Educators say they think digital skills are important, but how likely is that journalism schools and programs are actually teaching students those skills? Are those journalism programs teaching the skills that will ensure their students’ success in a multiplatform, multimedia ecosystem?

I worry that educators have made only the first step toward change: they’ve acknowledged that there new skills to be taught. I worry that many programs are still mired in the print/broadcast era.

Professionals are less likely than educators to say digital skills are important, so what does that mean for the future of legacy media organizations? Why are those professionals not embracing digital skills?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Vincent Maher,

Image courtesy of Flickr user Vincent Maher.

I worry that professionals are so chained to the daily “feed the beast” machine that they don’t have the wider perspective to help them imagine a different (and digital) potential for legacy media.

These are among the interesting questions and concerns raised by a new Poynter Institute study released this month comparing how professionals and educators ranked 37 core skills.

Educators want digital skills

The Poynter report, “Core Skills for the Future of Journalism,” indicated that educators who responded to the survey placed greater importance on digital skills than did professionals. For example:

  • When it comes to the skills needed to record and edit video, fewer than half (46 percent) of the professionals who responded said that ability was important to very important
  • Yet more than three-fourths of educators (76 percent) regarded this skill as important to very important

Even photography, an essential skill given that most reporters today are equipped with smartphones or cameras, is less important to professionals than to educators:

  • 53 percent of professionals responded that the ability to shoot and edit photographs was important to very important
  • 79 percent of educators responded that photography skills were important to very important
  • Independent journalists, those working on their own or at organizations with fewer than five employees, rated this skill higher than other professionals, with 66 percent saying it was important to very important.

Are educators teaching digital skills?

The key question is whether schools are actually teaching the vast majority of the core skills. Have schools adjusted their curricula or are educators just saying that the digital skills are important — while not changing the curriculum? Adding a digital course or two isn’t enough.

Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president/news at the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group in Rochester, N.Y., expressed skepticism about whether these skills are being taught:

“Educators may think all of those things are important, but the results coming out of colleges are very mixed,” she said in an email. “My personal experience with journalism grads is that they fall into one of two categories: solid writers/reporters with limited digital skill sets or multimedia journalists who are great with video but don’t understand how to work a beat or dig much deeper than what’s given in a press release or press conference. Both types are problematic in today’s newsrooms. We need it all!”

Educators want more than just digital skills

And it isn’t just the digital skills that matter. Educators also rated other characteristics, knowledge areas and business skills significantly higher than did professionals:

  • Three-quarters (76 percent) of educators said that “knowledge of other cultures” is important to very important; only half (52 percent) of professionals agreed
  • The gap was a little narrower when it came to “knowledge of government,” with almost 70 percent of professionals rating this as important to very important, versus 83 percent of educators
  • More than a third of professionals in the survey (38 percent) said “having knowledge of the business of media” was important to very important, but far more educators — 61 percent —  said business knowledge was important to very important
  • Students, at 71 percent, and independent journalists at 64 percent, agreed with educators, saying that business understanding was important to very important
Image courtesy of Flickr user Jason Howie.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jason Howie.

Related to understanding the business is “understanding the media landscape.” This ability helps media professionals learn and embrace the emerging media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook —and anticipate the next Twitter or Facebook.

Again, the educators found this skill to be more important than did professionals:

  • 78 percent of educators responded that understanding the media landscape is an important to very important skill
  • 57 percent of professionals responded that understanding the media landscape is an important to very important skill
  • Independent journalists, at 75 percent, and students, at 78 percent, were closely aligned with the educators

Measuring the Core Skills Against Your Teaching

So, what’s next for both groups?

One step for educators would be to measure their teaching against the Core Skills list. And while curriculum decisions are complex and often mixed with social dynamics, it would be an interesting exercise for a journalism department to measure its current teaching against the core skills.

Of course, not every course needs to address every skill on the list. It is important, however, to see which of the core skills are being taught within a journalism program and to what extent.

One method might be to take the syllabi for an academic year and create a spreadsheet to see how many skills are addressed within the courses offered. Plotting each skill on a row of the spreadsheet, each column could represent a syllabus from one class being offered. I suggest using two academic years, given how long most students are in a program. This approach would provide a snapshot of what skills are offered to students.

Other suggestions include:

  • Download syllabi from Poynter NewsU’s Syllabus Exchange to see what other schools are offering.
  • Find a partner school or program and swap core skills inventory lists.
  • Invite several professionals to visit and review the curriculum against the core skills and their expectations.

For professionals, reviewing the Core Skills within a newsroom would provide a foundation for discussion about what the organization needs today and in the future. And while not every professional needs to be proficient with every digital skill, a discussion led by newsroom managers might prompt a review around training priorities.

The gap between educators and professionals

The turmoil within the media ecosystem makes alignment between educators and professionals more important than ever. Yet, the gap between the two groups seems painfully and dangerously wide. Professionals and educators need each other.

Poynter’s 2013 Future of Journalism Education report revealed a gap between the two groups regarding the value of a journalism degree. This year, the gap is evident in how these two groups value core skills needed by future journalists.

Educators might be ahead of professionals when it comes to identifying the importance of digital skills, but this is not the point. The real challenge is to find ways that both educators and professionals can strengthen journalism education. And by journalism education, I don’t mean just the formal, degree-granting schools.

Journalism education needs to go beyond the formal classroom setting and include such innovations as certificates and digital badges. Getting those innovations to take root, however, will require close cooperation between educators and professionals.

Education (especially journalism education) will continue to find itself disrupted by changing economics and new technology. Yet the need to provide more journalism education to more students, including teaching students to appreciate the value of reliable news and information, has never been greater.

Professionals might do well to listen to educators who see which skills are truly needed by students when it comes to creating journalism today and in the future. And educators can benefit from understanding what matters to media organizations, small and large.

Let’s mind the gap and get both groups working on how to improve journalism education.

The Poynter Institute’s “Core Skills for the Future of Journalism” report was written by Howard I. Finberg and Lauren Klinger. Finberg is Poynter’s director of business development, and Klinger is an interactive learning producer in Poynter’s e-learning department, News University.The report can be downloaded here.

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