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

Eric Newton: Journalism schools aren’t changing quickly enough

The Knight Foundation’s Newton says “universities must be willing to destroy and recreate themselves to be part of the future of news.”

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. Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing their thoughts with you. Here Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation, argues that journalism schools need to develop a culture of rapid change to keep up with the world around them.

Representatives from six foundations this summer wrote to the presidents at nearly 500 colleges in the United States, saying their journalism and mass communication education would get better if it could change faster. Together, we have invested hundreds of millions in programs at hundreds of campuses. We knew the digital age had turned our field upside down and inside out. But it had not done the same to journalism and communication education.

Schools that won’t change risk becoming irrelevant to private funders — and, more importantly, to the more than 200,000 students and the 300 million Americans they seek to serve. Without better-equipped graduates, how can we be sure future generations will have the news and information they need to run their communities and their lives?

We noted the digital age has disrupted traditional media economics, and that in America today there is a local journalism shortage. Thus, the “teaching hospital” model of journalism education — learning by doing in a teaching newsroom — seems promising. Students use digital media to inform and, hopefully, engage a community. This digital model requires top professionals in important positions in academia, treated equally with top scholars. Having more top professionals around would, for most schools, be a big change.

The funders didn’t think our letter was all that controversial. What’s the counterargument: that communication schools should ignore professionals, change slower, and get worse? Yet both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education covered the letter. The journalism educators’ convention and the listservs buzzed.

“Change? They don’t understand!”

Some educators said there was no need to talk of change: They’d already done it. Those folks missed the point. We’ve entered an era of continuous change. Did you change last year? You’re a year behind. Did you go digital in 2002? You’re a decade behind. The “we have changed” group includes those saying “our PhDs started out as professionals,” not realizing that folks from last century’s non-digital newsrooms are not the digital pros we’re talking about.

Others opined that we cared only about gizmos, not content. Yet smartphones are not a fad. Nor is social media or the World Wide Web. They are no more “gizmo” than the printing press was. They are driving a global revolution in digital content. For the first time in human history, billions of people are walking around with digital media devices linked into a common network.

A few professors claimed it was “anti-intellectual” to call for useful research, even if it helps us understand the technique, technology, and principles at work in this new age. When we asked about the major breakthroughs their theoretical papers had produced, or even who funds them, they fell silent. Yet we desperately need a change here: We need better research that helps us understand the science of engagement and impact.

Good things are happening

  • College presidents from places like Western Kentucky, Washington State, and Florida International immediately supported our letter. Mark Rosenberg of FIU, for example, said the “teaching newsroom” is central to his new dean’s vision. It’s good to know that Rosenberg wants to build a new Media Innovation Complex (a new facility was a boon to Arizona State).
  • Some schools are taking actions to treat their digital professionals more equally. Two are looking at creating professional PhD programs. Another is looking at creating a guidebook of best practices by the deans and directors who are good at getting tenure for top professionals (the excellent guidelines from Columbia University should be of help).
  • The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications is moving ahead with new standards recognizing the digital age, allowing more credits in the major as well as more credits outside of liberal arts. This will help schools change their curricula. It also will help those such as the University of Texas which, like other Carnegie Knight schools, has recently changed — and shouldn’t stop.
  • Innovative-minded faculty, especially the younger professors, are feeling enthusiastic enough that a group of them gave a standing ovation to Richard Gingras, head of Google’s news products, when he spoke at this summer’s journalism education convention. These are the folks applying for micro-grants to employ Knight News Challenge tools on their campuses.
  • Advocates of useful, high-quality research are stepping up. LSU, Montana, and others are talking about using their annual graduate surveys as an “exit interview” for students, offering valuable feedback to the field.

The digital age is changing almost everything — who a journalist is, what a story is, which media work to provide news when and where people want it, and how we engage with communities. The only thing that isn’t changing is why. We still care about good journalism (and communications) because in the digital age they still are essential elements of peaceful, productive, self-improving societies.

The “creative destruction” of education

Universities must be willing to destroy and recreate themselves to be part of the future of news. They should not leave that future to technologists alone. Journalism and communication schools must begin to change radically and constantly. Change to do what? To expand their role as community content providers; to innovate in digital technique and technology; to teach open, collaborative methods; and to connect to the whole university. The best schools realize that having top professionals on hand is as important as having top scholars. “Top” is the key word: Quality today does not mean a long career or a famous name. It means you are good at doing what you do in today’s environment. You don’t have to be a big school to make a difference. Look at Youngstown, Ohio, where students are providing community content as though they were attending Berkeley, USC, Missouri, or North Carolina.

Want a simple guide to a journalism or communications school? Look at its website. WordPress templates look better than many of them. Why is it acceptable for millions of Americans to communicate digitally in better-looking, more professional ways than the experts at universities?

