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Oct. 30, 2014, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Before the “teaching hospital model” of journalism education: 5 questions to ask

It’ll take a new generation of academic leadership — willing to incur the wrath of faculty, the greater university, alumni, industry, and analysts — to break through the old ways we train journalists.

Thousands of words have been written these past couple of years about “the teaching hospital model” of journalism education, and I’ve read most of them. I’m a stakeholder because I teach reporting in the newsroom of the Columbia Missourian, the digital-first, five-day-a-week community newspaper affiliated with the Missouri School of Journalism.

When Walter Williams created the School of Journalism here in 1908, he was pretty clear about one thing: He didn’t think you could learn journalism without doing it. So we have several working newsrooms here that provide the “lab” for students learning online, magazine, newspaper and broadcast journalism. None of these labs, however, represents the ideal, “everything-under-one-roof” environment in which to produce the journalism of the future, in the view of the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton, who writes and speaks often about the teaching hospital model.

I like that Newton is talking about one idea with great potential. It provides a target to shoot toward while we’re busily revising curricula, individual courses, even majors.

What we also need is a thoughtful and fearless discussion of what holds back the lively and ongoing project of teaching journalism with an experimental frame of mind. (In this sense, the analogy to the teaching hospital may not be perfect, because teaching hospitals provide instruction mostly on conventional cures and treatments, not experimental approaches that are equally likely to kill the patient as cure him forever.) The barriers are built into the structure of academic institutions and touch upon sensitive issues like tenure, academic research autonomy, and editorial independence.

Journalism schools should be asking themselves several key questions as they go forward, and the answers are likely to predict a program’s likelihood of success — if by success we mean graduating journalism students who are invested in vibrant forms of journalism that help communities help themselves and improve the odds that journalism itself will survive.

Do faculty have the resources they need to teach new subjects and skills to students of varying levels of experience and ability?

One of the problems of journalism education is that against a backdrop of constant change in the industry, schools must be willing to make a financial commitment to training or retraining faculty to teach what needs to be taught, whether it’s mobile journalism, audience metrics, audience engagement and outreach, coding, or video editing. Universities are being starved for cash, and endowments don’t necessarily come bearing gift tags for faculty training.

So faculty teach what they know, and that might not be cutting edge. Best-case scenario in most places is that faculty will push themselves to get trained any way they can, even by their own, brilliant students or by spending their own money to attend conferences or meetings. Some faculty don’t want to learn new things, and that’s a problem crying out for a creative solution. I don’t have one.

Leaders must also make a commitment to making new hires that boldly reflect new teaching needs, based on likely-to-stick industry trends. This entails focusing on a question we all need to be asking ourselves often: What are we teaching that we no longer need to teach, so we can teach what we should be teaching?

When it comes to continuing education of journalism instructors, industry might be able to provide part of an answer. A piece published by Nieman Lab this summer celebrated a project that embedded five journalism professors in newsrooms to help them reshape their courses to reflect what’s actually happening in the industry, or at least in those five newsrooms. It’s a great, affordable idea and one that is easily replicated. But it makes sense only if the newsrooms where professors embed are trying something sufficiently new or experimental, because I can think of some newsrooms that aren’t.

In its potential, you might call it mutually assured construction: It’s good for newsrooms to have faculty around because it reminds working journalists to be thoughtful about the journalism they’re doing and the decisions they’re making. And it helps faculty retool their courses with intention.

First and foremost, though, it’s up to the leadership of journalism schools to bet money on their own faculty, regardless of their rank or tenure status, and encourage the kinds of professional partnerships that let faculty play in any setting where ideas abound and the potential for creativity is practically guaranteed.

Are your research faculty and fellows encouraged to partner and engage in an ongoing conversation about questions that need answering and research that needs testing? Are experimental ideas and innovations in your school being documented and shared in a systematic way?

When I traded my place on a newspaper masthead for a classroom at the Missouri School of Journalism, I somehow expected more conversation between research and professional practice faculty. This was my vision of academia and one of those naive things that recently former journalists tend to do when they begin to teach: assume that academic institutions bear even a passing resemblance to other kinds of organizations that have shared goals. I’ve learned that in academia, goals may be similar in the abstract, but faculty may operate on parallel tracks to reach them.

