Monthly Archives: May 2012

A journalism pep talk

It appears I am not alone in pondering the importance of a journalism degree this week.

San Francisco State University student Elizabeth Ireland questioned her decision to major in journalism in an excellent column written for New America Media this week, saying she should have chosen to be a mortician – a much more stable career – rather than following her heart into J-school. And with even the president beating up on the media this week in his address to Barnard College, blaming journalists for troubling America with its own troubles, it is easy to understand her feeling of hopelessness and anxiety.

In light of this negativity, I thought I would post a few happy facts for you aspiring newsies out there:

  • According to a Georgetown study, the unemployment rate for journalism majors is lower than the national average.
  • According to the 2010 U.S. census, journalists have a median income of $50,000.
  • A 2003 study found nearly 90 percent of journalists are “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with their jobs.
  • A study by Lee Rainie found 83 percent of Americans consume some news every day.

I know things look grim for hopeful journalists, but I urge you not to give up. We will always need news. It may not look the same as it has traditionally, but it will always be there. And if you have a passion for finding it and delivering it, then we will always need you.


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Is a journalism major important for aspiring reporters?

A recent discussion thread on the Society of Professional Journalists’ LinkedIn page posed the following question:

Is majoring in journalism a bit like majoring in air?! Everyone breathes. And everyone writes (albeit at widely divergent levels). Should we have majored in economics, politics, science, history? – Paul Chimera, journalist/adjunct professor

The comments are mixed, with some advocating strongly for the value of J-schools and others who believe on-the-job journalism training is adequate for students who specialize in other areas.

First, a disclosure – I am a journalism professor. Obviously, the decision to have a journalism major directly affects my livelihood, which may hurt my credibility here a bit.

That being said, I have two thoughts to share: 1) Having a major in journalism is beneficial; 2) Majoring in journalism is not mandatory for success in the field.

A journalism major teaches students several practical techniques for journalism work (AP style, inverted pyramid, interviewing, etc.) that could be – and often are – refined on the job. But good journalism programs do more than just impart basic reporting/writing knowledge: they get aspiring journalists excited and passionate about the field in a way that no other major can.

I have been a student and/or teacher in journalism programs at four different universities. The takeaway for me – aside from a wealth of skills learned and applied throughout my career – was the cultivation of a hunger for journalism born out of working with professional journalists-turned-educators. Had I majored in anything else, I probably would not have caught the journalism bug, and I never would have set foot in the newsroom.

That is what it took for me, but it doesn’t work that way for everyone. I know a number of very talented journalists from a wide range of majors, from English (a natural fit) to biology (a not-so-obvious path). If you read newspapers and are a natural writer with an unusually inquisitive nature, any path might lead you to a lifetime of chasing stories. But those people are the exception rather than the rule.

Journalism schools teach a range of skills applicable for so many professions, including the ability to relate to others, gather and act as a liaison of information, develop an eye for details and exercise a healthy level of skepticism and, most importantly, WRITE (which, I’m sorry, not everyone does or can do).

With so much to offer, who would want to major in anything else? (That’s called a “kicker” – learned that in J-school!)

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Facebook for journalists

Poynter’s News U will conduct a Webinar on May 16 teaching journalists how to use Facebook as a reporting and promotional tool.

Participants will learn:
  • How to using Facebook Search to track sources
  • How to use Pages and Profiles for distribution
  • Facebook Do’s and Don’ts
  • Innovative storytelling techniques for social media

Facebook has changed a lot of traditional rules for source/journalist and reader/journalists relationships. We have been able to hide behind a black-on-white byline for so long. Now, we are encouraged – often required – to step out into the spotlight and build a persona that will encourage readers and sources to know and trust us.

Many journalists create a Facebook handle separate from their personal profiles for the purposes of promoting their stories and, on too-rare occasions, connecting with sources. The idea is great, but the execution is often flawed.

