I’m on the verge of recommending that our journalism program get out of the newspaper business.

(This is not an anti-print rant, nor does it mean I’m one of those who sees no future for print. What drives this isn’t a matter of platform, it’s thinking about how best to teach skills.)

Our print issue has long been the place where developing skills came together and were practically applied. Students learned about writing to deadline, regularly producing publishable copy, quickly working through the process of finding and focussing the story, doing the research and getting it written. They brought the skills from photo-j classes into the near-real world to produce effective images. They had a chance to experiment with storytelling. And they learned design and layout considerations and skills to bring it all together.

As we’ve added more and more multimedia storytelling skills, the role of print has changed. We’ve gone from an issue a week to an issue every three. We’ve changed from a mix of news and features to themed issues, some serious (Canada at war), some a less so (Cheap Stuff for Students).

We’ve been using our online edition to give students the practical experience of getting the story, quickly (and right), and getting it published, while the print edition gives them time to develop deeper, longer stories. They generate story ideas within the framework of a theme, helping with that most difficult of all questions that a lot of j-students wrestle with — what should I write about?

But here’s what I’m thinking: all of the skills that end in the production of a print newspaper can also be taught in a process that ends with online publication, with smart assigning. All except, that is, the skill that relates directly to the production of a newspaper — actually producing the pages.

(Teaching that came out of our roots as a trades school, and the old-time reality that most of our students were headed for community newspapers, which was the first stepping stone for a career in journalism for our diploma-wielding grads. Both have changed. A short-term seminar course could take care of inDesign skills.)

Near-real world experiences can as easily end online as in print; we are talking about the same basic journalism skills, regardless of platform. The emphasis needs to be firmly placed on the doing of the journalism, not which button gets pushed to spread the results.

One of the big problems, as I see it, with dual print and online publications is that students’ focus is split between what they have to do for each. Providing a single focus on the process of creating good journalism, and not the publishing of it, is where we really need to be. The “applied skill” should be the piece of journalism, not where it lives.

Some things to consider:

  • Killing print would require some thoughtful assigning, to ensure students continue to develop the full range of written (as well as multimedia) storytelling skills, whether it’s producing perfect pithy briefs, fast-out-of-the-chute news coverage, or layered, nuanced and deep features.
  • If themes are important for making students see how individual pieces can add up to a greater whole — and I think they are —, we could still set themes and require students to occasionally produce material on those throughout the semester, producing packages that evolve and grow, and develop the habit of continually monitoring areas of interest.
  • We would need to continue to teach the importance, and strength, of print as a medium.

(Note: Students who wanted it, could still get a print experience through volunteer, and some paid, work with the recently launched student newspaper, which is financed by the student association.)

As I wrote, I’m on the verge of making the recommendation. Writing this post serves two purposes: one, it helped me tease out the original thought a little more, and, two, I can now throw this out there so that others can react and point to aspects of this I may be missing.

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