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Required learning for journalism students reporting the law

March 25, 2007

On the heals of posts by Dave Winer and Robert Scoble, David Berlind Larry Dignan, who’s covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, shares what he advised Columbia University’s Journalism school alumni representatives a few weeks ago. They had asked what journalism schools should be teaching in light of the rapid changes in the journalism industry and declining newspaper revenues.

I have a strong interest in journalist grads. First, LexBlog serves lawyers as citizen journalists. Second, LexBlog serves the public at large by bringing deep, practical, and insightful legal information and commentary to the masses. We’re at stage one (empowering lawyers who are blogging) but I see within LexBlog’s mission the ‘publishing’ of legal content produced by lawyers. And third, our oldest son is a journalism student (though his goal is online sports journalism).

Berlind’s Dignan’s words of wisdom:

  • Learn entrepreneurship. I can’t emphasis that point enough. Everyone at Columbia worships the New York Times. Greatest paper blah blah blah. Many students point to the Times as their ideal destination. The rub: Few will get there and once they get there they are mired in a declining business model. If they stick, it’s likely they’ll get canned at 55 for cheaper talent. Talk about a let down. Most journalists will ultimately wind up working for themselves. Why not teach them how? Why can’t journalism schools offer seed money to content startups? A journalist with expertise in a specific field could start a niche blog and sell ads. The reason most journalism students are still thinking newspapers and traditional media outlets is that they haven’t been encouraged to think bigger.
  • Embed online tools throughout the curriculum. Columbia has been pretty good about this. I was in the inaugural new media class there-in 1995. The class focused on the toys more than the reporting-we had to edit stories in Unix-but it was a big advantage at graduation. So Scoble’s argument that no journalists are being trained for online is complete bunk. However, most schools still segment folks-magazine focus, TV focus, newspapers etc. All of those specialties should be infused with online learning.
  • Get real pros to teach you. Scoble sounded shocked that journalism schools aren’t running to embrace the online world. I’m not. Why? Many J-school profs are way removed from reality. Even worse many of them haven’t been real journalists in a while-ask them to write a story in 5 minutes with frequent updates and they’d crack. Meanwhile, these profs have tenure-which means there’s no reason to move quickly anyway. …If more real journalists were teaching journalism perhaps they could warn students about the print train wreck.
  • Remember the basics. As we ponder the next frontier (blogs, Twitter et al) real reporting still matters. Talking to real humans is important. Interviewing techniques matter. Court documents matter. Police ride-alongs matter. All of those skills play nicely in the online world as a way to stand out. And let’s not hope all newspapers go away-that’s where you still learn the best reporting skills.

By the way, if you’re a journalism or law student looking for a job where you’ll learn online publishing, including the effective use of user generated content, drop me an email. LexBlog’s going to be looking in the near future.

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