Academic journal article Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

The Gap between Online Journalism Education and Practice: The Twin Surveys

Academic journal article Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

The Gap between Online Journalism Education and Practice: The Twin Surveys

Article excerpt

This U.S. national survey of online journalism professionals and instructors examines and compares their perceptions of skills, concepts, and duties. It offers updated insights into the changes taking place in online journalism classrooms and newsrooms, and uncovers the discordance between online journalism education and practice. The results show that online journalism education is tied to traditional journalism in many ways, but is not merely a more technologically focused version of traditional journalism. Future journalists should be trained to be well-versed in multiple aspects of journalism and technology, rather than specializing in only one or two types of tasks.

Today's journalism graduates are walking into a field that is constantly changing because of technology and convergence. The skills that media professionals need to survive and succeed have shifted with the evolution of technologies. While the industry undergoes revolutionary changes, are journalism schools moving in the same direction? Are journalism educators responding accordingly? And are they teaching the skills and concepts that catch up to the demands of the industry? Amid the emergence of online journalism, as journalism and mass communication programs seek to integrate online and digital components into their curriculum, understanding what is needed in today's newsrooms and the disconnection between newsrooms and classrooms is vital for educators.

For decades, the gap between journalism education and journalism practice has been a focus of debate in the field. Professional journalists chide journalism professors for attempting to teach students about what they see as a trade best learned in its practice. Many journalism educators feel an antipathy or estrangement between themselves and the working press. Since the emergence of online journalism, the professioii's criticism of journalism education has continued unabated. Given the constant and revolutionary changes taking place in the journalism profession, it is ever important to revisit the old "gap" issue in this new context.

This study attempts to reexamine the discordance, if it still exists, between education and practice by comparing online journalism professionals and educators' perceptions of key skills, concepts, and duties for online journalism. It reports an overview of what is taught in online journalism classrooms and what is necessary in online newsrooms and offers updated insights into the changes taking place in online journalism classrooms and newsrooms. For educators who teach online journalism and journalism program administrators, this study may help in developing the appropriate curriculum to prepare students to work in the field.

Literature Review

Education-Practice Gap. Journalism education has been criticized for failing to move in tandem with the real world of the newsroom for decades. Ongoing debates between media professionals and journalism educators concern what is needed in newsrooms and what should be taught in classrooms. The one thing on which they agree is that something must be done to narrow the divide.

As early as 1967, Highton lamented that "newspapering [was] becoming a sidelight, if not an afterthought, of many journalism schools."1 Starting from the 1980s, several studies have looked at "the gap" from the professional point of view. Overall, these studies have revealed that many media professionals are dissatisfied with the basic writing skills of new graduates.2

Professional associations and projects have also joined individual scholars in studying the gap between education and practice. Several studies commissioned by professional organizations have reported that industry professionals and leaders are not enthusiastic about the performance of journalism and mass communication education, and have suggested that more lecturing/teaching by journalism professionals is the best way to improve the industry's relationship with academia.3 Overall, these studies indicate that the professionals are most critical of journalism graduates' writing abilities, general knowledge, technical skills, ability to communicate, and unrealistic expectations.

Other research has examined the gap between newsroom and classroom from journalism educators' point of view. Dickson and Sellmeyer found that some journalism educators noted the separation of journalism and mass communication units from their industrial moorings was defensible, because journalism education has a greater purpose than preparing students only for entry-level jobs as working journalists.4 They pointed out that because journalism education must prepare graduates for a variety of media and non-media jobs as well as for graduate school, journalism educators and professionals cannot be expected to agree on all matters relating to journalism education. In a 1996 study, however, some journalism educators joined professional journalists in criticizing journalism education for distancing itself from the needs of the "real world" of the media industry.5

Other studies have explored the gap between the two camps by examining a variety of both media professionals and educators.6 In general, these studies suggest that educators tend to value conceptual merit more than professionals, who tend to believe conceptual courses, such as theory, history, law, and ethics, do little to prepare students for newsroom practice. Professionals instead perceive skills (such as reporting, online writing) as more valuable and better preparation for students for careers in the media industry. Journalists and professors surveyed both suggested that more dialog is needed between the academy and the profession in order to bridge the gap.

