Talk to me about journalism school

Most Fridays, I post an interview with a certain someone far more knowledgeable than myself on specific marketing and publicity subjects. This week, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism masters student Devin Dwyer on learning how to broadcast himself, the shrinking journalism market, and why this isn’t a good interview.

devin.jpgDevin Dwyer is a multimedia journalist with a background in public radio broadcasting.  The Minnesota native is a graduate of Dartmouth College and candidate for a master of science in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

The Journalism program at Columbia is only one year, correct? Is that chaos?

Yes, the M.S. program is 10 months. It’s pretty chaotic – but much of that depends on one’s concentration. Broadcast concentrators tend to be a little crazier than the print/newspaper folks since we have to learn audio and video recording/editing skills on top of basic reporting and writing. And then, of course, being out in the field with all that equipment means more time required to produce the story.  But it’s a heck of a lot more fun than just interviewing people over the phone and writing it up. (Not to mention there are actually jobs in broadcast! All the newspapers, as you know, are going under…)

What classes are you currently taking? (The “Writing with Style” class description on the site is hilarious.)

During the first semester, everybody takes Reporting and Writing I – which for broadcasters, is a “jumbo course”. It takes four full days of the week. Two of those are all-day seminar; two are field reporting and producing. This class covers all the basics and gives you a taste of everything: deadline writing, shooting, recording, interviewing, different topics (courts, schools, business/economics, ethnic news, etc.)… On Friday everyone takes two all-class courses; they’re lecture style. One is Critical Issues in Journalism; the other Law, Journalism and Society.  Critical Issues is a (boring/pointless) lecture followed by discussion on some aspect of ethics or decision-making in journalism.  Law is taught by two profs from the law school and is basically a study of nuances of the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedents involving/affecting journalism…. I also take the “Masters Project” which is technically a class, but it’s an independent long-form assignment that is due in March.  And, I also take a New Media Skills Workshop which meets on Saturday – we learn Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash, etc. for the web.

On the “history” section of the website, it says, “It took Columbia ten years to act on Joseph Pulitzer’s pitch for a journalism school. ” Is it ironic that a journalism school was started with a pitch?

It’s totally ironic!  Although I admit, I don’t know much about the backstory.

In classical music, critics are getting let-go left, right and center. Is this a problem across journalism fields? If so, is it more evident in print journalism, or are TV and radio journalists suffering as well? How are your professors preparing you for a career in journalism if they know jobs are dwindling?

Across the board, journalism is undergoing a transformation right now. The web has altered the financial equation for most news outlets and they are struggling to find a new paradigm.  Fact of the matter is that ad revenue on the web is not sufficient to support most newsrooms.  And since more and more Americans get their news from the web – and, of course, it’s the timeliest source – fewer are tuning in their TVs, radios, or buying newspapers. This is a very simplistic explanation for you, but it’s generally the case.  The job market is tough – particularly in print, however.  There are more opportunities for online news and there always tends to be more demand for business/economic reporters.  One other aside (from a fan of public radio): with tax revenues falling around the country, even public news outlets are not immune from the industry woes.  Most states have hiring freezes – or even layoffs – at public TV and radio stations.  

The Journalism School at Columbia is trying to make all of its students as marketable as possible by equipping everyone with a strong grounding in reporting ability and storytelling (there’s no substitute for these skills) and a diverse “tool box” of technical skills.  For example, if an established news outlet wants to translate more of its news video into web content, they could turn to one of their older, veteran employees to do the job – but often, those veterans are loathe to learn new skills or reluctant to adapt to the changing market.  So, outlets are eager to hire younger journalists who come with a broad array of skills – who can not only shoot video and do web techniques, but can also do audio recording/editing, shoot a digital camera, write a strong lead, etc. etc..

What assignment have you learned from most so far, and what did you learn?

