Journalism Plus: There is a future for journalism at CU-Boulder after all

I'm three weeks an intern for Westword, and with each day, I'm made more aware of the strengths (and the pitfalls) of my journalism education at CU-Boulder. Nothing scares me more than joining my older brother in his misery caused by the mania surrounding this economic downturn. "Good luck finding a job. Your generation has it bad-d-d-d," they tell me -- a fair warning prior to my upcoming graduation from a program that's transitioning from journalism to "Journalism Plus."

Splat! On the paper, the jaded sentences couldn't closet the writer's frustration. Blocked. The words weren't there, but the facts certainly were. Her Evidence Notebook containing scribbles of direct quotes; her iPhone recording app mimicking the exact tone of her interviewee; the flashbacks bound in her memory, reminding her of the scene; and the source's contact information for factual clarification.

It was all there. But, somehow, her ability to properly translate what she saw -- from sense experience, filtered through the mind and the fingers, onto the keyboard and then, finally, to the brightly lit screen of the Word document -- was teetering on deprivation. Something was missing: A variable of her college education, perhaps?

As you may have heard (and if you haven't, check out the future of journalism at CU), Journalism and Mass Communication (JMC) as a school -- not as an academic major -- at CU was discontinued for reasons mentioned in the above link. To put it simply: Times are changing, globalization is here (duh) and CU administrators are finally taking notice of the JMC's outdated existence. The JMC's home, the Armory, sadly emits an aura similar to that archaic, downtrodden rug you'd find collecting dust in your attic, trampled by the feats of globalization (like many newspapers today).

According to a timeline tracking the program's landmark renovations, the JMC was founded in 1909 and has since been remodeled many times over to keep up with a dynamic news industry. Its most recent makeover: Journalism Plus.

CU administrators continually reassure prospective students that this new program is at the forefront of media today. Journalism Plus will produce a highly qualified wave of journalists ready to compete in a brute workforce, they say. In addition to the basic technical skills necessary of a journalist (provided by the old JMC), Journalism Plus students will obtain an additional area of study in an effort to generate a more creative and critical journalist who is knowledgeable about the topic he or she is reporting on -- traits the old curriculum severely lacked, a curriculum I was subject to.

One of my Westword mentors, Andy Van De Voorde, advised me to write about what I know. Too many times interns try to tackle issues they aren't familiar with, he says -- and like my intern predecessors, I've had the hopeless task of reporting on unfamiliar topics. On my first day in the office, my editor assigned me to attend a Democratic Party press conference. Right away, I was welcomed by the sheer magnitude of my naïveté. In my first blog post for Westword, readers expressed their outrage. One reader called my post propaganda, a valid point. "I live in Denver. I don't feel threatened by the thought of fewer illegal immigrants," one wrote. "Of course the word 'illegal' was left out of this headline, thus it's propaganda."

That anecdote pertains to a problem Journalism Plus is designed to avoid: journalists as presumed experts, yet completely oblivious to the topics they're reporting on.

The new program requires students entering the journalism school to obtain an additional course of study -- an expertise -- in a liberal arts discipline (like history, political science, international affairs, economics, environmental studies). Although adding an additional area of study, students can still complete the degree in a four-year period. The new program calls for only 120 credit hours (an "almost" dual degree), rather than the 145-150 credit hours required by an actual dual degree.

CU's director of journalism Christopher Braider explains the logic behind the formulae of Journalism Plus. "On the one hand, it ensures that all of our students are trained not only in what they need to know to practice as communicators," he says. "The other side is, we want you to be grounded in the world you'll be communicating about."

Yes, a little background knowledge involving, say, political science would've been extremely beneficial during my first go at covering political press conference.

Page down for more details about CU-Boulder's Journalism Plus program: Now let me address the creative, critical aspect of journalism. In the constantly changing journalism industry, it's crucial to understand a modern audience -- what people read, the style of writing they prefer and expect, what topics interest them. In an age when readers have the choice to turn to personal websites for news, the field of journalism constantly calls for new, creative ways of targeting an audience. From pitching story ideas, to describing the scene of at Occupy protest, journalists must always be creative and critical in the way they report.

Braider brought to my attention the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which assesses three dimensions of learning across all majors: critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication. "It pointed out that they (communications majors) tended on the whole to get less training" than traditional liberal arts majors "in critical thinking and creative arts," he said, adding, "We're hoping a liberal arts major along with journalism will give you more of the critical and creative training."

Mr. Braider, I like your thinking. It's probable the old JMC curriculum produced a more monotone, passive body of journalists. I sure felt it. Midway through my third year at CU, I was convinced my journalism classes were sucking the life out of me. And I had a breakdown: Uh oh, I think I'm in the wrong major. This isn't what I signed up for. Hello, R-o-b-o-t Kylie. And, ohmygosh, I spent all this money...for what? I should've been an English major. Shit, it's too late to turn back now. Critical thinking? Creativity? Yeah, right.

I used whatever elective credit hours I had left to enroll in creative writing and fiction classes. Not to suggest journalism is fiction -- it's far, far from it. But a study of creative and fiction writing allows for a more critical, and less technical, way of approaching a scenario. I commend those classes for introducing me to voice and humor (typical of 21st century blog-style writing).

CU distinguished JMC alumni and ESPN sportswriter Rick Reilly, who I recently interviewed about his Tim Tebow essay, puts it plainly: "That amazes me, that communications students scored lower on the critical thinking. Every day, that's what you do in this job -- every day. 'Is this bologna? Is this real? Wait, what's really happening here?' 2000 times a day you have to do that." Beyond creativity and critical thinking, Reilly adds that the technical side of journalism is still important. "We need journalists who know how to quote a source, how to double- and triple-check facts, get things spelled write," he says, "because let me tell you, so much of what I see in internet journalism, they don't have the basics. They waste so many words and just throw the story out there on the Internet, waiting for someone to check it."

Although his CU education provided the basics for a career in journalism, Reilly reserves his biggest thanks for his "larger than life" internship supervisor, Dan Creedon from the Boulder Daily Camera. He learned from Creedon -- very necessarily -- the tough way. "Oh-my-god, he was terrifying -- a genius, my mentor. I was scared to death of him," he says with a laugh. "He would throw half-empty Pepsi cans at me. I was so scared, I would wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat."

On a final note: Despite the many rumors, journalism at CU is NOT dead. "I've gotten calls, e-mails, angry visits, you name it," Braider says. "The worry was that there would be no journalism, but that's not the case. It will continue undiminished. And not only undiminished: It's getting better."

And the Journalism Plus program is only the beginning. The Information Communication Journalism Media and Technology (ICJMT) Initiative is in the process of creating a new interdisciplinary college that will engage in the areas of information, journalism, media and technology. "Sometime between now and spring break the committee will file a recommendation for the provost of this new college, the provost will take the recommendation and come up with a plan expected to be published sometime in May," Braider says. "Once that's done, if the regents approve, next year will be devoted to recruiting a new dean for this college."

More from our Media archive: "Christopher Braider, French & Italian prof, on job overseeing CU journalism faculty."

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