Journalism schools need to overhaul their curricula and change their marketing to attract students and keep up with technology, digital media strategist Amy Webb told a room full of journalism professors and a couple of their deans Friday.
Speaking at the Journalism Interactive conference at the University of Maryland about “Top Tech Trends for Academics,” Webb said schools need to shift their focus, scrap their programs and infuse technology into their courses.
“This is about making the degree matter more,” Webb, a former journalist, said. “Because journalism, like it or not, is part and parcel of every single thing that’s happening out in Silicon Valley.”
[Below, Webb further explains in an interview with AJR her position on how journalism schools should change.]
Reactions from the audience were mixed, though many professors expressed their excitement about Webb’s message.
Like some, Diane McFarlin, dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, was initially wary of Webb’s technology-focused message, but said she understood when Webb explained further.
“I think that her message was very important. She clearly is a missionary for change,” McFarlin said. “We do have to do more to look ahead.”
Others, like Katy Culver, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, were less enthusiastic.
“I think it’s maybe a little bit reductive to say, wipe out your curriculum,” she said. “There are other things a curriculum needs to follow aside from the top six tech trends.”
Webb emphasized that incorporating technology is not about launching trendy classes or hiring a single professor, but integrating concepts into the entire curriculum.
A graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Webb said she didn’t think she would necessarily decide to attend if she were making the choice today.
“The challenge here is that smart kids want tech degrees. They don’t want journalism degrees,” she said.
And she thinks that’s the fault of j-schools.
“The problem is that journalism schools don’t make journalism sound very interesting,” Webb said.
The City University of New York is one school with a media entrepreneurship program. It has revised its curriculum multiple times and continues to do so every semester, said Jeremy Caplan, director of education at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism.
“I agree that the old-fashioned, more traditional approach to… journalism is problematic in an era when students are racing to keep up with the changing profession,” he said.
Not every journalism professor needs to learn how to code, Webb said, but she believes they all should expose themselves to emerging trends and innovative, creative tools.
Webb has created a summer syllabus for journalism professors to help them get up to date on technology. It includes sections on ephemeral content, virality, millennials and the history of California’s Silicon Valley and New York’s Silicon Alley.
The syllabus will guide professors through an eight-week “course” on all things tech, with an aim of helping them shift their focus and see things in a different way, Webb said.
Webb, who is the founder of Webbmedia Group, a digital strategy agency, put some blame for journalism schools’ sluggishness to adapt their programs on the accreditation system, saying that she thinks the whole system is “kind of messed up.”
Some professors at the conference acknowledged that journalism coursework should be revamped.
“At my particular institution, we’re very much teaching a 1980s model,” said Sea Stachura, a professor at Georgia Regents University. “We need to revise that if our students are going to get jobs and if they’re going to be compelled to go into the field at all, really.”
Webb said schools should invite technology experts to speak and market such events more effectively. She identified strategy and entrepreneurial journalism as two of the most important fields to cover in classes.
“What you can do, a tangible takeaway from this, is to start infusing all of your courses — short of gutting the curriculum, I would much rather see a lot of the courses include what I’ve been talking about, versus offering one or two classes that have, like, a buzzword in them,” she said.
Amy Webb’s slides from the presentation are available online. Video of the talk is available on the Journalism Interactive YouTube channel.
AJR is the publishing partner for the Journalism Interactive 2014 conference, held April 4 and 5 in College Park, Md. To see conference tweets, go here.
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