There are hundreds of hard-working deans and directors, excellent applied researchers, brilliant professors, wonderful early adopters, growing numbers of digital innovators, and creative agents of change. To you, we say congratulations — you know how to change, so please, don’t stop. We need you to keep trying new story forms, teach data visualization, do computational journalism, develop entrepreneurial journalism, build new software, and even pioneer things like drone journalism. We need you to keep learning from the students, the first generation of digital natives, as fast as you teach them.

“Each and every person in this room”

No institution within journalism education has achieved all that can be achieved. There are some big missing pieces. Journalism and communication schools could, for example, be some of the biggest and most important hubs on campuses. They could be centers for teaching 21st century literacy — news and civics literacy along with digital media fluency — to the entire student body. They could, but with only one or two exceptions, they aren’t. Yet democracy today is only as good as its digital citizens.

The News21 project at Arizona State shows us what’s possible in journalism education and why it’s important. This year’s investigation found only a tiny number of cases of voter fraud, raising questions about the legality of the organization that pushed for states to enact voter ID laws. Everyone from Jon Stewart to The Washington Post used the stories. This is student work and journalism education at its finest. It makes me optimistic, as Gingras was as he ended his talk at the journalism education convention in Chicago:

I believe we are at the beginnings of a renaissance in the exploration and reinvention of how news is gathered, expressed, and engaged with. But the success of journalism’s future can only be assured to the extent that each and every person in this room helps generate the excitement, the passion, and the creativity to make it so. May you enjoy the journey, and more importantly, might you inspire others to enjoy theirs.

Panorama of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism commencement by Lam Thuy Vo used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Cynthetix

  • Melissa Bower

    It’s not simply a renaissance, it’s a whole new beginning.  Journalism students definitely need to adjust their expectations about what it means to have a journalism job. Instead of working in a large city where jobs are handed to them because a corporation wants to take advantage of a community’s spending power, journalists need to be encouraged to look at smaller or underserved communities that need “knowledge guidance.” That is, guidance for how to find out about one’s local government’s spending policies, guidance for navigating the excessive amount of information bombarding community members and keeping them from making informed decisions. In many farming communities, there are extension agents to assist farmers in gaining information about agriculture. We need something similar to assist Americans in gaining knowledge about their communities.

    To do this, journalists may have to learn to be grantwriters, fundraisers and sales experts before they can support the community’s need for knowledge.

  • Jean_Folkerts


    First, a clarification.  Professionals are in the academy.  Since the beginning of journalism education,
    editors and educators have debated the appropriate way to incorporate
    professionals and academics in journalism education.  In almost all schools, professionals are
    represented.  Today many deans and
    professors have extensive professional background.  Recently, deans appointed at Louisiana State University,
    the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Syracuse University and the
    University of Maryland come from outside the academy.  Many directors of journalism programs,
    including those at the University of Texas and at Washington State University,
    also come from outside the academy.  Some
    of these have master’s degrees or law degrees, but many have no advanced

    today’s issue as a conflict between professionals and educators misses the

    problem of journalism education is not solved by hiring more professionals at
    the highest ranks or by creating new degrees for professionals.  Hiring innovative professionals and creative
    academics who work together may create new research projects and new
    experiments that lead to the future. Identifying those individuals is key—and
    it’s not done by deriding the Ph.D. or by elevating professionals who yearn for
    the good old days.

    Professional journalists and
    students would be well served by better understanding the goals of journalism
    education.  For too long journalism
    education has been expected to provide well-trained young people to accept low
    paying jobs in small media markets.  When
    schools broadened their curricula to include advertising and public relations
    and at one time, yes, even broadcasting, they were castigated by professional
    journalists for “selling out.”  Trends
    over time–the development of social media, the blending of news and
    entertainment, and the lack of a business model to sustain professional
    journalism—might be key indicators that education is sometimes ahead of the
    industry.  Understanding that information
    comes in various forms and sizes, is produced by a variety of people, has
    different impacts on select audiences and is supported by different business
    models is important.  These areas of
    inquiry require intelligent research and academic training. 

    The foundations, news
    professionals, academics and the public would be better served by creating new
    models of respect and inquiry than by resurrecting the age-old dichotomy of
    professionals versus academics.

  • Anonymousinacademia

    It is doubtful that many academics are going to respond critically to Mr. Newton’s ransom notes, if they want to continue employment in the academy or hope to receive a grant from one of these philanthropic agencies.

  • Trishroth

     Here, here! Jean, your comments exemplify why you have been such an outstanding dean at Carolina and the perfect person to take the baton after Richard Cole and the interim dean. Thank you for steering my alma mater so artfully over the last few years. My hope is that your successor will be as “steady on” in this time of extraordinary change in the profession.

  • Eric Newton

     Certainly I agree with Jean on many issues, supported her when she was a dean and worked with her as a scholar during my time at the Newseum.  As far as good professionals in the academy, though, we do not seem to see eye to eye.  If there is a professional-track PhD program, I haven’t heard of it. There are professional-track master’s degrees, but not a doctorate. There are programs that do not accept extraordinary professional work for tenure and promotion. There aren’t enough professionals and scholars who collaborate on research (many agree on that). There aren’t enough “current” professionals (and I mean digital-first professionals, not the nostalgic kind) in jobs higher than that of adjunct. I’ve seen programs fire extraordinary professionals rather than fight for them when asked about them by regional accrediting agencies. I’ve seen deans try to convert endowed chairs for professionals into chairs for scholars. This matters because of who has power within systems of  faculty governance.

    I agree that the debate should not be about professionals vs. academics. It is only to the extent that extraordinary professionals are not treated equally by people who have the power to do so. My mentor, Bob Maynard, never graduated from high school. But he happened to be a genius, an autodidact, a deep thinker who had an amazing career and won more than a dozen honorary doctorates. Yet I have had the distinct displeasure of being told in recent years and on more than one occasion by those in power that, were he alive, he would not qualify for tenure. So yes, if endowing a chair for a professional would be what it would take at those insitutions to get a genius into the academy, that seems like a good idea to me.  We aren’t talking about professionals who want the good old days, we are talking about creative people who want to collaborate with top scholars to invent new forms of journalism and communication and study and explain them for the benefit of us all.

    Scholars and professionals are unequal in another way. Just as there are mediocre journalists, there are mediocre scholars. While journalists are roundly and publicly criticized, often with justification, journalism and communication educators are not. Both professionals and scholars should have equal power within the academy and equal standards to meet. When I ran a program for scholars who had never been in newsrooms, we included the scholars in our discussions, helped them learn to write for the newspaper and were delighted to see several become department chairs and deans. It would be wonderful to hear of professionals who went to the academy and in the same proportion found themselves more valuable to the profession. From where I sit, getting hundreds of emails in support of equality for professionals, I think the folks who are shy about speaking out are not the scholars but rather the ones whose fate is controlled by them. When I’ve been critical of some of the research the scholars do, to make the point that the system is flawed, the response is “you don’t understand,” which doesn’t address the issue of improving research nor does it help bring the best research forward.

    The digital age presents a do-over moment for journalism and mass communication. At the highest levels, both scholars and professionals seem to agree on this. Both groups could andn should do more to help students get the kind of education they deserve. Talking about this openly is an important first step.

  • Eric Newton

     Actually, I have found the opposite to be true. I’ve received hundreds of private emails from good professionals and pro-good-professional academics and more than a few said they would lose their jobs if they spoke up. Losing a job one already has is a bigger problem than the imagined loss of a grant that one does not have a good statistical chance of getting in the first place. (10,000 applicants get about 150 grants in the journalism and media innovation program). In addition, most journalism educators do not apply to our innovation contests, so they really don’t have anything to lose. As far as academics who are willing to speak up, we try to respond to them and respect their standing up when we know who they are, as I did with Jean, above. In addition to explaining why suggested changes won’t work, it would be helpful for respondents to offer ideas for changes that will work, assuming they agree with the premise that journalism and communication education, like all education in the digital age, needs reform.

  • Jean Folkerts

    Eric and the Knight Foundation certainly are to be commended for starting this important discussion of the future of journalism education. We need a lot of it.Let’s imagine that a chaired professor—a scholar—decided to work as a professional journalist.  What would happen if that professor expected to be named editor-in-chief of a newspaper?  If we think about how ludicrous that would sound to a newspaper staff, it might help us to understand why professors who have worked their way through the tenure and promotion channels are a bit taken aback when they are expected to grant top rank and tenure to a professional journalist. Scholars—or professionals—who are hired as assistant professors and earn tenure and promotion, are tested within the academy.  When a school hires a seasoned journalist, the school has no way of knowing whether that person will be a good teacher, will be interested in research or will be a good colleague.I do hope, Eric, that schools do not create separate “professional” Ph.D. programs.  That invites second-class citizenship.  Professional degrees in psychology, education and business are not regarded equally with a PhD. Business schools have largely abandoned such degrees. Creating a separate doctorate would invite more division rather than less.  Many journalists are completely qualified to earn a PhD. They are capable of writing dissertations that succeed as journalistic and scholarly works. These are long-standing debates in journalism education. In 1984, Everette Dennis, then a young dean at the University of Oregon, marshaled forces to consult an enormous number of scholars, teachers and professionals and amassed documents about journalism education to offer a thorough critique of journalism education and a plan for the future. It was the first full-scale assessment of journalism education to be conducted.The report was highly critical of the lack of innovation in journalism schools and for its lack of participation across the university.  The report also criticized a news industry that complained bitterly about journalism education but put little money toward it.  Journalism schools were grossly underfunded.  Probably the most controversial statement of the report was that “the rapid infusion of new knowledge and pace of technological change will push journalism/mass communication schools away from industry-oriented sequence programs and toward more generic mass communication study.”  Sandra Ernst Moriarty, then at Michigan State University, tried to push the conversation toward the future.  She said, “It will take a massive educational effort to move people from being passive viewers to sorters and selectors.  New courses will be taught to use extensive data banks just as we learn (poorly) to use libraries.  Media courses will focus on such skills as ‘how to find out what you want to know’ or ‘how to master the media.’ “  Moriarty said, “Majors will be a combination of reporters/librarians/data processors.  Information majors will take courses in information processing, logic and management of large-scale databanks.” The report fueled new conversations, changes in accreditation, changes in curriculum, and new conversations between professionals and academics.  However, by 1994, Dennis was discouraged, and he wrote, “The same tired debates continue decade after decade.”  I hope that we can use this opportunity to make progress rather than to repeat the same tired debates. 

