While magazine industry professionals struggle to come up with the best ways to use today’s technology, magazine journalism educators are working hard to prepare their aspiring co-workers.

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Photos and mashup by Susan Currie Sivek.

Journalism schools with strong magazine programs have developed innovative courses and assignments to challenge students to think beyond the printed page. Three magazine journalism educators shared specific innovations and ways of thinking that they’re implementing to prepare students for careers in a rapidly changing industry.

Classes Move Beyond Print

Students in magazine production classes often eagerly look forward to the arrival of a published print magazine that they have designed as a class. But at Drake University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, one of the magazine program capstone courses no longer publishes a print magazine.

“We’re strictly a digital publication with a focus on an iPad edition,” said Jeff Inman, assistant professor of journalism at Drake, describing his students’ capstone course project. “We’re not doing a traditional website this semester. We’re going to try our hand at doing an aggregation site, [and] we’re aiming at being a lifestyle website for eight Midwestern states. We’ll cull up to 10 posts a day.”

Inman said these digital experiences are a better fit for the types of careers students are entering. Three students in the capstone class will focus on marketing, because many of his program’s graduates are finding jobs in that field.

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Jeff Inman

Drake’s faculty have also created an application development class evocative of Hacks/Hackers meetups. Six journalism students, six graphic design students, and six computer science students will team up to build complete apps. Inman said the goal of the class isn’t so much to focus on the technical details, but to help students learn to participate in this type of collaboration.

“We focused the class not so much on the actual building, but on the arguing,” Inman said. “These groups don’t have a common language, a common set of ideas, so how do they talk to each other and get things done?”

Inman said Drake’s magazine writing classes have also been updated to include new technology, while still maintaining a focus on storytelling. Students now learn to incorporate SEO (search engine optimization) into their work, to revamp long-form stories for the web with additional multimedia, and to design social media marketing strategies for their finished work.

Teaching Not Just Skills, But Attitude

The kind of mental flexibility required to use all of these new tools is also a major focus at the University of Missouri magazine program. Jennifer Rowe, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, said instructors now ask students to extend their concept of the magazine and content.

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Jennifer Rowe

“Even in classes like our magazine writing classes, obviously we’re still covering the basics of writing and reporting and storytelling, but with the idea of technology in mind,” Rowe said. “Many of our professors are requiring that for those stories, [students] have elements of multimedia that go with them. In some instances, students are doing that themselves, or sometimes are paired with other students that have those technology skills, depending on classes they’ve already taken.”

Yet while students need to know how to create multimedia, they also must have the ability to examine media content critically from the user’s perspective, Rowe said.

“There’s definitely that shift, in not just ‘Do you know HTML?’ but ‘Do you know how to post?’ Can you critically analyze a site, what works and what doesn’t work, what can make an experience more fulfilling for a reader?” Rowe said.

In addition, Rowe and her colleagues work to develop students’ mental agility. Rowe said the top characteristic magazine journalism students need for success is what she calls “nimbleness.”

“You should be quick enough and sharp enough to adapt to whatever environment you’re going to be in, because as soon as you get stuck, you’ll limit your options,” Rowe said.

Rowe cites Missouri’s emphasis on real-world production experience as the key to teaching students problem-solving skills and adaptability. Because students go through the process of creating media many times during a semester, they are repeatedly exposed to the varied challenges they will face as professionals, and know how to think through the complexities of each situation.

Thinking Audience-First

Rachel Davis Mersey, assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, also emphasizes digital technology and adaptability in her courses, but with a slightly different approach.

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Rachel Davis Mersey

“I object to the idea that all new products have to be digital products. I’m pushing my students to not be content-first, not platform-first, but audience-first,” Mersey said. “My classes are designed around selecting an audience and researching it, using mostly secondary sources, and some primary research techniques.”

Mersey encourages students to “think about crafting products to solve problems that the audience has, or doesn’t even know it has,” arguing that the key factor in designing a new media product must be the audience’s needs and preferences. Mersey uses a persona approach, primarily used in marketing, to help her students develop a deeper understanding of the people they want to reach with their work. While sometimes this understanding might lead the students to create digital media for the audience, it might also lead to print or to other media, such as websites or online games.

Another key component of Mersey’s courses has been helping students understand the functioning of the businesses they seek to join, including magazine publishers.

“We can’t put students out there who don’t understand the larger picture beyond their own production,” Mersey said.

For example, many magazines now organize events, but Mersey notes that magazine journalism students don’t automatically know how to “work across boundaries” to participate in those kinds of projects. “They don’t always understand the business side, the way organizations work, the way they can become a part of an organization,” she said.

The new components these educators have incorporated into their programs reflect a developing concept of what magazines are and will be. As Mersey describes it, “When we think about the expansion of magazines … the engagement doesn’t just come through narrative. It may come through services, games, events. That piece is very important to me, to broadly define content and to say that journalists should be involved in all of those things, because they’re all content delivery mechanisms. We’re pushing magazine students to think about engagement as more than just long narratives.”

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.