Reforming the J-curriculum: beginning at the beginning

  • To really reform a journalism curriculum, you have to begin at the beginning.

The faculty of the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee decided at its first faculty meeting of the semester in January to make some definite moves toward revising our curriculum to recognize the realities of the changing media environment and to prepare our students for those realities.

During the past few years, the UT faculty had done what other faculties have done — lay on a couple of extra courses about web journalism. Some faculty members had made some moves within existing courses (including changing the names of the courses) to include more about the web.

We had even taken a step beyond that in starting a student-operated news web site, the Tennessee Journalist (, that is a central part of the curriculum. The site operates independently from any single course and thus is open to being used by all courses.

All of these were steps in the right direction, but they have not achieved the fundamental changes within the curriculum that we have sought. At our January meeting, we resolved to take a big step (bigger, I think, than even most of our faculty realized) and change JEM 200, the introductory news writing course that is required of all majors and taken by many other students as well.

Because I am the coordinator of all JEM 200 sections, the task of rethinking and re-envisioning the course has fallen to me. We offer 11 sections of the course and enroll about 200 students each semester. The sections are taught by lecturers and graduate teaching assistant and occasionally (though not this semester) by full time professors.

In our new plan for the course, the beginning six weeks of the course have not changed substantially. During those weeks we introduce students to the following topics. (The links here take you to the weekly lecture notes for each of these topics that are posted on

What came next in the old syllabus was two weeks of writing for the web. That has been expanded to four weeks. My draft proposal for how these four weeks will go follows:

Week 7, Feb. 16-20
Writing sections: continue writing in the inverted pyramid form; emphasize efficiency and conciseness. Have the students learn HTML tags with this tutorial and this exercise.
Lecture: Writing for the web I Introduction to the web | The web as a word medium | How readers use the web | Important concepts | Headlines and summaries.

Week 8: Feb. 22-26
Writing sections: Write short (no more than 200 words) but information-packed stories; introduce and practice with writing headlines and summaries using the tutorials and exercises. Assign the preview story reporting/writing assignment that will be due for next week.
Lecture: Writing for the Web II The Tennessee Journalist | Important concepts (continued) | Technology | Writing for the web – the basics | Headlines.

Week 9: March 2-6
Writing sections: Reporting assignment (preview story) due on the first section meeting; upload that assignment to the TNJN server. Practice uploading pictures and writing cutlines as well as sidebar material if possible. Look for live stories on the Tennessee Journalist to show as examples for sidebar material. Pay particular attention to the “related links” function of TNJN and have students find appropriate links for their stories.
Lecture: Writing for the Web III Inverted pyramid | Visual variety | Lists | Summaries | Microcontent | Links

Week 10: March 9-13
Writing sections: Writing assignments should include writing headlines and summaries, creating links and lists, and taking pictures and writing cutlines. A second reporting assignment — another preview story if you don’t think they’re ready to do anything else — would be good.
Writing for the Web IV Twitter | Photojournalism | Audio | What you need to do to get ready to work in the web environment.

That will take us up to spring break. During the week after spring break, you should continue doing whatever your lab needs. One idea is to assign them to do a photo story over spring break.

After spring break, we will devote three weeks to “writing for broadcast,” but that will change from the broadcast writing section that we once had.

This draft plan has been written for the lecturers and lab instructors of JEM 200, but I am posting it here on the JPROF blog so that anyone who reads it can weigh in and help us with our deliberations. I am especially interested in hearing from anyone who can suggest additional resources — readings, tutorials, exercises, examples, etc.


Writing headlines for the web

Basic HTML tags

Finding links

The art of linking

Writing summaries

Guidelines for the student photojournalist

Audio slide shows

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