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Oct. 17, 2013, 10 a.m.

Eric Newton: Journalism education isn’t evolving fast enough, and you should help change that

“What digital natives can do is make the status quo uncomfortable for professors who won’t change.”

Editor’s note: Last summer, longtime Knight Foundation executive Eric Newton issued a call for reform in journalism 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.”

Here, in announcing two new Knight programs, he argues that change isn’t happening nearly fast enough, and that both outside forces and students have a role to play in pushing to the future. Full disclosure: Knight is a funder of Nieman Lab.

A year ago, I joined a group of foundations that sparked a debate over the future of journalism education by writing to America’s university presidents. The digital age has turned traditional journalism upside down, we observed, but not made much of a dent in journalism education.

We gave it our best shot. But we really didn’t settle anything. The debate rolls on. Only a fraction of journalism professors and schools (the digitally savvy ones) will accept they have a problem.

I realize now that change in journalism and communications education is like climate change, chock-full of deniers. The digital deniers say journalism’s fundamentals have not been upended. Some go so far as to claim that bad leadership alone, and not a sea change, cost America a third of its daily paper newsroom workforce. They claim journalism education stays abreast of any important developments. They caution against caring “too much” about technology.

Professors are supposed to know things. So how do we tell some of them they don’t know what they are talking about?

We need to try, because every year we fall further behind, thousands of journalism and mass communication students get the intellectual and occupational shaft. Digital natives who want to tell stories should be in high demand. Enrollment should be soaring. Status-quo schools dampen these potential trends.

Not all digital natives are getting ripped off. But it could be half of America’s journalism and mass communications students, maybe more. Many may not even realize it at the time. But if you are a student and do, why not become a change agent? If you win, you get the gold — the chance to remake journalism in this profoundly different digital age of communications.

Sure, students say, we can be more vocal. But what do we use for ammunition? Here are seven points you can make to digital deniers:

  • Journalism is about facts. One census said it could classify only about one in five of the nation’s journalism and mass communications programs to be “fully digital.” Is your school among them? If not, why not? And why is only one person trying to measure this?
  • Journalism is about honesty. Until this year, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications did not require the use of “current technology.” In a recent survey, nearly 40 percent of journalism and mass communications graduates did not feel they were taught enough technology. Does your school claim it is up to date when it isn’t?
  • Journalism is about staying current. Of 12,000 full- or part-time faculty, there are only 400 members of the Online News Association educator’s group. Similar numbers are part of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s technology division. Similar numbers go to Journalism Interactive and other ed/tech conferences. What percentage of your teachers are active in digital groups?
  • Journalism is about reaching people their way. Scholar Lillian Kopenhaver’s research is showing that it took 20 years for 95 percent of college media to get online. Others say it’s worse than that. Even now, two decades after the arrival of the web, only 33 percent of high school media are online. Yet many American newspapers now report that a majority of their traffic is coming in via mobile devices. Online is now old. Is your student media mobile and social?
  • Journalism is about reality. Journalism education leaders have funded surveys declaring schools “digital” if they have as little as one elective class in digital journalism. Only now are schools starting to post the most basic of things, such as graduation rates. Why are there no annual surveys of the number of digital degrees, required digital classes, numeracy and coding classes, big data classes, new tools classes, innovation classes, entrepreneurship classes, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding classes, social media classes, mobile media classes? Why is there no accounting of how digital media is incorporated in all classes?
  • Journalism is work. If every company now has a website, why aren’t the percentages of journalism and mass communication students who get jobs dramatically increasing? Is there a relationship between the percentage of students employed after graduation and their tech skills and knowledge? Why do so few newsroom professionals make noise about how graduates don’t have all the skills they need?
  • Journalism is innovation. A class on Google offered as a MOOC by Knight Chair Owen Youngman at Northwestern drew 41,000 students. More than 250,000 users at Poynter’s News University can access self-directed modules. Does your campus offer MOOCs? Do your teachers know about News University? If journalism and communication education fails to help the larger world of education understand the digital age, who will warn of the tsunami of digital disruption knocking on education’s door?

These are just seven starter points. Digital natives, being who you are, can probably think of even better ways to call the question.

Get ready, though. The deniers will say: “If I teach digital, I can’t teach good basic skills, such as good writing.”

Creative teachers find a way. Schools are adding credit hours to key classes. “Flipped schools” assign video lectures as homework and use class time so students can work together during class on what used to be called homework. Creative teachers allow students to teach students and reverse mentor them.

It’s the creative, digitally savvy teachers we hope to help with two new initiatives being launched at the Online News Association’s annual conference today in Atlanta.

The first is “Searchlights and Sunglasses,” a digital book and teaching tool that I wrote with the help of many others, including a team from the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute. The first chapter explains how the digital age is changing journalism; the second, how it isn’t changing journalism education. It boasts more than 1,000 links and lessons; it doesn’t just call for change, but it is an example of that change, being an HTML 5 responsively designed website.

The second initiative is the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education, a micro-granting program designed to give grants of up to $35,000 to schools that want to advance the teaching hospital model of journalism education with live news experiments. Teams of students, professionals, professors, and researchers would propose new techniques or technologies to be tested in an actual news environment, in existing student media or in local media. The result would be news for a community as well as knowledge for the field of journalism.

Foundations have been increasing media funding and are likely to continue to do so. We think that the biggest communications changes since the printing press are helping us get more results per dollar than ever before.

Since only the digitally savvy professors and schools seem willing to admit we have a problem, it’s likely they will get the most attention. But that probably won’t matter to the professors comfortable with the status quo, one in which they already fail to get innovation grants.

What digital natives can do is make the status quo uncomfortable for professors who won’t change. From within, they can call for better data on digital progress. They can refuse to work on old school student media. They can out digital deniers in online teacher rating forums. They can use free educational resources to teach themselves. They can cajole their professors to experiment. These days, they can make the difference, at least at some schools, between evolution and extinction.

Eric Newton is senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Photo illustration based on image by Jason Kong used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 17, 2013, 10 a.m.
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