Howard Finberg

Howard has been in journalism for 40 years. His resume includes positions with the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Arizona Republic. He was the Presidential Scholar at Poynter in 2002 and joined Poynter full-time in 2003 to direct its e-learning project, News University. In 2012 he became the Institute's Director of Partnerships and Alliances. His Twitter account is @Hif


New newsroom training report shows gaps, some progress

For many journalists, this is the best of times for training. For others, it’s a missed opportunity, according to a new Poynter report.

The results of a new report “Constant Training: New Normal or Missed Opportunity?” were released today by The Poynter Institute and the Knight Foundation. Two-thirds of journalists report that they have received training the past 12 months. In addition, more than half, 56 percent, of those journalists were mostly satisfied or very satisfied with the training.

That’s a significant improvement from the 1993 “No Train, No Gain” report, published by the Freedom Forum, which revealed that only 14 percent of the journalists surveyed received regular weekly or monthly training at their newspapers. A follow-up report, “Newsroom Training: Where’s the Investment?” in 2002 painted a similar picture, with more than two-thirds of the journalists surveyed saying they “receive no regular skills training.”

However, Poynter’s 2014 survey shows that training varies wildly between newsrooms, with several reporting less than half of staff members have received training in the past year.  The lowest response was a newsroom where only 17 percent of staff members reported receiving training.

The results are from a survey of staff members from 31 newsrooms around the country conducted by The Poynter Institute on behalf of the Knight Foundation. The newsrooms ranged in size from 20 to 150 staff members. More than 1,650 staff members were possible participants for the survey, which achieved a 72.5 percent response rate or 1,188 responses. The survey was conducted online in June–July 2014.

Given the whirlwind of disruptions at news organizations during the past two decades, it’s good news that more journalists are getting journalism training than ever before, and they have an appetite for even more. Almost nine in 10 journalists [88 percent] said they could absorb more training, especially training that’s digitally-focused.

However, there are some disturbing results from the survey, with a third of the journalists in the survey [34 percent] saying that they received no training in the past 12 months. Considering the abundance of free or low-cost training available, the numbers of journalists not getting training seem strikingly high.

Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation takes an even harsher view of the situation in a blog post about the study:

But today’s study says we’re stuck at roughly the same average even as change is accelerating. What’s more, a national survey reports an overall average. In some newsrooms, nearly everyone gets some training; in others, the number can go as low as 17 percent. How can a number get that low when programs such as News University and NewsTrain have wiped out obstacles such as money and time?

Some will say they are trapped under bosses who don’t think well-trained people are faster and better. Others will say their company’s only focus is its cash-cow strategy, milking the business to death, and good journalism has no place there.

Today’s rapidly changing media ecosystem demands that journalists continually refresh their skills. In 1993, the Internet as a means to deliver news and information was a glimmer in a digital futurist’s eye. Today, digital-first isn’t just a slogan; it’s what is needed to get journalism to the public.

From Poynter-Knight Newsroom Training Report 2014

Barriers to Training. From Poynter-Knight Newsroom Training Report, 2014

The survey participants, when asked what kind of training they wanted, put digital topics at the top of their lists. Seven of the top 10 training topics had a digital focus, with social media, the use of digital tools and video skills as the top three areas where journalists thought that training could help them in their profession during the next 12 months. Other top topics were data journalism, audience development, writing skills, managing change, mobile devices, Web analytics and Web design.

Another indication of the hunger for training could be seen when we looked at what training participants wanted compared with which training they had in the previous 12 months. For example, 59 percent of the journalists who took digital tools training wanted more training on that topic. There were similar high levels of hunger among those who took training in video skills, Web analytics or mobile devices.

This raises the point that everyone, especially journalists, lives in a world of constant learning. Each new technology creates new opportunities and new challenges. Which create new openings for training. To be successful in the digital world, a journalist needs to embrace the idea of “constant training” to meet the changing demands of the workplace.

Other results from the “Constant Training” report survey are more troubling.

Actually doing the training presents a significant problem. Lack of time was cited by 62 percent of the participants as the number-one factor that prevented them from getting the training they needed or wanted. That’s twice as many responses as lack of funds, the second-place factor, which was selected by 34 percent.

Print-first vs. Digital-first. From Poynter-Knight Newsroom Training Report, 2014

Print-first vs. Digital-first. From Poynter-Knight Newsroom Training Report, 2014

The survey also provides an unsettling insight into the focus of the newsrooms surveyed. The journalists surveyed still see their newsrooms as print-centric or straddling the fence. Only one in 10 said that their newsrooms are thoroughly “digital-first.”

In addition, newsrooms surveyed are dominated by older workers — the median age of the survey participants is 48 years old — raising questions about how managers make sure that they are effectively engaging younger staff members and providing digitally-focused and relevant training to all staffers, regardless of age or digital background.

The report and data can be downloaded from here: Read more

Modern wireless technology and social media

8 Tips for Techno-Evangelists

Modern wireless technology and social mediaJournalism and technology don’t always go together very well.

I think there’s a natural conflict between the gathering of news and information and the various means of packaging and distributing it. This conflict is especially challenging for newsroom managers. On one hand, they want to focus on the journalism; on the other, they need to stay aware of technological changes and motivate their staffs to try new digital tools.

Newsroom leaders need to be evangelists for change — and that includes technological change. They need to better understand the role of technology adoption within their organizations as the means of gathering and sharing news shifts at an increasing rate.

The rate of technology adoption is critical to the success of news organizations, which is why we are embarking on new research about the topic, starting with a survey of journalists, educators, students and others. Follow this link to participate in the technology adoption survey.

While picking the right tools is important, it is essential for managers and staffs to look at technology adoption as part of a larger process. Here are my eight tips for being a better “techno-evangelist.”

  1. Understand that technology is an ecological issue. By itself, technology adds nothing to a newsroom. However, its introduction changes everything.
  2. A newsroom learns by example. If newsroom managers are not willing to invest time or energy in understanding technology, they should not expect the staff to care.
  3. The key issue in technology adoption isn’t hardware or even software or apps. It’s workflow. Understand how work moves (or how you want it to move) through the newsroom or organization, and you’ll understand what technological solutions you need.
  4. Techno-evangelism means finding a leader who will take risks, become a teacher, shoulder responsibility and be willing to go wandering in the “desert.”
  5. Looking at history can help you prepare for the future. Recognizing a paradigm shift is important; knowing when there isn’t one is more important. Going from hot type to cold type was evolutionary; going digital was revolutionary.
  6. No matter how much you try to be on the “cutting edge,” there always will be something newer and cheaper (or free) the day after the purchase order is signed. Accepting that as part of the “techno-lifecycle” reduces stress and allows you to make better decisions.
  7. No matter how well you plan, the project will take six months longer.
  8. Computers, programs and apps crash. No matter how fast any of it works, no matter how nifty it all looks, technology is just machines, software and technology.

