Journalism professionals, academics debate the value of research

The debate about the gap between journalism educators and professionals continues, albeit mostly on the AEJMC listserv for that organization’s newspaper and online news interest group.

The stream of comments started after Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, blogged about two recent speeches (one of them mine) that challenged journalism educators to move faster to address the changing digital world.

“For more than 30 years,” Ceppos wrote, “I’ve tried to bridge the chasm between the journalism professions and the academy.” He continues:

I think I chose the wrong challenge. As Howard Finberg of the Poynter Institute told the European Journalism Centre this month, “…while there’s always been a disconnect between the media industry and academic community, the fault lines, I believe, have widened.”

Howard surveyed almost 2,000 professionals and professors, asking them “how vital a journalism degree is in understanding the value of journalism.” He reported that 95 percent of academics said it was “very to extremely important.” Only 56 percent of professionals agreed.

What Howard didn’t say is that this is the worst possible time for the widening because we need each other more than ever.

I agree, this is a terrible time for the two groups to be so far apart.  However, it is also indicative of the disruption that journalism education is facing. Ceppos is correct in his concerns that journalism funders are unhappy with the academy. And since these folks have money, it’s a concern worth noting, as Ceppos wrote:

Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation spoke recently about that subject, especially about the need to “restore top news professionals to the most respected ranks of academia.”

Eric said the subject even had come up at a meeting of journalism-education funders:

“We were not at all happy with the slow rate of change in journalism education, including how exceptional professionals (without advanced degrees) are being treated. You have not heard the last of this. Universities are likely to lose private-sector funding if it doesn’t stop. A degree is not more important than competence.”

So, what to do? Ceppos suggests that the academy is making changes by hiring more professionals to lead journalism programs, although he acknowledges it “easier to be hired as a dean rather than a professor.”

For the academic community, he had several suggestions, including:

  • More accessible writing in scholarly publications
  • Tenure based on the quality of writing, not the quantity
  • More practical research, research that would be useful to professionals
  • Ask each other for help

Not surprisingly, the AEJMC listserv debate focused on Ceppos’ points about academic research, with the comments ranging from total support to some defensive responses. As of Tuesday, more than 60 comments have been posted.

Dane Claussen, editor of AEJMC’s “Journalism & Mass Communication Educator” publication, jumped in quickly:

Plenty to respond to in Ceppos’ essay, both pro and con, but for the moment I’ll say only that readership of J&MC scholarly journals is a two-way street. Journals could publish more practical research and be more readable for people who don’t have Ph.D.s, but professional journalists aren’t exactly clamoring for professional development, whatever they might claim in surveys.

John Zibluk, professor at Arkansas State University, sees it differently:

This gap has been one of the elephants in the room since I began my academic career 20 years ago, where I worked with our colleague Jack Hartman as he lived in Bowling Green, Ohio, where I was in grad school.

How many times have you gone to an academic presentation and rolled your eyes as some nervous grad student presented an incomprehensible set of PowerPoint using four-way ANOVAs and linear regressions describing something totally arcane and obscure, or a qualitative critical analysis on the social construction of the meaning depictions of codpieces in Edwardian proto-subversive film culture circa 1907?

The meat of the matter really comes down to the value of academic research – to the industry or to the career of the professor. Since so much of tenure is based on “publish or perish” it may be impossible to close the gap. The “customer” for academic research is the academic audience, not the professional audience who may or may not see direct value in what’s being discussed.

When you want to innovate you need to rethink who the customer is, regardless of the industry. Until we change who the customer is for journalism research, it is hard to see the gap narrowing on this topic.

As debate rolled along, Eric Newton jumped in with this:

My perception is that at the highest levels, the scholars and professionals get along. Their use of facts helps keep them on top. It’s the bottom 80 percent, and increasingly as you go down the line, where personal truths seem to trump universal truths.

If you want to dive deeper into the academic-professional “chasm” debate, Bob Stepno has posted links to many of the messages on the AEJMC site.

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  • Mu Lin

    It’s discouraging that for most tenure-track teaching positions, the kind of activities we do online do not count toward tenure promotion: things such as keeping an active blog, being on top of industry trends, interacting with the professionals, etc.

  • Mu Lin

    It’s discouraging that for most tenure-track teaching positions, the kind of activities we do online do not count toward tenure promotion: things such as keeping an active blog, being on top of industry trends, interacting with the professionals, etc.

  • Mu Lin

    I think the academia is responding by starting to hire instructors who are capable of teaching digital or multimedia journalism. I am seeing more of such job ads, and I believe there will be even more when the academic recruiting season beings in the fall semester.

  • Hif

     Paul, thanks for the feedback and comments.  It is helpful to see your perspective and thoughtful response to my speech to the EJC.  First, let me assure you that Poynter doesn’t trivialize this issue.  I don’t and I know my colleagues at the Institute.  In face, I’ve been asked to do more around the topic of journalism education for Poynter Online.

    I agree that there needs to be “high value to journalistic achievement and public engagement,” but I wonder whether that will be enough for the future.  I have no doubt your students, thanks to the teaching at Ryerson, are doing great things.  I believe we need to do more for students — and those who just want to learn journalism.

    I also agree that the issue isn’t about industry versus academy.  In fact, that wasn’t in my speech nor in my Poynter Online story.  The debate about professors v. professionals came from Jerry Ceppos article on LSU’s Website. 