Gap in the Age of Convergence. In light of the trend toward convergence, Huang et al. surveyed news editors, news professionals, and journalism professors and found overall strong support for teaching new technology while continuing to emphasize critical thinking in journalism schools.7 Journalism educators, however, seemed to still emphasize the teaching of critical thinking and the fundamentals of good reporting over the teaching of technical skills. More recently, Pierce and Miller surveyed newspaper editors to examine what skills are believed to be most important for educators to teach future journalists.8 Compared to the early 1990s, when the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that most editors perceived writing, spelling/grammar, and knowledge about journalism ethics to be the most important skills and experience with computers and computer writing skills to be the least important for new journalists, this study found that computer skills were high on the list of importance. (However, editors suggested these skills do not replace the foundations of journalism - the basic skills of writing, spelling, grammar, and critical thinking remain the most important.) In a Nieman Reports article,9 Aumente also emphasized the importance of focusing on the basics of solid reporting and writing skills while also teaching journalism students new technologies as they emerge. He also advocated that other skills are needed in modern newsrooms, including the ability to work collaboratively, because many multimedia projects are produced by teams with diverse skills.

The rapid development of new media has brought more profound changes to the field of journalism and mass communication (JMC) than ever before. To study the impact of technological change on journalism education, Voakes et al. telephone-interviewed JMC program administrators and found that respondents agreed that JMC graduates need to learn the latest technologies and that journalism faculty need to be able to teach them.10 The importance for JMC graduates to know how to prepare information for publishing online received agreement from most of the respondents. Since the emergence of online journalism in the 1990s, the skills media professionals need to survive and succeed have shifted with the evolution of technologies. In a 2004 study, Singer found that many journalists felt they had not received the necessary training to report and produce for a multiplatform audience.11

Unfortunately, many schools seem to have no adequate time or resources to reinvent the wheel with a new schedule of courses and new faculty training in convergence - given that many journalism faculty members have been out of the professional field for years - or to purchase expensive equipment to be shared among disciplines. The Knight Chair Professor in Journalism at the University of Florida, Mindy McAdams, once commented that few journalism teachers know how to do anything online. "And many of those who act like they know something are in fact using techniques and approaches that are far, far out of date."12

Research Questions

While the industry undergoes revolutionary changes, are journalism schools teaching the right things that catch up to the demands of the industry? This study attempts to examine the discordance, if it exists, between the current media industry and journalism schools by comparing online journalism professionals and educators' current perceptions of skills, concepts, and duties of online newsrooms. Based on previous research, the following research questions are proposed:

RQIa: What skills are most needed for online journalism?

RQIb: What duties are most common in online journalism?

RQIc: What concepts are most valued for online journalism?

RQ2: Are there differences in the perceptions of online journalism instructors and online journalists regarding skills, duties, and concepts for online journalism? If yes, what are these differences?


Twin surveys of online journalism course instructors and online journalists were launched in early 2009. Institutional Review Board approval was sought and obtained prior to distribution. It was determined that the risk involved in this research was no more than minimal. Twin questionnaires were identical except that the wording of each was geared toward its own group of subjects. To design the survey questions, we reviewed the job descriptions that the Online News Association (ONA) uses to categorize its members. A list of 237 job titles and detailed descriptions that The Croner Company used in its 2007 Online Content and Service Compensation Survey were also consulted. Survey questions were tested in a 2008 pilot study of North Carolina online journalists and modified as needed.

Samples and Procedures. The instructor sample was taken from ONAs member directory. All 180 ONA academic members nationwide identified at the time were included in the survey mailing e-mail list. After one pre-contact, three rounds of e-mail contacts (with one week apart from each other) with survey link included, in total 101 members responded to the survey, resulting in a response rate of 56%. The nationwide journalist sample was obtained through a multistage procedure. First, the most recent ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations) list of daily newspapers (1,412 as of 2009) was used to draw a 10% random sampie using a stratified sampling nique (very small, small, medium, large, and very large newspapers terms of Monday-Friday circulations). The second step was visiting each these sampled dailies' websites, searching for the masthead, and ing the names and contact information of any online journalists, defined as content creators with one of the following words in their titles: online, interactive, multimedia, new media, blogger, producer, or developer. To make the sample more representative, the third step was making telephone calls to the newspapers whose websites did not list online journalists. Through this multistage procedure, 151 online journalists were identified and included in the survey mailing list. After one precontact, the journalists were sent three rounds of e-mail contacts (each one week apart) with the survey link included. Forty-nine online journalists responded to the survey, resulting in a response rate of 32%.