    Unfortunately, journalism schools are an easy target. They have been slow to innovate. However, some journalism scholars produced research that gave grave warning about the future of newspapers and traditional approaches to news.  Some schools also embraced the digital age before the industry did – and trained reporters, photographers, and editors to produce digital content. Some University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill graduates were among the first digital hires at The New York Times.  I would argue that journalism schools at this point should have incorporated digital models into their curricula and begun anticipating what happens once we’re no longer viewing digital activity as a revolution, but as an accepted fact.  In other words, schools now should be focused on the post-digital world.

    Additionally, there is a need to ensure future journalists are trained in critical thinking that includes research methods. If political journalists are failing in their coverage of the 2012 campaign, it may be in part because they lack the social science research knowledge on communication and audiences that has been embraced by campaigns. Reporters find themselves at a disadvantage.
    Eric, you asked for ideas.  What if the Knight Foundation decided to embrace research in a big way?  Knight could fund a long-term research center and projects at a major journalism school located in a great research university.  You could put together a team of professionals and scholars with specific goals for research.  It would need to be removed from pressures that now cripple innovation in journalism, education and research. It would need to cross disciplines and work with private industry that now is trying to figure out the future. Knight has funded many innovation projects—a major research project that makes sense of this new world would be, yes, a superlative innovation.

    Jean Folkerts
    Dean Emeritus
    Alumni Distinguished Professor
    UNC-Chapel Hill

  • Castengera

    It would be a shame if this conversation devolved into a
    ‘us or them’ discussion.  Yes,
    there are news neanderthals in academia but there are more than a few cultural
    cro-magnons in the industry as well. Maybe I am naïve, or being ingenuous, but
    the conversation should be about how professionals and academics can better
    partner with each other to prepare people in general and students in particular
    for the media maelstrom that is unfurling.  I would cite just two reports that should raise concerns.
    (There are many.) 

    One by the Cox Center here at the Grady College of
    Journalism which annually surveys recent journalism graduates about their job
    prospects.  Buried in that report,
    and more interesting to me, was a look at journalism degree recipients use of
    news media “yesterday.” No surprise, the number one source – online (76.2%),
    followed, way back, by mobile (56.2%) and then TV news (53.9%).  Less than half (41.6%) read a newspaper
    yesterday or listened to radio news (42.7%).  And, let me repeat, these are journalism grads, although of
    course that includes public relations and advertising. 

    The other is from the University of Texas – Austin.  J-Prof Paula Poindexter has written a
    book about Millenials’ interest in news. 
    They describe news as “garbage, lies, one-sided, propoganda, repetitive
    and boring.”  They do not depend on
    news to help with their daily lives and ‘being informed is not important.’  Hello!  Anybody listening? 

    For the record, I am one of those news professionals
    working in academia – a former newspaper reporter turned television reporter
    turned television manager turned news consultant turned teacher.  As a consultant I produced many of
    those “useful research” reports that helped news stations in the ratings wars.  But I also have learned to appreciate
    those sometimes esoteric research reports that my academic friends
    produce.  They help me better
    understand the nuances of news.

    Also, for the record, we in the Digital and Broadcast
    Journalism department at Grady have adopted the ‘teaching hospital’ model.  The students produce a daily live
    newscast covering the Northeast Georgia region, NOT just the university.  In addition to the on air product, they
    produce updates throughout the day on line through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube
    and, of course, our website.  It is
    a practical hands-on experience that mimics the experience they will have when
    they get out in the so-called ‘real world.’  But, hopefully, with the help of my academic brethren, we
    are also teaching them the meaning of journalism. 

  • Phil Cauthon

    The key to fishing is learning how to keep learning how to fish~