I originally wrote those eight thoughts for a Society of News Design workshop in 1993. Only minor tweaking was needed for this article. Read more

Funny goat's portrait on a green sunny meadow background

Why newsrooms don’t embrace digital tools

Many newsrooms in the U.S. are still not taking advantage of the low-cost digital tools for gathering and distributing journalism, even when journalists and producers know about the alternatives to traditional technologies.

That’s one of the findings in a report published today by Mark Stencel, Poynter Institute digital fellow, Bill Adair, Knight chair of computational journalism at Duke University, and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, a former assistant at the Duke Reporters’ Lab.

The report, “The Goat Must Be Fed. Why digital tools are missing in most newsrooms,” is based on interviews with more than 20 editors, news directors and digital editors at newspapers, TV and radio stations. Read more

core skills report cover

Journalism needs the right skills to survive

Despite the economic imperatives facing the media industry, professional journalists lag behind educators and others in rating the importance of multimedia and other digital storytelling skills.

That finding is the result of new research from The Poynter Institute, which shows a wide divergence between professionals and educators in their thinking on the importance of core journalism skills, especially those skills that are essential for mastering new methods of gathering and delivering news and information. It is unclear whether educators are putting too much emphasis on these skills or whether professionals have a different perspective given their day-to-day work.

The Core Skills for the Future of Journalism report, released today, raises the puzzling question as to why the professionals who responded to the survey don’t rate the importance of multimedia skills in today’s visual, multiplatform media landscape as highly as educators, students and independent journalists.

Educators who responded also value knowledge about the business of media and the larger media landscape much higher than journalists working in media organizations. And, to a greater degree than professionals, educators appear to recognize the value of key newsgathering skills that have become more essential in the digital age, such as the ability to analyze and synthesize large amounts of data.

Poynter’s Future of Journalism Competencies survey identified 37 key skills or attributes and knowledge areas. The survey asked professionals, educators and students to rate the importance of those skills, attributes and knowledge areas for beginning journalists as they look toward careers in the digital and mobile age.

The report can be downloaded from here. On Thursday, April 10, co-authors Howard Finberg and Lauren Klinger discussed the findings in a webinar sponsored by the Knight Foundation. The replay is available free for viewing.

Professionals at media organizations rated the importance of all of the multimedia skills much lower than did educators, students and even independent or freelance journalists. The difference is striking.
For example, few would argue that video skills are set to decline in importance in the future.

  • Less than half (46 percent) of the professionals who responded said that ability was important to very important
  • Yet more than three-fourths (76 percent of educators) regarded this skill as important to very important

Photography, an essential skill since most reporters today are equipped with smartphones or cameras, is less important to professionals than to educators.

A slightly higher percentage of professionals (53 percent) thought it was important to very important that a journalist have the ability to shoot and edit photographs. However, more than 75 percent of educators in the survey thought photography skills were important to very important.

Given the evolving platforms for journalism — the Web, phones, tablets —  these difference between professionals and educators (and the other groups surveyed) are noteworthy.

The gap may indicate that professionals in media organizations, both staff members and managers, have not fully embraced the importance of digital skills so essential to online and other new forms of journalism. While not all of the core skills surveyed should be emphasized equally when it comes to training today’s beginning journalists, all are important.

As more journalism is produced for the Web, for tablets and for other mobile devices — not just published on them — it is striking that professionals who responded placed relatively little importance upon the skills necessary to shoot video, record audio, take photographs and tell visual stories. There were also gaps in other categories that are important to understanding the global digital media environment, including understanding different cultures and the media landscape.

Tom Huang, Sunday and enterprise editor of The Dallas Morning News, in an email about the survey’s results, argued that perhaps professionals are weighing traditional skills and digital skills carefully:

So while I recognize the importance of digital skills, if I had to choose, I’d first choose journalists with “traditional” skills and then train them on digital skills, rather than the other way around. I think the point of the survey, though, is that we shouldn’t have to choose. New journalists should come equipped with a whole host of skills, both traditional and digital.

Perhaps, given the drumbeat about educators not “going digital” over the past three years from various individuals, including the report’s co-author Howard Finberg and the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton, the finding that educators are becoming more digital-savvy should not be surprising.

Sue Burzynski Bullard, associate professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and former managing editor of The Detroit News, said she wasn’t surprised that educators rated digital skills highly in the survey.

“After the 2012 call for change in journalism education,” she wrote in an email, “the debate among educators about what journalism graduates need to know got louder. It became harder to ignore the need for change. Most educators would say it’s important that our students understand digital skills and multimedia storytelling if they’re going to find jobs in today’s journalism world. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean every journalism professor is ready or willing to incorporate those skills into their classes yet. That’s still evolving. And in some cases, it’s still a battle.”

It is important to remember that saying a skill is important, which was our survey question, is not the same as using or teaching that skill. However, the first step in doing something new is to acknowledge its importance.

Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president/news at the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group [Rochester, N.Y.], expressed in an email that she is skeptical about whether these skills are being taught:

Educators may think all of those things are important but the results coming out of colleges are very mixed. My personal experience with journalism grads is that they fall into one of two categories:  solid writers/reporters with limited digital skill sets or multimedia journalists who are great with video but don’t understand how to work a beat or dig much deeper than what’s given in a press release or press conference.  Both types are problematic in today’s newsrooms.  We need it all!

However, it appears that educators have listened to the debate about the need to change, at least enough to acknowledge the importance of new skills. But the question remains what professionals are hearing when it comes to the need to change what they do. And whether there is a disconnect between the staff members, as represented in the survey, and the senior management at various newspaper companies who are pushing their organizations to change.

During the past 10 years, the media industry has seen the decline of the specialist and the corresponding rise of the generalist. It started in the broadcast industry with “one-man band” journalism, where the reporter is also the camera person and sound engineer, and it has spread to print publications. Print journalists are routinely expected to take pictures and record sound bites and even video to complement their text-based stories so that those stories make compelling content for digital platforms.

If professionals need another indicator that the workplace is changing, they only have to consider the disappearance of journalism jobs. Print media have lost 16,000 jobs in the past decade, a drop of almost 30 percent, according to the American Society of News Editors, reported in the Pew State of the News Media 2014 report. The survivors are expected to take on new digital-focused tasks. In the same time frame, Pew estimates that about 5,000 new journalism jobs have been created — in digital-only news outlets.

It seems obvious that digital skills are essential for any journalist who wants to succeed in the 21st century.

Thus a discussion about skills is part of the larger debate about the future of journalism education. During the past two years, academics, foundation leaders and professionals have expressed a wide range of opinions about whether journalism education can be saved — and even whether a journalism degree is valuable.

Two Poynter studies on the topic showed an enormous gulf between professionals and professors about the value of a journalism degree. The first survey was conducted in 2012 as research for a speech I gave at a 20th anniversary celebration for the European Journalism Centre. That survey had responses from more than 2,000 professionals and educators.

