Times are tough for journalism and journalists: The mass media audience is shrinking; Public confidence in credibility is decreasing; Technologies mean news can be delivered differently. Student journalists are entering a demanding world. So, how can today's journalism schools do a better job of finding, nurturing and training the journalists of tomorrow?

That's the key question raised in a report released Thursday by the Carnegie Corporation and the John S and James L. Knight Foundation.  The report, based on work done by McKinsey & Co., addresses the state of journalism education in a world of increasing ethical and economic pressures.

McKinsey, a consulting company, interviewed academics and professionals last summer as part of the project, which it did on a pro bono basis.

The McKinsey study urges journalism schools to strengthen the basics and, at the same time, improve journalists' in-depth knowledge of specific topics. The report, which quoted but did not name those interviewed, suggested schools:

  • "Emphasize the basics of the journalism craft, along with analytical thinking and a strong sense of ethics

  • "Help reporters build specialized expertise to enhance their coverage of complex beats from medicine to economics, and to acquire first-hand knowledge of the languages and cultures of distant parts of the world

  • "Channel the best writers, the most curious reporters, and the most analytical thinkers into the profession of journalism."

In response to the study, the Carnegie and Knight foundations, along with five leading journalism schools, are creating a $6 million initiative to help revitalize journalism schools. Most of the initial funding will come from the foundations.

The goals of the initiative are as far-reaching as the problems identified in the McKinsey report. Among the major efforts:

  • Better integrating journalism schools with the rest of the campus

  • Experimenting with curriculum and hands-on experience, including the "creation of annual national investigative reporting projects overseen by campus professors and distributed via traditional and innovative media." The project, called News21, will be headed by Merrill Brown, an interactive media pioneer.

  • A task force to focus on research and a platform for educators to speak out on journalism education issues

The five deans and schools participating in The Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education are Geoffrey Cowan, dean, Annenberg School for Communication, USC; Loren Ghiglione, dean, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern; Alex Jones, director, The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard; Nicholas Lemann, dean, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia; Orville Schell, dean, Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley.

The group plans to add four or five schools annually with the goal of including graduate and undergraduate schools. The founding academics, along with Carnegie and Knight participants, have been discussing the topic for more than three years. They believe that journalism schools have a unique ability to help the news industry address some of the seemingly overwhelming challenges. Universities, they say, are free of economic pressures and constant deadlines. In addition, journalism schools can search elsewhere in their universities to provide the industry with information that is useful.

The Journalism Education Initiative comes at a critical time for  professionals and academics.

The professional challenges for newspapers, broadcast news programs and other traditional journalism outlets have been well-chronicled.
The Internet has created much of the disruption with the mass media economic models. This is especially true for newspaper companies watching their classified advertising revenues migrate from the high revenue margins of print to the low cost -- and sometimes free -- world of online sites that can be run by a few people and a few servers.

Television finds its audience increasingly spread over more and more media outlets with a decreasing share for the traditional national broadcast news outlets.

Faced with a dizzying menu of media choices, many consumers are picking their news sources like a diner at a buffet: Taking a little of this and a little of that and often spending lots of time at the dessert bar.

In the academic community, the challenges are no less daunting. Journalism professors are often torn between the needs of the practical -– turning out well-trained journalists -– and the desire for the scholarly, which provides more job opportunities.

Some journalism educators who hope to adjust curriculum to reflect the digital age find themselves hampered by accreditation policies. And, in a complaint frequently heard at Poynter seminars, some teachers feel ill-equipped to teach some of the digital skills needed by today's converged journalists.

Where do journalism schools fit in this rapidly evolving world of constant information access? The McKinsey report puts it this way:

Those interviewed were uncertain where journalism schools fit in this new environment. Some believe a degree in journalism is unnecessary. One suggested that working on the student newspaper was sufficient preparation. Some editors and executives responsible for hiring expressed indifference as to a student's major in college. Many news organizations depend on their own intern or desk assistant programs, not college curricula, to cultivate talent. Some promising newcomers "have journalism degrees, but others do not," a newspaper editor said.

Still, some new executives and journalists saw a purpose both to the academic preparation and the credential. One called it "the only way" to break into the television news business. Another praised J schools for teaching students how to work in teams to finish a story.

The debate over the relevance of a journalism education is not new.  Many professionals have argued that deeper understanding of history, political science or English might prove just as valuable as a journalism degree.

In 2000, Presstime, the magazine of the Newspaper Association of America, described the conflict this way in an article titled "Grading the J Schools":

For years, editors have complained that journalism school degree holders are ill-educated, inexperienced and unprepared to step into newsroom jobs.  Educators, on the other hand, bemoan the lack of industry support and face increasing pressure to move their programs away from job training and toward a more theoretical focus.
For those of us who graduated from a journalism school with a very practical approach, it is hard to imagine giving up the hands-on experience of working with journalism professors to produce the school newspaper.

However, at some schools the journalism is being merged or even submerged into the broader landscape of communications, which has a more theoretical approach.

While not addressing it directly in its summary, the McKinsey report suggests that journalism schools maintain a high level of practicality. The report suggested that the journalism schools follow the example of medical schools in preparing journalists. The report said:
To better prepare students for the fast paced, around-the-clock news business, some thought that journalism schools should look at the medical school model of grueling internships and residencies. They also encouraged journalism educators to consider dual-degree programs with other professional schools and academic departments on their campuses.

There has always been this push-pull between the intellectual side of a journalism education –- media history, communications theory –-  and the occupational training –- newswriting basics –- needed to enter the workforce.

A 1995 report on the subject titled "Winds of Change: Whither Journalism Education" raised many of the same issues around what should be the elements of a journalist's education.

Betty Medsger, former chair of the San Francisco State University Journalism department, wrote in 1996 that the "heart of the dispute, as currently framed, is whether to prepare students with the intellectual skills of journalists or to prepare them to be general communicators."

In reading Medsger's response to the Winds of Change study, the parallels to the Initiative on the Future of Journalism are easy to spot.  What seems different, however, is the urgency within the Carnegie-Knight report. It reflects a sense of urgency that many in the profession feel about key business, audience and credibility challenges they face.

The McKinsey project asked professionals what they would prescribe for journalism schools. Here are some of the suggestions from the pros as to what the profs should teach:

  • Basic reporting and writing skills, "as well as the paramount importance of getting the facts right."

  • News judgment and analytical skills, "including the ability to separate fact from opinion and use statistics correctly."

  • Specialized expertise and critical language skills (such as "economics, medical research, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi")

The McKinsey interviewees also said that journalism schools could not "overemphasize the importance of teaching students to embrace and uphold the ethics of journalism."

What happens next? How will journalism schools engage in the conversation? Is the industry willing to rethink its relationship to the academy? How much time is left to figure it out?

The future of journalism training is not an academic debate. It is tied closely to the larger issue of training for professional journalists. 

The media industry has spent little on –- and paid little attention to -- the continuing education of its professionals, as reported in recent studies by the Knight Foundation and The Poynter Institute.

And yet the need for more training is the top cause of job dissatisfaction among journalists, according to a 2002 Knight study. Training ranked higher in importance than money.

Reinvigorating journalism education might provide yet another push toward increasing investment in training professionals across the industry.