Variables and Data Collection. Data were collected through the twin surveys using the Qualtrics online survey program. The questionnaire consisted of four parts. The first asked questions regarding perceptions skills (18 items); the second focused on the work duties of online journalists (24 items); the third asked about journalism concepts (10 items); and the fourth gathered profile/demographic information, including work titles, age, gender, race, and education level among others. The survey instrument included four difference levels measurements: nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio.

Data Analysis. The unit of analysis is the individual instructor/journalist. A series of independent samples f-tests were conducted using SPSS to determine if significant means differences exist between the two groups' perceptions on the key concepts, duties, and skills for online journalism.


Respondent Profiles. Table 1 illustrates the respondent profiles of the twin surveys. It is worth noting that 8% of the instructors had no professional online journalism experience. Also of interest, 41% of these newspaper journalists identified themselves as "producer" instead of the traditional labels of "reporter" or "editor."

What Skills are Most Needed for Online Journalism? Table 2 shows the importance of the eighteen skills that instructors and journalists rated and the rating differences. Of the top ten rated skills, the two groups agree on seven. Statistically significant differences exist in seven of the eighteen skill items. As for the skills about which the two groups disagree, Photoshop (sixth), web layout and/ or user interface design (eighth), and HTML (eighth) are among the top ten rated by the professionals, while the educators' top ten list includes audio reporting and/or editing (sixth), Soundslides (ninth), and search engine optimization (tenth). Overall, the journalists are most significantly higher (mostly at the 0.01 level) in their level of proficiency in web usability, HTML, Photoshop, and "my company's content management system." In contrast, instructors seem to place more weight on Flash; grammar and style; and audio reporting and/or editing.

What Duties Axe Most Common in Online Journalism? Table 3 shows the duties that instructors and journalists ranked as the most common in online newsrooms. Compared to the answers about needed skills, instructors and journalists are quite split in their perceptions about the frequency that journalists perform the duties on this list. Only five duties are on both groups' lists of the top ten most common duties performed. Statistically significant differences exist in four of the duties - staff organization/administration, video production, information/graphic design, and user interface design. On average, it seems in reality the journalists are performing these duties more often than the instructors expect.

What Concepts Are Most Valued for Online Journalism? Table 4 shows how instructors and journalists ranked the value placed on various concepts in online newsrooms. Educators and journalists both ranked "online community management" the least important concept for online newsrooms among all the ten presented in the questionnaires. Both groups ranked the "ability to work under pressure" and the "ability to learn new technologies" as two of their respective five most-valued concepts in online newsrooms. In four of the ten concepts, the two groups showed significant differences - web usability, interpersonal communication, multitasking, and news judgment.

By and large, this study found evidence of significant differences between professional journalists' and journalism educators' perceptions on some key skills, duties, and concepts for online journalism. The overall gap between the two groups, however, is not particularly wide. The surveyed instructors and journalists seemed to be in agreement regarding many aspects of online journalism, especially the relative importance of necessary journalism elements.


Basic and New Skills. Instructors and journalists both rated basic journalism skills - grammar and style, news judgment - as the foremost important among all. This indicates that the traditional skills that have always comprised the foundation of journalism practice remain important even with the emergence of new skills and duties. Also of note, the historical gap between the importance that journalists and educators ascribe to practical traditional skills such as spelling and grammar may be fading. This research result is consistent with some previous research13 that found that traditional backbone skills remain important in online journalism.

The results of this study suggest that journalism schools need to do more to teach in classes the visual and management elements of online journalism: web usability, HTML, Photoshop, staff organization, video production, user interface design, and information/graphic design.

Real and Expected Duties. Multimedia authoring, editing text for content, writing headlines or blurbs, managing user-generated content, and editing for grammar or style are among the top ten duties that instructors thought their students would perform the most often when they work in online newsrooms in the near future. However, these were not the duties that the professionals seem to be doing. Instead, professional journalists indicated that they were actually working on blogging, photo shooting, user interface design, video production, and staff organization/administration more often. This suggests some level of unfamiliarity with real newsroom routines among the instructors. As noted earlier, 8% of the instructors surveyed had no online newsroom experience, which may partially explain the large discrepancy with regard to most common duties as perceived by professionals and educators. Ironically, while professional journalists have long thought that educators spent too little time on skills, today's online journalists have duties that are more likely to be conceptual - such as project management and staff organization/administration - than their academic counterparts might believe.