The second study, the State of Journalism Education 2013, showed:

  • 96 percent of those who identified themselves as educators believed that a journalism degree was very important to extremely important when it came to understanding the value of journalism
  • Editors and those who worked in journalism had a less favorable opinion, with only 57 percent of professionals saying that a degree was very important to extremely important

Future of Journalism Competencies survey results

Our new research report is based on the Future of Journalism Competencies survey, which was conducted in late 2013 and early 2014. The survey received more than 2,900 responses from media organization professionals, independent or freelance journalists, educators and students. The participation breakdown was:

  • Professionals: 1,124, 39 percent; 425 participants identified themselves as managers or senior editors
  • Educators: 996 participants, 34 percent
  • Independent journalists: 356, 12 percent
  • Students or recent grads: 426, 15 percent

Survey participants were asked to indicate the importance of 37 different skills and attributes for a “beginning journalist as he/she looks toward his/her career in the digital/mobile age.” The 37 skills were derived from two academic papers, one by Nico Drok and the other by Michael Opgenhaffen and his co-authors.

The survey used a five-point scale, with one labeled “not at all important” and five labeled “very important.” The skills were grouped into four different categories:

  • Knowledge, attitudes and personal features or values had 19 skills
  • Newsgathering had 7 skills
  • Basic news production had 6 skills
  • Technical or multimedia production had 5 skills

This example is representative of how we asked survey questions: At your organization, what newsgathering skills do you think beginning journalists need to have? Rate the following newsgathering skills from Not at All Important to Very Important. We used similar wording for the general attitudes, news production and multimedia topics.

Results from the Core Skills for the Future of Journalism show alignment between professionals and educators on the traditional and foundational attitudes and skills needed for beginning journalists — and divergence when it comes to those abilities essential for today’s journalism. Some of the report’s highlights are described in the next sections.

Knowledge, attitudes and personal features

Nearly all of the participants surveyed agreed on some essential skills and traits for today’s journalists. The number-one rated skill was “accuracy,” followed by “curiosity.”

  • Professionals rated “accuracy” at 96 percent as important to very important; educators rated this skill at 99 percent
  • Educators rated “curiosity” at 98 percent as important to very important; professionals rated this attribute at 93 percent

The top-10 skills lists of both professional and educator survey participants included most of the same skills, although the order varied. Of the skills that didn’t make both top-10 lists, only two (“storytelling” and “master interview techniques”) diverged by more than a few percentage points.

However, significant differences were found between professionals and educators when it came to rating other knowledge, attitudes and personal features. For example:

  • Three-quarters (76 percent) of educators said that “knowledge of other cultures” is important to very important; only half (52 percent) of professionals agreed
  • The gap was a little narrower when it came to “knowledge of government,” with almost 70 percent of professionals rating this as important to very important versus 83 percent of educators

Both of these knowledge questions raise essential issues around effective coverage of institutions and communities. With the increasing diversity of the United States population, having some understanding of other cultures would make for more effective journalism — journalism where more individuals would see themselves within the stories being covered.

Aly Colón, former director of standards and practices at NBC News and now the Knight Chair for Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, believes that the issue might be one of focus rather than importance. Colón wrote in an email that:

“In general, professionals focus on what they do daily, and educators focus on what they see emerging: the practical versus the prescient.

“In newsrooms dominated by white males and fighting to survive, craft skills may trump cultural knowledge. And the decline of minority journalists, who lost jobs or sought employment elsewhere, leaves today’s shrinking newsrooms without advocates for expanding cultural knowledge. Educators, however, may see increasing cultural diversification in their classrooms and in their research. They recognize their students will enter a more multicultural world and need to learn about other cultures if they hope to provide more complete coverage of their communities.”

However, that doesn’t explain the fact that the gap between professionals and educators cut across a range of skills, including essential digital skills.

Skills for innovation

Today’s media landscape is littered with failed attempts at innovation. Traditional publications and broadcast stations struggle to find new audiences, as well as new approaches, for journalism that is increasingly affected by technology. In addition, many staff members are asked to think about ways to create new products that have both journalistic merit and revenue potential. Yet, professionals in our survey did not see knowledge about the business of media as important.

  • More than a third of professionals in the survey (38 percent) said “having knowledge of the business of media” was important to very important
  • But far more — 61 percent — educators said business knowledge was important to very important
  • Students, at 71 percent, and independent journalists at 64 percent, agreed with educators, saying that business understanding was important to very important

Related to understanding the business is “understanding the media landscape.” This ability helps media professionals recognize the importance of emerging media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook — and anticipate the next Twitter and Facebook.

Again, the professionals found this skill to be less important than did educators.

  • 78 percent of educators responded that understanding the media landscape is an important to very important skill
  • 57 percent of professionals responded that understanding the media landscape is an important to very important skill
  • Independent journalists, at 75 percent, and students, at 78 percent, were closely aligned with the educators

Jeff Jarvis, professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY and a frequent critic of the lack of innovation in both the industry and education, proposed a possible explanation for the findings in an email requesting his opinion:

“Educators are closer to the future because they are closer to the students, who are worried about supporting themselves and thus about the sustainability of the field and who chose to come to journalism school now because they want to be part of the disruption. Thus it’s good to see the educators and the students and independent journalists in sync.”

One who does worry about the future of the business is Mizell Stewart, vice president/content, newspaper division, The E.W. Scripps Co., who sees organizations making this digital transformation. Stewart wrote in an email:

“The range of skills necessary to navigate this transition goes far, far beyond bread-and-butter competencies such as writing, editing and practicing the discipline of verification. Teamwork and collaboration, audience engagement, marketing, project management, data journalism, video editing … the list goes on and on. Along the way, we also have to understand what it takes to build successful digital news and information businesses with revenue models that may be very, very different than the ones we know today.”

Newsgathering skills

The ability to find and make sense of information is almost the definition of newsgathering, so it seems safe to call this an essential skill for the beginning journalist. We asked professionals and educators to rate the importance of two key aspects of newsgathering that require this ability. Both the ability to analyze and synthesize large amounts of data and the ability to interpret statistical data were rated as more important by educators than by professionals.

When it comes to the ability to “analyze and synthesize large amounts of data,” a little more than half (55 percent) of the professionals responded that this was important to very important. Almost three-fourths (73 percent) of the educators rated this skill as important to very important.

The response to the question about the ability to “interpret statistical data and graphics” was similar:

  • 59 percent of professionals and
  • 80 percent of educators called this skill important to very important

Given the large amounts of data available on the Internet and the growing importance of presenting information in a pleasing and informative visual manner, the gap between educators and professionals is disturbing. The ability to make sense of our complex world by distilling meaningful information from the vast river of data is one of the great values professional journalists can offer their audience.

Related to those newsgathering skills is the ability to “search for news and check sources without the use of the Internet.” Today’s journalism students have grown up with Google. It is an instinctive response: Have a question? Look it up online. But not everything is online, and not everything online is accurate or complete. Yet having the ability to find and verify information “offline” is seen as a much more important skill by educators than by professionals.

News production skills

The good news with this area of abilities is the alignment between educators and professionals on the importance of skills needed to turn newsgathering into news production. Respondents in both groups attached similar levels of importance to such skills as storytelling, writing in a fluent style, using correct grammar and understanding audience expectations and needs.

