Next Tuesday, I will graduate with a master’s of science degree in digital media from the prestigious Columbia University Journalism School. As I graduate, I have gained skills in reporting, video production, audio, editing, Flash, Web development (including five different websites), design and almost every other fundamental and new skill journalists need today. But one thing I still see missing from journalism schools around the country is coursework on community engagement. The philosophy behind the walls of many schools is still “we produce content, you come to us to consume.

At Columbia, the faculty quickly recognized the importance of this and this year started offering “Social Media Skills for Journalists” taught by my professor and dean of student affairs Sree Sreenivasan. It’s a great start and is teaching students to engage the audience like never before.

However, there are three components I think that are still largely missing from most journalism curricula today that could help in user engagement: learning the social media tools available for journalists to engage the audience, an understanding of what it means to cultivate community, and lastly a negative stigma to the use of data and analytics.

Social Media Skills

Some schools, including Columbia’s Journalism School, Birmingham City University, DePaul and others, are starting to implement it as part of their instruction. But it seems like the old-guard at journalism schools across the country still argues and champions for fundamentals, while losing sight of some of the emerging skills require of journalists. I think that fundamentals should surely be the focus, but in many ways, the fundamentals alone are no longer enough in this digital age.

Instructors tend to assume that students can learn social media tools on their own, or that they already know how to use them, which isn’t the case. And until teaching social media for journalists becomes part of the curricula, students will not value the tools because they see their mentors disregarding them. Being able to use social media tools is at the core of learning how to engage the “former” audience.

Journalism is a conversation, it’s no longer a broadcast or top-down approach, but a back-and-forth dialogue. I think a big part of teaching social media is using the tools during your lesson plans and coursework. Integrate the tools into the class experience.

Cultivating Community

Second, I’d point out that some schools that are teaching social media tools for journalists tend to only focus on the aspect of using these tools for distribution, not engagement and dialogue. If you’re just using these social tools as a feed to blast out links to your articles and you’re not participating in the rich community available to you, your audience will simply stop listening. Learning community engagement and conversation shouldn’t just be a community manager’s job, all journalists have to, in a sense, cultivate their own community.

I think of it as the new way of doing beat work. You have to check in with your sources, except that now your sources are often also your audience, which you can utilize for crowdsourcing projects and gathering information for your reporting efforts. The audience is just as much a part of creating the story as you are. Involve them in the process – that is what programs could be focusing on.

Understanding Community: Analytics and Metrics

Last, I’ll make this point brief because it is far more complicated to fully articulate, but I’ve noticed that too few journalism programs offer instruction or integrate into their curricula the importance of analytics on the Web today.

Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia Journalism School Dean of Student Affairs

Journalists tend to shy away from this because we don’t want numbers to necessarily dictate the content. I don’t necessarily think it should either, but you can learn a lot by looking at where your traffic is coming from and how many views posts get. It doesn’t mean you start writing certain types of posts more, but perhaps you not doing enough to let your audience find that story. Also, it’s time that we be more strategic with the content that we produce and how we distribute it because if no one is reading it, then you’re doing something wrong. Dean Sree has a great resource of social media tips, which includes tools to track analytics and trends.

Basic understanding of the programs available to track analytics and how to integrate them into a website should be part of the process. At the basic level, it should be using Bit.ly or Google Analytics. It will help you understand your audience, how best to engage them, and give you a sense of where your audience is coming from. For example, maybe all of your efforts are being put toward engaging readers on your Facebook page, or on your website, but little did you know a lot of your referrals come from Twitter where the audience is sharing and discussing your content without you.

What else? How should community engagement be taught in the journalism curricula?


84 thoughts on “The missing link in journalism curricula: Community engagement”

  1. Vadim,
    It sounds to me like Columbia is light years ahead of many other schools when it comes to updating their curriculum. I would also suggest at least a basic course in statistical analysis, or perhaps in conjunction with the analytics and metrics course.
    It is unclear to me whether or not you placed the three components in your post in any particular order of priority. However, if you did I would suggest swapping the second and third. Certainly one can begin the community engagement at most any point and level. But if you understand WHO is coming to your site and WHAT they are most interested in consuming, it could make for more efficient and meaningful engagement.
    Best wishes! This is an exciting time in journalism and digital media!

    Eric (Rick) Thomason
    ericthomason.wordpress.com (“Journalism, Because It Matters”)

  2. Hey Vadim!
    Well, as an adjunct, I don't exactly know what other people teach in J-classes farther downstream from me. Reporting 1 is the first class in the major after a lot of preliminary classes, which newly, so I've been told, a fair amount about online engagement.

    I do know that my students often tend to dislike and distrust Twitter; that one told me yesterday since our site was “only a blog” (I linked to the blog in the website area), the student wasn't worried about getting sources' full names; that a different student told me s/he didn't want to scoop another publication, so s/he obviously sees our blog as a news source (which it often is; they're required to write a news story per week on the neighborhoods they're covering); I asked a question on the midterm about how Twitter could and should be used by professional journalists, and while all got the “blast” part, a very few understood more about community engagement … and that this is all 7 weeks into a 10-week quarter, which hardly seems enough to teach news ledes (and three sources, and, apparently, getting and using full names), much less everything else.

