Applying innovation to journalism curricula

By Kanina Holmes

Last year Twitter came up with a saucy ad promoting the fact that news of an earthquake near Washington, DC reached New York faster than the 30 seconds it took the tremors to do the same.  True story.

By Kanina Holmes

Last year Twitter came up with a saucy ad promoting the fact that news of an earthquake near Washington, DC reached New York faster than the 30 seconds it took the tremors to do the same.  True story.

The ad features a 20-something hipster sitting at a table with a book. He looks down, see a notification on his iPhone and nonchalantly picks up his mug. Moments later, the ground shakes, random objects rain down on the guy while he calmly continues to read. A well-timed tweet spared him the inconvenience of spilling his coffee.

The ad illustrates how fast information travels these days and the consequences for everyone who either consumes news or works in the news business. No news flash required here. But, it’s not just journalists who grapple with the breakneck pace of the digital age. Journalism educators, some perhaps belatedly, are also coming to grips with what this means for what we teach and how we teach it.

In recent research, conducted by Howard Finberg of the Poynter Institute on journalism education, 45 percent of professional journalists said journalism curricula aren’t keeping up with industry changes and 34 per cent of academics agreed.

To help address this gap, from June 22-24, Poynter hosted more than 60 journalism teachers from the U.S. and Canada at its home base in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Teachapalooza 2012 was touted as “the place to share ideas, to grow as a teacher, to embrace technology and to join a lasting community of journalism educators.” It was the second gathering of its kind and there were a number of returnees from the first event in 2011.

To give educators a chance to recharge their batteries, brainstorm, connect and discover some new, shiny tools in the digital cupboard, there were sessions focusing on the skills and aptitudes students need to get their first job, how to teach critical thinking in the digital age when photos are manipulated and social media often doesn’t dwell on accountability. As well, educators got the chance to discuss blogging and Twitter and other platforms for covering live events in their courses.

One of the most thought-provoking talks came from Mark Briggs, a journalist who now makes his career advising other journalists how to adapt to the digital age. He’s the author of Journalism 2.0 and, most recently, Entrepreneurial Journalism: How to Build What’s Next for News.  In his session on innovation, Briggs started out with a slide asking: Are you preparing students for jobs that do not currently exist?

We can look at that question in, at least, a couple of ways. Have we missed the boat by equipping our cohorts for jobs that are already being eliminated? Or, are we being proactive through anticipatory training, adapting or changing our curricula by imagining the mediascape in the next few years?

It’s increasingly common for journalism schools to offer courses or modules aimed at teaching students to be strategic and entrepreneurial in their approach to finding jobs and forging careers. But, I’m not sure how often we step back to consider what innovation – a form of entrepreneurialism — looks like when applied to our programs as a whole. What would it mean to apply the mantra of innovation to a journalism program? Chances are it would mean some fundamental change and consequent discomfort.

Among the principles of innovation are: creativity, hard work, optimism and risk. While I’m confident in suggesting that many educators are well acquainted with working long hours, I believe, both as individuals and institutions we’ve become less comfortable with some of these other attributes, especially optimism and risk.

Some journalism educators complain of guest speakers from the media who come to their classes only to leave students feeling dismal and depressed by talk of the sky falling and a dearth of jobs in journalism. While it would be foolish to ignore the impact of media restructuring, we need to find ways to move the discussion forward to think about how many of the skills we teach and which we teach well – critical thinking, clear writing, interviewing and researching, among others – can be turned into careers in a journalism that’s still evolving.

As educators, we need to take more risks and key to that is being allowed to fail. “The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20,” says Briggs. 

Trying out new ideas could mean anything from adding fresh material to an old course, teaching ourselves new technological platforms and experimenting with them in class to perhaps initiating something as bold as finding alliances with other university departments and disciplines and with media organizations to create new degree programs.

From an educator’s perspective, one of the primary impediments to innovation could be the culture of some of our work places. As the recent battles over copyright in post-secondary education in this country show, academia and its environs are very much concerned with ownership and turf and funding. The coveting of ideas and information is also a feature of journalism culture where scoops are still seen as a form of victory and superiority.