A gap appeared in only one skill area: the ability to “master various forms of journalistic writing.” Again, professionals rated this skill as less important than did educators:

  • More than two-thirds (68 percent) of professionals rated this skill as important to very important; managers were slightly higher at 70 percent
  • But 84 percent of educators in the survey said the ability to “master various forms of journalistic writing” was important to very important

In the multiplatform media environment, the skill to write different types of stories would seem to be essential. Today, print journalists write for the Web and often prepare video segments; broadcast journalists need to write for the Web and provide additional material to support their video and/or audio stories. Few journalists work exclusively on one platform.

The failure to recognize the importance of mastering a variety of forms might explain the results found in another skill area, though — technical skills. If professionals have not completely accepted the need for proficiency on multiple platforms, they are unlikely to appreciate the need for technical proficiency.

Technical or multimedia production skills

This category showed the greatest gap between professionals and educators, especially around multimedia skills. Read more


Letter from Poynter India’s Workshop Team

Kochi, India, Workshop Participants. March 25, 2014 — One of the nicest traditions at The Poynter Institute is the seminar photograph. This is a record of a special time with colleagues and faculty and of new friends made.

When I first thought about the idea of bringing a group of faculty members to India to conduct a series of workshops, I had that moment of self doubt that affects most of my new or innovative projects. That pesky inner voice of doubt whispered: What could we teach that would be relevant? What will the participants want from our teaching? Would we have an impact?

After three workshops and traveling more than 500 miles within India (not counting the 8,000 miles to get here), I found my answers (and doubt silencer) in a participant’s tweet:

Teaching in any new environment is always a challenge, but organizing a workshop with six great teachers who had yet to work together was a bit of a magic trick. Any credit for our success goes to them. I’ve organized workshops at Poynter but never something like this. To me, the real magic emerged during the first workshop on the first: It was the collaborative spirit of the faculty members, Vidisha Priyanka, Tom Huang, Sue Bullard, Casey Frechette, Zella Bracy and Jeffry Couch.

Sue Bullard, left, and Zella Bracy, right, take a selfie with a group at the Chennai workshop.

Later we would joke as we walked through airports and through crowded and bustling street markets that “no Poynter faculty would be left behind.” It was in the seminar where that saying came to life, with each faculty member helping the other, each presenter knowing that if there was a stumble, a fellow faculty could share a perspective and add to the teaching. It was a generosity of spirit.

That generosity was also in the seminar room, with participants sharing their ideas and experiences. It was about helping Poynter faculty to learn about India and its journalism training needs — as well as its strengths. It even extended to helping with a shopping trip.

That tweet from the Kochi workshop participant also reminded me about the impact of social media when it comes to capturing key learning points from a workshop. It has been fascinating to see which points resonate with participants. And they even served as a “tease” from one workshop to the next. Capturing those tweets for our Storify pages was a challenge as sometimes the flow was fast and furious.

Zella Bracy (second from right) and Howard Finberg (right) speak with participants at the workshop in Kochi.

Since the faculty is the heart of the workshop, here are their own impressions:

Sue Bullard, associate professor of journalism at the University Nebraska, Lincoln

India is colorful, chaotic and charming all at once. At first glance, from the backseat of an auto rickshaw, you can’t help but think about how different we are. Crazy traffic — motorized rickshaws, cars, buses and motor scooters packed with families — snakes its way down crowded streets where lanes and rules appear to be suggestions at best. Markets teem with vendors selling fresh coconut juice, silk scarves and aromatic spices. India sounds different than the quiet plains of Nebraska too. In India, the blast of honking horns, the melodic call to prayer, the Babel of many languages spoken on crowded streets remind us we’re across the world.

Yet despite all of the differences, the Poynter workshops show a different reality. Editors, educators and students here have much in common with us too. They are passionate about journalism, about exposing wrongs, about learning new ways to tell the stories of India. They’re curious, challenging and eager to be heard. On the first day of each series of workshops, we all are cautious, wondering if this will work. By the third day, we’ve bonded. We share a common goal, making journalism succeed despite the challenges of today’s world.

Tom Huang, right, discusses a point with Kochi workshop attendees.

Jeffry Couch, executive editor, News-Democrat, Belleville, IL

India has been a trip of discovery for me.

I’ve learned that we have much in common with our Indian colleagues. We have similar missions – to do excellent public service journalism that holds public officials and institutions accountable. We’re connected by many of the same professional values, such as accuracy and fairness. We’re passionate about what we do, and we want to do it well.

I’ve also discovered that we are very different. Indian journalists face challenges that we don’t have, including issues of personal safety. Newspaper circulation is mostly growing in India, and digital transformation at most places is in its early stage.

Like Howard, I had a twinge of doubt about what American journalists and educators could possibly offer that’s useful to Indian journalists. That’s been my biggest surprise. Indian journalists have been hungry to hear our view on craft issues, digital transformation and new tools. They’ve been engaged in our teaching, and have pitched into discussions with vigor.

Teaching in India has been invigorating and exhausting. Thanks to our Indian friends and my teaching colleagues, the trip will rank as one of my most rewarding professional experiences.

Zella Bracy, business development for Tru Measure, a division of The McClatchy Company

I have always believed that the work of journalists really matters, that journalism is needed to support democracy. The research I undertook to prepare for my session truly drove home in a painful manner the brutal financial realities that affected newsrooms in the past few years. The data around the future could also be perceived as bleak. The facts around the loss of revenue are enough to jade even the heartiest optimist.

Yet, through the days of training, as I listened and learned from the participants, my optimism returned, fed by the passion from the students and my colleagues. I plan on using the powerful combination of passion and optimism to double down on working to drive revenue in support of great journalism because my belief in the work continues to thrive.


Vidisha Priyanka, left, and Howard Finberg, middle, listen to a Kochi workshop participant.

Casey Frechette, visiting assistant professor, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg

As our time in India draws to a close, I know I’ll look back on these workshops with great gratitude and fondness. In each city we’ve visited, we’ve received a warm welcome from journalists committed to improving their craft. In some cases, attendees traveled great distances to be with us. Participation in our sessions has been outstanding, creating a rich dialog and a chance to begin learning about the complexities of Indian media and society. The chance to discover India and learn from participants alongside gifted, generous colleagues and friends has made this a truly special experience.

Tom Huang, Sunday and enterprise editor, Dallas Morning News and Poynter Diversity Fellow

One of the most powerful moments for me came during the Kochi workshop. During one of our first sessions, a veteran journalist decided to play the role of embittered cynic. Several times during a presentation on brainstorming, he reacted dismissively, saying that there was no way to come up with new story ideas or new approaches to storytelling. Now, I like tough questions, but I grew frustrated, because I felt that he was trying to encourage a certain closed-mindedness.

But over the course of three days, something seemed to click with him. I think he began to understand that, even though we may fail as we try new approaches, it’s important to at least try, because that is how you learn. At the end of our final session, to all of our surprise, the journalist stood up and publicly thanked Poynter. Later, he walked up to me, looked me in the eye and thanked me for my teaching.