I have gained an appreciation for the importance of independence on both sides, but I also think that we could do more and better work together at the intersections — helping to produce journalism that is informed by research and research that is enriched by practice, or a closer observation of practice. Missouri is unusual in that it houses the Reynolds Journalism Institute, which strives to bring together academics, practitioners, and citizens with the common goal of improving journalism. When RJI announces its fellows for the year, I go down the list — as I am sure other faculty here do — and reach out to the people on it I think would inspire and engage my students. The result is almost always thought-provoking, both for my students and the visiting fellow.

We need more of that.

Are you moving toward a truly converged curriculum that gives students the best chance to develop the greatest variety of news-gathering, presentation, and distribution skills?

Many journalism faculties are still divided according to platform because it’s so difficult to tear down silos. It no longer makes sense to teach several platform-defined classes on reporting. The cost-conscious manager of a private company would see this as duplication of efforts and not the best possible use of resources. And he or she would be right.

Whenever possible, faculty strengths should be pooled in one educational setting. Most journalism schools could create a “dream team” from the best laboratory instructors teaching core skills like reporting, editing across platforms, web production, mobile journalism, audience engagement, etc. But to do so would entail eliminating faculty positions, blowing up structures, and upsetting students who came to a particular institution for a particular education.

Cue a caped journalism education crusader, a superhero willing to incur the wrath of faculty, the greater university, alumni, industry, and analysts. But that’s what it will take: a next generation of academic leadership that is willing to undo what has been done in order to do what must be done.

Are you teaching your students how to create journalism they’d be proud and happy to share? Does the journalism you’re teaching know whom it’s serving?

I’ve detected a disconnect between the journalism we celebrate and the journalism our students can relate to and are likely to value and share. What I want to say to them at the beginning of each semester is: This isn’t your grandma’s journalism. And I so want that to be true, in spite of the barriers to reaching that goal.

I have a theory that our students are an in-between generation of future journalists. Some of them think their choice is between producing listicles and GIFs (and feeling silly about it) or “the serious stuff” — real journalism, the stuff they rarely read. They can’t chart the space in between with something of their own making — a journalism that is smart, engaging, and useful.

The big kaboom in the newsroom where I teach reporting was sparked by Joy Mayer’s audience engagement and outreach efforts. Getting reporting students thinking about who’s reading what, why something resonated with and was shared by readers, and what readers are saying to us has helped begin to close the disconnect. Building a relationship to our audience and what the audience needs and wants is the bridge that is helping our students understand the value of what we do. That’s motivating inventiveness.

Are you willing to do the hard work and feel uncomfortable every day?

Anyone who works with students in any ongoing way to produce journalism will tell you it’s a slog. Recently, another journalism educator asked me what kind of office hours I keep, and I burst out laughing. It never stops, during the semester. That’s the hard part.

The uncomfortable part is knowing that the industry is changing faster than the teaching can change to keep up with it. Do you stick to the fundamentals? What’s a fundamental? And haven’t those changed, too? Syllabuses need revision every semester, and new courses need to be created as often. It’s like fixing a car while you’re driving it.

It also means admitting you don’t know how to do something. Educators aren’t comfortable with that, especially in front of their students. But if ever the sweet old bromide “There are no wrong answers” were true, it’s now, if we’ve created and are contributing to a teaching atmosphere that is adventurous and sees failure for what it is — a prerequisite to learning.

Good journalism teachers must listen for the sound of their students’ playing their own tune, or risk producing graduates who are mimicking the sound of an echo. We can do this by looking far and wide for examples of unusual and innovative approaches to storytelling, data visualization, and other forms of journalism to share with our students. Teaching those forms and the tools for creating them is likely to inspire students to make stuff up, to riff on what others are doing. But students and faculty have to work together in an environment that encourages and enables that kind of creativity — and then measures its impact.

That’s why the conversation about the future shape of journalism education should be about removing the obstacles to more rapid change. It should take place everywhere journalism is being taught, and it should be more inclusive — because I’m sure there will be more than one model for the journalism education of 2020 and beyond.

Katherine Reed is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Photo by Amy used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 30, 2014, 10 a.m.
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