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

Robert Steiner: In Toronto, we’re dumping the j-school model to produce a new kind of reporter

What if, instead of turning journalists into experts, you focused on turning experts into journalists?

Editor’s Note: Students are back at 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 Robert Steiner, director of the Fellowships in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, talks about the different model that he’s trying — turning experts into journalists rather than journalists into experts.

In its series of pieces on journalism education, the Nieman Journalism Lab raised two of three ideas that could really change the field. The first, from Len Downie: Journalism schools should work more like teaching hospitals. The second, from CNN Digital’s Meredith Artley, is that specialists in certain beats are getting hard to find.

But the breakthrough comes in melding those two ideas to a third: The world now belongs to freelancers.

With that, you have a new kind of journalism education now in its first month at the University of Toronto.

Our Fellowship in Global Journalism deliberately recruits subject-matter experts — academics and professionals — and teaches them to break news in their own disciplines for media around the world. Like medical students, our Fellows spend only a couple of hours a day in class. They spend most of their time working their own beats as stringers for major media; those are our so-called teaching hospitals.

Our fellows don’t get homework; they pitch, report and file to newspapers like The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Dallas Morning News, and The National Post; to broadcasters like CBC News and to specialty news agencies like the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s

They don’t have professors; they have journalism coaches in the University and editors on the desk.

They don’t get marks; their stories either run, or get spiked.

They don’t get a degree; they don’t need another degree.

This year’s fellows include two young professors, three PhDs, a lawyer, a former advertising executive, a former development aid professional, an architectural designer, and a Middle East specialist. Instead of producing a degree, the eight-month program helps them generate reporting networks, clips, sources and a running start to a freelance career for media around the world.

Most importantly, this doesn’t happen at a j-school. The University of Toronto ranks high among the world’s research universities but we have no traditional journalism school to reform. The fellows in Global Journalism sit in the Munk School of Global Affairs, just down the hall from other students preparing for international careers in public service, development, law, science, and business.

Like so much else in journalism now, this is an experiment. So far, it’s working.

Big papers and broadcasters jumped on board to help us get it off the ground. After two weeks of boot camp, our Fellows are beginning to think like journalists. Their story ideas make me sit up, and they have an early flair for interviewing. They’re also feeling all the anxieties about accuracy and deadlines that plague the rest of us.

The idea began three years ago, when some colleagues asked me about the future of journalism education. I was assistant vice president of the university at the time, but had spent my early career as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. I’d never gone to j-school, and was so removed from the discussions about reform that I had no idea the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation were on their way to investing almost $20 million in the same question at that very moment.

For a month, I scanned the curricula of major j-schools around the world and compared them to changes in the way reporters worked since I’d left the Journal for business school at Wharton in 1997. The gaps between curriculum and practice floored me. J-schools were teaching generalists, but the healthiest media companies were going after niche audiences. (And a one-term j-school course in, say, “science for journalists” was not enough to turn produce a knowledgeable specialist.)

J-schools were preparing students to work in newsrooms, but newsrooms were shedding reporters and hiring freelancers. Freelancers, in turn, were saturating their local markets; but one specialized freelancer could become a go-to stringer for media in a dozen markets around the world.

Students in traditional j-schools still expected to “learn by doing” journalism in their summer internships, the way I had as a political science student in the 1980s and 1990s. But few editors have time to teach interns anymore.

So we set out to create something completely different.

We’d recruit real specialists, instead of trying to teach a specialty to generalists. After one month of boot camp, we’d put them right into real media, rather than lock them in class for eight months before an internship. We’d coach them while they worked, rather than dump the teaching job on busy editors. And we wouldn’t prep them for staff jobs. We’d teach them to juggle one lead string with six or seven secondary strings in other markets around the world.

Those differences forced us away from the old path in other ways. Newspapers, broadcasters and web services are our teaching partners — they help us design and even deliver a curriculum that supports their journalism. We teach core writing, broadcast, web and mobile journalism skills. But our curriculum emphasizes global news judgment. Traditional journalism students get assignments; ours must hunt for stories that will play well in markets around the world, defend them to me and another former foreign correspondent at a weekly story meeting, and then pitch them to their lead string.

To help our fellows stay on top of their beats, we’ve embedded them in the broader university. We’ve introduced each student to a dozen top researchers in their own field elsewhere on campus. Political scientists at the Munk School, including Michael Ignatieff, deliver a seminar series on current developments in global affairs. And a clinician in our faculty of social work will teach the lost art of deep interviewing; the way she teaches therapists to spend an hour probing complex issues with patients. At some point along the way, I realized we were bridging the values of a Wall Street Journal bureau, circa 1997, to the working world of 2012.

Boot camp ended on September 28.

By October 6, two of our Fellows had already been published in major media. Santiago Ortega wrote about the U.S. presidential candidates’ positions on climate change for (a site of the Thomson Reuters Foundation), and Stephen Starr wrote about the Syrian National Council for Canada’s National Post (paywall protected; here’s a more recent piece).

Others are now digging out unreported news on major changes in urban development, police oversight, and environmental regulations, among other topics. They’re nervous. Restless. Pumped when a pitch goes great. Anxious when the next one doesn’t. “Riding a roller coaster,” as one Fellow told me recently.

So far, so good.

Munk School photo courtesy the University of Toronto.