I was struck, then and there, by how much we share as journalists, whether from the U.S. or from India. We all face the fear of change. We are all going through profound change in our newsrooms because of the digital disruption. I realized that Poynter’s journey to India was not only about teaching and learning, but also about reassuring one another that we can figure this out together.

Vidisha Priyanka, interactive learning producer at Poynter and a native of India

In my head, I knew the Poynter training would be well-received in India. After all, we are a people who pay a lot of attention to good education and training. In my heart, I had a little bit of trepidation about how many people would finally be able to make it to the training. The reality is, that ongoing, onsite training in journalism is hard to come by here. As people streamed in for more every day of the three-day workshop, I was overwhelmed by their eagerness and enthusiasm. The passion for journalism in the room was clearly palpable and in turn we gained energy from the people in the room. It was a good feeling to give back something of what I had learned over the years to my own people.

Just as important as the faculty’s reflections are the thoughts of the participants. At the end of each workshop, we ask for their thoughts about what they have learned. Here are a couple of reflections recorded on the project Web site that touches our hearts, which is a Poynter experience, no matter where you are in the world.

From the Chennai workshop:

 “Poynter has broken communication barriers and brought together all types of journalists offering a bright future for them. It’s a pointer to professional excellence in journalism.”

From the Kochi workshop:

“The training was mesmerizing. With three days touched all the subjects comprehensively .And switched a synergy of change process to equip Indian journalists to meet the future challenges and to change the perception of luddites in newsrooms. The windows of mind were opened, filled with the fresh air of knowledge .And refueled with spirit of integrity and commitment. We were flying to cope with the enthusiastic team of Poynter.”

That’s a good way to end this letter from India. Read more

Serious student working with a computer

Journalism schools need to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant

The scary thing about a disruption is that you don’t know where it will go.

Forty years ago, we didn’t realize the first cellphone call would lead to mobile computing and smartphones. Twenty years ago, we didn’t realize that Amazon would transform retail shopping. Ten years ago, there was no Facebook or Twitter.

You just don’t know where disruptive innovation will lead.

What we do know, however, is that the future of journalism education is at a critical point for two reasons.

1. Time is running out. Disruption, driven by economics and technology, is coming to the university system much more quickly than most administrators realize.

2. Journalism education will undergo fundamental shifts in how journalism is taught and who teaches it. Those who don’t innovate in the classroom will be left behind — just like those who chose not to innovate in the newsroom.

For more than a year, a heated discussion has raged about the future of journalism education. Academics, foundation leaders and professionals are still debating what the future of j-education will look like, just as we are all arguing about what the future of journalism will look like.

These discussions have been fueled in part by a survey that Poynter’s News University conducted in the spring of 2012, in preparation for a speech I gave at the European Journalism Centre. I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that the positions of both educators and professionals haven’t changed much in the past year.

A new Poynter NewsU survey conducted during the past three months shows no shift in attitudes for either group. With more than 1,800 responses, equally divided between professionals and academics, there is still a wide gap — more than 40 points — between the two groups of survey respondents.

Today, 96 percent of those who identify themselves as journalism educators believe that a journalism degree is very important to extremely important when it comes to understanding the value of journalism. That’s almost identical to the 2012 result.

Professionals — editors and those who work in journalism — have a less favorable opinion, with 57 percent saying that a degree is very important to extremely important when it comes to understanding the value of journalism. That’s unchanged from last year’s survey.

Also unchanged is the gap between educators’ and professionals’ view of the importance of a journalism degree when it comes to “abilities in newsgathering, editing and presenting the news.” Almost all educators (98 percent) say a degree is very important to extremely important when it comes to newsgathering skills. But only 59 percent of professionals share this view, with almost one in five saying a degree is not at all important or is only slightly important in terms of newsgathering.

There is a big disconnect between professional journalists and the academic community. But even journalism educators worry that journalism education isn’t keeping pace.

Thirty-nine percent of educators said journalism education is keeping up with industry changes not at all or a little. Newsroom leaders and staffers are even harsher, with 48 percent saying the academy isn’t keeping up with changes in the field.

As for whether a journalism degree is valuable when it comes to getting a job, the gap between professors and professionals is smaller. More than half (53 percent) of educators think a journalism degree is very to extremely important to getting a job. Forty-one percent of professionals share that belief.

But those who identify themselves as “working on their own” hold an even lower opinion of a journalism degree; only 38 percent say that a journalism degree is very important to extremely important to getting work.

That means that, even though attitudes haven’t shifted from last year’s survey — or maybe because attitudes haven’t shifted — we need to redouble our efforts to rethink journalism education.

Last year, I said “journalism education can’t teach its way to the future.” That’s still true.

What’s important is that journalism degrees are in danger of becoming perceived as irrelevant. This is reflected in the elimination of journalism programs or the incorporation of journalism into the wider communications curriculum in many universities.

Let me emphasize this critical point: I worry about the future of journalism degrees (and programs) more than I worry about the future of journalism — and, by extension, journalism training.

The real disruption that colleges and universities face is that degrees are declining in value — even while education and training remain important to an individual’s future. In the near future, I believe, there will be a huge economic challenge facing our educational institutions: convincing prospective students and their parents that the traditional degree still has value.

College administrators face the same dilemma as their news-industry counterparts. Trading tuition dollars for digital or e-learning dimes might be the only way to survive.

That, however, is only the beginning.

The disruption

The same disruptive forces that battered the media industry are threatening the economics of private and public universities. The traditional media players were slow to recognize how their business model was going to be undercut by technology and how the Internet would transform a precious commodity into something with little or no value.

News was a valuable commodity because it was scarce. The Internet turned scarcity into abundance by providing new outlets and new platforms for consumers to access news and information.

The same thing, I believe, is about to happen to education.

More and more parents, students, government officials and education pundits are questioning the wisdom of spending six figures for an education that doesn’t provide a clear economic return. This isn’t just a journalism-education issue but a broader challenge, a questioning of the orthodoxy that highly values a college education.

Even though on average, the benefits outweigh the costs of a college education, a Brookings Institution report released in May argues that “a bachelor’s degree is not a smart investment for every student in every circumstance.”

The cost of tuition, the students’ personal attributes, the major they choose to study, and their likelihood of graduating all factor in to the calculation of whether college is worth the investment.

“College is a not a homogeneous thing, and a degree is not a uniform ticket,” Brookings’ Isabel Sawhill told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jill Tucker. “There are lots of different types of tickets, and some of those tickets take you nowhere.”

All of this is playing out during a period in which journalism and communications enrollment is embarrassingly high, and the traditional hiring by legacy media organizations is at an all-time low. When it comes to value for dollars invested, journalism degrees may have much less value than they did in the past.

The technology shift

What journalism schools or programs do in the coming years to combat this perception will be critical. Time is not on the side of the established institutions during periods of innovation. Time and momentum are on the side of the disruptor.

