May 8, 2015
Polo Rocha

Polo Rocha

In a column yesterday for The Badger Herald student newspaper, University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Polo Rocha began with a confession.

“I started reporting this column as a pissed off journalism student,” Rocha wrote. “It’s not that I’m ungrateful for the wonderful classes and professors I’ve had at University of Wisconsin’s journalism school. It’s that my experience there lacked something.”

What should students expect from their journalism school experience nowadays? And how much and how fast should journalism educators adapt to keep up with a media landscape which Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour recently called “the Wild West.”

As Wintour shared in a New York Magazine interview, “You walk on the street and get a Starbucks and things have changed by the time you come back to the office.”

Or the classroom. In Rocha’s words, “Keeping a modern curriculum is an issue journalism schools across the country grapple with.”

Rocha, 22, a political science and journalism double major, also grappled with this issue in his column. Built atop his own observations and interviews with current and former students, professors and professional journalists, he cited a number of core components that should be part of every modern journalism school.

Chief among them: more digital, more data, greater in-class publishing opportunities, more working journalists leading courses and more engaged students (in and out of the classroom).

Hemant Shah, director of UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communicationpraised Rocha’s piece as “a nuanced analysis of the situation supported with solid evidence.”

Based on evidence Rocha uncovered during his reporting, he confirmed, “I’m no longer as pissed off. Because here’s the good news: The j-school recognizes the issue and is finally doing something about it.”

In the Q&A below, Rocha shares more about what administrators, professors and undergrads should be doing to survive and thrive in journalism’s Wild West — from the perspective of a (formerly) pissed off journalism student.

You mention the significance of data journalism multiple times in your column. Why do you think it is so essential for students to learn, and do you have any suggestions on how best to teach it or work it into a journalism program?

Knowing which numbers to use and how to best show them to readers is crucial to helping them understand the story better. It’s also helpful as a reporter to understand the numbers that public officials use — and know why some might be flawed. This is only something you can do if you become comfortable with numbers.

I generally think anything that can be a story idea on its own should be something j-schools train their students a good amount on. So student journalists should get training in spotting patterns in data or areas like requesting open records. At the end of the day, journalism is about story ideas, and being able to tell an employer that you can bring these types of story ideas is extremely valuable.

I don’t have necessarily specific suggestions, but I think it is best to keep it as easy as possible. I don’t think j-schools should ever teach R [a common programming language in statistics and data science], for example, but I think giving students some exposure to what you can do with data is important.

I remember getting one day of data training in [an introductory journalism] course. Sometime later I found myself remembering that you can sort data on Excel, so I went ahead and did it for a story. There are some easy and important stories that you can do with basic Excel calculations [an example of one data-driven story Rocha carried out]. And getting students comfortable with the idea that some data stories are extremely simple is absolutely necessary.

I don’t necessarily think you should come out of the j-school trained to be a data journalist, but you should at least understand what they do and you need to have done something similar at some point.

You also write that journalism students need to pick up the slack in a number of areas. Building on that sentiment, what’s your advice to j-students interested in making the most of their time in school and the opportunities available to them?

I don’t think students realize the importance of networking, conferences, internships or meeting with professors — and I hope my column changes that. … My advice to journalism students is to work the hardest you can. Free time is not a good thing. Don’t just do one internship. Do an internship and some student media work.

I haven’t really had free time since my freshman year, and I never see my roommates during the week. But it’s completely worth it. I also really do believe student media is the best place to get experience. Like I said in the column, figuring out how to reach an audience who frankly doesn’t care as much about news is an extremely valuable experience.

On other things, I generally think students for some reason shy away from any professional networking or conference opportunities. Professors, even those who haven’t worked in a newsroom for a while, have huge networks that students need to tap into. Their career advice is also invaluable. …

Reaching out to local journalists or someone with a connection to you is key, as well. So students should reach out to alums from the student paper or a distant family friend who works in journalism. I’ve found that 99 percent of people are willing to help, especially to help college students.

Also, never waste a trip. I went to New York with my sister’s finance class last year, and I reached out to a couple of fellow [National Association of Hispanic Journalists] members there and got coffee with them. It’s really important to reach out to people who are just getting into the field themselves — horizontal networking — they’re the ones who help the most.

So let’s pretend you are put in charge of a top-notch journalism program and there are no budgetary, personnel or resource roadblocks. What are a few things you would invest in or build first?

Tech stuff — cameras, computers, etc. — are helpful, but that wouldn’t be my priority. My priority is getting working journalists in the classroom. So I would keep hiring them to teach different topics they specialize in — business reporting, sports reporting, data journalism, social media editing, etc. I know this isn’t a big vision such as setting up a j-school start-up collaboration between students and faculty. But I really think hiring working journalists is the most important thing a journalism school can do.

Why do you think having professional journalists in the classroom is especially important?

I think that working journalists understand the demands of a modern journalism job. Some professors who are more focused on their research truly have no clue what’s going on today and don’t want to find out. I would much rather have them teaching their academic classes and have people in the field or professors who understand today’s industry teaching practical classes.

I’m a political reporter. I took one class with the most senior political reporter [in Madison, Wisc.]. And it was really great to be in a class with someone who was covering the same things I was. I would imagine a sports reporter would love a similar experience with someone who currently covers sports.

You write in your column that “j-school shouldn’t be the place to learn the bells and whistles of software programs.” Yet, as you also mention, students are not as tech-savvy as they may appear on spec. How should journalism schools ensure students become competent in basic tools, platforms and programs without giving away too much class time or curriculum space that could be focused on journalism?

This question is tough, and I’m not quite sure I have the answer to it. I would say it’s a mistake sometimes to use tougher programs. So I would teach iMovie over Final Cut because many students are totally unfamiliar with video. It’s more about learning how you should shoot and edit a video for me than doing it on a professional program.

I also think one thing j-schools can improve is searching for info. I am creepily good at using Google sometimes, which has helped me find sources or reports or info. Things like searching for just PDFs on Google, which I did recently while covering the school district here and looking for any reports hosted on their site to read them. Or searching stuff by individual site. Or things like searching for sources on Twitter. These are things that help your reporting greatly, and there should at least be tip sheets shared.

What I’ve heard from employers is they want journalists who can adapt to new technology. What that means for journalism education is unclear. But I think requiring an innovative use of multimedia with stories for class is good — maybe making students use a different tool each time.

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Daniel Reimold, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, where he also advises The Hawk student newspaper. He maintains…
Daniel Reimold

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