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  • Bruce Gellerman

    I don’t see anything wrong in teaching subject experts how to think like a journalist but if you extend the idea why not have a neurosurgeon think like a stockbroker? or my mailman think like a realtor?
    Everyone should be able to communicate but somewhere in all this being a journalist has to have some special standing and talent.  I’ve met a lot of truly brilliant people, many could write quite well, and I’m sure that they could learn the ingredients in the secret journalist sauce, but a journalist isn’t just someone who has expertise, it’s someone who knows how to process information & turn it into a story. So while these skills can be learned, I think I’d much rather have my brain surgeon stick to what they do best…or perhaps, I should pick up surgery in my spare time?

  • StanleyKrauter

    The news media must be reformed by the government forcing the news media to reform itself. 
    Investigative journalism on the housing bubble and subprime mortgage crisis was both prescient and ignored.  Revelations about political corruption by lobbyists and special interest groups have been repeatedly ignored.  Preventable catastrophes like levees breaking and bridges falling down are predictable because our popularly elected politicians are ignoring the warning signs.  Conservatives are constantly rewriting history to promote their ideology.  Liberals are constantly lying to a public that is too ignorant to disapprove of it. 
    But reporters could do a better job of communicating just by publishing an annual one week review of events and conditions.  Which could be republished as a print on demand paperback book or booklet so people could buy a photographic memory of what their politicians have been lying about.  These books or booklets could be made more profitable by including book reviews of the prior year’s fifty or one hundred most important books.  Can you imagine what will happen when Joe Sixpack and Wanda Winecooler actually read a book that doesn’t have a happy ending?  And the reporters’ most important investigative journalism, that is currently being ignored, could become more effective by using one day of the week for a divide and conquer investigative journalism,  This format would be similar to the deliberative polling events that PBS loves but that is completely worthless.  If my proposal for a divide and conquer investigative journalism had been implemented before the subprime mortgage crisis, every Senator and Congressman on the committees that were monitoring banks would have been forced to worry about a team of newspapers that were repeatedly investigating their behavior.  And they would have also been forced to worry about groups of voters in their states and districts were studying their behavior on the committtees.  And these expert voters would have told their friends and neighbors when a Senator or Congressman had sold his vote for a campaign contribution.
    But reporters are not interested in writing the second draft of history.  They think that their work is too important to spend one week every year educating the pubic with recycled facts instead of always entertaining the public with today’s most important and most exciting facts.  So our politicians must give every government employee a paid vacation day on the Monday closest in our calendar to our average tax rate.  (Google Tax Freedom Day)  Such a holiday would make nearly every taxpayer madder than an unregulated firecracker.  But it would also make it profitable for the news media to provide an annual one week review of events and conditions.  And that extra profit in an era of downsizing newspapers could force the news media to do what they should have been doing one hundred years ago..

    But my ideas will be ignored by the experts at Nieman Lab because I don’t live in their bell curve neighborhood.  They still haven’t realized that the investigative journalism on the mortage crisis was both prescient and ignored.    

  • KateMeagher

    So you have subject “experts” and you are teaching them to write about whatever it is they’re an “expert” in. I agree with that last comment. If you take a biologist and teach them to write about what they are an expert at (ie. cell mutation), then they will become really good at writing about cell mutation. How many newspapers are going to want articles on cell mutation? There are so many “experts” who already publish in newspapers, and didn’t need a program like this to do it. I highly doubt any of these graduates will be so well-rounded that they will even want to write about anything else. My advice to them: don’t quit your day job. 

  • kellylatta

    I cover health and medicine and yes, a degree in the life sciences would probably be helpful, but what I also know is that there is constant conflict and controversy in these areas and it takes a good journalist to balance the reporting. Specialists by definition specialize meaning they have built in prejudices and agendas that they may not even be aware of.  

    For example an expert in pharmaceuticals may lean one way while specialists in public health may lean another.  Being a journalist/watchdog is so much more than knowing the subject and being able to write well. 

  • Scott Wallask

    It’s a good model to try. I remember one of my first journalism professors at Northeastern University in 1989 said even back then that niche reporting was going to be the best place to find a secure job — and from my point of view, she was right. I see the point of people who say a journalist is more than a writer – he or she is a watchdog. Put another way, a journalist probably needs a dose of cynicism and a desire to challenge authority. It’s hard to teach that; I think that reflects someone’s personality. But it’s also clear the general public has grown tired of the traditional watchdog journalist to an extent. Above all else, in this day when an Internet user has to trust what info they are reading, the general public wants to know that  a reporter knows the topic well and is some form of an expert on it.

  • josephrueter

    I had a friend send me the link. I love what Nieman is doing and follow along on a monthly basis. 

    We at completely agree with the what if statement above. Go Go Go. What if experts had an easy and emotionally/cognitively rewarding way to “report” their perspective? We’re here. We don’t think we solved all the problems. In fact, we know we have not. Yet, we’re working and learning and happy to be a part of the conversation.  Onward.

  • Carrie Brown-Smith

    This is an interesting and exciting idea, and I love to see experiments in this area. I think this is a key part of the future of news, but I don’t think that training society’s elites to do journalism will be enough – we still need journalism schools that are often doing what our secondary education system is (sadly) not, which is teaching basic literacy skills to those who will be, if nothing else, future news consumers. And as much as I’ve been a critic of journalism schools failure to change myself, believe you me, we don’t sit around assigning stories and handing out homework. Our students are contributing to hyperlocal publications and local media, pitching story ideas, learning to cover beats with their own blogs, and more. Maybe I’m just getting tired of all the condescension. It’s unbelievable easy to teach high-level journalism skills to people with advanced degrees…wait I mean “coach” them, sorry – but try doing our job and teaching it to students who hugely unprepared even for standard college work someday. Your effort is plenty noble in the service of news in the public interest, I just get tired of the sneering.

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