a handful more.

I have seen 4th year students who, when I show them examples from the This Week in Tech network, rocketboom, Cmd-N or Buzz Out Loud, say they've never seen them before.

I have 3rd year students who have never edited digital audio. Who
write heads and leads with no thought to how they will be atomized and
abstracted in RSS feeds and on the screens of mobile phones and
tablets. I have a class of MA journalism students, the majority of
whom don't even know what an RSS feed is.

And, I have to ask: How can that be? How can intelligent students go
through semester after semester or even year after year of modern
journalistic training and be so frankly ignorant of some of the
fundamental concepts, tools and shows that are shaping the way
citizens ingest and participate in journalism and content? How can it
be that they only seem to know the basics of radio (maybe),
television, magazine and newspapers? How can it be that they often
treat online 1) with some derision and fear and 2) as if it were
nothing more than a place to shovel, unaltered, the products of other

Rhetorical questions. They know and repeat what they have been taught. And their basic training, in my experience, does not have folded into its DNA an understanding that not all audio ends up on time-constrained, broadcast, appointment radio.

That not all news has to be produced in cumbersome, equipment-laden
studios with business-suited and scripted anchors.

That not all words will wind up on paper first, nestled luxuriously in
a contextual bed of carefully laid-out cousin stories on crafted,
immutable pages.

That not all acts of journalism have to be committed by journalists.
And that not all audiences are passive.

That not all video needs to be shot with unwieldy, obtrusive cameras.
Nor with cameras at all, but rather with smartphones tethered
timelessly to social networks and embedded players.

No. The students I see know little if anything of the online world or
of emerging media. Their own personal experience extends to facebook
and texting, for the most part. And, their journalistic training
reaches only a tentative few feet beyond the same traditional media
and means it always has. What little exposure they do get is often
provided by itinerant lecturers or faculty with little real practical
experience who have to rely on technical teaching assistants to show
students fundamentals.

And, basic online training often extends only as far as how to use
content management systems (CMS) that treat online only as digital
Tupperware for other more traditional forms. The argument for this is
that these are systems that are used in newsrooms today. But learning
a CMS isn't a course, it's an uninteresting class. And, frankly,
looking to most newsrooms for best online practice is like visiting a
glue factory to learn about race horses.


All this needs to change now, and in first year. Why? Because the
nature of story and storytelling has been altered forever. Instructors
who teach basic print need to acknowledge that not only will
headlines, subheads and other microcontent be torn apart and scattered
to tiny screens and tablets, but must also survive the dissection and
distribution of Twitter and other microblogging services.

More importantly, they need to acknowledge and explore how the very
nature of an ongoing narrative (which is at the core of much news
reporting) changes when you factor in real-time audience
participation, distribution and creation. They need to discuss layout,
not as static (print) nor somewhat unpredictable (web) processes, but
rather as a user or CPU choice. Witness apps like Flipboard that seize
and transform feeds, text and graphics on the fly.

Instructors need, in my opinion, to reconsider how stories are
brainstormed, sourced, researched and even edited, given a public with
an increasing desire and ability to be talked to, engaged with,
crowdsourced and mined in a collaborative dance of narrative creation.

Acting as if nothing has changed, or, that what has changed can be
layered on like a parka in the winter season of a student's learning
doesn't work anymore. I see the fruits of that kind of thinking term
after term. It breeds scared students who feel unprepared for the
emerging world and resentful of educational opportunities missed.

"Fine, great," I hear critics say. "That's all well and good in
theory, but we have students who come to us knowing nothing about the
craft. How can we possibly teach them more stuff?"

But I'm not advocating for more. I'm advocating for acknowledgement
and change. And, a second note: along with that honest concern I hear
an undertone, a dark counterpoint that thrums: "I fear, I fear, I
fear." Many instructors don't teach differently because they don't
know what is different. They know something has shifted, some foreign refraction by an unseen lens, but its nature eludes them, scares them or leaves them cold. Or all three. They resist changing because they have so little experience of the changed world.

Radio instructors, from day one, need to consider that the idea of
appointment radio is becoming quaint. Students who listen to podcasts
or have downloaded the NPR, BBC or CBC app to their mobile device
don't really understand that there was a time when you heard a show
once and once only. They have unpinned audio from time. Surely the
teaching of even the basics has to account for that. Surely the
inexorable shift from broadcast to IP delivery of audio alters how we
think about story telling for the ear and mind's eye. After all, our
audiences are now traversing our acoustic work more like Doctor Who
than like a steadfast hiker.

And television instructors must show students not just the evening
news and documentaries, but also the small, entrepreneurial, web-based
news and entertainment productions that fill Vimeo, You Tube, Daily
Motion and set top box offerings. Surely the TWIT network, which
produces over a dozen high quality, and extremely profitable,
videocasts a week is a model worthy of consideration when larger, more traditional television newsrooms are folding in on themselves. Surely BCE’s recent purchase of CTV is a bellwether of IP-based TV delivered to mobile devices. That is not broadcast as it was and as it will never be again.

Surely webisode entrepreneurs like the highly articulate Amber
are equally if not more valid role models for young men and
women than vapid weather people, boisterous sports hosts and
always-standing television personalities and reporters who ask silly
questions of ignorant people on busy street corners.

Surely smartphones and streaming applications are viable tools that
have a place beside larger and more labour intensive processes and

And, surely, we need to step back even further than that and consider
what we must bake into our most basic instruction when our audience
members are geo-locatable with breathtaking precision and when they
can share what they see, hear and think with the facility that, ten
years ago, was only afforded a remote van or a satellite uplink.

We need to understand how our audiences relate to and use news when
they are not reading it on paper, but instead, multitouching it,
exploring it with their hands and playing with media as if it were so
much fingerpaint just below the surface of their portable glass
tablets. Touch is the new click. The hand is the new desk. Where is
the new when and glass is rapidly becoming the new paper. These "news" have to change how we teach our news. From the beginning, from the core. From now on.

But, how do we do that? By playing. By living in the present, if not
the future. If you teach magazines and haven't used Flipboard on a
tablet you don't really know what's going to happen to your industry.
If you teach television and haven't shot, edited and published a news
item from your smartphone, you're missing an important part of
on-the-ground news coverage by journalists and citizens. And, more
importantly, you're unable to think creatively about how to use that
skill to tell great stories new ways and how to weave that
understanding into what you teach every day. We can't teach skills we
lack, offer wisdom about tools we've never used nor provide even the
most rudimentary opinions of social media experiences we've never had. And we can't think creatively, generatively, about how to weave online journalism into the fabric we cloak our students with from the first day they fall to our care. They expect that of us, and they are right
to do so.

Read a j-student's typewriter-written reaction here.

Wayne MacPhail began in the industry as a magazine photographer, feature writer and editor. In 1983, he moved to the Hamilton Spectator where was a health, science and social services columnist, feature writer and editor. In 1991, he founded Southam InfoLab, a research and development lablooking into future information products for this Canadian national newspaper chain. After leaving Southam, he developed online content for most Canadian online networks. Wayne now heads up w8nc inc., helping non-profit organizations, colleges and universities, charitable organizations and associations develop and implement technology-based, marketing driven communications strategies. He also teaches online journalism at the University of Western Ontario and Ryerson University. He serves on the board of rabble.ca where he founded the rabble podcast network and rabbletv. He's a regular tech columnist for the website and for mondoville.com.