Teaching journalism in the 21st century is a little like packing a wardrobe for a month-long trip into a carry-on suitcase: You keep trying to squeeze one more thing into the bulging bag while praying that the zipper won’t burst.

When I studied journalism in the 1980s at San Francisco State University, where I now teach, the curriculum was limited to print journalism. We learned how to report and write; we studied media law, history and ethics; and by the end of senior year, we felt reasonably well-equipped to work as reporters. Ah, those days!

Now journalism students must learn not just how to report and write for print but how to capture and edit photos, audio and video. They are expected to master social media and data analysis and be prepared to produce content for print, broadcast, online and mobile media. They also must be agile and flexible enough to handle the new technology that will inevitably emerge in the coming years.

The challenge

photo-11My department now requires all majors to take three digital media courses —  JOUR 226 Digital Newsgathering, JOUR 395 Online Journalism and JOUR 400 Multimedia Journalism. But even as we’ve found ways to squeeze in more multimedia and social media skills, the faculty have had long debates about where to fit these skills and courses into the curriculum.

Our new overstuffed program presents a myriad of questions: How do we keep adding new skills to the curriculum without sacrificing the basics of solid reporting, ethics and good writing? At what point should we expect students with less-than-professional skills to publish work on the Internet for all the world to see? Should we teach digital newsgathering skills before or after our students master the fundamentals of constructing a basic news story?

The experiment

Last fall, my colleague Jesse Garnier and I launched an experiment: We paired one section of our introductory multimedia skills class, Digital Newsgathering, with our boot-camp Reporting class. Our goal was to mesh the two courses together, so students would learn the fundamentals of shoe-leather reporting while simultaneously developing multimedia storytelling skills. Our secondary goal: to keep our students from getting totally overwhelmed.

To start, Jesse and I traded our basic syllabi and tried to figure out how to coordinate assignments. In Reporting, students spend the semester covering a neighborhood of San Francisco or Oakland and do weekly assignments — a business story, a public records search, a crime story, a profile, an issue story, etc. — related to those neighborhoods. (They also cover a government meeting and a trial not necessarily tied to their neighborhood.) In addition, students are expected to create a blog about their assigned neighborhood and post new content throughout the semester.

In Digital Newsgathering, students are introduced to basic multimedia skills — photography, audio, video, microblogging, social media, content management, basic coding — and blog on a topic of their choice.

The first step was easy: Assign one blog for the two courses. (We had already gotten some flak from students for assigning blogs in too many classes.)

Next, we coordinated assignments, so students could practice capturing photos, audio and video assets while reporting on their neighborhoods. We added a multimedia component to the final project, an in-depth text story about an issue in their neighborhood.

The logistics

Pairing the two courses presented some logistical challenges. We needed to make sure all the students in my Reporting course, which met from 12:35 to 3:20 p.m. on Tuesday afternoons, were available to take Jesse’s course from 3:35 to 4:55 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. We also had to ensure that none of the students had already completed Digital Newsgathering.

To do this, we sent out announcements to all students before registration opened explaining that these sections of the courses would be paired. (Students who couldn’t or didn’t want to take the paired courses could choose to take one of the other sections of each course.)  Instructors for our Newswriting course, which many students take immediately before Reporting, also talked up the pilot project in their classes. We didn’t open registration for the Digital Newsgathering section that was linked to Reporting until the first day of class so we could control enrollment.

The results

Image courtesy of Flickr user Roger H. Goun

Image courtesy of Flickr user Roger H. Goun

The first day was a little hectic. Despite our best efforts at communication, some students in the class had previously taken Digital Newsgathering or couldn’t fit Jesse’s course into their schedules. (These students had to drop the class and sign up for another section of Reporting.) In addition, we had several students who had heard the buzz about the pilot project and were begging to get in. In the end, we wound up with 18 students in the paired courses.

The curriculum for the two courses dovetailed beautifully. Because they were doing work for two courses, students were able to spend more time reporting in their neighborhoods. Their blogs were deeper and richer in content. And the students actually seemed to feel less overwhelmed than those who took the two courses separately.

The reaction

Feedback from the students at the end of the semester was almost universally positive.

“I think structuring the two classes together was really helpful because they complemented each other, especially for the blog,” student Nadine Quitania wrote in an email after the semester ended. “We weren’t just learning the necessary tools for digital news gathering, but we were putting them to practical use for the reporting we did. It was a package deal.” Quitania covered North Beach for the joint course and posted her work on the blog North Beach SF.

Angelica Ekeke, a photojournalism major who covered and blogged about the Mission District, said she appreciated the way the courses worked together.

“I thought it was very helpful because it allowed me to directly apply the skills that I learned in each class,” she wrote in an email. “Many times, we were able to work on the same project from Reporting in Digital Newsgathering, which gave us the experience of working on extensive multimedia stories that we may have to create as journalists in the real world.

The course coordination had an additional benefit we hadn’t anticipated: The students, who spent six hours a week together in class, became remarkably close.

“Having the same students in each class gave me the opportunity to develop meaningful connections and friendships as we worked together and fed off each other’s knowledge,” Ekeke said.

Students who excelled at the technical aspects of the work often helped their less tech-savvy classmates. Photojournalism majors offered camera pointers to the online/print news sequence students.

This semester, Jesse and I are once again teaching paired sections of Reporting and Digital Newsgathering. I had thought we would build on the first semester’s pilot project and alter the curriculum to reflect what we’d learned the first time around. But the truth is, it went so well, we hardly changed a thing.

To find out more about the Reporting-Digital Newsgathering pairing go to the course website, where you can download the syllabi for the two courses, as well as the assignment pack here (http://reportingsf.wordpress.com/syllabus) On the right side of the home page you can find links to the students’ neighborhood blogs from this semester and previous classes.

Rachele Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where she advises Golden Gate Xpress, the student newspaper, and teaches reporting, writing and online journalism classes. She was a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years and has freelanced for magazines and websites, including U.S. News and World Report, TIME and Prevention. She has directed summer study-abroad programs for ieiMedia, the Institute for Education in International Media, and is the author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. Follow her at @jourprof.