Disruptive innovation in the news industry means journalism created and distributed on new platforms by independent entrepreneurial journalists. It means journalism outside the traditional business model of mass media.

“To teach journalism in the digital age you have to teach both journalism and the digital age — and use modern tools to do it,” the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton argued earlier this year. “That’s why the schools that are serious about this are getting bigger, not smaller.”

E-learning is one obvious new way of teaching. Even within the confines of an ivy-covered building, j-schools can also explore other methods, such as:

  • Innovations labs, such as the one run at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
  • Hybrid learning programs that mix e-learning with classroom work
  • Classroom sessions that are discussions of online training materials rather than lectures

Schools are trying other innovations as well. They may or may not be successful. Two that come to mind are massive open online courses [MOOCs] and the digital badge movement.

Most journalism educators — 84 percent — say they are at least slightly familiar with MOOCs. Yet only 22 percent think journalism should be taught as a MOOC. Slightly more educators, a little more than one-third of respondents, said they would be willing to teach journalism via MOOCs. An equal number said they weren’t sure and 28 percent said no.

There are big questions and doubts around the effectiveness of MOOCs. I’m slightly skeptical about the power of public MOOCs, given dropout rates quoted as high as 90 percent. But, with journalism education, that’s not the issue. Public MOOCs are open and free, and sometimes people just want to see what’s being taught.

MOOCs are valuable because they give us the opportunities to experiment. This form of delivery helps us figure out new ways to teach using technology. We need to find out what works and why.

San Jose State University experimented with the MOOC format and has learned some hard lessons with the five online courses it offered in partnership with Udacity. The courses were elementary statistics, college algebra, an introduction to programming, entry-level math and introductory psychology. While completion rates were very good at 83 percent, the majority of students (56 percent to 76 percent) failed the final exams.

Although SJSU “paused” this experiment, I think the real wisdom comes from Udacity’s CEO, Sebastian Thrun, who wrote on the company blog:

In our pilot, we stuck to a traditional, 15-week semester timeframe. While that schedule may work for full-time students on campus, we know it doesn’t for everyone. As we broaden the base of students we reach with these classes, we should broaden our perspective on what a “semester” looks like. Imagine a world where you could take these classes for credit, while setting your own pace and deadlines to fit within work schedules, within times when you have access to computers, or within high-school classes schedules.

That’s the spirit of a startup: Launch, fail/learn, iterate and relaunch. Then do it all over again.

Changing skills, changing journalists

Much has been written about how the thousands of independent journalists are creating new outlets and opportunities. And we have written extensively about the new tools journalists need to use in this ever-changing environment.

What’s less known, however, are the specific skills that journalists will need to be successful in the future.

Two-thirds (66 percent) of the educators who responded to our survey believe their schools or departments are responsive to changing curriculum. This is an exciting finding, because journalism education can remain relevant only if it takes the lead in anticipating the skills that will be needed and ensuring that students learn these skills. But the finding also raises the question of why there aren’t more experiments. Are schools open to change but just don’t know what to do?

Part of that strategic rethink involves closing the gap between professors and professionals. And it probably means letting go of some of the current thinking about what is taught in the classroom and what journalism education is.

What skills, attitudes and knowledge will make a journalist successful in the future? We can all speculate, but we don’t have much data to look to for the answers. So, NewsU producer Lauren Klinger and I created a new survey about the future of journalism competencies.

We’re asking educators and journalists to help identify what’s important in four areas:

  1. Knowledge, attitudes and personal features
  2. News gathering skills
  3. News production skills
  4. Technical/multimedia skills

We don’t know what we’ll find with this survey, but I expect there will be new ideas to help us rethink journalism education.

What we do know, however, is enough to get us working to reinvent our future:

  • We know that technology is disrupting how education is delivered.
  • We know that technology is disrupting the economics of education.
  • We know that journalism is changing more quickly than journalism education.

It is not too late to reshape journalism education. But time is not on our side. I know many educators will struggle with the idea of giving up parts of what they love — such as teaching in a classroom — and others will struggle with learning new technologies and approaches to the craft of journalism.

Dealing with disruptions means we can either mourn the past or we can work together to invent the future.

This article is adapted from a report on the Future of Journalism written and edited by Howard Finberg (@Hif) and Lauren Klinger. To download a copy of the report, which includes additional data from the 2013 survey, visit Poynter NewsU. Read more

Computer keyboard with key Learn

What e-learning can teach us about journalism

The Poynter Institute’s e-learning project, News University, is celebrating its eighth birthday today. In digital years (three times faster than analog), that makes us about 24; old enough to know better but still young enough to have lots of fun learning new things.

In the eight years since the Knight Foundation gave Poynter funding to build an e-learning site for journalists, journalism students and anyone interested in better journalism skills, we have learned a few things about effective online teaching. And we have learned that many of these lessons can apply to journalism.

Here are eight lessons from e-learning that can apply to journalism and journalists.

1. Every participant/reader is different. We started NewsU with an assumption that we would reach one type of journalist (someone early in his or her career in a newsroom) with one kind of training approach. We learned that there isn’t a single e-learning course that fits all journalists. This matters to journalism, too. There isn’t a single storytelling approach that will fit all of your readers, viewers and users. Tell stories (and teach) in a variety of ways and you’ll reach all kinds of audiences.

2. Engagement matters. It is very difficult to create online teaching that is engaging. But if you don’t engage your audience, it will disappear. So we’ve developed all kinds of small engagement devices in our courses to keep our participants actively involved in what we are teaching. Journalists who engage with their readers, viewers and listeners will keep them coming back for more.

3. Clear learning/story objectives are important. Any e-learning project that doesn’t have clear, focused learning objectives isn’t going to succeed. The teaching will be muddled and disconnected. If more journalists took a few minutes in their newsgathering process to clearly outline what they want to communicate, stories would be better and clearer.

4. Interactivity is essential. Want to create boring e-learning? Just have pages and pages of text or just video of a teacher lecturing. Boring. All of NewsU’s e-learning courses have some kind of interactivity because we know that people learn by doing. This is so essential to our courses that we often hold “interactivity brainstorming” sessions with our staffers and course authors to design these elements. Journalists need to find the time to brainstorm their interactivity elements. Make it part of the process. Your readers and viewers will thank you for helping them understand.

5. Measure what you do. It matters to us to know what works. So, we find ways to measure the learning. Journalists can find ways to learn whether their stories mattered, too. Did readers respond? What’s the retweet count? How about Facebook likes? What you measure may vary, but having the discipline to measure and act upon the results is key to having more successful stories.

6. Listen, listen and, oh yea, listen. One of the reasons NewsU’s e-learning project has been successful is its commitment to read every question and comment from its audience. It takes time and energy, but it’s an investment in learning what’s working. Journalism, for too long, has ignored feedback from its audience. While that’s changing, making the commitment to listen can pay dividends.

