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Feb. 1, 2010, noon

What is journalism school for? A call for input

[I've asked Seth Lewis, a former Miami Herald editor and smart journalism professor-in-training at the University of Texas, to join our cast of occasional commentators here at the Lab. One of his primary focuses will be looking at the changing world of journalism schools. Here's an introduction. —Josh]

Last year saw no shortage of future-of-journalism conferences. But if 2009 was dominated with talk about business models for news, perhaps 2010 will be the year we hear more about education models for news.

The ongoing discussion of pay models has led us to think more critically about forms of press subsidy — to recognize that all journalism is subsidized to some extent, that each type of subsidy comes with its own kind of strings attached, and that journalists of the future will have to be more proactive in understanding sources of funding or finding ways to innovate their own. All of that talk is healthy for journalism.

Likewise, a wider debate about journalism education might lead us to ask some soul-searching questions, beginning with the existential one: What is journalism school for, anyway? If j-schools historically looked to the industry for leadership and jobs for their graduates, how should they orient themselves now? What happens when much of our journalism education has been built up around the “newsroom paradigm” of training 20-somethings to operate in a traditional organizational setting — at a time when media work (of all kinds, not just journalism) is increasingly individualized, temporary, and precarious? Even more, at a time when the future of higher education itself is in major flux, what becomes of journalism education’s place in the university and society at large?

These questions have been on my mind lately since I was invited to join the Lab as a contributor covering the evolution of the j-school. I won’t profess any more expertise than my own experience in j-schools (as an undergrad, and now as a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas), as well as the perspective I’ve gained recently after touring several major j-schools as a candidate on the academic job market. I had intensive two-day interviews at three schools, all major programs in different parts of the United States, and also engaged in half-hour phone interviews with another four programs, most of them of the Big J-School variety.

In each case, my interviewers posed a question that went like this: “What should we be teaching today?” This wasn’t a loaded question, a guess-what-the-teacher-is-thinking sort of test. They sincerely wanted some fresh ideas, as it was clear that just about every school is grappling with curriculum reform.

So, what do we teach?

After fielding that question at least a dozen times, I finally settled on this talking point: It’s about adaptability. We’re never going to find the silver bullet, so instead let’s teach students to be flexible — to work in unpredictable settings, to generate their own funding as needed, and otherwise learn as they go. We can do that by using a curriculum that is similarly flexible, adaptive to technological and cultural trends in society even while it retains bedrock values of truth-seeking and fairness.

That plan is imperfect, of course, but it’s a start. Looking ahead, I hope to draw on the wisdom of others in blogging about what j-schools large and small are doing for 2010 and the uncertain future beyond. For starters, I’m reaching out to the deans and directors at the 12 schools funded by a multimillion-dollar Carnegie-Knight initiative on journalism education to see how these schools — arguably the biggest players in the field — are responding both to the contractions among legacy media and the opportunities for growth elsewhere.

But, in the meantime, I would also like to hear from all of you, readers of the Lab: What should the 21st century journalism school look like? Would it have a more DIY focus to prep students for freelance careers? Take a more project orientation, as in Jay Rosen’s Studio 20? Focus on teaching the right mix of analog and digital skills, as Ryan Sholin suggests? Or try to become part of the wider academic curriculum — a sort of “journalism school for all” general-education requirement, as Dave Winer recommends?

What are your ideas? Drop them in the comments, or if you think there’s something I should cover in a future post, e-mail me directly at sethclewis@gmail.com.

Photo by Fabrice Florin used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2010, noon
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