Making the Grade

It ain’t rocket science.

But a few friends — BUSINESS WEEK veterans Rob Hof, Rick Melcher, Bill Symonds and Lauren Young — graciously helped to keep me and my students flying this past semester. They provided reality-checks on one of the toughest chores a journalism teacher faces — grading.

Grading is a knotty affair. What’s the difference between an A- and a B+ piece of work? More to the point, does anybody give a C in these painfully grade-inflated days? One student came to me all wide-eyed and indignant saying she had never gotten a B+ before, wondering why I would do such a terrible thing to her (turned out she was not telling the truth, as another prof advised me).

The problem is that judging journalistic work, like any piece of writing or creative effort, is subjective. A friend used to say there are three things no man can to do to another’s satisfaction: poke a fire, make love to a woman, and edit a newspaper. With rockets, they go up or they don’t. With journalism, the measures are less tangible.

So, we at Nebraska ask outside colleagues to evaluate samples of student work. Sometimes, the real-world folks agree with our judgments. Often, they don’t. In either case, it’s good for us and the students. For me, the outside comments have been a bracing slap in the face, a helpful sense of how smart readers and editors will treat the student work. (The outsiders review the work samples after we have graded the papers, after the course is over and the student grades are in. The reviews serve chiefly to keep my perspective straight.)

A few pieces I graded highly came in for some helpful heat. One, about the rise of homelessness among families in Lincoln, Neb., buried the nut graf atop page four, Rick Melcher said. And he complained that the story “loses focus” despite the “great, moving examples.” He rated it only satisfactory in reflecting news judgment and use of interviewing skills and said the
writing needed improvement.

Interestingly, Bill Symonds agreed that the piece would “benefit from a good editor.” He said the writing “needs to be cleaned up.” But Bill rated the news judgment as outstanding and gave satisfactory ratings on interviewing and writing. His summary: “I liked this story a lot.” He said it was “well-researched and generally well-written.”

So, even the outsiders will often view things differently. Smartly, it turns out, but differently.

Like the others, Rob Hof warned that he was using BUSINESS WEEK standards to judge the undergrad work, fretting that he may have been overly critical. But high standards — real-world standards — are just what I wanted. One of the problems in academics is we lose touch with what the field demands. Euphoric at what seems like good work compared to some really poor stuff, we give A grades to pieces that in the outside world may be mediocre.

Rob was tough on a piece that compared recruitment of athletes with recruitment of grad students. He said it needed improvement in news judgment and focus, as well as writing. He rated it satisfactory on interviewing and research skills. “Overall, the issue of academics vs. sports in universities seems a little tired, and the arguments presented by the academics seemed especially old and not very sophisticated.” Ouch!

Lauren Young, too, took a strict line on a news story about a controversial downtown development effort. She gave satisfactory ratings on news judgment and interviewing skills, but said the writing needed improvement. “Everything is in the piece, but the articles needs stronger, more active language to sing,” she said.

A couple other colleagues are still mulling the student work. I’m eager to see what they have to say.

These outside judgments, which at first struck me as a strange and repetitive thing to pursue, are hugely helpful. If nothing else, they’ll stiffen my spine to give out more Cs when appropriate. It’s better that students know what the world would really think, even if that means awkward conversation with those who’ve never earned anything less than an A.

My thanks to those who helped out, and I hope I can call on you again.

JW

Journalism School?

For years, journalism school for undergrads seemed like a bad idea to me. Better to study English or History, if you were inclined toward the liberal arts, or Science or Business, if your rod bent that way. Journalism, after all, is a trade, not a discipline with a body of content, it seemed. You could pick up any needed skills by working on the school paper or, if you wanted the union card, by going to grad school in journalism at Columbia or Missouri or somesuch.

Now, with jobs in media disappearing by the thousands, the arguments against J-School are taking on a new force. Some critics even say it’s immoral that we teach students journalism when the field is shriveling. There will be no jobs for our grads, they say. A lawyer friend argues that J-School teachers ought to be sued for their perfidy (of course, as a lawyer he would say that).

After four months of teaching at Nebraska, however, it’s clear to me that J-School is every bit as worthwhile as any other academic pursuit and more useful than many. First, there is the content. I teach magazine-writing, for instance. Writing for mags is a particular skill that demands the ability to report thoroughly, using interviewing and documentary research techniques, as well as a talent for structuring a piece well. Do History instructors or even English teachers school students in how to develop ledes, nut grafs and kickers? None I ever had did so. Students who master such abilities will have an edge.

Then there are crucial writing elements that one learns only by repeated practice and through criticism. Focus, for instance. In each of my three classes, I’ve seen that students struggle to focus their writing. What is this story about? How can they boil it down to a nut graf that is both on point and moves the reader along? When I and other students edit the work, and discuss it in class, these budding writers learn just what focus means. It is through the criticism/self-criticism approach that they see what they need to do to put a piece on target, to nail down the dramatic tension.

Other disciplines rarely dwell on such writing skills. And they are useful whether students wind up in journalism or not. Must a lawyer focus and write clearly? Do physicians need to know how to identify problems and investigate alternatives to solve them? If we, by teaching sound writing skills, can help students think broadly and question thoroughly, are we not preparing them for just about any field? Is not journalism as useful a pursuit in school as English? (Indeed, since students are limited to a modest percentage of journalism classes and must take many outside the college, they do get rich exposure to other fields.)

“So is journalism school practical or just a nice bit of training for other things?” Well, it’s both. Despite the old-media meltdown, we see continuing demand for interns by news organizations. They show up to recruit our students on campus. They need the talent, especially young talent hip to the Net. Yes, jobs are disappearing in this transition to the new media, but others are being created. Our students are being recruited for them.

This raises another point. One of the skills we are teaching is multi-media journalism. We pair print and broadcast veterans to team-teach a major required course aimed at the delivery of news by the Net. I help my students write in the “light, tight and right” style needed on the Net. My broadcast partner teaches them how to do video and slide-shows to accompany the print pieces. They learn how to post material on a web site — NewsNetNebraska.org — as well as how to operate cameras, organize video and written presentations and appear on camera. They develop smart, technically competent pieces that new media demands.

Talk about skills. I have learned an enormous amount about such multi-media presentations in the last few months. These skills were simply not taught until the Net required them. The old-media outfits now demand such skills and rarely teach them to their old hands. Our kids will be experts in these needed skills.

There is still more content that our students get that is tough to come by in other fields. For instance, a colleague teaches science-writing. Students learn how to cover disparate fields, from medicine to alternative energy. They learn how to question sources well enough to develop a point of view on complex issues, how not to be intimidated by arcane areas that use their own peculiar lingo. Next year, I’ll teach a new course in business and economic journalism which similarly will equip students to write about how the economy and corporations function.

Could students get such skills by studying Science or Business? Yes, but they would also move into the weeds in such fields in ways that might be less useful to them. They will need some accounting, for instance, but may not need as much as the B-School provides. And if they focus on, say, biology, will they develop skills useful for other scientific fields? It won’t hurt them to study such things, of course, but with a more applied journalistic approach, they’ll get the broad sweep.

So, is journalism school worthwhile? As you can tell, I’m now sold on it. Indeed, as the media world changes, smart journalism education that changes with it will prove more necessary than ever. Times of tumult yield opportunities for those quick enough to grab for them. Our goal is to help our students see those openings and be ready to pursue them.