Journalism students still read newspapers — sort of

At the start of each semester, I ask students in my editing classes at UNC-Chapel Hill how they get their news. It’s a good way to start a conversation about the state of the news media and where editing fits in.

This semester, that conversation took place shortly after this report mentioned that newspaper readership is down among journalism students. With that in mind, I wondered whether my students’ responses would reflect that finding.

Well, yes and no. As we went around the room, student after student mentioned familiar names: The New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today. A few of them mentioned The News & Observer or their hometown newspapers.

But these students were referring to the websites, Twitter feeds and apps of these news organizations, not the print editions. The only print publication that got a lot of mentions was The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper. (It probably helps that the DTH is free, readily available and publishes a crossword puzzle.)

So journalism students, at least in my classes, are still reading newspapers. They’re just reading them in digital form.

What I am teaching this semester

The fall semester at UNC-Chapel Hill begins in late summer, on Aug. 20. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks revising my syllabuses* and other materials. Here’s what I am teaching this semester:

Two sections of JOMC 157, News Editing. This undergraduate course focuses on story editing, caption writing and headline writing for print and digital media, with a dash of social media. Each section has 16 students; the class meets twice a week in a computer lab in three-hour segments. Here is the syllabus for the course along with a handout on noteworthy names in the news.

One section of JOMC 711, Writing for Digital Media. This graduate-level course focuses on different types of online writing, including blogging, digital headlines and social media. It has 22 students, and it meets all the time online. Here is the syllabus for the course, and you can learn more about the certificate program that it is a part of.

Feel to free to adapt, revise or ignore the materials here. You can also browse syllabuses from across the journalism school here, and don’t forget the syllabus exchange at Poynter’s NewsUniversity.

* I follow the Associated Press stylebook on this plural word, but if you like “syllabi,” it won’t bother me.

Editing and public relations

For the most part, editing courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I teach, are populated with students with a news focus. It’s rare that a student in public relations, advertising or broadcast enrolls in my classes.

That’s not to say, however, that editing isn’t relevant to public relations. It is. Indeed, PR requires writers and editors to do what their counterparts in news do: Put the right words in the right order.*

Here are two recent examples of where editing and public relations intersected:

  • Last month, I led a workshop on headline writing at the Raleigh offices of Gibbs & Soell, a business communications company. Besides the usual challenges of writing headlines for print and digital media, PR people also have to navigate the demands of their clients, some of whom want particular wording.
  • This week, the News & Observer reported that UNC spent more than $500,000 on PR consulting as the university dealt with an academic scandal. One of the PR tasks: revise a letter to the editor written by an athletics department spokesman.

In each instance, editing played a key role in getting the job done. It is, as John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun wrote recently, a portable skill. As lines blur between news and public relations and more people move between the disciplines, it’s important to understand that editing encompasses them both.

* Hat tip to Henry Fuhrmann of the Los Angeles Times for this summary of what we do. I quote him often.

Let’s have breakfast in Washington, D.C.

The Breakfast of Editing Champions returns to the AEJMC national conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Aug. 9. I’m the organizer and moderator for the event, succeeding the wonderful Deborah Gump in that role.

The breakfast, which will begin at 8:15 a.m., is open to anyone who teaches editing, appreciates editing or just likes to hang out with editing professors. That should be pretty much everyone, right?

This year, Howard Finberg of The Poynter Institute will be the breakfast’s featured speaker. Finberg has been leading a conversation on the future of journalism education, and he will offer his thoughts on how editing (in all facets) plays into that future. Is online education here to stay? Can AP style be taught as a MOOC? Should it be?

Another highlight of the breakfasts has been the Teaching Idea Exchange, in which we swap assignments and strategies. Jill Van Wyke of Drake University will again handle the exchange this year, so send your best teaching idea or tip to her at by Wednesday, July 31. Send her a few paragraphs on your idea and be ready to discuss it for a minute or two at the breakfast.

Coffee and tea will be provided, and perhaps donuts and bagels. The breakfast is free, but please RSVP by signing up using this online form. The deadline is Monday, Aug. 5.

Special thanks to the sponsors of this year’s breakfast:

See you in Washington!

UPDATE: Breakfast is over, and it was satisfying and nutritious. If you couldn’t be there, you can see what you missed, and you can read about Howard Finberg’s thoughts on the urgent need to change journalism education. Thanks to everyone who attended, and I hope to see everyone at next year’s conference in Montreal.

Editing your life’s story

The journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill held its commencement Sunday. This is a smaller ceremony that takes place shortly after the universitywide commencement.

This year’s speaker, Ken Lowe of Scripps Networks Interactive, concluded his remarks to the journalism school’s graduates with this observation:

You’re well prepared for the future, which is really about taking lots of facts, lots of information, lots of details, and editing them down to precise, usable and focused takeaways of information and, yes, stories. The world, in my opinion, belongs to you, the editors of our future.

When you think about it, just about everything in life is edited, isn’t it? This program today is edited. This building was edited. The streets on which you came over today were edited. The menu where you ate lunch today was edited.

