You could sum up the state of journalism education with Charles Dickens’ iconic opening paragraph in “A Tale of Two Cities.” There is evidence for it being the best of times and the worst, for both hope and despair, and the noisiest commentators are definitely arguing for superlative descriptions. But where is j-school headed and, more importantly, where should it be headed?
THE SHOT HEARD ‘ROUND THE (JOURNALISM) WORLD
In late August came the announcement from the University of Colorado-Boulder that it was considering both closing its journalism school and creating an institute of information, communication and technology, which might absorb some journalism courses and faculty. While School of Journalism and Mass Communication Dean Paul Voakes called “discontinuation” an unfortunate legal term in a letter to alumni, it would be hard to argue that the move, if taken, wouldn’t be a monumental change.
The school is the university’s largest outside its College of Arts and Sciences. It has 647 undergraduate, 58 master’s and 26 doctoral students. There are 684 pre-journalism majors who are officially under Arts and Sciences’ aegis. CU-Boulder had a total enrollment of 32,751 in the fall semester of 2009.
Despite Voakes’ talk of innovative new programs, some found reason for dismay in both the nebulousness of the proposed entity and the composition of the committee charged with considering the new institute. (The school has set up a website for addressing the changes and soliciting feedback.)
“The problem is that none of the people who are evaluating this are journalists,” said Robert Knight, CU alumnus and retired journalism professor (and past Quill contributor). “We have no idea what this creature is going to look like, if they ever revive it.”
Adding to the uncertainty at CU is Voakes’ resignation as dean of the journalism school, effective at the end of the 2010-11 academic year. The move leaves Colorado looking for an interim dean to lead students until 2013 and possibly mounting a full search if the school survives the discontinuance process. Voakes will stay on as a journalism professor.
NO ROOM IN THE PROGRAM
At least one distinguished lion of journalism education sees the possible changes at CU as continuing an erosion of respectability.
“Instead of defending the mission of journalism education, administrators and faculty members are marching resolutely to the edge of the cliff,” Columbia University journalism professor emeritus Melvin Mencher wrote in a newsletter sent to professors using his textbook, “News Reporting and Writing.” “The changes in the media industry have led to curricular changes that revivify the old charge that journalism education is vocational training.”
Mencher and others say that a rise in the number of courses devoted to new media technology has come at the expense of academic courses like ethics, history and law, and even to the point of eclipsing training in basic journalism skills.
Of course, journalism education has faced similar problems from technological advances before.
“When I was in school, we thought things were changing quite a bit” said Morris Digital Works thinker and digital strategist Steve Yelvington. “Newspapers were moving to electronic editing and offset printing and photo typesetting. It turned out to be pretty minor compared to what people are facing today.”
The difference, Mencher writes, is that when those charges reached j-schools, journalism professors defended the discipline. Now, he sees mostly submission. “[Professors] bend to administrative pressure; they grasp at business trends and fashions; they seek peer approval by cloaking in theory, 90 percent of which, educators have found, is vapid.”
The finite amount of room in a course of study is one challenge j-schools face.
“If you look at accredited journalism programs, students can only take 40 hours of journalism courses,” said Bryan Murley, assistant professor of new and emerging media at Eastern Illinois University. “So what happens is they’re trying to put new courses in when most schools are probably already bumping up against that 40-hour limit. Where are you going to cut? What are you going to take away?”
Another challenge is financial. “Journalism schools are expensive,” Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism at Iowa State University, wrote in Inside Higher Ed. “During recent budget crises, administrators have taken a hard look at journalism schools.”
BRIDGING THE TECHNOLOGY-BASICS CHASM
“Journalism is a science and an art. The science is how you do something, how you write a blog, how you record video or audio; the art is telling the story,” Murley said. “What schools are struggling with is how they integrate the art and the science into courses in such a way that the art doesn’t get subsumed by all the technology.”
Texas State University assistant professor Cindy Royal has championed the integration of technology and storytelling since she was a graduate student a decade ago.
“There needs to be an integration of these skills around the hub of storytelling,” Royal said. “You already know how to use all these tools; you just have to be able to use your best judgment to choose the tools to tell that aspect of the story.”
Training students to use and understand new media is vital to turning out competent, competitive journalists, according to Steve Buttry, director of community engagement at TBD.com.
“You can’t teach a student to cover breaking news today without teaching them the importance of Twitter, or they’re going to get their ass kicked every time by somebody who knows,” Buttry said.
Even those worried about the fallout from the changes at CU acknowledge the importance of new media.
“We can’t be troglodytes about technology,” Knight said. “But it can’t be the technology tail wagging the journalism dog. It still has to be a journalism program first.”
Part of the problem with teaching new media skills is anachronistic stances by professors and students. Even students in “modern” journalism programs often have outdated expectations for their careers.
“I’ve been on some college campuses where there are still very hard lines drawn between broadcast journalism and ‘real’ journalism,” Yelvington said. “As if a medium that’s been around since the 1920s doesn’t count.”
Buttry said he received a reply from a journalism professor that said “I don’t tweet” after the professor noticed Buttry’s Twitter user name in his e-mail signature.
