Pushing and Prodding Latin American Journalism Schools to Change: A Colombian Journalist Makes It More Likely That Students Will Learn How to 'Think Online' So They Will Be Prepared to Enter the Job Market in This Digital Era

Article excerpt

Not too long ago, C. Max Magee, when he was a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, focused his research for his master's degree program on the topic of "The Roles of Journalists in Online Newsrooms." (1) It was an attempt, Magee explains, "to define which skills and intangible characteristics are most important in online newsrooms." His findings came from online surveys he conducted in 2005 with 438 people who work for online news sites. His goal was to identify "the skills and characteristics that hiring managers are looking for" and also to learn what online journalists need to know and do in the context of their typical workday.

Magee's survey identified 35 skills that he divided into four categories:

1. Attitudes and Intangibles

2. Editing and Copyediting Skills

3. Content Creation

4. Online Production Tools

Despite his precise recording of the comparative usefulness of each of these skills--and his helpful assessment of how and why many "old" skills still matter greatly--what Magee learned from online journalists is that the technical aspects of their work are not what sets them and their work apart from those working in "old media." Instead it is "a different way of thinking" that is characterized by "a willingness to learn new things, multitasking and teamwork." When summed up, the online journalists' attributes amounted to the ability to "think online," paired with convincing "others to do the same." It is these qualities that those who are hiring journalists for online media are seeking in applicants who come their way.

To think about Magee's findings--and his conclusions--is to challenge some of the ways in which our universities and graduate school programs in Colombia, and in the rest of Latin America, now approach the teaching and training of future journalists. It's very clear from studies such as this one (and other less rigorous ones conducted in Latin America) that students need to become actively engaged with online journalism. This means not only encouraging them to immerse themselves in what it is producing but also to help them analyze what they are reading and seeing and hearing. Additionally, they actually need to be producing it as part of their classroom experience.

Yet little of this appears to be happening in many of the 1,300 communication and journalism schools that exist throughout Latin America. Financial considerations--figuring out how to get the highest possible income from students--has convinced many programs on this continent to offer certificates and postgraduate study programs with pompous names and dubious quality without touching the undergraduate programs, which is where education designed to promote "digital thinking" should start.

One problem in having this happen is that to develop these online competencies would mean that many journalism programs would need to redefine their academic curricula. And this task would reside with scholars who, for the most part, are not prepared to do what is necessary to push their programs into the digital age. Often today, the students criticize their professors and administrators for not having contact with the "real" world of journalism, and this criticism is aimed at their separation even from traditional media.

Another consequence of gaining this level of understanding about online journalism is knowing that when students leave journalism programs the newsrooms they enter--if they even enter a newsroom at all--will define jobs in new ways. And the roles they assume are likely to be expanded as opportunities for serving other communities--such as online social groups and niche audiences--evolve. Job opportunities might also open up at Web sites looking for people to "manage content" in order for them to sell their products or services through the Web or to figure out how to use content in corporate Intranets, to mention a few possible directions. …