What I wish they taught in J-school

University of Kansas Journalism School, Stauffer-Flint Hall
University of Kansas Journalism School, Stauffer-Flint Hall

“Didn’t anybody ever tell them … ?”

“Why don’t they know … ?”

“What are they teaching them these days?”

Spend enough time in a newsroom and you’ll hear some variation of these questions, or other criticism of what Those Kids Today are learning (or not) in journalism school. Some of it, of course, is typical grumbling – as if anyone arrives in a newsroom for the first time knowing everything. Others, though, are valid points.

Now that I’m on the other side – teaching – I see how complicated it is: making sure the students get all the fundamentals while making sure they have a good understanding of new media technologies, and that they generally know How Things Work in the news business (which, these days, is sort of a moving target anyway). But I’ve tried to cover all the bases, plus give them a good idea of what to expect in their first internship or job, and that includes the valid points raised by working journalists.

These suggestions come out of a session several colleagues (Gerri Berendzen of the Quincy Herald-Whig, Neil Holdway of the Daily Herald and Larry Sparks of the Omaha World-Herald) and I presented at an ACES regional workshop at the University of Nebraska called “What I wish they taught in J-school.” It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s something we hoped would be useful to students studying journalism. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

Advice to students from professional journalists:

* Deadlines are everything. Reporters will ignore them but editors cannot, and if you’re the one who’s always late, your co-workers won’t respect you.

* Diplomacy is desirable. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

* Math is not just for scientists. Anyone who says “I’m a journalism major because you don’t have to take any math” is going to be a lousy journalist. And we’re not talking calculus here. Take a statistics course. Learn how to read polls. Make sure you know how to check percents. Learn how to estimate/”ballpark” so you can see at a glance whether everything adds up. People who are afraid of numbers are easily misled.

* You don’t know everything, so listen. But you do know some things, so speak up when you know something. Be prepared to offer proof at first; once they know you know what you’re talking about they’ll take your word for it.

* Your first job may not be – probably won’t be – your dream job. But learn everything you can from it, and try to leave on good terms.

* Read, read, read! And not trash. Read literature and nonfiction and long-form journalism; read thoughtful, well-written blogs and posts and tweets. Read a variety of writers. See how other people work with language and structure their writing. The more good writing you read, the better your writing – and editing – will be.

* Learn things outside of journalism. Take a few courses outside of your major: medieval history, Russian literature, art, geology – something that isn’t required. You might just find it fascinating, and you never know when it might come in handy.

* You will screw up at some point. More than once. It’s OK. We all do; we’re human. When you do make a mistake, make sure you a) admit it, b) fix it (fix the process by which it was made), and c) learn from it. Then move on. Know where your weaknesses are and take extra care in those areas. (Example: If you’re a horrible typist, always spell-check after you insert anything, then re-read it to make sure you haven’t made a typo or left out a word.)

* If you really hate your job, just quit. Constant complaining or grumbling will endear you to no one, and your own mental health will be better if you’re elsewhere. (Exception: If you’re being harassed or exploited, talk to HR or a lawyer.)