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Unwrapping the Debate About the Future of Journalism Education

March 29, 2010

My post last week about what the Reader Elite Means for Journalism Schools set off a stimulating and (at times) emotional debate about the future — and overall validity — of J-Schools, and the profession as a whole. It struck a nerve with professors from Toronto to Arkansas — many of whom dedicated their professional careers to traditional media endeavors and now pass that knowledge onto their students.

Blogging in response to my post, the Dean of UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication made the case that her school had moved their curriculum firmly and confidently into the 21st century to position students for successful careers. She invited me to visit, an offer I hope to take her up on sometime.

We are creating a student-led news lab where students can experiment and apply their considerable creative talents to production and dissemination of news–to wherever audiences are. Faculty, too, will use that new lab to study news and communication issues that will pay off in better and more effective ways of communicating.” — Jean Folkerts, Dean of UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Others were just plain mad. Conrad Fink, the Morris Professor of Newspaper Management and Strategy at the University of Georgia, commented that the “author of this column knows nothing of what modern, progressive colleges of journalism teach, and until he has done his homework, he should sit down and be quiet.”

One disclosure for Professor Fink and others who commented in a similar vein: I’m a graduate of the Northeastern School of Journalism, walking away with high marks and a great relationship with many of the professors there. While four years have passed (yikes!) and the revolution of social technologies and the further deterioration of traditional media organizations have been even more rapid and profound, I have kept up with the state of my school and others.

But more importantly, the responses of the past few days spawned some great ideas about the future of people whose full time job it is to create interesting and compelling content, and here’s the ones I thought were the most interesting (and happy to hear more).

If Journalism Schools Survive….

One of the central arguments I made against journalism schools in their current form is that they fail to teach kids a specialty that they can call their own with any credibility. Luckily, some people have laid out possible solutions.

The best one I saw is from Dan Gillmor, who suggested I read his February 2010 post on “The Future of Journalism Education.” He picks up on this expertise and credibility problem of non-expert journalists who really don’t understand the professions and mechanisms of the markets they cover well enough. In my mind, this whole post is required reading, but a few excerpts worth sharing on what he thinks one of these schools should look like.

Encourage, and require in some cases, cross-disciplinary learning and doing. We’d create partnerships around the university, working with business, engineering/computer science, film, political science, law, design and many other programs. The goals would be both to develop our own projects and to be an essential community-wide resource for the future of local media.

Teach students not just the basics of digital media but also the value of data and programming to their future work. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to become programmers; but they absolutely need to know how to communicate with programmers. We’d also encourage computer science undergraduates to become journalism graduate students, so they can help create tomorrow’s media.

Require all students to learn basic statistics, survey research and fundamental scientific methodology. The inability of journalists to understand what they’re reading is one of journalism’s — and society’s — major flaws.” — Dan Gillmor, Mediactive

One of my former colleagues, Tom Wailgum, suggested we require a journalism major become a double major in another topic, an idea I think could be a temporary solution for the next few years.

I graduated from J-school 16 years ago, and I often wonder what my school and others are actually “teaching” students these days, given everything that has happened. In retrospect, I wish I had perused a dual degree in journalism and business or technology….it would be hugely beneficial if J-schools required dual degrees (or heavy concentrations) in industries, fields or whatever specialized area students find most interesting. And then pushed the students to intern or work inside those industries or corporate departments, for instance. It’s clear that the end of the “general assignment reporter” era is here.” — Tom Wailgum, Senior Editor, CIO

On Writing and communicating…

I think the strongest argument I heard for keeping journalism schools alive was the deterioration of kids’ ability to express themselves in clear, succinct sentences. If this becomes a dying skill — which it is — then there will always be jobs for journalism students at companies where people don’t want to look stupid in communicating to the public.

Nancy Hanus of Journalism Junkie wrote:

So journalism schools help ensure that students who do want to communicate for a living have the tools. Yes, some students can get by without that training, just as some people have become business owners without going to business school or become marketers without getting a marketing degree. But I believe the skills being taught in J-schools help students have the tools to be as successful as possible in any area of communication.”

This argument also brought up an important point about my personal background in the context of my anti-journalism school rant (raised to me privately by my brother, who keeps me grounded and honest): Prior to arriving at Journalism School, I had been blessed with an education that isn’t enjoyed by most around the country (like, say, 95 percent of the country or more).  Before J-School, I was mentored by some people whose prose I could never hope to emulate, and I’m in my parent’s debt for giving me that opportunity. As such, my argument that you should already have writing skills down pat by the time you get college is a weak one, especially when you consider the state of public education for many in this country. This is something Tony Rogers of About.com rightly called me out on.

Well, as someone who’s actually run a college journalism program for more than a decade I can tell you that there are a great many students who do need the kind of training found in such programs. These students are often bright, capable and enthusiastic, but to expect them to somehow pick up the skills they need on the fly is both unrealistic and unfair.”

Still, I don’t think that’s a good enough argument that we should keep all these journalism schools; it’s an indictment of our have and have-not education system. All students, regardless of profession or major, should be given the opportunity to learn how to express themselves clearly. This is the same for ethics training and the law (which came up in many comments as an argument for J-Schools as well). Those are issues that should be taught in general education, especially since anyone with an internet connection can create content.

As always, the conversation continues…

Gillmor’s post, to me, appears to be the strongest yet, but I’d be happy to hear more…

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2010 10:44 pm

    I read Gillmor’s post and I share many of his ideas.

    Moving beyond this is my concern with the “Church of Journalism.” What I don’t want to hear is that we need J-schools because too many kids don’t know how to write and how to research, and because they have no concept of media ethics. If that is the reason we have J-schools, then let’s eliminate those problems by improving the skills of all students from kindergarten on.

    And if there is going to be a “Church of Journalism,” perhaps it should be training “missionaries” who convert non-journalists into responsible citizen journalists. Just as the barriers are coming down between staff writers/reporters and citizen journalists, then perhaps the barriers between the reporter priesthood and their parishioners needs to disappear as well.

    Do we need a professional class of journalists these days and should it have arisen in the first place? Some of our most famous journalists got into the business without having attended J-schools, so did we create a need when there wasn’t one?

  2. March 30, 2010 8:49 am

    I’d also like to add that J-schools probably don’t want to base their existence on the idea that student writing skills are so poor that J-schools are needed to provide necessary training. That makes them sound like remedial programs.

    Can you imagine another college department (e.g., math, music, chemistry) saying, “We’re needed because our applicants are coming into our programs with such poor skills that without our training, they will never get jobs?”

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