7. Don’t assume; ask. Developing effective e-learning modules at Poynter has taught us to ask lots of questions to develop the teaching content. We “interview” our subject matter experts [course authors] so we can get the knowledge out of their heads and into our courses. We can’t assume the students will know foundational concepts and ideas. That means making sure there’s a way to provide background information. Journalists too often assume readers/viewers have followed the story closely. Don’t assume. Make sure everyone can learn/enjoy your story.

8. Have fun. The world is too serious. We try to put fun into e-learning, when appropriate. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. Journalism should be fun. Find ways to make your audience smile.

How do we know these strategies work? We’ve got numbers and feedback (see tip no. 5). In eight years, we’ve grown from a handful of courses to a full online curriculum of almost 300 e-learning modules with 250,000 registered users.

Try a few of these approaches with your stories and tell us what you think (see tip no. 6). Even better, come over to Poynter NewsU and renew your journalism skills or learn something new.

Howard Finberg was the creator of Poynter News University. He is now the institute’s director of training partnerships and alliances and trying to use tip no. 8 in his work. Read more

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Rebooting journalism education means constant state of change

Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, has added her thoughtful voice to the “rebooting” journalism education discussion with an Online Journalism Review column.

As predicted, journalism education’s “reboot” was the hot topic at the recent Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) convention in Chicago thanks to a recent series of articles, speeches and blog and listserv postings.

Overholser outlines several areas for discussion:

  • The debate shouldn’t just be about industry vs. the academy. She urges schools to think more about the public that is also creating journalism and to think about the diversity of both the creators and audiences.
  • Universities need to build richer connections to professionals, and there needs to be more research to guide the change ahead.
  • Schools need to be the “labs that experiment and test new techniques” of journalism.

I think Overholser is on target when she writes that rebooting journalism education will be an ongoing process.

There is no end-point. No matter how effectively we debate this, no matter how well we “solve” the questions confronting us, there’ll be no stasis. These conversations have been going on for a good while (here’s a summation of one from two years ago at AEJMC) and they’ll go on for a long time more. Change is our new reality, and it isn’t going away. As Google’s Richard Gingras said at AEJMC, “How can we create work cultures of constant innovation?” (His questions at the end of the speech are terrific thought-provokers.)

This comment ties nicely to an article in The New York Times about how media companies such as Discover, a cable TV company, and News Corporation are pushing into the education arena, especially with online products and services. Even textbook publishers are starting to change how they think about the future of their businesses:

“Over the last 10 years alone, we’ve invested $9.3 billion in digital innovations that are transforming education,” said Will Ethridge, chief executive of Pearson North America, part of Pearson P.L.C., the world’s largest education and learning company. “One way to describe it would be an act of ‘creative destruction.’ By this I mean we’re intentionally tearing down an outdated, industrial model of learning and replacing it with more personalized and connected experiences for each student.”

Ethridge’s comment goes to the heart of Gingras’ speech at AEJMC.  Constant change is the new reality.

I also like Overholser’s idea of journalism educators playing a larger role in news and media literacy, both at their schools and with the public at large:

We must redefine our “market.” We know that the quality of journalism depends on the quality of the demand for it. How might we play a greater role in media literacy? We know that the academy seems to be experiencing some of the disruption that has hit so many media institutions. What if we put these two facts together and started serving more and more of the public in smaller chunks of time (and money)? Finberg cites a great example: UC Davis is experimenting with “digital badge” programs that can “measure core competences rather than the standard three-credit course.”

Constant change and rethinking audiences, those are lessons for rebooting journalism education. Read more

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Knight report on training shows journalists want technology, multimedia, data skills

A new study by the Knight Foundation released today summarizes the state of journalism training. Some findings from “Digital Training Comes of Age“:

  • Journalists want more training in digital tools such as multimedia, data analysis and technology. Most give their news organizations low marks for providing training opportunities.
  • Digital classes are gaining popularity as a cost-effective way to reach more trainees. A third of U.S. journalists and eight in 10 international journalists say the online classes they took were as good as, or better than, conventional training in the classroom.
  • Training organizations are adapting to the digital age. They are providing more training online and rethinking how their programs can foster the transformation of journalism.

The report was authored by Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the Knight Foundation, and Michele McLellan, a consultant to the foundation. Although the study focused on Knight-funded programs, the authors believe the insights are relevant to all who are interested in journalism training.

Professional development will play a key role in the transformation of the news landscape.

Not all news organizations will survive the transition to the digital age. The ones that make it will be nimble, adaptable. They’ll have learning cultures, where training is built into the daily routine.

About 660 journalists, alumni of Knight training programs, were surveyed, with 61 percent of participants coming from outside the United States. Most of the international journalists were from Latin America. McLellan doesn’t believe the makeup of the survey participants lessens the impact of the overall conclusions.

“We thought that this might be a result from a couple of factors: The non-U.S. have less access to training in general and appreciate online training more,” McLellan said in an email. “The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas has developed effective e-learning programs [and] the vast majority of the non-U.S. participants were trained by the center.”

However, there are important differences between the U.S. journalists and international participants. When looking at the effectiveness of e-learning, 84 percent of international journalists thought distance learning was better or about the same as classroom training; only 34 percent of U.S. journalists felt that way.

One of the more interesting findings was how widespread the adoption of e-learning has become, with more than half of the participants reporting that they have participated in a virtual or online class. In 2002, a Knight survey found only five percent of journalists had taken an e-learning module. Knight cites Poynter’s e-learning site, News University, with its more than 220,000 registered users, as one of the driving factors in the growth of e-learning for journalists. Knight provided funding for NewsU.

When looking at the kind of training journalists want, the survey found that digital tools and techniques were at the top of the list. Here are training topics the survey participants said would offer great (or very great) benefit, combining U.S. and non-U.S. journalists responses:

  1. Technology: 78%
  2. Multimedia:  77%
  3. Data skills: 75%
  4. Leadership: 70%
  5. Topic expertise: 62%
  6. Ethics, legal: 51%
  7. Reporting skills: 46%
  8. Traditional skills: 46%

Leadership training ranked higher than I would have expected at fourth place, which may be a reflection of the mid-career participants in the survey, as they might see a career path ahead to move into a newsroom management positions at their organizations.

McLellan also was surprised by this survey result. “Relatively few of the survey participants are editors or managers, and I don’t have an explanation for it. It may be that the term is open to interpretation. In comments that were part of the survey, it did not emerge as a frequent topic.”

Also notable is that 65 percent of non-U.S. journalists wanted traditional skills training compared to 19 percent of U.S. journalists.

Unsurprising: That news organizations are not satisfying their journalists’ training needs.

Fewer than four in 10 of the journalists who work in newsrooms give their organizations an A or B when it comes to meeting training needs. The majority, about six in 10, rank their news organizations as C or worse. Grades have gone steadily downward in the three Knight surveys, with a greater proportion of Cs, Ds and Fs this year than ever before.

The report authors admit these results may actually be more optimistic than average, since the journalists who responded to the survey appear to be training enthusiasts with generally optimistic attitudes.

