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

Dan Gillmor: Journalism school should provide an excellent liberal arts education

Engaging more with the rest of the university is one way j-schools can gain relevance.

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Here Dan Gillmor — ex-newspaper reporter, media thinker, Arizona State professor of digital media entrepreneurship — lays out his ideas for making journalism education more useful and relevant.

Accepting an award from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School for Journalism & Mass Communication in 2008, former PBS NewsHour host Robert McNeil called journalism education probably “the best general education that an American citizen can get” today.

Perhaps he was playing to his audience, at least to a degree. Many other kinds of undergraduate degree programs could lay claim to a similar value; a strong liberal arts degree, no matter what the major, has great merit. Still, there’s no doubt that a journalism degree, done right, is an excellent foundation for a student’s future in any field, not just media.

Even if McNeil overstated the case, his words should inspire journalism educators to ponder their role in a world where these programs’ traditional reason for being is increasingly murky.

Our raison d’être is open to question largely because the employment pipeline of the past, a progression leading from school to jobs in media and related industries, is (at best) in jeopardy. We’re still turning out young graduates who go off to work in entry-level jobs, particularly in broadcasting — but where is their career path from there?

If traditional media have adapted fitfully to the collision of technology and media, journalism schools as a group may have been even slower to react to the huge shifts in the craft and its business practices. Only recently have they embraced digital technologies in their work with students who plan to enter traditional media. Too few are helping students understand that they may well have to invent their own jobs, much less helping them do so.

Yet journalism education could and should have a long and even prosperous life ahead — if its practitioners make some fundamental shifts, recognizing the realities of the 21st century.

If I ran a journalism school, I would start with the same basic principles of honorable, high-quality journalism and mediactivism, and embed them at the core of everything else. If our students didn’t understand and appreciate them, nothing else we did would matter very much. With the principles as the foundation, we would, among many other things:

  • Emphasize undergraduate journalism degrees as great liberal arts programs, perhaps even more valuable when viewed that way than as training for journalism careers. At the same time, we would focus graduate journalism studies on helping people with expertise in specific areas to be the best possible journalists in their fields.
  • 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 the math they encounter in their reading is one of journalism’s — and society’s — major flaws.
  • Encourage a research agenda with deep connections to key media issues of today. More than ever, we need solid data and rigorous analysis. And translate faculty research into language average people can understand as opposed to the dense, even impenetrable, prose that’s clear (if it really is) only to readers of academic journals.
  • Require all journalism students to understand business concepts, especially those relating to media. This is not just to cure the longstanding ignorance of business issues in the craft, but also to recognize that today’s students will be among the people who develop tomorrow’s journalism business models. We’d discuss for-profit and not-for-profit methods, and look at advertising, marketing, social networking, and search-engine optimization, among many other elements.
  • Make entrepreneurship a core part of journalism education. Arizona State University, where I work, is among several schools working on this, and the early experiments are gratifying. Several of our student projects have won funding. At City University of New York, Jeff Jarvis has received foundation funding for student projects to continue after the class is over, based on semester-ending competitive “pitches” to a judging panel of journalists and investors. We need to see more and more of these and other kinds of experiments.
  • Persuade the president (or chancellor, or whatever the title) and trustees of the university that every student on the campus should learn journalism principles and skills before graduating, preferably during freshman year. At State University of New York’s Stony Brook campus, the journalism school has been given a special mandate of exactly this kind. Howard Schneider, a former newspaper journalist who now is dean of Stony Brook’s journalism school, won foundation funding to bring news literacy into the university’s broader community, rather than only to those enrolled in journalism courses.
  • Create a program of the same kind for people in the community, starting with teachers. Our goal would be to help schools across our geographical area bring mediactivism to every level of education—not just college, but also elementary, middle and high school. We would offer workshops, conferences and online training.
  • Offer that program, or one like it, to concerned parents who feel overwhelmed by the media deluge themselves, to help turn them into better media consumers and to give them ways to help their children.
  • Enlist another vital player in this effort: local media of all kinds, not just traditional media. Of course, as noted earlier, they should be making this a core part of their missions, given that their own credibility would rise if they helped people understand the principles and process of quality journalism. But we’d very much want to work with local new media organizations and individuals, too.
  • Advise and train citizen journalists to understand and apply sound principles and best practices. They are going to be an essential part of the local journalism ecosystem, and we should reach out to show them how we can help.
  • Augment local media with our own journalism. We train students to do journalism, after all, and their work should be widely available in the community, particularly when it fills in gaps left by the shrinking traditional media. At Arizona State, the Cronkite News Service provides all kinds of coverage of topics the local news organizations rarely cover, making our students’ work available to those organizations.

All this suggests a considerably broader mission for journalism schools and programs than the one they’ve had in the past. It also suggests a huge opportunity for journalism schools. The need for this kind of training has never been greater. We’re not the only ones who can do it, but we may be among the best equipped.

This piece was adapted from Dan’s book Mediactive.

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  • Digital Journalism

    I cannot agree more with Dan’s statement that “a journalism degree, done right, is an excellent foundation for a student’s future in any field, not just media.” As a matter of fact, I believe that in this day and time, some form of digital journalism education should be a gen ed course for all students to take. Just like English writing is important to one’s career, the capability of digital storytelling will be more valued in the years to come.

  • mike whatley wa4d

    “Engaging more with the rest of the university is one way j-schools can gain relevance.”  This statement points out  the obvious. That many J School programs as currently construed are “irrelevant” to other more “serious” academic fields.
    I did not see ‘History” as an area of study in Dan’s “proposed” list. I would add a liberal dose.

  • Jonathan Stray

    But is it the storytelling/communication aspect, or the determining what the truth is (reporting) aspect that is essential here? Sometimes I think journalism should really be the study of deadline-driven applied epistemology.

  • Chris Harper

    I appreciate all you have done for journalism. Nevertheless, I am a bit tired of these treatises from Nieman. If a journalism program did not adapt these suggestions years ago, it is as dead as MSM. We did all of these nine years ago at Temple University. But we don’t get the big bucks and recognition that ASU and others get, but we have won 30 state, regional and national awards for everything you suggest above. See

  • hoosiercommonsense

    I’m 69 and currently working part time as a reporter/photographer for a weekly newspaper in a small town, and have a flexible schedule. Before that, I worked for a medium sized daily, and some years ago, for a Gannett daily paper in a still larger town. My editor at the Gannett paper really taught me the journalistic writing style, and my work caused me to be hired at the same time by a local radio station to cover the local news and read it on the air.
    I have no journalism degree yet, although I plan to finish the two-year business associate of applied science degree I’m currently working on at a community college next spring and then go for a bachelor’s in journalism. I got all my jobs through just showing up and asking, convincing them they needed me.
    You’ll never make a million at a small paper, but they need writers, photographers, editors, paginators and every other type of employee papers use. There are dozens of small papers around where I live, all owned by the same company, but the paper I currently work for is owned by three people who started it a few years ago because they thought the town needed one. My editor, who has native journalistic talents, has no degree either.
    Journalism is a great way to use business skills, quickly learn a lot of information, sort it out and write about it to inform the public and make them care about your subject.
    It’s a very important profession, and I am addicted to it, although I’ve held other jobs too, which, I might add, helped me understand the inner workings of various industries and informed my writing.
    I just wish I could get my current college to teach In Design software, because it’s used a lot in various businesses. You’re right. They are slow to catch up.