Teaching Tomorrow's Journalists:Today's Best Tools

Ask an experienced carpenter about the differences between a table saw and a jigsaw and you are sure to hear a detailed explanation about when to choose one over the other. Same thing if you ask a plumber about a fixed or adjustable wrench. Or a surgeon about a scalpel or a gamma knife.

Or a journalist about the differences between Dreamweaver and a content management system? Well, maybe not.

As software adapts to our changing needs, it has become more and more challenging for educators to discern what software they should teach -- and for mid-career journalists to decide where they focus their training.

It even was tough for the group of writers for Poynter's E-media Tidbits to agree when editor Amy Gahran criticized journalism schools for teaching students Dreamweaver. (Also posted on Gahran's blog Contentious.)

But the private and public discussions among this group provided some insight into both the value of different software and the situations when they are best used.

All agreed that knowledge of software skills will never replace the need to emphasize to students the importance of being critical, curious and analytical thinkers. Yet there also was strong sentiment that software is an essential component to journalism education.

"Because that's the thing," Gahran said. "Journalism is a practice, not just a philosophy. The tools really do matter."

Key to knowing what software to teach or learn is knowing your educational goals -- and what kind of jobs you're targeting. Collectors of information will need to know different software than those editing and presenting it.

Here are the Tidbits team's thoughts on four types of software that may seem similar to an outsider, but do quite different things. See this story's sidebar for insight into what hiring professionals are looking for. (And look here for more discussion among educators about what works and needs work at their schools.)

Blogger, Typepad

What they are: These are two examples of blogging software that enable individuals to use a simple, structured interface to post items online quickly.

Pros: Because of their prevalence and impact in the media, it is important that students use and understand blogging software.

Cons: Teaching blogging software to college students may be a moot point. Many would say the ability to post to a blog is a skill that students are assumed to be familiar with by the time they reach college.

What courses to use it in: Best used as a supplement to courses where blog creation or study is a focus. One of the great things about blogging software is how easy it is to use. But that also means it's not valuable in a class that aims to train students in the technical aspects of online publishing.

Comments from the Tidbits Team: "The ease of blogging can encourage haste," said Maurreen Skowran of News Atoms and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. "And although blogging software has advanced with various options, it still sets up a structure that can be limiting as the main site tool for organizations of more than a handful of people.

"The biggest advantage of blogs could be in the mindset," she said. "An individual blogger is both storyteller and publisher. The blogging can push students to consider more ways to continually keep the audience informed and engaged."

WordPress, Movable Type, Drupal

What they are: These are content management systems, or systems that allow contributors to a Web site to post text, images, audio, video, and interactive animations.

Pros: Most news organizations use a content management system, or CMS, to input stories (text, visuals, audio, video) onto their Web sites. The CMS allows stories to be published, moved and edited without the risk of accidentally altering the structural or design elements of the site.

Cons: A CMS is not a content creation or story-level editing tool. For example, photos must be edited and reworked for the Web in a program such as Photoshop; same with video, animations and audio.

What courses to use it in: Best used in courses in which students publish content to a site -- courses that simulate a newsroom environment with its deadlines for making news judgments and posting content. WordPress and most other content management systems offer a visual/code editor that allows students to learn hypertext markup language (HTML) and cascading style sheets (CSS).

: The overall sentiment from the Tidbits team here is that it is important to teach students how to work with a CMS, although it doesn't matter which one. They all will have their specific procedures and processes, but the concepts will be the same.

"I've worked at a whole bunch of Web journalism outlets and each one seems to use a different system,"
Tidbiters Kim Pearson, from the College of New Jersey, and Gahran stressed the importance of teaching a CMS mindset to students.

"[Students need to] think of content as modules that can be structured, mixed, mashed, and reused -- rather than thinking strictly in terms of narrative stories," Gahran said. "This is a key point where hands-on experience with a CMS affects journalistic practice. When you start thinking of your end product as a series of modules that can be configured in a story but that can also be used and distributed in other ways on your site and beyond your site, that can affect how you go about doing the reporting.

"And that's a key point here -- tools influence mindset, because they help people envision what's possible."


What it is: Dreamweaver is a Web site creation tool. It builds sites with HTML and CSS.

Pros: It is a good tool for creating sites that don't require a lot of changing content or many different contributors,. However,Adobe Contribute addresses this issue by allowing Dreamweaver pages to be edited CMS-style.

Cons: Almost no major media sites use Dreamweaver to post content. It is highly unlikely that students who get hired to work in online journalism will ever open this software on the job.

What courses to use it in: Dreamweaver is best used in classes where you want students to learn how to build a Web site from scratch. Switching from "design view" to "code view" in the software can help students learn HTML and CSS, which will be valuable when they have to troubleshoot CMS glitches on-the-job.

 Most Tidbit writers agree with Amy Gahran: There is no need to teach students Dreamweaver because most news sites are not built using it.

"If an organization is using Dreamweaver, you can bet that the content creators use 'Contribute' which makes Dreamweaver work like a CMS,"
New media
But Steve Klein, from George Mason University, has a bit of a different take: Not everyone in a journalism program is going to work for a major media company.

"Journalism programs aren't trade schools," he said. "Everyone taking journalism courses doesn't want to be a journalist in the traditional, mainstream sense. . . . Many of these people are asked to create Web sites or work on Web sites at their jobs. My grads tell me that their employers are happy they know Dreamweaver."

And Northwestern University's Rich Gordon recognizes that Dreamweaver can be an important teaching tool because students can create a site in design view and then see how that is reflected in the underlying code.


What it is:
Flash is the software behind most of the cool animated and interactive stuff online. This animation software integrates text, photos, audio, video, interactive graphics and applications into a seamless user experience. Flash can be used for a number of purposes: as part of a Web page, allowing animation, scrolling or interactivity, or to present an entire multimedia story package.

Additionally, with this use of its scripting language called ActionScript, Flash can be used to create content for Web applications, games, movies, mobile phones and other devices. It also can be used to create online journalistic tools such as budget balancers or mortgage calculators.

Pros: Flash has what seems like unlimited potential, and journalists trained in it are still coming up with new ways to tell stories. Many hiring professionals place Flash in the top three software programs they would like job candidates to know.

Cons: Some say the learning curve for Flash is too steep and that stories created using it are not easily found by search engines, which troll the Web for text.

What courses to use it in: Flash is used by content editors, not gatherers. So -- although all students could benefit from an introductory course -- it is best taught to students targeting jobs as online content packagers and creators: graphic artists, editors, designers and producers.

 For creating a story package that moves seamlessly from text to audio to video, Flash can't be beat. But it's hard to learn and search engines don't deal easily with its content.

Gordon said that although Flash is the go-to tool for multimedia storytellers, "the learning curve is quite steep" and "before individuals embark on a serious, Flash-based multimedia project, they need to know a lot of other things, including interface design principles, fairly advanced knowledge of how to use other kinds of software (e.g., Photoshop), not to mention ActionScript."

Iverson said the way Flash turns text into images means it's often missed by search engines.

"I think search is absolutely key to communication of any kind on the Web today. Also, with the advent of Soundslides (a program that imports photos and audio to create Flash audio slideshows), teaching the "innards" of Flash to most students who are going to tell a story isn't necessary, at least in first level classes."</STYLE="FONT-WEIGHT:>Check out this story's sidebar in which industry leaders say what tools they want potential employees to know. Their responses may surprise.

  • Laura Ruel

    Laura Ruel teaches multimedia journalism in the visual communication sequence at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Before coming to UNC in July of 2004, she was the inaugural executive director of the Edward W.


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