How to build a better journalism school: Part 6, breaking news and beats

Journalism education, like the typical newsroom, is in need of rebuilding.

Journalism education, like the typical newsroom, is in need of rebuilding.

In some form or another, almost all the journalism schools I’ve looked at (about 20 top programs) include a class — most often required — that involves beat reporting. This description from Boston University is typical:

Students learn to cover a city neighborhood or a nearby community beat. Students will branch out across the city and suburbs to cover courts, crime, education, local and state politics, and other essentials of community reporting. Students will be encouraged to develop their own sources and story ideas with the goal of professional publication in the Boston University News Service. Students produce stories, photos, audio and video for the Web.

I like the way this course calls for the production of stories in multiple modes of presentation (text, audio, video, photos). And I wish I had taken a class like this when I was in J school. We learned “reporting,” but we didn’t cover beats. I had an internship as part of my education (Northwestern’s Teaching Newspapers program), but — as with most interns, I would guess — that was more about being general assignment than covering a beat. I had to learn on the job. Looking back — and having the experience as an editor with reporters who had similar gaps in their education — I don’t think I ever became truly adept at beat coverage.

However, my proposed curriculum doesn’t include a generic “beat reporting” class. Instead, I require students to select a particular topic — sports, business, etc. — and take a beat reporting class in that topic. This is partly a way to kill two birds with one stone; I’ve already got a lot of courses packed into my program. But it’s also an acknowledgment that while there are skills involved in beat reporting that apply across many topics, students would be better off if they also had a special expertise in their portfolio when they go looking for work. “Specialization” was one of the factors working journalists cited when some professors asked them what schools should provide.

On the other hand, my core courses include one in breaking news. Why not individualize that? In part, because just creating a single, effective breaking news course will be difficult. Simply put, I cannot guarantee that a significant breaking news event will happen at the right time at the start of my semester. The course will need to be some combination of simulation and reality.

But why breaking news at all? I don’t see any courses like that among current curricula.

But that leaves students unprepared for today’s instantaneous journalism. I want to teach them how to cope with uncertainty; what to post on Twitter vs. their own sites/apps; how to build a developing story over the course of several hours. I want them to understand why it’s important to have fresh material throughout the day, and how to use sidebars, aggregation and other tools to provide that. I want them to consider the ethics of reporting rumors. I want them to experience the chaos of a newsroom coping with all of this, and learn how it can be managed. I want them to see how their audience can become a part of the reporting process.

Learning all this in the context of breaking news will translate to other coverage. When Steve Buttry wrote recently about how day-to-day coverage changes under a digital schedule, he talked about reporting “in an unfolding fashion, as you do with breaking news.” An early-morning news release about declining math scores turns into a quick post with bulleted highlights, updates as experts weigh in, a Storify of social media reaction, and so on.

In my previous post in this series, I said all the courses I’d described up to then could also serve the needs of public relations students. At the time, I thought of breaking news as separate. But, on reconsideration, PR people also need to be able to react quickly to events, to manage chaos, to figure out different ways to get their message out.

This is the sixth in a series about improving journalism education.