Where are J-Schools in Great Debate over Journalism’s Future?
As the Fall semester begins at journalism schools around the country, and faculty and administrators make their plans for the coming year, it is worthwhile recalling a Congressional hearing held in the spring. Chaired by Senator John Kerry, the subject was the current crisis in journalism. At his Senate session, not a single journalism school professor was asked to testify.
Their absence points to a serious underlying problem with journalism schools and the profession more broadly -- journalism schools are not adequately engaged with the great public debates over the future of their core sector.
Business school educators are regularly interviewed on NPR or in national business magazines about the state of business education, and its contribution to the crisis in confidence in business ethics and economic performance. Medical school professors are similarly engaged with their relevant publics. Not so with journalism teachers.
Yet arguably, the performance of journalism schools has something to do with the current sub-par performance of the profession. And the performance of journalists working in independent, high quality media has a lot to do with the fate of our American democracy. As journalism professors and deans set their priorities for 2009-2010, the invisibility of J-schools should be near the top of our agenda, otherwise we risk paying a terrible price for our inattention to the big picture beyond our classrooms.
American media have come under their fair share of criticism in recent years, especially legacy newspaper and broadcast media. Yet at the moment when legacy media are being excoriated for their demonstrable failure to adapt quickly to the new world of digital convergence, and when newspapers are dying daily, the performance and responsibilities of the institutions that train so many journalists, editors and managers has gone largely unexamined in the public eye.
According to some surveys, J schools supply roughly 50 percent of the journalism work force. If those of us who lead journalism schools are responsible for training a goodly percentage of the people who made questionable decisions over the past decade, then journalism schools bear some responsibility for the industry's recent poor performance. If we provide half the professionals, don't we bear at least some responsibility? Shouldn't we bear some obligation to help journalism get out of the mess it's in? Perhaps, but are we up to the task?
These are not mere academic abstractions. Beginning my third year as dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, I am confronted with these challenges in very practical, concrete terms:
- What should our faculty teach?
- What kind of faculty should we recruit?
- What kind of students should we admit?
- Will we have students applying in the future?
- What is the best mix to convey the traditional verities and high standards of traditional journalism while also training future journalists to tell stories across multiple platforms using the latest technologies?
- Will there be a profession for their talents in 10 years?
As a relative newcomer, I find it curious that there hasn't been greater attention to the performance of the nation's leading journalism schools in the midst of the media meltdown occurring all around us every day. Our sister schools in business and government are more willing to go very public and point to what doesn't work and what does, and to propose novel solutions inside their own institutions.
The cover of the June issue of the Harvard Business Review refers readers to its article "The Buck Stops (and Starts) at Business School." Medical school faculty regularly point to failures –- and opportunities -– to improve their training of physicians for the 21st century. Where is the visible counterpart in journalism education?
In a moment of root and branch radical changes throughout the media, where are the open, public debates over radical options coming out of the top journalism schools? Where are the suggestions on how to change our teaching, research and public service practice to contribute to the rehabilitation of American media? After all, the stakes are high –- arguably, democracy itself.
To be fair, there are robust conversations and innovative practices taking place in a variety of different settings. Journalism professors get together to talk to one another at annual conferences like the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, which met this year in Boston.
Journalism schools bear some responsibility for the industry's recent poor performance.There are several national commissions, including the ambitious Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education (I'm involved in that commission). And a number of journalism schools are pushing at the frontier by becoming providers of news to serve their local communities.
But these scattered practices and internal conversations are not finding their way into the public discourse, and hence reduce the schools' potential to promote novel ideas and solutions more broadly, especially in the world of practice, and to influence the broader debates around the future of journalism. The most robust and pointed discussions about the imperatives of reform occur –- not surprisingly -– in the online space by writers like Clay Shirky at NYU.
But journalism schools obviously have a huge stake in the survival and future of the media. These are the institutions that hire most of our graduates. If the media markets don't recover somehow, someway, then we may lose half our students, half our revenues and half our faculty positions.
Journalism and communications schools should provide at least some of the solutions, just as we provide much of the personnel. As UC Berkeley J-school dean Neil Henry and others have written, they need to become incubators and examples of novel ways to gather and produce the news for their communities. Some of our schools have become among the largest news gatherers in their city. In Los Angeles only the LA Times has a larger newsroom staff than the Annenberg journalism school.
There needs to be general agreement that as part of the wider journalism profession, journalism schools too face a crisis of competence and confidence. We have to agree that while much remains that is good, some of what we do is outmoded and badly needs to be fixed. To survive, journalism schools have to become much more intellectually and professionally ambitious.
We need to become centers for experimentation and innovation, and move from rather passive observers to passionate participants in a great national debate. Certainly, there are scattered experiments in many of our best schools, but they are too few in number and too modest in impact and visibility.
Some of these multiple problems are of our own doing, and the resolution lies within our schools. Other elements lie in our paltry relations with our external stakeholders.
