What do journalism students need to know before they graduate?

(Image via clker.com)

(Image via clker.com)

What do journalism students need to know as they move into the job world? That’s what Shaina Cavazos asked in the comments on my earlier post about whether journalists need to learn coding.

I’m splitting my answer into three parts: First, what most editors are looking for; second, what I would look for; third, what students should want to know.

What editors want

For the first part, I turned to someone who knows much more about this than I do: recruiter/career expert Joe Grimm. I thinkĀ  Joe knows everyone who graduated with a journalism degree in the last 25 years, and every editor who hires. He’s that good. (He’s also a former colleague of mine from my time at the Detroit Free Press, where he was the most unflappable news editor I’ve ever seen.)

A few years ago, when he asked a lot of editors about this, they said they were looking for just two things: writing ability and critical thinking skills. While they might mention technical skills, in the end those weren’t how they made their decision. Joe wrote: “You can learn Storify in about an hour. Video editing takes longer. But the ability to write clearly and accurately? The ability to think critically and to question and analyze what is right in front of you? Harder!”

That’s still largely true, I bet. If an editor has to choose between two candidates, the one with better writing will win out even if the second candidate has much more experience with social media or multimedia. Most of today’s newsroom editors are most comfortable judging writing ability and critical thinking. And most of today’s newsroom jobs will ultimately involve those skills.

A few caveats:

  • Editors may filter applicants in the first place by seeing if candidates can check the right boxes. I would expect that before long, video editing or use of Twitter in reporting would be on the checklists for some newsrooms.
  • Even if newsrooms don’t look for extra skills for all jobs, they’re likely to have openings where one or more nontraditional skills are a requirement. Advance Digital, for example, has community engagement specialists — a title that means different things at different sites, but in general carries with it an expectation of social media familiarity. Shaina’s resume includes the title of Assistant Director of Community Outreach for the Columbia Missourian. That experience will expand the potential roles she could fill.
  • Joe’s right that many technical skills can be picked up after you start working. But in today’s shrinking newsrooms, editors may want someone who can start producing everything that’s needed, immediately. Coming out of school, you may be competing against others with much more experience. A range of technical skills on your part may balance out the extra years of reporting that your competition has.
  • Obviously, this advice is geared toward text-focused newsrooms. If you’re aiming for TV or radio, expectations will be different. But those streams are converging.

What I would want

I’d agree with the editors Joe talked to: writing and critical thinking come first. Over the years, though, I refined my ideas about what that means.

Some job candidates sent writing samples that showed no range. They could write, say, a solid news story, but there was no evidence they could produce a feature that showed a unique voice. There was no room on my staff for a one-note writer. Today, I’d expand that even further. While you can learn the technical aspects of video editing from a book or a website, that doesn’t mean you can tell a story well. I’d be looking for evidence that a candidate has some understanding of how storytelling differs in different media.

I’d also be concerned about whether I was bringing in someone who was young in years but old in attitude. If I’m looking at a college journalism student and there’s no evidence she’s ever gone beyond writing standard newspaper stories, I’d worry that she was a curmudgeonette. Newsrooms adapting to changing times have enough trouble coping with the luddites already on their staffs; they don’t need to import them.

Also related to writing: I learned to be suspicious of writing samples. Well, I was suspicious all along, of course; I’m a journalist. But that amped up after I’d worked with interns for several years. We had a few who were terrible (Shaina, I hasten to add, was definitely not in that category). Couldn’t cope with basic grammar; did single-source reporting; seemed oblivious to any attempts on my part to teach them. But then they’d leave, and I’d get a call when their resumes landed on the desk of editors at other papers. And those other editors would be shocked when I gave them a frank evaluation. But, the editors would say, the student’s clips from the Plain Dealer internship were so good!

Yes, I would patiently explain. That’s what we do here: We edit. If we have to, we rewrite. We don’t put crap in print. So anyone who has an internship with us will have some good clips.

It’s hard to tell how much of a story is the student’s work and how much is an editor’s. We had most applicants do a reporting exercise, but that’s an artificial situation. Today, I would want to see a recent graduate point to a blog that he maintained on his own, where I could see his writing unfiltered. Shaina, for example, has posts on her site in which she talks about what she’s learning. Even better, from an editor’s perspective, would be a blog that’s a self-assigned beat.

The other thing that would ease my worries: If you show a writing sample that was the result of working with an editor, but you explain how the editing went and what you learned from it. I wrote earlier about Jessica Contrera’s feature on the closing of a Waffle House. In an interview with Poynter, Jessica said she worked with a professor, Tom French. (A fact that was not at all surprising to anyone familiar with Tom’s brilliant body of work.) She talked about being sent back again and again to get more details, and realizing that those are what made readers connect with her story.

Finally, critical thinking. I talked to job candidates about journalism, about how they would approach certain stories, how they would cope with certain obstacles. But most candidates expected those questions. They came prepared with answers. I always tried to reach outside the nuts and bolts of journalism.

Not totally off-the-wall stuff; I never wanted to know what kind of tree they wanted to be. I asked one candidate, whose undergrad degree had been in English lit, who her favorite authors were. She named … one. And when I asked why, she said … because she liked his writing. (Side note: She was hired. And was a disaster. It was the memory of that incident which convinced me to pay attention to those kinds of questions.)

So I expect you to be able to talk thoughtfully about storytellers you admire, whether in print or visual media. Today, I would expect you to show awareness of the changes in the industry, and to have thought about what the future might look like.

What students should want

First, you want a job, so you have to figure out how to fulfill the wants of editors. That means: Write. Write some more. Have your writing evaluated. Write better next time. Rinse and repeat. Challenge yourself to different styles of writing. You won’t succeed at all of them, but focus on a few and polish your skills. As you build up a portfolio, go back over the stories you’ve selected to write down how you reported them and what you learned from them.

Also: Report. Report some more, etc. Even if you are absolutely sure you never want to be anything but a sports writer, report on other things. Do reporting based mostly on interviews, reporting that involved digging into databases, reporting that required you to learn something complicated. There are far fewer books on reporting than there are on writing, so a lot of learning to report is trial and error. Go out there and err. I wish I had done more interviewing in school, and more eyewitness reporting. Today, I’d want to have tried live coverage of a news or sporting event.

Take advantage of your internships to talk with the other reporters about how they do their jobs. Go along on interviews. Read their stories and ask them, “how did you find that out?”

On the practical side: Get internships. Even the laziest editor will take the time to look over your resume. A string of internships at publications or websites the editor’s heard of will push you through the process.

All of the above will help you get into any newsroom. To win over more discerning or forward-thinking editors, prove that you’re an all-around storyteller. Use the free or cheap tools available: Shoot and edit video on your smartphone. Post photostories to a free hosting site. Give yourself assignments: Set up a blog covering your favorite literary genre; populate it with your own reviews, aggregation of others, top 10 lists, and anything else you can think of. Create a Twitter handle separate from the one you use with friends. (An editor will give up quickly on a Twitter feed filled with questions about where you’re going to meet after class.)

Don’t try to do everything. Do show that you’re flexible.

Finally, there’s what students should want to do not to get a job, but to succeed in their careers. The big factor here: You can’t count on being trained once you’re hired. And you can’t count on that perfect position you landed still being around in five years. So take every opportunity while in college to learn, and to make yourself ready for rapid change.

You won’t regret learning HTML, CSS and some scripting language. You don’t have to design a website from scratch, but familiarity with website markup (HTML and CSS) may come in handy. Experiment on your own blog, going beyond the basic theme. You certainly don’t have to become an expert at javascript or any more advanced scripting language, but basic coding concepts will make it much easier to learn more down the road if needed.

Take some fiction-writing classes. (I wish I’d done that myself.) A good fiction workshop will teach you a lot about making each word count as well as crafting a narrative. The freedom of the fiction writer to invent details will make you better at spotting telling details in real life.

Read. A lot. Fiction and non-fiction. You need to be so well-read that grammar becomes instinctive. You need to be so well-read that you have multiple story models in your head when you sit down to work on an article. (Personally, I’d also say you need to read a lot about journalism — memoirs of reporters, editors and visual journalists; collections of great articles, columns and photos. This is the career you’ve chosen; you should know its history.)

Develop a specialty that gives you options. My journalism degree came with a major in political science. That was an interesting subject, but of no practical use. I did have a minor in computer science, which almost took me out of journalism before I even got started — I was thisclose to a job writing software documentation right after graduation. In today’s journalism industry, you need a backup plan. College is a great time to start laying the foundation for that.

It may sound depressing to spend part of your time in college preparing for what you’ll do if you can’t get a job doing what you want. And it may be hard to figure out what your backup plan will be. Right now, I wish I had taken some education classes as an undergrad, but back then, I was sure I’d never want to be a teacher.

However depressing or difficult it may be, this is reality.

That’s my list. If you’re serious about a career in journalism, you should look for more. A good place to start is Joe Grimm’s JobsPage.

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