While there are also examples of generosity and sharing among faculty – many syllabi, grading rubrics and teaching ideas were swapped at Poynter’s Teachapalooza — if we look at our own schools and departments, I suspect we could find much better, even systematic ways of exchanging ideas that could, in turn, translate into more dynamic pedagogy.

At the risk of sounding contradictory and contrarian, I believe it’s also important to consider what innovation isn’t.

Embracing new digital technologies is certainly part of educational innovation. But, it should not be equated with it. I believe there’s an unspoken consensus among many educators (as well as business and political leaders) that innovation requires adopting the newest software and platforms and widgets or risk getting left behind by the digitally literate herd, a form of digital Darwinism.

This stance toward technology increasingly resembles an ideology, reminiscent of and likely intertwined with calls to embrace free markets, capitalism and the benefits of globalization. This could be dangerous, not only because it precludes questioning about whether we should head in this direction but also for more practical reasons.

Roy Peter Clark, one of Poynter’s founders, wrapped up Teachapalooza with a thoughtful plea for conceptualizing journalism as a liberal art, along with a pyramid of the building blocks of what every journalism curriculum should cover. Those competencies include judgment, numeracy and sense of mission, nothing revolutionary, but also not the kind of thing you hear journalists and journalism educators talk about every day.

Clark, wearing a Panama hat and treating his audience to intermittent piano riffs, is one of a dwindling number of sages left in our discipline. Without any hint of self-consciousness he’s the kind of guy who, with a twinkle in his eye, ponders aloud the difference between competence and competency. He also maintains that it’s “easier to move a cemetery than change a curriculum.”

Clark told the educators gathered in St. Petersburg he believes “the scarcest resource in the 21st Century is attention.” Many of us complain about our students’ shrinking mindfulness. But we too risk becoming equally frenetic as our Facebook-checking, texting-proficient charges if we aren’t more critical about the way we use technology and the amount of time we devote to these supposed time-saving devices and applications.

To risk sounding like a pro-luddite, my suggestion for innovation would be to take at least two hours a day and totally unplug. Ignore email and instant messages or better yet, turn off all of electronic notifications. Instead of dreaming up your next Tweet, use that time to read and think and write. Urge your students to do the same. Because, if we continue deplete our attention, we also risk losing something even more substantive: content. Perhaps, above all, what we need to truly innovate is some unmediated time.

While it’s incumbent on educators to become as technologically literate as we expect our students to be, we also need to be strategic. Katy Culver, a multimedia instructor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is an example of someone who is both adroit in new platforms and who also uses technology intelligently. She uses a simple equation: technology + your time + their time must equal a demonstrable result. Otherwise, don’t bother. A key, she says, is identifying a problem that a technological tool can address.

The playfulness of the Twitter ad hid a much more serious message. Innovation is essential, but it’s no guarantee of a free pass into the future. Poynter is a highly respected think tank that has offered courses to tens of thousands of journalists – aspiring and seasoned — since it opened three decades ago. Judging from the feedback of almost everyone who comes through Poynter’s doors, these sessions often make a profound difference to the way reporters do their jobs, how they think about journalism and the way educators teach.

The institute, playfully referred to by some as a “journalism spa,” is a living example of innovation. It has kept up with the times, re-inventing itself in numerous ways. NewsU, its hub for online courses, certificates and webinars, is just one example.

The institute is also conducting several research projects, including an initiative to figure out how people consume online news on tablets using an eye-glass-mounted device that records their eye movements. has grown into an amazingly rich and layered web portal offering information and perspectives on both the practical craft of journalism and also the society in which media practitioners operate.

And yet, despite the value it adds to journalism, its continued relevance and, I would argue, necessity, Poynter is not immune to the economic winds buffeting the media practitioners it serves. For years, Poynter enjoyed the profits that came with owning the St. Petersburg Times Company. Now, as newspapers struggle for viability as advertisers and audiences pull out or go elsewhere, Poynter also finds itself facing financial pressures.

The lesson here?  Innovate we must. But, we must also take some deep breaths and find the time to figure out what to do when the tremors hit.

Kanina Holmes is an assistant professor of journalism with Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication.