The subhead on Jeff Mohl’s column in last year’s journalism education issue of Quill said, “The standards being taught to today’s students will shape tomorrow’s profession.” That statement captures succinctly the idea that effective education of future journalists requires faculty to keep one eye on journalism as it is practiced today and another eye on where we think the industry and practice of journalism are headed. This bifocal vision helps assure that students will be ready not only to enter the field at graduation but also to join with the very best journalists to lead the profession through the rapids of change so journalism can continue to be practiced effectively in the future.
Bifocal vision is not enough, however. Journalism educators, today as always, face numerous challenges in trying to accomplish the goal of preparing today’s students to shape the journalism profession of the future. We need eyes in many directions, including in back of our heads, to keep pace with our students, the professional practice and our own colleges and universities — all of which are dynamic, evolving, and changing fairly rapidly.
With apologies to David Letterman, here are 10 major challenges I think we face in journalism education in 2001 (in no particular order).
Attract/retain quality faculty. Educating future journalists in today’s colleges and universities requires a mix of faculty who have both professional experience as journalists and the academic background appropriate for the specific college or university in which they teach. Not every faculty member needs to have the full range of practical experience and academic expertise, but the total mix of faculty needs both if students are to have the best education possible. A quality faculty mix also includes a diverse group of men and women from a broad range of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Differing intellectual viewpoints are needed to prepare students for the world that will become their workroom as professional journalists.
Retaining the mix does not stop on the date of hire. Just as we expect a new faculty member with a Ph.D. to continue to engage in publishable research, we also must expect new faculty members whose primary strength is professional experience to continue to engage with other journalists professionally and, as appropriate, to continue to practice journalism in order to maintain currency in the field.
Attract/retain quality students. If part of journalism’s role is to tell the truth, we need the best and brightest students preparing to do that most difficult — even impossible — task. We need students who are the “best and brightest” in non-conventional as well as conventional ways. Yes, we need students who can learn and perform well as measured by traditional academic tools (e.g. SAT scores). But we also need to attract and retain students who see the world from a vantage point different from mainstream or majority preconceptions. Their personal lens can enrich everyone’s understanding of the very diverse world we live in. In short, we need students with multiple intelligences who are bright, curious, passionate — people who are or can become “street smart” as well as “book smart.”
Construct/reconstruct the curriculum. Maybe there was a time when you could go back to college after a 10- or 20-year absence and find that not much had changed. Those days, if they ever existed, are long gone. If we’re really keeping one eye on professional journalism practice, we can’t help but see the need to constantly balance the basics of good journalism (telling the who, what, when, where, why and how — sorry if that sounds too old-fashioned) with the most useful and appropriate of new developments, whether the “new” is computer-assisted reporting or adapting the newspaper/magazine story for online or on air. Early predictions of technologically driven convergence may have over-reached, but more and more newspapers seek journalists who have the versatility and training to prepare their stories for multiple outlets.
Maintain facilities/equipment. Journalism education is strengthened when students have access to technology that approximates as nearly as possible the technology they will use in a professional setting. Most of the tools we need now are computer or computer-related. This means the cost of doing business in journalism education is higher than ever before.
Strengthen the role of journalism and communications programs in the university or college. Campus debates about the value of journalism and communications programs rise and fall periodically and are most poignant when they are budget-driven and the journalism/communications programs are targeted for reductions or elimination.
But journalism educators cannot afford to wait for troubled times to develop strong relationships across their campuses and a shared understanding with their colleagues about the contributions our programs make to the institution’s mission and goals as well as to the civic life of our states and nation. This requires faculty to understand their campus’s mission and to be involved in campus-wide projects and committees.
It also requires journalism programs to contribute fully to the university’s mission. Just as some newspapers do a very good job of meeting their mission by focusing on local coverage and/or condensed story writing, so too some colleges/universities can do a very good job of preparing future professionals by emphasizing their teaching function. A journalism/communications unit within a research university that does not engage in quality scholarship, however, would be like the New York Times or another leading newspaper not doing investigative reporting. At research universities, the journalism/communications units must produce their fair share of research and creative activities at a level expected of all units at the institution.
Interact regularly and frequently with professionals in the field. Strong and productive relationships with those continuing to practice journalism are just as important as good relationships across campus. This may include involvement in professional organizations like SPJ; visiting journalists on their turf to see how they handle the changing priorities and practices in the work setting; inviting journalists to campus so they can speak to students in class or faculty in small groups; establishing and maintaining strong professional advisory boards.
Our success as educators depends on how well-prepared our students are to meet the challenges and opportunities of the profession. The quality of that preparation is greatly enhanced by faculty understanding as fully as possible what professionals do on the job.
Develop methods to bring quality journalism education to the learner, rather than bringing the learner to campus. Distance education becomes easier each year technologically and the definition of “distance” covers everything from a room next door or across campus to some place on the other side of the world. “Lifelong learner” is almost a cliché phrase, but for individuals to learn throughout their lives, they need access to high-quality education where they live and work.
Develop international components and contexts as part of students’ learning experience. No matter where they end up living and working, tomorrow’s professionals will function in a global context. The sooner they can experience other cultures by traveling internationally and the sooner they can at least be exposed to other cultures by seeing other students on their home campus, the better prepared today’s students will be for the professional worlds of the future.
Attract sufficient financial resources for quality journalism education. Quality costs money. We need to use all our resources efficiently and effectively, but some things cannot be accomplished without additional resources. Deans often have responsibility for fund raising, and they need to be prepared for that role. Department chairs need to help deans understand the priorities and related needs of journalism units. Journalism educators at state-supported colleges and universities whose goal is excellence cannot rely on their states to meet all their financial needs. They need all the help their alumni and industry friends can provide to achieve that goal.
Challenge ourselves and professionals to regularly ask fundamental questions about the profession and education for it. Neither practicing journalists nor journalism educators can afford to stop asking basic questions — like “What is news?” — in the rapidly changing environment that has become a staple of today’s world. One advantage of teaching about, rather than meeting, daily or hourly deadlines is that journalism educators have a built-in opportunity to stand back from the front line and develop perspective on the wider field.
Journalism especially has an important civic function in a democracy. Part of the role of journalism education is to help all citizens know and appreciate the benefits of journalism as practiced in our democracy. If we do not address the fundamentals of journalism in a thoughtful way, we may be surprised, for example, when the hard-fought freedoms of access to information are challenged by other competing values like public concern for individual privacy. Or we may fail to ask what happens to local coverage, to coverage of state legislatures and agencies, to the marketplace of varied ideas and to credibility in the midst of newspaper industry consolidation.
Ongoing examination, re-examination and re-articulation by educators and practitioners of the value of freedom of speech and of the press, as well as other First Amendment freedoms, is an important part of journalism education’s leadership role in developing social capital.
Terry Hynes is dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.