    But! I've realized that I need to give a Twitter talk on the second day of class next term, and I'll sure as heck incorporate some of what you've said here, along with ideas from Steve Buttry and Mindy McAdams and others. The students will go on reporting about Eugene's neighborhoods (some of those neighborhoods haven't been covered at all), and I'm now thinking about including some very open form of crowd-sourcing training with neighborhood groups. As for the analytics, I'm not very clued in, so I can't clue them in yet, but I will take a look at Sree's page and learn for myself so that I can teach. I did have a short chat by email with the dean last week about the need to teach SEO (thanks to Robert Niles' post about AP Style and SEO). He appears to think that we should start doing that as well.

    The crowd-sourcing and community engagement part will need to come with a lot of instructor support and help, just as it would be best for editors to support reporters in those efforts. Interaction can be painful or frightening as well as inspiring and filled with story ideas, and I don't want the 19- or 20-year-old students to be too scarred by their first journalism experiences (we can save that for later 😉 ).

    ANYWAY, long comment, good post from you, helps me think about what to teach this summer in my Reporting 1 class. And what? You're already graduating?! Didn't you JUST GET THERE? Congrats!

    Suzi (in my other, full-time life, an arts editor at the Eugene Weekly, where I'm also trying to bring online & mobile ideas to the world of print)

  3. Cross-posting and expanding on some of my Twitter comments: Good points all-around. I'm glad you've restarted this conversation re: engagement and journalism education.

    I think it's important to emphasize that engagement should be integrated seamlessly throughout the curriculum and not relegated to a “social media” or community engagement class. That said, any social media class is better than none. My alma mater (University of Miami) has only had two total thus far — the first one in spring 2007 and another this spring. Thankfully, it's been renewed for next year. My hope is that they work to integrate engagement more and more with all the other classes.

    Also, in-person engagement is key and can't be emphasized enough. Meetups, tweetups and other events are great, but in-person interaction should be continuous and more than just planned, almost one-off events.

    I advocated at my DMN internship last summer that community beatbloggers should be out of the newsroom by default and primarily work in the community. That's the best engagement.

  4. Such a helpful article. I am just beginning to understand the world of social media in relation to pulling in an audience. I think learning how to properly use social media to share stories is just as important today for journalists as knowing how to record a video or create a podcast.

    You said “instructors tend to assume that students can learn social media tools on their own,” which is a huge problem. I have found that my professors simply think that because we are the new “younger more tech savvy generation” we know all there is to know about the digital world. It's completely false. I still have so much left to learn, and I can't just teach it all to myself.

    One of the reasons I am transferring schools is to be part of a stronger journalism program, one that has more classes that integrate social media and more digital technology into journalism.

  5. It is funny to me that so many students look down on social media (and many still on online journalism), when that is where things are shifting toward.

    Suzi, I did just get here. In August, anyway. It is only a one-year program, so that pack in a lot. But one year makes it affordable and convenient.

  6. Thanks, Greg. I couldn't agree more. I think that engagement needs to be at the forefront philosophy of all classes. It needs to be molded into the way students do their reporting, distribution, etc.

    And thanks on the congrats. Still waiting to make sure all my grades come in 😉

  7. Thank you for commenting. Another thing about having it taught, is that some students simply respond better when they are being taught. Others are go-getters and learn it on their own.

  8. Are there other Universities or Online Schools you know of offering classes in this? I recall the University of Miami once having it but no longer seem to offer it.

  9. To clarify, the University of Miami (I graduated in 5/09) first had a social media class in spring 2007 (I was not in it). They had another this spring 2010 semester and will continue it, with another on the schedule for fall 2010.

  10. Great post, couldn't agree more. I'm hoping to really address this in the social media class I'm developing for University of Memphis. I believe Seth Lewis is working on a post for Nieman Lab on this, too. 🙂

  11. I don't know that my Alma Mater (Iowa State) has any digital journalism classes, although they have some students who are fairly active.

    I also think that rick is right, community engagement, like much in journalism, is something that is best learned in practice as opposed to theory. However, I would love to take a class with experts on the topic.

    Definitely congrats on graduating! It's a scary and wonderful time to be in the field.

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  13. I completely agree with you. Most people don't want to realize how journalism has changed, and is no longer how it has been for the past 50 years. Now, technology allows us to take advantage from people. We have to admit that they now a lot more in many topics than we journalists do. And there's nothing wrong about it. There's always someone who knows more than you about something, and reaching him or her will add a lot of value to your report. And he or he will be totally engaged with your story. I guess it's not that complicated to understand!

  14. It's amazing how quickly Twitter has caught on. Only last year, I was promoting a youth philanthropy event through Twitter, with a handful of users following and responding. (Mostly Foodies in Toronto!) I think media programs are slowly starting to move into the classroom. Two years ago, our TV studio production final project included an online component in the rubric, which was atleast a tad novel…now possibly mandatory.

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