On election night, all Columbia Jschool broadcast students produced a live, four-hour radio webcast. As Executive Producer, I learned an enormous amount about managing a newsroom and developing a plan for a live broadcast.  I basically had the chance to conceptualize, from scratch, what our coverage would look like, what themes we would highlight and how we would execute it.  We ended up having reporters, editors and producers working from a campus newsroom, in three NYC boroughs, and 3 “swing” states (NH, VA, and PA).  The show was designed on the NPR election coverage model, with two teams of hosts who anchored on alternating hours and who provided up-to-the-minute results as they came in, interviews with a range of political and historical experts, and live check-ins with reporters in the New York area and three swing states.  All audio and video streamed online.
The overarching theme for America’s Choice 2008, which is what the show was called, was the diverse voices and perspectives of America’s people.  We featured lots of “vox” from a cross-section of New Yorkers, New Hampshirans, Virginians, and Pensylvannians. We tried to better understand the important issues driving voters’ choices this year.   Our reporters caught up with voters as they were leaving the polls, spoke with prominent and not-so-prominent community leaders, and embedded in an array of ethnic communities around the area.

It was a very exciting, high-pressure experience.

I think the subject of sources is extremely interesting. I’m sort of a “source” for journalists about my artists, but, outside of industries that have publicists – general news coverage, for example – how does a journalist find stories to cover?

Journalists rely on a number of established and not-so-established means of finding stories to cover. As a general rule of thumb, we look for things that are of interest, impact and immediacy to particular communities. Some of this depends on the intended audience. Finding compelling and meaningful stories – aside from the standard press-release events and catastrophes – involves following one’s curiosity and talking to lots of people, asking questions.  Good stories are about people. And, just talking to people and observing people interacting within their worlds can reveal tons of possible avenues for exploration.

I hesitate to ask how many times the words “technology” and “new media” are used every day; are your professors tech-savvy/tech-excited, or is the academic journalism community pretty old-school?

“New media” is definitely the buzz around Jschool, especially since more and more news outlets are going online these days. And some, l
ike the venerable Christian Science Monitor, are becoming exclusively online publications after decades of being in print. The faculty at Columbia Journalism School are acutely aware of this trend, and while some individual professors may be more or less tech-savvy than others, the prevailing objective is to integrate more web-based journalism into the curriculum. Each basic reporting and writing class has its own website and we’ve done several exercises producing stories in multiple mediums for the web. The Election 2008 webcast is another good example of how the school is trying to stay on the leading edge of the tech transformation: audio and video coverage streamed live online and graphic/interactive features were developed for the site itself. The school also offers some pretty interesting workshops and guest-speaker panels on the latest online trends in journalism. And I’m learning the fundamentals of Photoshop, Dreamweaver and Flash in a weekend seminar which is really enhancing my web-based journalism abilities.

How are blogs taught? Are they regarded as the end of true journalism, or are we at a point where there are whole classes taught about blog culture?

Bloggers are generally viewed with skepticism as being a part of the class of “journalists.”  They are generally viewed as talking heads that don’t practice the traditional principles of sound reporting and verification. To a certain extent, I agree with this assessment.  Blogs can’t (haven’t, at least) unseated the established news organizations’ reputations as being the most trustworthy.  Studies show that even people who read stories on Drudge or Digg or whatever end up going to a reputable (traditional) news source to verify that it’s true.  Blogs have demonstrated their power, influence and importance. But established news outlets still have something blogs don’t.

Do you think I should apply to the Journalism program at Columbia to see how the other half lives?

I’d say save the $50,000. You’ve got a good job with income.  Don’t abandon it just to “see the other half.”  

Based on your journalism expertise, was this a good interview? If so, why? (If NOT, why?)

This was a decent interview, although it would have been better in person!  Intrapersonal communication is an important part of good journalism.  Interviewing face-to-face not only allows you to ask follow-ups, but it lets you better understand the subject and his/her answers based on vocal cues and body language.

Which do you prefer: Dartmouth or Columbia?
Dartmouth. Hands down. Go Big Green!

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