“I said ‘Well, that’s too bad, because your students need to learn how to use that important, changing medium.’” He said the professor was surprisingly candid, replying, “Look, I’m two years from retirement and I don’t get that. I’m hoping to make it without learning that.”
“There is the sentiment of ‘I want to teach journalism as I learned it,’ and that’s not journalism today,” Buttry said. “And if those faculty (members) are tenured, well-intentioned reform plans aren’t going to change what happens in those classrooms.”
Student journalists not only need to learn to apply old skills in new ways, Yelvington said, but they also should realign their expectations with new business realities.
“When someone comes out of a journalism school thinking that the core of journalism is writing ‘a story,’ that that’s the alpha and omega of journalism, they’re not going to want to do anything that looks clerical,” he said. “But some of what we need to be doing might look clerical: information gathering, list making, database building and all that. It may not get you a byline, but it could be very powerful.”
Buttry agrees that journalists need to come out of school with a grasp of technology. “A reporter who can’t read a spreadsheet and sort data is not a competent reporter in this day and time,” he said. “That’s not teaching technology, that’s teaching reporting.”
Near the end of September, the City University of New York announced the creation of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. The $10 million center will offer a master’s degree and mid-career certificate. Center director Jeff Jarvis told Poynter Online that the new creation aims to bring badly needed innovators and innovation to the news business.
The CUNY program joins several other new initiatives at larger journalism schools, such as Columbia’s journalism-computer science dual degree program, a $50 million grant given to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to build a state-of-the-art building, and several news services aimed at giving students “real-world” experience.
“I don’t know that it is replicable everywhere,” Murley said. “City University of New York is obviously in a great place to do this. What you’re seeing is some of these big schools that have the resources — that have the money, frankly — doing these kinds of things.”
Texas State is trying to learn from the larger schools’ excursions, even while Royal said she feels a little envious. “In many cases, they are able to get out in front of other programs because some of them are being funded by grants or have collaborators, mentors, what-have-you,” she said. “What most other programs are doing is the scatter approach: hiring the right people, adding some classes, trying to infiltrate the rest of the curriculum and slowly working on a curriculum redesign.”
KNOWING THE POSSIBLE
What is really important for students to learn is not so much the nuts and bolts, but what can be done with new technologies.
“Does everyone need to know HTML and CSS and MySQL?” Buttry asks. “I could argue that (they do), but I think that’s a separate question from the ways the basics today are different from the basics when I was in journalism school. If you’re going to teach the basics, you’ve got to teach them in the context where the students are graduating.”
CSS is a technology for specifying a Web page’s appearance, and MySQL is a database manager that underlies many websites.
Another vital skill, Bugeja said, is learning when to use a technology — and when not to. “I want (my students) to question how Woodward and Bernstein could have done Watergate if they had tweeted,” he said. “Can you imagine Woodward (tweeting) ‘It’s 2:30 in the morning, I’m going to meet Mark Felt’?”
Felt was an FBI official in the Nixon administration and the “Deep Throat” source in the Watergate investigation.
Administrators also need to understand the importance, potential and pitfalls of new technologies, Royal said. “All those programs need to educate themselves. They need to read books like (Jeff Jarvis’) ‘What Would Google Do?’ or Chris Anderson’s ‘The Long Tail’ or ‘Free,’ and really look at things with an open mind.”
Even more important than the entrepreneurial focus of the programs may be the entrepreneurial spirit of the students.
“One of the goals of an entrepreneurial program is to focus on the value you’re creating rather than the specifics of how you’re creating it or what the product is,” Yelvington said. “That helps you think differently about what you should be doing with your time and energy.”
He points to the transformation of Medill graduate Brad Flora, who runs a social website focused on Chicago. “(Brad) comes out of that process being kind of oddly shaped from the point of view of a newspaper editor looking to hire a reporter,” he said. “But Brad is very well equipped to adapt. The adaptation he’s gone through to create the Windy Citizen is really quite impressive.”
There are those who see the technology overwhelming the techniques.
“The new conventional wisdom is that the platform is more important than the pedagogy,”
Bugeja said. “No, I’m sorry, it’s not. The pedagogy goes back to the First Amendment. Online is just a damned platform. We’ve got to stop glorifying the platforms … because we’re just glorifying commerce rather than the Constitution. Why throw away something that’s worked since the Bill of Rights because you want to appear new and innovative?”
But others are looking forward with great anticipation.
“If I were giving a ‘state of the union address’ on journalism, I would say this is the most exciting time to be part of any journalism or communications program or career,” Royal said. “We have more opportunities for people to communicate and engage with information than ever before, more opportunities for people to participate. I think what’s going to emerge is going to be very exciting and very valuable to the future of democracy, the well being of our nation and the education of our populace.”
Pierce Presley is an Arkansawyer living in Texas, a former Marine, an alumnus of Loyola University New Orleans and (hopefully) the University of Memphis, a husband and father, a student of journalism whether enrolled or not, a journalist, a raconteur and a misfit. Contact him at email@example.com.