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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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.

                                   
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  • http://www.carolzuegner.wordpress.com Carol Zuegner

    It is all about adaptability. It’s about being an entrepreneur. We are a small department and lucky in that we can be more flexible in our curriculum and the content of classes. Students have to be flexible, adaptable and fearless. I think the fearless is important because they will have to keep learning new technology. And they have to be fearless in their belief in the role of journalism in society.

  • http://www.jessicamurphy.ca Jessica

    It will be about continuing to teach the key fundamentals of fact-checking, balance, research, interviewing and copy editing along with new media skills and technical skills in terms of broadcast.
    But I think the really important point is to keep the foundation strong so students can build and adapt on top of that.

  • Aron Cohen

    I certainly agree with the idea that technical flexibility should be an essential part of training, but often times today what I see with young journalists is that their writing in general is just not “there”. Sure, we have seen many good writers emerge in recent years, but again and again I come across writers who have talent in their work, who have the knowledge to guide themselves through the maze that is modern journalism, but lack an essential (and essentially extended) knowledge of long-form writing.

    So while all the technical and management-centered principles of J-school are very important, we should reevaluate the importance of classic journalism training. Writing style evolution and the use of literary tools should be considered at least as important as the technical aspects of this art.

    Speaking about current educational projects, I would like to add that I really like what Jay Rosen is doing with Studio20. Even though I would add an extra bit of realism to his project-based curriculum, I am very happy that at least someone is doing a kind of real-world-education program for journalism students.
    Another important issue, in my opinion, is filtering. Journalism, as we see it’s future today, will be cutting jobs in the coming years. Many have said it before and many will say it again: journalism (as an industry) will have to fire half of its staff in its move to a largely web-based distribution model. Traditional media employed way more people than (very) new media can, and j-schools have to take a part in tackling this problem by filtering 1) their applicants better, 2) their graduates in a more strict manner.

    Obviously if I was a good journalist I would rephrase half of this comment and think about the content twice before submitting.

    But I’m merely a commenter here. :)

  • http://www.interest.co.nz Emma Geraghty

    A focus on the changing environment of the “news process” needs to be encompassed into the journalism curriculum. Citizens are becoming journalist with the widespread sharing of information. To keep journalists up to date, internet and broadcasting, practical skills need to be taught more in journalism schools. Learning to write news is important, but sending it out to everyone is also something that needs to be focused on.

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  • http://sethlewis.org/ Seth C. Lewis

    Carol, Jessica, Aron and Emma: I appreciate your good thoughts and suggestions here. Thanks!

    @Carol: “Flexible, adaptable, and fearless” — I like how you put that. There’s another post to be done down the road about this idea of “adaptability” — what it really means and how you really teach it (hint: I’m soliciting ideas). It’s interesting to note that some new research by Serena Carpenter at Arizona State found that online media firms are looking for more “adaptive expertise” — “such as knowledge outside journalism/mass communication, creativity, independent and critical thinking, leadership, and problem-solving abilities” (see http://aejmc.org/topics/2010/01/nontraditional-online-news-media-seek-employees-with-adaptive-expertise/). So, adaptability and adaptive: we’re talking about related concepts, but not exactly the same thing. Again, that’s something I’d like to tease out in a later post.

    @Aron: Strong writing hasn’t (and won’t) go out of style, that’s for sure. I do think there’s a good conversation to be had about the *styles* of writing that we’re teaching in j-schools. For example, when you have a writing style (like the inverted pyramid) that became standard in part because of technological constraints, then it’s worth asking if or how that kind of writing should be taught differently for a digital context.

    To all your points, the common thread in this discussion is that we need to think more critically about how journalists attempt to create (social and economic) value. As Robert Picard put it: “Journalists are not professionals with a unique base of knowledge such as professors or electricians. Consequently, the primary economic value of journalism derives not from its own knowledge, but in distributing the knowledge of others. In this process three fundamental functions and related skills have historically created economic value: Accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying it effectively” (see http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2009/0519/p09s02-coop.html).

    How we better teach those three — gathering, filtering, and distributing information — is the big question today.

