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J-School Confidential: Can Professors Catch Up?

She's not a "traditional journalist," but one student believes her professors would benefit by being untraditional as well

By Meghan Louttit - December 21, 2007
I am not a traditional journalist.

Safety hidden behind the shrouded walls of j-school, aided by my adviser, this idea was easy to overlook. However, as I began to prepare to hand off Speakeasy, an online magazine I spent nearly three years nurturing, to a new managing editor, and continue to throw myself into more internships, I have been forced to wrap my head around this fact.

While I've spent time watching news organizations attempt to figure out how to adjust their publications to the advantages and challenges of the Internet, I asked myself the same questions.

Why were some professors, and even students, so skeptical when we started Speakeasy? Why do I find myself fighting an uphill battle in embracing the online world even among my peers?

My first two years at Ohio University protected me from the "real world" of journalism, the world that would eventually reveal how far behind many newspapers and magazines are and how cable television "news" still ruled the world. I was lucky enough to be assigned to an adviser who is greatly committed to reforming journalism -- he is an idealist in his own right and has greatly shaped my outlook on the role of the Internet -- but he also gave me a skewed perception of the collective thought of the j-school professors.

What I have learned is that I had wrongly assumed that the transition journalism was making as a profession was nearing completion. I thought that traditional journalism was settling into its place among the new endeavors popping up all over the Web.

It wasn't until Mark Prendergast, a former editor with The New York Times, accepted the year-long visiting professor position at Scripps that I realized what an anomaly Speakeasy is. He was intrigued by our project, not just because it was an online magazine, but by the idea that a newsroom could exist almost solely on the Internet. While the staff meets on a weekly basis to do short workshops and discuss the latest news, work is done entirely through email, instant messaging, the content management system, and occasionally urgent phone calls.

I have never spent one day working on my college paper, even though many professors within Scripps continued to tout it as the only way to get experience

One of Scripps' PhD candidates, who helps mentor Speakeasy, even wrote a paper on the nature of online-only student publications.

Enter Scoop08: A publication whose operations I consider to be Speakeasy on steroids. Because we operate with hundreds of students over many time zones in different states and countries, we have no choice. No other time in history would this have been possible.

We do not have a physical newsroom. We do not have the money to purchase enhanced online office software (and for this reason, Google is our best friend). We even attempted using a free conference call software. As it is, we are still experimenting with and developing a system for making our editing process run as smoothly as possible.

As students ranging in age from high school freshmen to post-grads, we balance our traditional educations with the world we are currently experiencing. Scoop08 is an attempt to influence both journalism and the election we are reporting on.

I have never spent one day working on my college paper, even though many professors within Scripps continued to tout it as the only way to get experience. (This is changing, slowly.) My internships have all been either online-only or the online divisions of a television station, newspaper, and magazines.

"Traditional" journalism is not all bad. I have certainly learned the value of putting articles through a rigorous editing process, and the value of balanced reporting and seeking out unique sources. There are plenty of practices that are vital to keeping the practice of journalism intact. But that doesn't mean we have to be traditional journalists, regardless of the impression we get from our academic institutions.

Students are becoming aware of the skills they need to have to enter the world of journalism today. The online journalism classes at Scripps get filled up so fast that spots now have to be reserved for the online majors so they can get into the classes they need to graduate.

There is no class that can fully prepare us as well as our experiences in the field will, but if there's anywhere where experimentation within the profession should be encouraged, it is in the classroom and our college publications.

Unfortunately, I doubt that journalism schools will ever find themselves ahead of the curve in terms of best practices. Most of my professors have been out of the field for at least five years, a fact that helps create a stagnate environment. This is why it is so vital for j-schools to bring in professors like Prendergast, who can provide a better idea of where the journalism world currently stands, even if it is just a snapshot.

Even with those professors, however, it is impossible for j-schools to continue educating the future of the profession if they continue to harbor a limited understanding of the present.


Meghan Louttit is a journalism student at Ohio University and is a former intern at American Express Publishing and mediabistro.com.


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