In Digital Age, Social Media Impacts College Journalism

As journalism programs at colleges begin emphasizing the online and broadcast elements of news, they're also incorporating social media into their curricula and encouraging students to maintain an online presence.
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The evidence of a digital revolution in journalism is only mounting: Newsweek has moved from print to completely online after 80 years of publication, and Internet news sources like The Huffington Post and Patch are rising in popularity.

But social media is increasingly becoming an integral component of the news, too. "Liking" media outlets on Facebook or following them on Twitter are modern ways of staying up-to-date on current events, as news organizations seek to drive traffic to their websites and provide instantaneous updates to their readers.

As journalism programs at colleges across the nation begin emphasizing the online and broadcast elements of news, they're also incorporating social media into their curricula and encouraging students to maintain an online presence. A new generation of journalists is emerging, and this time, writing isn't their only specialty.

Robert Quigley, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Journalism who focuses on new media, told me in an interview: "It's important for students to be on top of this because the media industry has embraced it... Students who are comfortable with using social media in a journalistic way have a serious leg up."

In a digital media class I took last year, we were required to create a Twitter account and "live Tweet" an on-campus event. And, the professor had us maintain a WordPress blog for two weeks on a topic of our choice. Several media organizations, including the New York Times, also offer internships exclusively in social media.

Why journalists need social media skills

In the present day, news organizations look for potential reporters who can go beyond merely "making phone calls, writing a story and going home," Lewis DVorkin, an expert in digital journalism and social media and a Forbes Media chief product officer, notes in an online article.

Shayla Thiel-Stern, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says journalists engage in social media to conduct research and develop story ideas. You can also use social media to promote your own articles, she says, but you should be cautious in doing so.

"There's often a negotiation happening when they do; if a story is not verified with reliable sources, should they break it on social media, for example?" Thiel-Stern says. "This is really a difficult question in cases where people on Twitter are spreading rumors about an event or occurrence but the journalist is unable to verify the story."

Regardless, social media enables you to join the conversations that news stories generate. It's a way of delivering the news quickly and directly, facilitating the process by which you gather information about the world around you.

Building (and maintaining) an online presence

Given the prevalence of social media in journalism, such skills are vital if you're pursuing a job in the field. "[Social media] is great self-marketing," Quigley says. "Students can construct a public persona that screams, 'solid journalist.'"

My own professors have suggested building a personal website using a site like WordPress for your online portfolio. They've told my classmates and me that it doesn't have to be fancy -- just organized, easy to navigate and to-the-point.

"Journalists always have had to have a portfolio in order to land a job," Thiel-Stern says. "Why not convert the regular portfolio to a digital portfolio?"

In addition to an online portfolio, though, many experts highly recommend maintaining an active social media presence in general -- one that will enable you to drive viewers to your own work, while gaining access to and communicating with editors and reporters.

Upholding professionalism, nonetheless, is key, as Thiel-Stern cautions against leaving a "damaging digital footprint."

But Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram aren't the only ways to get your name out there: blogging, especially about your personal interests, is another way to impress an employer, Thiel-Stern says.

"The Internet has made the field far more egalitarian today," Lynn O'Shaughnessy, a higher-education journalist, speaker and consultant, writes in a U.S. News article. "You can become an expert on anything."

In the classroom

The ubiquitous nature of social media has made its way into the college classroom. Quigley, for example, has been teaching Social Media Journalism, an online course for UTexas students, since the summer. Many students are comfortable using social media, Quigley says, but rarely know how to utilize it to "promote journalistic content, engage with an audience or find sources."

Thiel-Stern says many courses at Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication incorporate social media into both the curriculum and the way classes are taught. In her New Media and Culture class, students explore social media's impact on society, and use Twitter during and outside class to "continue the conversation [and] share relevant links and comments with each other and ask questions."

Given social media's debut in the past decade, some schools, like Newberry College, are offering degree programs in social media. It's not an exclusively journalism program but will also integrate courses in graphic design, business, psychology and statistics.

That being said, social media in the classroom is, of course, not limited solely to journalism. In fact, in two of my classes this semester, professors have created Twitter accounts to post course material and answer students' questions.

For the student pursuing journalism -- along with several other fields -- social media is everywhere, from your own computer to the classroom and job applications.

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