My advice to journalism students

I’ve been through most of this before, either in blog posts or in person, whenever I get the chance to talk with journalism students, but it’s worth repeating. A few tweets this week seem to have proved that, so I’m putting this updated compendium of my advice together for posterity.

My advice to journalism students.

My advice to journalism students starts with this:

Blog.

That doesn’t mean you have to blog about journalism, or build a rabid political audience, or chronicle every step the Googles and Twitters and Apples of the world take.

It just means that you maintain a Web site where you write on a somewhat regular basis.

And by “maintain,” I mean you have the opportunity to learn as much as you’d like to learn about basic formatting for the Web. HTML, CSS, and if you’re a step more curious or industrious, blog software that mirrors (or exceeds) the functionality you’ll find in the content management systems at most professional news organizations.

That’s how I got started in this business. In fact, to be more precise, I think the first bits of code I touched had to do with making the title of my first Blogspot-hosted blog bigger, and changing its font and colors.

From there I switched to a hosted WordPress blog, learned a lot more about HTML and CSS, then decided I wanted to do more, bought my own domain and hosting (shouldn’t cost more than $10/month) and taught myself much, much more about making WordPress and similar content management systems dance.

But that digital specialty, (I can make your newspaper’s blogs look and act professional, and I can train your reporters to be better bloggers), as valuable as it was in 2006, wasn’t the only thing I learned as a journalism student.

Become an expert at one analog craft and one digital craft

An analog craft. Yes. Not knitting. Which is cool, but not what I mean, exactly.

When I say “analog,” what I mean is a core reporting skill. Those things journalism professors and newspaper editors talk about whenever the conversation about “what j-school students should learn these days, anyway” comes up. It’s very easy for me to say “well, of course you’re going to pick these core skills up along the way, right?”

But let’s get more specific.

I highly recommend that you specialize in an analog journalism craft.

Maybe one of these:

  • Copy Editing
  • Enterprise Reporting
  • Photography
  • Photo Editing
  • Media Law

There are others, of course. But this is a short list of things you can pick up in school. I picked up a lot of copy editing, and some practice at what I’m ambitiously calling enterprise reporting, which I later cemented with an internship at a major metro paper.

The point: The Web is awesome, and we’ll get to those digital crafts in a moment, but you want to have more than one tool in the box. So, I recommend two diverse skills. Will Sullivan once called these “Peace Out” skills, because it makes it much easier to move from job to job as necessary, throwing up two fingers as you walk out the door.

Learn a Web craft

A long time ago in Web years, I wrote about a trinity of recommended Web skills for journalism students: multimedia, data, and community management. Learn any one, and you can get a job tomorrow.

That’s still pretty much true, but I’m encouraging you to pair that digital skill with an analog skill.

Great at video editing? Be great at photo editing for print, too.

Great at slinging XML into Flash maps? Be great at enterprise reporting, too.

Great at HTML/CSS? Be great at print page design, too.

Great at community management? Study up on media law so you can know when to cite Section 230 in the corporate lawyer’s office when the moment comes. (And it will.)

And vice versa.

Get the idea? Don’t be one-dimensional. You probably aren’t.

8 Replies to “My advice to journalism students”

  1. I encounter a lot of j-school upperclassmen and freshly minted j-school grads in searching for freelancers, and I’m finding more and more that they don’t need to be told to learn Web skills or to blog. They have the drive to do that on their own. What they need to be reminded of is to learn the basic fundamentals of sound reporting and good grammar. Web skills are obviously important in this day and age of journalism, but students seem to be learning them at the expense of what separates journalism from everything else on the Internet.

  2. This is a good post because it provides some real logical advice, and not some lame academia theory. It makes sense and will help me in my studies. Thanks!

  3. Right on, Ryan. This is outstanding advice. The biggest problem for journalism students, however, is going to be following it. Many j-schools seem frozen in the past when it comes to adjusting the curriculum to the realities of the industry. This at precisely the time universities could be leading the industry forward. Multimedia skills in particular require time and training, and sadly many schools still treat them as “extras.” My advice: If that describes the school you’re attending, find a way to get those skills in spite that, or find a new school.

  4. I am a journalism student and I completely agree! I will share your link with other journalism students that I know that I think could benefit from it.

    Awesome site by the way!

    Joe

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