Six things all j-students need

Leigh FeleskyI wonder, writes Ryerson University online journalism instructor Leigh Felesky, what students are being told “journalism” is these days. Felesky lays out six skill areas that j-schools should focus on in these changing times.

This year when it comes to journalism arrows seem to point in every direction.
At the Online News Association conference in San Francisco in October, for example, an entrepreneurial spirit dominated, giving ideas and hope to those journalists who recently lost their jobs and seek a way forward.  
Keynote speakers included the co-founder of Twitter, Evan Williams, and Blog Her founder Lisa Stone. A seminar titled “6 in 60” sponsored by Marketwire involved choosing one lucky journalist to win funding to develop a  business. The judges were mostly entrepreneurs with backgrounds in journalism.  

Another not-so-subtle reminder of a changing direction came later this fall when John Cruickshank’s letter to Toronto Star employees announced restructuring and discussed  plans to contract out parts of their editorial pre-production overseas, including copy editing and “pre-production work.” Employees were offered a Voluntary Separation Program, “to provide staff with additional choices.”
How does one keep up and stay relevant when there’s so much focus on  breaking new ground and sending traditional jobs overseas? Even harder, how does a journalism school, where the academic ship steers slowly, teach students what they need to push forward the next wave of journalism?
Whenever this question comes up I wonder, fundamentally, what the students are being told “journalism” is these days. And I worry that half of those skills are on big media companies’ lists of tasks to outsource.
Every semester, for example, at least one of my fourth-year students will ask me if their internship placement meets the journalistic requirements of the class. In one case a student asked because instead of copy-editing or writing news stories, she was involved in a redesign project, which involved figuring out what news sections go where, what Twitter accounts should be created and how user-generated content can be integrated into articles. All worthy pursuits and whether or not it’s journalism, capital J, who knows? But it’s a form of content creation that requires a level of critical thinking that makes quality content and is also difficult to outsource.
When training the next group of journalists, we need to keep many things in mind. Based on my experience teaching and practising journalism, if I was to throw everything away and create a journalism school today, here’s some of what the students need.
Live by “you” news judgment

Reading the news shouldn’t be equivalent to swallowing a daily vitamin. In a world where entertainment and news compete, news needs to be presented in a way that people can relate to, grab hold of, use in their lives.  
Considering  Facebook profiles abound, thinking about how  information affects “you” is natural for students. Encourage them to use that approach and instinct. What kinds of stories are of interest to people? How  can institutionalized stories such as reports and studies become more useful for the average person? What are the user-generated content and social media components? In other words, how do we make the news about real people.
Also, use the “you” element to develop the kind of diverse audience publications desperately want, audience numbers and engagement.

Be clear: the story and the journalism lead the day

At the end of the day it’s not the platform that matters, it’s the story and the news gathering that goes into it. So, stop organizing things by platform or streams. Set up a structure where students practise regularly how to identify a story and how it might play out. Then, assign the story using a multi-platform coverage plan.  
This skill will help students make judgment calls and articulate must-tell stories and can’t-miss news. This level of critical, flexible thinking becomes essential whether you’re working for a large organization or you’re an entrepreneur doing your own web site.
Above all, students must learn how to produce quality content. They should work on individual projects or programs to develop the crafts of radio, television, online and/or mobile. And, yes, mobile mustn’t be forgotten, not if we’re hoping our students get jobs in the next five years.
Understand your brand and business

Whether you’re in a big organization or creating your own content, you need to know how the bills are paid, how to create a brand and how to market.

Today, success often comes with good branding. While we don’t need to turn editors into marketers, (although some would argue that this has already happened) journalists need to understand business skills and branding.
Getting journalism students to engage with business can be difficult, but if a marketing and business course was offered in conjunction with a journalism project this could go a long way. Considerations should include the relationship between advertising/editorial and sponsorship. Schools might as well get students thinking about these kinds of issues now so they’re prepared for decisions they’ll likely need to make later in their careers.  

Experiment and fail

As students develop these skills, especially if they’re creating their own brands, they’re going to fail. Let them.
Students should be encouraged to play in spaces that aren’t permanent, that they can delete/erase/destroy, whether it’s a blog or an internal publishing system. They should also be encouraged to get feedback from as many people as possible including comments on their stories and letters to the editor. The sooner they get used to creating a conversation with their audience – positive or negative – the better of they’ll be in this feedback-all-the time world of new media.
If it’s a permanent project, ensure it’s edited and vetted.

Expand internships

Students need to plant their feet in a professional environment to be able to maximize their understanding and find a purpose for their skills.

Be flexible as to what kind of internship is allowed. A variety of players in this space will create a more diverse understanding among students and help the school stay current. Develop a strong internship program that allows small and developing outlets to participate, keeping in mind that the most obvious, big players are often not the most innovative.
Have students go out as interns both midway through their journalism program as well as near the end. Make sure employers are aware that some interns are beginner interns and others are more advanced. The beginners should go out for a shorter period of time and expect to do a lot of busy work but they will gain valuable experience engaging in a professional environment. The later internship should be more about practising journalism.
Overall, these experiences will help to guide students as to where they fit in the industry and teach them a level of professionalism that they can’t get any other way but one that is expected in this new world where junior jobs seem to be disappearing.
Give them a project to be proud of

If students know what a good story is, know how to market it and have the skills to create it, then they’re ready to use it. Students should be coached through a larger project of their own. This project can be on a platform or multiple platforms of their choice. School publications are one option and their own personal online site another.
This will help students develop their brands as content experts and/or journalists, and if they choose, allow them to experiment with their own entrepreneurial initiatives. Projects should allow a broad flexibility of interests, which reflect the job market.
Students should have the opportunity to build their own strategies and learn the necessary technology to get there. Encourage them to take the  project where they want to go. If successful, the students will fall in love with their work or at least with everything they learned through the process. As many of us know, if you do what you love, no matter what the economy, you’re well on your way.

Good luck!

Leigh Felesky is social media senior producer, multiplatform at CBC News and digital journalism instructor at Ryerson University. From 2000-2005 Leigh was a senior editor/producer for Rogers Media (,,, and