One of the biggest surprises on becoming dean of a large communications and journalism school (almost 2,000 students, almost 200 faculty) was the absence of regular, organized two-way conversations between journalism schools and the publishing/broadcasting industry. The relations between professors and the profession seem curiously stunted -- the official channels are few and far between, ad hoc and constricted, especially when contrasted to those between other professional schools and their professions.
Prior to joining the Annenberg School I spent much of my professional life teaching in public policy schools, and occasionally even in a business school. In these schools there are broad, regular and multiple channels of mutual exchange -– not just providing the best students they can, but equally through their research, analyses, case studies, sharp critiques and useful advice.
First, the teaching profession needs to admit the extraordinary urgency of our situation. Simply put, we adapt our we die.It is widely accepted, and indeed encouraged, for professors in policy schools and business schools to do consultancies with the relevant private, public or non-profit entities the professors study and to whom they provide trained graduates. This regular exchange between the worlds of ideas and practice is an American tradition that helps keep the U.S. at the forefront of knowledge creation that is both relevant and rigorous.
For their part, law firms, local governments, the World Bank, the Red Cross and start-up technology firms regularly cite the research done by analysts at their relevant professional schools, and they consistently reach out to university-based colleagues for advice and guidance. But this pattern of close relationships between professors and practitioners seems not to be the pattern in journalism and media more broadly.
J-schools are the outliers. As one of my colleagues succinctly put it, as far as distinguished and relevant research is concerned, "the schools didn't do it and the industry didn't want it."
Journalism schools need to take several concrete steps to move forward, beginning with careful self-examination. After 24 months of a faculty review of our entire school from top to bottom and trying to re-imagine what a 21st century school of media, journalism and communication would look like, Annenberg is launching a broader online and face-to-face conversation about our future that will involve not only our faculty, but all our students, staff, alumni and those in the "real world" who hire our graduates -– private media, but also non-profits and government.
We are trying to garner the best advice we possibly can on how to create a "full service" school that will allow all our graduates to thrive and lead in the new digital environment, relying increasingly on platforms for story telling that are distributed, interactive and bottom up.
Our two years of exploration have brought home several messages.
First, the teaching profession needs to admit the extraordinary urgency of our situation. Simply put, we adapt our we die. Some recent skirmishes on Huffington Post suggest that journalism schools have already missed the boat and failed to adapt and should be shut down. But if we are to adapt and innovate, then schools in this space must strengthen our own internal dialogue and information- sharing about best practices within and beyond our own campus walls.
Second, what we teach and how we teach needs to be deeply informed by more regular conversations with practitioners. Journalism professors need to reach out more systematically to media professionals in the new and the legacy media. We need to go to professionals in their newsrooms and business offices, and to the garages and new media incubators of media entrepreneurs.
We need regularly to attend the annual meetings of professional business associations. We need to ask outright: What kinds of contributions can the academy make to the profession? What can our schools contribute to economic literacy, technological sophistication, and the capacity to understand the complexities of the emerging media ecosystem, from social media to newspapers?
How can we produce graduates who pursue "information in the public interest," as Geneva Overholser, the Director of the USC Annenberg Journalism School puts it. We need to be training not only journalists, but writers who create content for NGOs, think tanks and other institutions.
Third, the academy must begin to produce more high-quality, relevant research that draws on rigorous traditions in the social sciences. These tough times demand big questions and big smart answers -- not puny answers to unimportant questions.
The schools especially need to end the shocking economic illiteracy that marks too much of journalism education today, which makes it harder to get high quality economic reporting, while reinforcing the fire wall between the business and content sides of the profession, and ensuring that our graduates will make ill-informed career choices.
Since the explosion of online channels permits everyone to tell a story, we need to claim and demonstrate that the relevance of the skills and ethics of journalism have become more relevant than ever before, and journalism schools are needed more than ever, for all citizens and not just professional media mavens.
The popular claim that "we are all journalists now" must be refuted; perhaps we are all producers of online content, but the great values associated with journalism must be nurtured to ensure the high quality reporting that a thriving democracy has the right to expect.
We ought to lead the charge for greater media literacy for all citizens, as we recognize and transcend the yawning chasm that separates the "digital immigrants" of older generations from the 20-something "digital natives" in our classrooms.
Finally, our profession needs to raise its sights much higher and link our teaching and research to broad issues of media, democracy and societal changes, and eschew the self-referential, inward-looking focus that marks too many academic exercises.
The leadership of journalism and communications schools must step forward with a more coherent, sweeping vision of what our profession can become, and mobilize the non-stop vitality that the current crisis demands of us.
Done properly, we can help our students and the public interest. If we fail, then like much of the media industry today, journalism schools will continue a long, slow descent into less and less relevance for addressing the major issues of our time. We must rise to the task of helping save journalism, and in the process saving ourselves. The stakes couldn't be higher.
I wish to thank Neil Henry, Geneva Overholser and Roberto Suro for their generous comments on earlier drafts. Any flaws or errors are my own.