What Should Reporters Learn in Journalism School?

There are lots of skills—digital and otherwise—that aspiring writers need.
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This guy is ready to become a pretty serious journalist. (Flickr/puuikibeach)

In a recent piece, I argued that journalism students who want to be writers shouldn’t focus on immersing themselves in things like CSS and JavaScript, as I had tried to do during j-school. For responses, I got everything from “You’re so right!” (from reporters) to “What are you talking about!?” (from interactive and data journalists) to “Wait, why are y’all trying to code exactly?” (from developers who don’t work in journalism).

In the interest of being part of the solution, I thought I’d interview a few of my colleagues here at Atlantic Media who had graduated recently from journalism school to see what they wish they had learned, if not more code.* None of the colleagues I spoke with is a traditional print reporter, but among us, we do the types of writing, editing, and data analysis that many reporterly types aspire to. Here’s what we wish we had learned before becoming journalists:

  • Statistics

It’s remarkable the number of times I’ve wished I knew how to perform a regression analysis. I took some economics and statistics in college, but it was barely mentioned in j-school, even though most journalists have to analyze numbers and determine whether and how to report on them.

Jordan Weissmann, who covers business, agreed:

Really, all stats. [My professors] never really communicated— and honestly, I don't think really understood --  how crucial a firm grasp on math would be to succeeding in certain corners of the business today. You don't necessarily need to be able to do all the math—that's what Excel's for -- but you do need to understand what it basically means. That's far more important than doing man-on-the-street interviews.

And it might even be worth it if you’re planning to cover entertainment. Ashley Fetters told me:

I have an uncle who's pretty sure all journalists should be required to take macroeconomics—so that all these 'bleeding-heart liberal journalists' who just think every cause deserves more money understand where money has to come from. Which is ... on one level, somewhat valid.

  • Data

Data analysis is one of the best ways to find story ideas, especially if you are, like many student reporters, not very well sourced. The course syllabus in the most basic online class in my grad program has changed—I think for the better—since I left. There’s now a data component that includes a section on Google Fusion Tables, which I taught myself in grad school and still use occasionally. (I file this under “not coding,” because it involves plugging a spreadsheet into an existing application, which spits out the embeddable code for you.)

The most valid criticism of my article was that journalists need programming skills to find and scrape data for stories. I did my grad-school data reporting with Excel, but I would actually love to be better acquainted with database platforms like MySQL (which is not mentioned in the more recent syllabus). I am not sure, however, whether MySQL queries are considered “coding.” Is writing formulas in Excel coding?

Easy-to-use online tools designed for non-programmers, such as import.io and Google Scraper, can help you do the scraping necessary for most data projects. But it’s true that messier or harder-to-reach information might require programming languages such as Ruby and Python.

David Yanofsky, a reporter who specializes in data visualization at our sister site, Quartz, explained how he uses data scraping to create stories. He went to design—not journalism—school, but he has good insights for those who want to take the plunge and learn Python or R:

With Python I can scrape information from websites (that's how the wager data from the NFL betting piece last week came about) as well as analyze and calculate complex forms of data like the center of gravity of the worlds airline routes. 

Effectively code has become my reliable, repeatable, and powerful calculator. 

This is especially the case with how I use the language known as R. I used R for every calculation in my story about baseball ticket prices. A couple of times in the process of writing that story I found or the provider of the data found inaccuracies. Since all of my calculations were in script form, when new data came all of the numbers I calculated before could be updated in a matter of seconds.

If I had one or two years of grad school to become an effective reporter, though, I would try to save time by making full use of the ready-made scraping tools geared toward non-programmers, unless I really needed the programming skills for my specific project or story. (In this case, the “everyone needs a little bit of code” argument is flawed, too, since you can’t “little bit” scrape some data.) And in a professional newsroom, I would still leave the creation of the graphic about that data to someone with design training.

  • Studies

It's a pretty safe bet that on any given day, TheAtlantic.com will have a story featuring at least one study. Several of us agreed it would be much easier to evaluate their validity if we had taken a crash-course in experiment design. How big is a big-enough sample size? Which journals have a strong peer-review process? Which findings are significant, and which are garbage?

