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.
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.
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?