Curation and the ability to take complex and sometimes difficult information and get it down to something that people can understand is very powerful. You have that in your hands.

It is a message to remember. Even in an age where copy desks are being cut and consolidated, editing is still an essential part of communication and, indeed, life.

Thank you, Ken, for your wise words, and good luck to journalism graduates across the country.

Why course evaluations matter

Earlier today, I received an email attachment containing my student evaluations for the spring semester.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, students are asked to evaluate their courses using an online form. I was happy to see that most of mine had taken the time to provide feedback.

Course evaluations are useful. Here’s why.

To the instructor: I read the evaluations carefully, taking time not only to see how students ranked various aspects of a course, but also looking for comments that can help me teach a course better the next time around. Over the years, I have adjusted readings and assignments based on student feedback.

To the department and university: Course evaluations play an important role in decisions regarding tenure and promotion. They are the primary method for assessing a professor’s effectiveness in the classroom. At UNC, tenured professors are reviewed every five years on teaching, research and service. Again, the student evaluations are essential.

Thanks to the students this semester for their kind words and constructive criticism. I’ll consider your suggestions.

I cannot, however, honor your most frequent request: Eliminate 8 a.m. classes. You’ll have to take that idea to the chancellor.

My son: mad man in the making?

My son, a seventh-grader at a Raleigh middle school, worked on an assignment this weekend in which he created an advertisement. It was part of a unit on persuasive writing and propaganda.

Students could pick any product or service, real or fictional. The assignment asked them to identify a target audience, pick a medium and write a message that would sell the good or service. Other tips: use a celebrity endorsement and use the bandwagon appeal.

My son used Xtranormal to create this ad for a personal hygiene product. I find it to be highly effective spot, and I am glad that he’s learning about advertising techniques so he will be a savvy consumer.

Who knows? Perhaps my son will grow up to be a “mad man” of the 21st century — or even better, the next Darrin Stephens.

Is there still a place for print media in an editing course?

In my Advanced Editing class, I take a day at the end of the semester for a debriefing. We look back on our work on the Carrboro Commons and Durham VOICE websites as well as other assignments and discussions. It’s a chance for the students and me to talk, in an informal setting, about what they did and didn’t like about the course.

For the third consecutive year, I asked the students this week whether I should eliminate the portion of the course that focuses on print media and go exclusively digital. And for another year, the answer was a resounding no. The students said they valued the experience of editing, writing headlines and designing pages using InDesign and InCopy. After all, there are still jobs that require those skills.

Over the years, I have incrementally updated the syllabus to include more online editing. This semester, students used Storify for several assignments and wrote and edited posts for Triangle Wiki, a regional version of Wikipedia. (They said they especially enjoyed that assignment.) And each student wrote a guest post for this blog.

I’ll teach Advanced Editing again in spring 2014. Between now and then, I will think about how to add digital content while maintaining the print portion of the course. I’m open to suggestions.

Escalation and journalism education

David Carr of The New York Times made headlines last week when he wrote that most journalism schools are “escalators to nowhere.” It’s a catchy metaphor that bounced around on Facebook and Twitter for several days.

But overlooked in that chatter is another sentence in Carr’s article: “Even in a shrinking industry, journalism schools may become more important — becoming sources of actual journalism and not just pedagogy.”

Many journalism schools already are doing that, of course, and have been for many years. The University of Missouri publishes the Missourian in print and online. The University of South Carolina has The Carolina Reporter.

Here at UNC-Chapel Hill, students in two courses, Community Journalism and Advanced Editing, work on the Durham VOICE and Carrboro Commons websites. The Reese News Lab is reporting on science and technology and North Carolina politics while exploring the journalistic possibilities of tablets and smartphones.

And yes, journalism students are still getting hired, even in this difficult period for our profession. At UNC, more than 80 percent of the class of 2012 got jobs after graduation.

Pedagogy and “actual journalism” go hand in hand. When they work well together, journalism education still matters, and it will for as long as people want news and information.

UPDATE: In December 2013, Boston University announced that Carr will teach a journalism course there while continuing to work for The New York Times. Welcome to academia, David!

When guests visit your class

My colleague Chris Roush has an excellent column in the latest AEJMC newsletter. The topic is guest speakers, and he offers great tips about making their visits meaningful to students.

Like Roush, I invite guest speakers to visit my class on occasion. They provide a break from the routines of lectures and assignments, and they offer expertise on topics that are not my strong suits. Both my students and I learn a lot from them.

For example, in recent years, students in Advanced Editing have expressed interest in careers in book publishing, academia and the corporate world. As an editor with a background in news, I cannot speak from experience about what it’s like to be an editor in those situations.

That’s why I recently asked three editors to visit my class:

Rather than have each person to do a formal presentation, I served as lead interviewer, asking each guest questions about her job. Then I asked the students to ask questions and make comments. In my experience, this informal format works well, putting everyone at ease and encouraging conversation between students and visitors to the class.

I also like taking guest speakers to lunch on the day of their visits. It’s a sign of gratitude for their time and effort, and the conversation there can lead to ideas for the discussion in class. And who knows? Maybe you’ll make some new friends, as I have.