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?
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.
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.
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.