The five duties that both the educators and journalists rated in the top ten are reporting and writing original stories, story combining/shortening, writing or editing scripts, photo/image editing, and project management. Even among these five duties, however, the rankings are quite inconsistent. For example, while the instructors thought "reporting and writing original stories" is the top duty performed by online journalists, the professionals ranked it only ninth.

Practical and Abstract Concepts. The professional journalists, on average, ranked "multitasking" as the most valuable concept, but instructors ranked it seventh. In comparison, educators thought the most important concept for their students to have in online newsrooms is "news judgment" (ranked fifth by journalists).

The professionals seemed to value "attention to detail" more than the educators, whereas the educators seemed to value "team work/collaboration" and "interpersonal communication" more than the professionals. Of all the concepts on the list, perhaps one of the most difficult to simulate in the topically focused environment of many journalism classes is "multitasking" - and it is the concept on which the two groups differ the most. This result indicates that one of the best ways for journalism students to prepare for working in the field of journalism may not be any single class they take, but their ability to manage many classes at once. Journalists seem to value multitasking and web usability more than the instructors value those concepts. Instructors seem to emphasize interpersonal communication and news judgment more than the professionals. This implies that the professionals may focus more than the instructors on practical matters, although of course news judgment is of critical importance.

Conclusion, Limitations, and Future Research

This study offers updated insights into the much-debated gap between journalism education and practice by revisiting the issue in the online journalism context. To our best knowledge, this study is by far the first quantitative, empirical exploration comparing online journalism education with practice. In line with previous research, this study finds some evidence of the "gap" - significant differences in the perceptions of online journalists and online journalism educators regarding some key skills, duties, and concepts of online journalism. The overall gap, however, is not necessarily wide, as the two groups agree on many other aspects of online journalism.

Another major finding of this study is that professionals and educators agree that traditional backbone skills, such as news judgment and grammar and style, remain important in online journalism. Again, while professional journalists have long thought that educators spend too little time on skills, ironically, today's online journalists have duties that are more likely to be conceptual - such as project management and staff organization/ administration - than their academic counterparts might believe.

One major strength of this study is that it made every effort to reach a representative sample of online journalists and educators. Considering that the usual Internet survey response rate is 1% to 30%,14 this study- with a response rate of 32% among professionals and 56% among instructors - should be deemed successful in generating solid, rich data, and representative, meaningful results.

This study examined only daily newspaper subjects as representatives of online journalists. Future research could expand the journalist sample to include multiple media types. The online staffs of broadcast or onlineonly news outlets may regard the key skills, duties, and concepts differently. On the educator's side, ONA academic members were chosen as the subjects for efficiency consideration. In future studies, if time and resource permit, a multistage procedure to search for a complete list of online journalism instructors may be desirable (for example, starting from the JMC Directory, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication's directory, and then online journalism courses in each program, and then instructors for each course), although obtaining such a list would be much more time-consuming and challenging than using the ONA directory.

It should be pointed out that the ONA academic members tend to be more connected with the profession compared to other faculty, as ONA is a professional organization. This may have played a role in the consensus found in this study between the journalists and the instructors on many items because this group of instructors understandably shares many common views of online journalism with the professionals. If we were to use a different sampling frame - such as schools accredited by the ACEJMC -more differences might be found. These reservations should be taken into account when assessing the results of this study and developing future research.

As the online journalism field continues to evolve, it is important for future research to continue to study how journalism educators may keep up with this new world of journalism and prepare their students to enter the ever-changing workforce. The line of inquiry comparing what is needed in the newsrooms as perceived by media professionals and what is taught in the classrooms as reported by instructors provides many opportunities for new exploration.

These suggestions in combination with the results of this study suggest that the context of online journalism offers a rich opportunity to expand our understanding of the connection or disconnection between journalism education and practice. The authors hope such understanding will be helpful in bridging the much-debated gap between the newsroom and classroom in the new era.