  • http://tulsaworld.com Jason Collington

    The j-school should create someone who understands supply, demand, relevance and the best way to deliver a message. That is what many journalism and media outlets don’t understand, from newspapers to ad firms. They may understand the principals the textbook talks about, but they don’t know what works and what doesn’t. At no time during my j-school time was the word revenue discussed. But I don’t think a bunch of business classes are going to help. What needs to be studied more than anything else is what works and why and how the students can make it work for them when they are given the duties. It’s writers understanding they are paid to be read, not write. It’s ad graphic designers understanding how to create a relevant message that would make the target audience respond. I don’t want a j-school that tries to teach them more, but one that teaches success and then applies the skills of adaptation to build on it.

  • http://cindyroyal.com Cindy Royal

    I agree with Seth that j-school graduates need to be adaptable, but that notion doesn’t go far enough. It seems passive, but I think Seth and I only differ on semantics. He mentions innovation, and that to me is the key. It is not necessarily something that can be taught, but should be encouraged via projects, experimentation, identification of resources and discussion. Students need to come out of j-school with the idea that they will be influencing the fields they are entering, not just adapting to them. They need to gain a passion for changing technology in a communications context. They need to understand that there probably won’t be someone to turn to when things don’t work, and that they have the power to figure it out themselves. They need to have confidence in their technology skills, and they need to find new ways to use those skills to tell stories. Finally, they need to understand the nuances of the economics of the digital media environment and study and critique the successes of companies in that space.

    I have been teaching Web design and online-related concepts since 1999, when I was a Ph.D. student at UT, just like Seth. I am now an assistant professor at Texas State University. From the beginning, I saw my role as imparting judgment and perspective on the changing media environment, not just training students for jobs at newspapers or television stations. In my experience, even in better economic times, only about half the students actually ended up in traditional media jobs. They were able to translate their skills to careers in various fields, where the integration of communication skills and technological savvy was valued. We need to broaden the scope of media education and take advantage of our unique opportunity to influence the future.

    I’ll be hosting a Core Conversation at the South By Southwest Interactive conference in March on this topic. My session is titled “Influence and Innovate: Transforming Media Education”, and it is co-hosted by Aron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive News at The New York Times. Speakers also include Matt Waite of Politifact. I hope to have a lively conversation with professionals, academics, students and recent grads, so we can begin to identify successful approaches in encouraging innovation in media.

    Plus, a group of Texas State students and alumni will be blogging from the event. Check out the previews that are already posted at sxtxstate.com.

  • http://maurreen.com Maurreen Skowran

    I read somewhere recently that most Pulitzer winners had not been to journalism school.

    The number of journalist jobs is shrinking. But the broader field of communication is growing, as is the need for evaluation and critical thinking.

    My idea is to expand the field to “civic media.” I outlined a curriculum, at the Poynter site:
    http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=159947

    Offer courses for non-majors, people who won’t work in journalism or even media, but can benefit from the soft and hard skills.

    Also, consider a broader purpose of journalism, not just to deliver news, and in one direction. The news is moving from being more of a lecture to being more of a conversation. We can cultivate that, or we can watch it.

    And schools should experiment, such as by offering specialties and methods offered nowhere else. Schools can also broaden with more interdisciplinary work.

  • http://sethlewis.org/ Seth C. Lewis

    “Students need to come out of j-school with the idea that they will be influencing the fields they are entering, not just adapting to them.” You are spot-on with that assessment, Cindy — and your comment as a whole is excellent.

    To be sure, when I mention “adaptability” in this post, I’m doing so in the proactive (rather than reactive) sense of the word. It’s not only about having the agility to change with the times, but also the smarts and savvy and chutzpah to seize the opportunity as it arises. Part of teaching that combination of mind-set and skill set for innovation involves allowing students to “fail,” in the entrepreneurial sense of the word — to quickly see what works and what doesn’t, rather than obsessing over perfection the first time. This calls to mind Jeff Jarvis’ notion of building a process-oriented “beta culture” in journalism, as well as Ryan Thornburg’s post last summer about how j-schools should become a “breeding ground for fertile failure.” One more thing to explore in a future post.

  • j-school grad

    They should tell young people about career opportunities beyond mainstream media. I’ve worked in b2b publishing, local niche publishing and at a nonprofit along with some television. All of these opportunities have required a journalism degree. J-schools should ignore trends and realize that society has changed, but the value of information remains.