At my former paper, the Naples Daily News, reporters are encouraged to use a Facebook handle with their name and NDN to create a persona and connect with the audience. Yet, most of the pages have not been updated in months, and those that have typically only contain promos for the reporter’s own stories.

I’m not picking on my colleagues here. They are very talented and VERY busy. I am using them as an example – a small sample set – of what I have seen among journalists throughout newspapers. We just are not warming up to the idea of breaking down the walls and changing our methods.

I’m hoping to participate in the Poynter Webinar and report back to you some nuggets of knowledge and ideas gained. Meanwhile, if you have ideas of your own for using Facebook as a journalist, please share!

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Getting students’ attention in the classroom

I received a very nice note today from a fellow professor today about my article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Reclaiming the Classroom With Old-Fashioned Teaching.”

In the note, he mentioned some of his “old-school” techniques for keeping students focused — dropping a book on the desk, waving his arms and, yes, even dancing. I certainly applaud his ambition and sympathize, as many of us dealing with college-age students can.

I found this article by Brenda M. Davis in Faculty Focus urging instructors to appeal to students’ senses. In essence, find a way to embrace the distractions and build on them for a learning experience. It got me thinking… (dangerous, I know.)

My students have access to computers at their seats, and I allow them to use them for note-taking. While they do take notes (I have seen them), they are also checking their email, Facebook, Twitter and any number of other distracting sites. In lieu of the constant verbal reminders I issue during class to stay on-task, perhaps I could embrace their need to click and type in a way that benefits us all.

My initial thought is to have them begin each class in small groups, searching for online articles that mirror topics or techniques we will discuss in class that day to stimulate a discussion. Or perhaps I could have them scour their own social media pages for articles being posted by their friends so we can discuss what items they are reading.

Do you have any suggestions? I am all ears!


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Blogging in the classroom

West Virginia University’s Bob Britten published a great piece in The Convergence Newsletter this month about teaching students to blog as journalists.

“The tool is not the thing; one can use a hammer to build a church or a brothel.”

In the article, Britten details the steps he takes to get students blogging like journalists, but I think the most important is this: Write regularly on a focused subject.

Students in my Introduction to Journalism and Public Relations class are working on their final projects right now: produce either a journalistic or PR blog. The PR students are restricted to choosingone on-campus organization to “work for,” promoting its events and goals of driving up membership, participants, funds or whatever.

For journalism students, the task is more daunting but (I think) a lot more fun. Students are to select a “beat” on which they will report and write, which could encompass any number of organizations and events.

While many of the posts are formatted like shorter versions of news articles (with a quote, a lede and a kicker), I encourage them to go beyond traditional borders to include information that either embraces multimedia techniques (such as videos or photo slide shows to illustrate a story) or interactive techniques that engage their audience by proposing questions or posting polls.

Students in my Communicating on the Web class are granted extra credit for getting 25 or more followers by the end of the semester. They think they are cheating by posting requests for followers on their Facebook pages or asking friends or family to “like” the blog.

But I ask you, how did you come across this post?


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Reclaiming the classroom

For educators everywhere, keeping students who have access to computers in the classroom offline and on-task is a challenge.

Please check out my article about keeping students tuned in during class in the Chronicle of Higher Education this month.


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Welcome to The Feature Lede

Thank you for taking the time to check out my new journalism blog, The Feature Lede.

My name is Jennifer Brannock Cox, and I am a recovering newspaper journalist on a journey into academia to help educate the next batch of aspiring reporters get excited about this turbulent, stressful, thankless, wonderful job.

I plan on updating the site regularly with posts regarding both the field of journalism and journalism education in hopes of cultivating a conversation between those in the field and students aspiring to work alongside them.

Please visit the About Me and About The Feature Lede pages for more information. Also, I would love your feedback, suggestions for future posts, and questions, so feel free to comment any time and follow me on Twitter at jencox416.

Best wishes, Jennifer Brannock Cox

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