There’s other good news, too. The report is full of case studies that demonstrate how effective training can make a difference. For example:

Consider The Seattle Times. Its top editors attended leadership sessions in 2008 at the Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg. “It is difficult to overstate the impact those five days have had on our organization,” said executive editor David Boardman. “We won both a Pulitzer Prize and the Associated Press Managing Editors Innovator of the Year award (in 2010). I have doubts we would have won either had Kathy (Best) and I not attended the KDMC workshop.” After the training, Boardman said, “we were turbo-charged.”

The survey also asked about job satisfaction.

The most satisfied journalists feel they are contributing to society. The least satisfied do not.

Even after millions of dollars spent by foundations, the lack of training support within newsrooms is sad. Training still matters, more than most things journalists care about.

Nearly one journalist in four is dissatisfied with the opportunities for training. As we found a decade ago in “Newsroom Training,” discontent about continuing education is the number one newsroom complaint, topping even salary, chances for promotion and job security.

Read more

6 foundations tell journalism schools to change faster or risk future funding

As thousands of educators head off to Chicago for the 100th anniversary convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, I can promise that one of the most talked-about topics will be the recent open letter to university presidents signed by six foundations that have a special interest in journalism.

It was a letter that brought even more attention and focus to discussions about the future of journalism education.  At its core, the foundations want university presidents and provosts to move faster and further to change the way journalism is taught. And that was said in bold language.

We believe journalism and communications schools must be willing to recreate themselves if they are to succeed in playing their vital roles as news creators and innovators. Some leading schools are doing this but most are not. Deans cite regional accreditation bodies and university administration for putting up roadblocks to thwart these changes. However, we think the problem may be more systemic than that.  We are calling on university presidents and provosts to join us in supporting the reform of journalism and mass communication education.

The open letter, signed by the Knight Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Scripps Howard Foundation, Brett Family Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation, argues that schools aren’t keeping pace with the new career opportunities for journalists and there’s resistance to changing the courses that are taught and how they are taught.

We firmly support efforts by The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications to modernize standards. The council recognizes that schools need to provide students the ability to pursue career paths as journalist-entrepreneurs or journalism-technologists.

Furthermore, we believe ACEJMC should develop accreditation standards that spotlight the importance of technology and innovation. University facilities must be kept up to date. Currently, many are not.

That urging is all well and good. But if you are a foundation that gives money, why not put it in terms that gets the attention of university presidents, many of whom are their school’s chief fundraiser?

Schools that do not update their curriculum and upgrade their faculties to reflect the profoundly different digital age of communication will find it difficult to raise money from foundations interested in the future of news. The same message applies to administrators who acquiesce to regional accrediting agencies that want terminal degrees as teaching credentials with little regard to competence as the primary concern.

While it is difficult to accurately gauge reaction from the academic community, a selection from the AEJMC Newspaper & Online News Division listserv provides a sampling of opinions about the foundations’ push for more and faster change. (All quotes are used  with the writer’s permission.)

From Dane Claussen, former professor and chair of faculty at Point Park University’s School of Communication, believes that the proposed teaching hospital method (teaching by doing) is already being used by many schools.

This is a huge topic. But I’ll say for now that many programs are doing something approaching a “teaching hospital” within the confines of being able to get curriculum passed by Faculty Senates, approved by regional accrediting agencies.

… I’ve heard all this rhetoric for years about journalism schools teaching “too much theory.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider a well taught media ethics course to be only “theory,” and the same goes for a well taught media law course and a well taught media management course. Media history is, I think, extremely valuable in showing students what the news media have accomplished and still, more or less, can, and it can be a powerful socializing agent in terms of students’ philosophy of journalism (what is it for? and why is it important?), career goals, etc.

Carrie Brown, assistant professor at the University of Memphis, thinks the letter will be helpful to those in the trenches, many of whom have been pushing for such change:

I think the letter and continued pressure from top foundations will be a big help to those of us in the trenches. I’ve seen it get forwarded around by administrators who are not typically among the most forward thinking, so it got their attention. You would think the writing would have long been on the wall, but nothing speaks like the money men (they are mostly men I think), especially in desperate times for schools suffering from massive state budget cuts.

Many of us pushing for this kind of change are on the bottom of the academic food chain, and while many of us have done many of the things [Eric] Newton et. al. call for in our own teaching and research, it’s harder for us to have a bigger institutional impact, which I found out the hard way.

A more skeptical view of the letter comes from Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication and a former journalist with decades of experience at Knight Ridder. Ceppos has also written about the debate.

The foundations certainly are entitled to their say, but I find it insulting that they would use such a broad brush: “Some leading schools are doing this [creating and innovating] but most are not.” If I were a president or a provost, I’d stop reading at that point. In my 21 years on the Accrediting Council, I’ve read reports of probably 1,500 site teams. Hundreds upon hundreds of the schools visited offered experience-based journalism education, now more than ever.

There is a huge disconnect on the issue of hiring professionals. All I know is that at least a dozen universities have hired deeply experienced professionals as deans in the last few years. In fact, one of my most promising young administrators told me the other day, after looking at recent appointments, that she assumes she can’t be a candidate for a dean’s position because she doesn’t have that deep professional experience.

Those watching this debate (and adding our voices to whether journalism education can evolve) wonder how much change is possible. I like the perspective of Chris Martin, vice president for university relations at West Virginia University.

I have also been wondering for the last four years when the need to revolutionize the journalism education paradigm would finally run head-on into ACEJMC accreditation requirements and standardized promotion and tenure requirements. It seems now —  in the face of a quickly deteriorating traditional media landscape — that the head-on cluster-crash with journalism, journalism education and accreditation is here.

How will it play on a university-wide scope?

I think that universities will be supportive of change  – even radical change — in journalism education. Most universities are not run by media scholars or former journalists… so most senior administrators aren’t closely familiar with what J-Schools and mass communications colleges do, why they do it or even how. University presidents worry about enrollment, fund-raising, and grants. If J-Schools and their deans meet their goals in those areas, most administrators are fairly hands-off, in my experience.

But professional accreditation is extremely important to universities.

When schools and colleges lose or risk their discipline-based accreditation, provosts and presidents do get involved. And deans lose their jobs. The loss of accreditation is seen as a threat to enrollment and grant funding. So, it seems to me that the funding agencies have made a pre-emptive strike in stating that they will not fund schools and colleges that persist in valuing pure research over innovative practice and research applied to that innovation. The ball, it seems, is in ACEJMC’s court.

That’s the bottom line. Can we change the way journalism schools are judged, rewarded and motivated? It is time for a very serious and frank exploration about the nature and value of a journalism degree. This is not simply a discussion about theory courses versus practical courses. This should be a discussion about the essential skills needed to create good journalism today and in the future. It’s a perfect topic for AEJMC convention attendees.

My Poynter colleague Vicki Krueger and I will be hosting a NewsU panel session about some of these issues during a presentation at the convention on Friday, Aug. 10, at 8:15 a.m. in the Denver/Houston room (5th floor). If you’re there, come join us.

Correction: Jerry Ceppos is dean of the Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, not chair. Read more


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