  • http://changingnewsroom.wordpress.com Carrie Brown-Smith

    Hi Seth,

    Can’t wait to read more from you on this :)

    I couldn’t agree more on flexibility. One of the things I do in my courses is that often when introducing new tech for the first time, like Flip cameras, I send the students out for an assignment BEFORE I teach them much at all about how to use it. My goal is for them to learn to be fearless, resourceful, and flexible. I’m most concerned with their critical thinking skills but I want them to be able to quickly adapt to new things without freaking out, because who knows exactly what they will face when they graduate.

    Here’s a few other thoughts I had on the subject: http://changingnewsroom.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/my-dare-to-dream-journalism-curriculum/

    Cheers,
    Carrie Brown-Smith
    University of Memphis
    @brizzyc

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  • http://www.networkedjournalismeducation.com Donica Mensing

    In addition to the many strong points already mentioned, I also think j-schools should develop much more robust and relevant research agendas. By defining ourselves primarily in terms of teaching, we miss opportunities for reflection and perspective that might have helped us better see what was coming. Seeing our role as laboratories for research and experimentation could help fill in the R&D gap that has been missing for so long in the journalism industry.

    In terms of teaching, we could also expand our conceptions of what ‘counts’ as journalism, as noted by others in the comments. As Cindy points out, j-schools are about more than training. Teaching innovation, resourcefulness and creativity are key qualities for these times, as is the ability to focus, go deep and develop perspective on what can be a chaotic and flitting landscape.

    I’m also glad to see this attention to j-schools and look forward to reading more of your insights. Thanks!

  • http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/ Steve Buttry

    I provided curriculum advice for journalism schools on my blog, after consulting with the curriculum committee of the Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University: http://bit.ly/4UbO0B

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  • http://sethlewis.org/ Seth C. Lewis

    Again, thanks to everyone for your insightful comments here.

    Carrie, I like that approach to your tech assignments. Having to learn as you go — to “fail” a bit along the way — can be very useful and meaningful than being “told” how to use the technology.

    Donica, you make a great point: between skills-focused teaching and theory-focused research, we need something of a “middle way” — such as the R&D hubs you mentioned, or other projects that have an experimental, entrepreneurial flavor to them. With all the disruption around them, j-schools have a unique opportunity to lead out in policy discussions and practical guidance for news organizations of all sizes.

  • http://sethlewis.org/ Seth C. Lewis

    I should also add that Dan Gillmor has provided rich answers where I’ve mainly posed questions, in his excellent post “The Future of Journalism Education.” It’s a must-read.

    This part in particular relates to my point about adaptability: “Recognize that not all, and probably not most, students will end up as entrepreneurs. But they will all come to appreciate two key elements of entrepreneurship. One is the notion of taking ownership of a process and outcome. The other, which may be the most important single thing students — of all kinds — need in this fast-changing world is an appreciation of ambiguity, and the ability to deal with it. This means reacting to changes around us, being flexible and swift when circumstances change. Ambiguity is not something to fear; it is part of our lives, and we need to embrace it.”

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  • http://alexandraschmidt.com/ alex

    right, there’s no silver bullet. but saying that to a future employer isn’t gonna get you a paycheck (much less a meaningful job). as a relatively recent j-school graduate who’s punched my way into the field, here’s a skill i suggest including in your curriculum: how to bring value WHILE experimenting/failing. always be able to justify your existence during the learning-on-the-job phase. there’s simply no wiggle room, and no budget, for anything less!

  • Dominique Doss

    I definitely agree with you on adaptability and flexibility. I believe every J-school student has questioned “why am I here”.I’m currently a journalism student and have asked myself that question many times but more then that I fear I wont be prepared for the ongoing changing technology within journalism. I do believe to better prepare students, J-schools should have the choice of a DIY focus. As of now, most students don’t have the knowledge of getting started as a freelancer.

  • Hunter Brumfield

    My own move was out of journalism with an MBA, then eventually starting two companies in different aspects of the new media.

    So 1) basic experience 2) business training 3) intense immersion in the new media 4) hard work.

    Those are what I see as the essential factors, each teachable in journalism departments.

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