1. Jake Highton, "Green EyeShades Vs. Chi-Squares," Quill (February 1967): 10-13.

2. Hugh P. Cowdin, "The Liberal Art of Journalism," Quill 23 (July/August 1985): 16-19; Drake Mabry, "Journalism, Liberal Arts and Editors," ACA Bulletin 64 (April 1988): 41-45; Fred Fedler, "Growing Body of Evidence Refutes Some Criticisms of J-Schools" (paper presented at the annual meeting of AEJMC, Kansas City, MO, August 11-14, 1993.

3. Roper Organization, Electronic Media Career Preparation Study (New York: Roper, December 1987); University of Oregon School of Journalism, Planning for Curricular Change in Journalism Education: A Report of Project on the Future of Journalism and Mass Communication Education, rev. ed. (Eugene, OR: University of Oregon School of Journalism, November 1987); American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) Committee on Education for Journalism, Journalism Education: Facing up to the Challenge of Change, Committee on Education for Journalism (Washington: ASNE, 1990); Society of Professional Journalists, Tomorrow's Broadcast Journalists: A Report and Recommendations from the Jane Pauley Task Force on Mass Communication Education (Greencastle, IN: Society of Professional Journalists, 1996).

4. Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Vision 2000 Task Force, Report No. 2: The Viability of JMC Units within Universities (Columbia, SC: AEJMC, August 1994).

5. Betty Medsger, Winds of Change: Challenges Confronting Journalism Education (Arlington, VA: Freedom Forum, 1996).

6. Society of Professional Journalists, Tomorrow's Broadcast Journalists; Thomas V. Dickson and Ralph L. Sellmeyer, "Green Eyeshades vs. Chi Squares Revisited: Editors' and JMC Administrators' Perceptions of Major Issues in Journalism Education" (paper presented at the annual meting of AEJMC, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, August 5-8, 1992; Sonya F. Duhe and Lee A. Zukowski, "Radio-TV Journalism Curriculum: First Jobs and Career Preparation," Journalism & Mass Communication Educator 52 (1, 1997): 4-15; Tom Dickson and Wanda Brandon, "The Gap between Educators and Professional Journalists," Journalism & Mass Communication Educator 55 (3, 2000): 55-67; Frank Fee, John Russial, and Ann Auman, "Profs, Professionals Agree about Students' Editing Skills," Newspaper Research Journal 24 (3, 2003): 23-36; Carolyn Lepre and Glen L. Bleske, "Little Common Ground for Magazine Editors and Professors Surveyed on Journalism Curriculum," Journalism &* Mass Communication Educator 60 (2, 2005): 190-200; Debora H. Wenger and June O. Nicholson, "Pros vs. Profs: Even Though Educators and Professionals Agree on What's Important to Teach, They Differ on the Quality of Training Journalism Student Are Getting, " Quill 94 (August 2006): 25-28.

7. Edgar Huang, Karen Davison, Stephanie Shreve, Twila Davis, Elizabeth Bettendorf, and Anita Nair, "Bridging Newsrooms and Classrooms: Preparing the Next Generation of Journalists for Converged Media," Journalism & Communication Monographs 8 (3, 2006): 221-62.

8. Tamyra Pierce and Tommy Miller, "Basic Journalism Skills Remain Important in Hiring," Newspaper Research Journal 28 (4, 2007): 51-61.

9. Jerome Aumente, "Multimedia Journalism Changes What Universities Teach," Nieman Reports 61 (fall 2007): 85-87.

10. Paul S. Voakes, Randal A. Beam, and Christine Ogan, "The Impact of Technological Change on Journalism Education: A Survey of Faculty and Administrators," Journalism &* Mass Communication Educator 57 (4, 2003): 318-34.

11. Jane B. Singer, "More Than InkStained Wretches: The Resocialization of Print Journalists in Converged Newsrooms," Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 81 (4, 2004): 838-56.

12. Meredith Cochie, "A Curriculum Evolution: How Journalism Programs Are Dealing with Convergence" (paper presented at the annual meeting of AEJMC, Chicago, IL, August 6-9, 2008.

13. Pierce and Miller, "Basic Journalism Skills Remain Important."

14. Roger D. Wimmer and Joseph R. Dominick, Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 8th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005).

[Author Affiliation]

Ying Roselyn Du ( is assistant professor, School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University, and Ryan Thornburg ( is assistant professor, School of journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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