  • Pitching

Several people brought up the delicate art of pitching freelance stories. Most writers do at least a little freelancing when they’re starting out, but other than "push send and pray," there's usually little strategic training in that realm.

My co-worker Julie Beck, who covers health, wishes she had known how to write a pitch editors would actually consider:

We didn't spend much time on what makes a good pitch (which is probably why not many people in those classes got things published). If I'm being honest, there was a lot of… advice like, ‘you just need to move to New York and support yourself unpaid somehow for three months and do tons of informational interviews and I'm sure you'll find something,’ and not enough advice for those for whom that was not a financial possibility. Having a freelancing-based class, where you actually wrote and sent pitches, would have been really helpful (annoying for the editors getting the pitches, maybe, but still, helpful). Or even just a quick unit within another class.

  • Civic issues

Before Spencer Kornhaber became an entertainment editor, he was a general-assignment reporter, a job he said he would have been better prepared for with some cops-and-courts practice. Here’s his list:

Court docs, cops procedures, more public-record training than I got, an understanding of how government agencies, businesses, and non-profits are organized and what information you can get from them.

  • Online writing

In j-school, your professors are all famous former journalists, and they are great at teaching you how to come up with enterprise story ideas. But a lot of online journalism today sometimes requires coming up with and writing multiple articles a day. It would be great to see seminars on how to look at the Internet for 15 minutes and then come up with a story idea, which you then write in one hour.

And on that note, not everything you see online is originally reported. But it’s not all aggregated, either. Many articles live in this middle ground where largely aggregated posts are enhanced with commentary or context. It would be nice to get some guidelines on how to go about those kinds of smart, quick takes before you’re doing it professionally.

  • The Internet—and why things work the way they do

Robinson Meyer, who covers technology, didn’t go to journalism school, but he has an interesting idea:

J-schools don’t have to cover every base, as not every journalist should attend j-school, and, luckily, not all journalists do. J-schools should get more technologically savvy, but they should do so in the mode of praxis; they should teach the philosophies and strategies that underpin whole categories of technology, not individual tools. (Let us mourn, in this parenthetical, the hundreds of students who learned Flash in 2009.) J-school professors, in search of these strategies, may well find many of them come from the world of code, where individual tools are always changing but certain workflows stick. J-school professors may also find that, to outfit their students with ways to understand the world, they do well to teach them how to comb massive data sets using Excel—or, its meatier cousin, the statistics program R—at which point they will have taught “coding.”

I might add a media history class, stretching from Gutenberg to now, that both conveys the fluidity of the nonfictional, ephemera-producing profession and covers basics like how websites today make money (focusing as much on the IAB standards as on Snowfall). My “ideal journalism school” might even be a liberal arts college, as most journalists are nothing if not rigorous generalists. 

I’d add that it’s increasingly important to understand the psychology of the modern web. What makes a story become popular? What makes people pay attention? Should we care? How do stories flow from a homepage to Facebook to Reddit? These are all things we think about every day, but to have had academic conversations about it before heading to the trenches would have been useful.

***

The last skill has nothing to do with the Internet, and no one can really teach it to you, but it’s important for writers: Resilience. If you want to write, there will be a lot of “no” in your future. You have to have the grit to believe that eventually, you will get a “yes” from someone.

When I look back at my grad-school days, the thing I regret most is not the elephant graveyard of websites I created and saddled with custom jQuery navigation bars. What really makes me cringe is that I was so pessimistic about the future of writing specifically—not all journalism—that it drove me to chase proficiency in nearly every digital tool, just in case.


*Also, a few clarifications and amplifications on the original piece. By “code” I was referring to HTML, CSS, JavaScript/jQuery, and for me, PHP and Flash. Those made up the bulk of the online seminars I encountered in grad school, as well as most of the “online toolkit” independent tutorials for journalists I encountered. I realize that “code” to others means languages like Ruby, Python, or C, but two years ago, those were not offered or even mentioned in my grad program. Second, to reiterate, my advice was targeted toward journalism students who are hoping for a first job in words-on-screen-or-paper reporting. If you are already employed, I see no reason not to try learning new skills. Also, I kind of assumed that everyone in journalism has a basic familiarity with HTML, because it’s um, 2013, and therefore it doesn't need to be taught.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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