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Nieman Journalism Lab
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Geneva Overholser: Keeping journalism, and journalism school, connected to the public

The USC professor says journalism schools should become “lively centers of campus – and of community – life.”

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 Geneva Overholser, director of USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism, argues that journalism education must ramp up its engagement with the outside world.

Just after I became director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, in a brief speech to the university’s trustees, I mentioned four goals for the school:

  • In the midst of change, we must be ever more devoted to the basics: critical thinking, good writing, the fundamental ethics of journalism, the history and law of our craft.
  • We must get better, fast, at multimedia storytelling, including improved digital skills. We must envision and embrace new ways of getting information in the public interest to audiences wherever they are, on whatever platforms.
  • We must focus on the inclusion of all voices. Americans want to participate in the collection of information. No more lectures. It’s seminars now. And all communities in this fast-changing country need to be given voice — and given trustworthy information.
  • We must infuse the school with a sense of entrepreneurship. Long gone are the days when we could do a story and toss it over the wall, letting other people worry about assembling an audience and paying for our work. If journalism is to thrive, its best minds must be applied to sustaining it.

All valid enough today, I’d say — but I would add one preeminent, overarching goal: Never forget that journalism is all about the public. We can easily focus on the new technologies, the new social media tools, and the new possibilities for financial support. Yet the far more interesting and promising change is the new way of working with the public to make journalism better than it has ever been — more inclusive, more democratic, and more focused on fostering civic engagement. We may have come to understand that journalism is a civic good, but if that notion is to take hold broadly, journalism must do a better job of showing that it’s true.

Journalism schools can lead this effort. We must send our students into our communities (especially underserved communities) to do journalism that makes a difference. I’d offer Intersections South LA and Two Blocks Around The Park as examples of our work in this regard. We must ensure that they do work of substantial value at home and abroad.

We can also lead by example, in partnerships that show the increasingly important role of collaboration, and help build capacity in news organizations. As legacy media are hollowed out by economic pressures, we need institutions that share some of the characteristics that have made them so essential: substantial resources, good-sized staffs, standing in the community, and access to those in power. Who better fits that profile than journalism schools?

Our role as research institutions, too, is key to journalism’s future. We can support research that strengthens and informs those who are making change and apply our scholarship to the practice ourselves. We can be test beds for best practices and test labs for new technologies. We can bring students from different disciplines together to experiment — say, with mobile projects for nonprofits or mobile apps for news organizations.

Finally, we must change our notion of how, when, where, and with whom we do our work as journalism educators. We’re going to have to do much more customizing. That means straying from our longtime patterns and reaching new people. Think news literacy for non-majors. Refresher courses that give a certificate in web analytics or digital storytelling for professionals who want to retool. Mentoring budding journalists in high schools that have lost their school newspaper. Working with community contributors to strengthen their work in local websites. Or, working in collaboration with the education school to offer refresher courses for journalism teachers looking to keep their credits up.

Just as journalism now understands change as its new reality and embraces flexibility, transparency, collaboration, and entrepreneurial thinking, so must the journalism academy. We should become lively centers of campus — and of community — life. Our students will only benefit from this vibrancy. And our institutions will as well.

If all of this sounds familiar to us news types — disaggregation, people formerly known as the audience now in the game, a continually iffy financial model — well, I’d say that’s an important realization in the world of education. The academy seems well en route toward being among the next to “benefit” from disruptive innovation.

We’ve seen this before. We know the lessons. We journalism schools should be leading the charge — and leading the change — at colleges and universities across the country.

Image by Anna Berthold used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Kris Passey

    Seminars, not lectures, hurray! Many good thoughts here, Geneva. I hope they are put to work in the field.

  • genevaoh

    Thanks, Kris.  We are surely trying!

  • tpmedia21

    Sound advice.  We need so much more hands-on and “customizing” as you call it. This will be shared, Geneva.  Thank you!

  • tpmedia21

    It is also being practiced at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

  • StanleyKrauter

    An untenured professor would be fired if her lectures were as disorganized as the events the news media must investigate.  So why can’t a journalism professor like Ms Overholser see that our democracy is crippled by her professional standards?  Does anyone know why the news media is not interested in communicating like a teacher? 

  • StanleyKrauter

    Could you tell me why reporters don’t want to communicate like a teacher?  All students learn more with repetition from studying for a quiz, and then for an exam, and then for a final exam.  Even advertising agencies use repetition to maximize the impact of their propaganda.  But editors and reporters use repetition to maximize the number of customers that buy their newspapers or viewers that watch their news broadcasts.  Then they can charge higher prices for advertising in their newspaper or broadcasts.  So again, could you tell me why reporters don’t want to communicate like a teacher?

  • StanleyKrauter

    Could you tell me why reporters don’t want to communicate like a corporation?  According to laws governing a corporation, it must publish an annual report on the company with information on the company’s past, present, and future status.  But editors and reporters don’t want to publish an annual report on our country in the form of an alamanc that voters could use for making better choices.  Surveys by the news media have shown that voters rely upon campaign commercials for making decisions.  This is not good for our democracy.  But it is unavoidable with the news media’s refusal to publish an annual report.  Does anyone thiink that voters are ever going to take notes when they read a newspaper, etc etc,  So again, could you tell me why reporters don’t want to communicate like a corporation?

  • StanleyKrauter

    Ms Overholser’s advice is just warmed over propaganda from the 60s.  Surveys by news media have repeatedly shown that most voters are too ignorant to vote intelligently.  But Ms Overholser is too concerned with her fantasies about heroic journalism.   One man, one vote is a wonderful principle and a lousy incentive for becoming an informed voter.  And reporters are the only group that can change this dynamic.  But you people don’t care about ignorant voters.  You just care about your fantasies of improving the world with your fake empathy and thrill seeking endeavors.  A reporter’s real attitude is:  we are too important and too busy to educate the public.   

  • Jeff Stanger

    Important thoughts in light of Pew and Gallup’s new numbers — Gallup’s out today — showing growing public distrust of the institution of journalism.