    What I talked about, what I wrote about, is the difference of opinion about the value of a journalism degree.  That’s an issue worth exploring and I pointed out there is a huge gap in the perspective between these two groups. 

    My point remains:

    “What will it take for educational institutions to deal with the
    disruptive innovation that is here today and will get more challenging
    in the future? We need to look for new ways to teach the values and skills of journalism so they are relevant to today’s media world.”

    Again, thanks for your thoughtful feedback.

  • Anonymous

    Howard, may I invite you to rethink your
    statement: “The meat of the matter really comes down to the value of
    academic research – to the industry or to the career of the professor.”
    It’s a false dichotomy and a slight to the many, many professors who are closely
    engaged with journalism of all kinds. The debate is not between rapt partisans
    of blowing up everything, on the one hand, and complacent reality-ignoring dinosaurs on the other.

    As noted repeatedly in the AEJMC
    discussion, many j-schools assign a high value to journalistic
    achievement and public engagement. We do this where I teach and we
    insist on their recognition by our institution. We’re all journalists and we
    continue to hire journalists into the tenure stream. We engage on many levels
    with start-up, alternative and MSM practitioners. We bring them into our
    classrooms, work closely with them on student placements and build curriculum
    around partnerships. We learn a lot from this activity and
    expect to be constantly redesigning our programs and changing our practices as
    a result of what we learn.
    Our graduates, including the most recent ones, work
    in all kinds of journalism, on many platforms, with many business models. Some don’t, and that’s not a failure, because journalistic method is highly transferable. As for research, I
    want my work to mean something to practising journalists and I’ll work to make it widely accessible. “You write like a reporter,” a scholar said of
    a piece I wrote, and I took it as a compliment.

    We also know it’s not just “the
    industry” and “the professor” who have a stake
    not only in research but in
    everything we do. It’s students, graduates, taxpayers and funders, both public and private. It’s
    anyone who needs reliable, independently gathered and organized news and
    information about the world.

    We all need productive engagement with one
    another. I’m sure we all welcome your engagement with the AEJMC discussion. In that spirit may I make some observations about your European Journalism Centre speech.
    I was disappointed that you couldn’t acknowledge the intense student teamwork, problem-solving development and
    contact with highly qualified instructors that occurs in-person over the course of a
    typical j-program. Also, you seemed to be reporting as representative the results of a
    survey that was generated by an online invitation to participate
    rather than a rigorous sampling exercise. And I think it’s unfair to our hard-working students to imply that our evaluations of their intensive practice of journalism show only that they “sat through
    a class at a college.”

    I was also dismayed to see Poynter
    trivialize the AEJMC discussion by labelling it an “academic food fight” in the URL for
    this piece. I hope this is not
    what you really believe.

    Paul Knox
    Ryerson University


    Paul Knox


    School of Journalism


    Ryerson University



  • David Craig

    Carrie, this was my favorite comment as I watched the discussion on the listserv. I say that as an administrator in a journalism program (University of Oklahoma) but also as someone who’s trying to get engaged with professionals online. I teach media ethics and write about how best practices are evolving with online journalism. I’m learning a huge amount from watching journalists–some of whom I’m also interviewing–at work on Twitter and from being active on it myself. I am also longing to get more professors and professionals involved in discussions of ethics and best practices via social media and blogs. Your ideas on how to use those tools are helping me see new possibilities, and I hope that’s true for others. Of course, as you say, time is a challenge. So are the university expectations for “what counts.” We have built some flexibility into our tenure and promotion criteria here, so I hope that will help our faculty down the road. 

  • Hif

    Carrie, thanks for the post. I love your thoughts about folks getting off their duffs and publishing on the Web, the biggest platform of them all.  I agree that using Poynter [its "How Tos" feature] and/or Nieman is a great way to help professionals understand research that matters. 

    I hope you don’t mind, but I took a snip of your comments and posted it on the listserv.

  • Carrie Brown-Smith

    Younger faculty such as myself – who also weighed in on the listserv, but were mostly lost in the other posturing – find some of this hand-wringing by mostly well-established senior faculty somewhat amusing – although do indeed count me in as one who has long been agitating for change in journalism education. This is an edited version of what I already posted…

    We don’t need to create elaborate new mechanisms to get research to professionals. We just need to get off our duff and make an effort to use the unprecedented array of tools at our disposal to connect with professionals, such as blogs and social media. I think it’s simply about being willing to take some time to do it, and also, to not just spout off but also be willing to meaningfully engage with people from the profession, and listen as well as lecture, especially given that the industry has changed a lot since we worked in it, even for those of us that are relatively not long removed.I also, ahem, think it would be helpful if more senior folks recognized these efforts as at least one valuable aspect of the tenure and promotion process, because they do take a lot of time – although I would do it anyway, because it is the right thing to do.  Some simple ideas: First, you can blog your results in a more accessible way like I did here: For more exposure, offer to share your results on a post for Nieman Lab or Poynter like this: This got 4,018 pageviews, 4:53 avg time on page (~327 hours of time total!), 308 tweets, 118 Facebook likes/shares, and 127 LinkedIn sharesThat’s not to mention Twitter, where I’ve engaged with many national and local news pros. My brilliant friend Doreen Marchionni at Pacific Lutheran also blogs and presents her research to a more diverse group at places like SXSW with lovely Powerpoints like this Look for regular research write-ups on the web in accessible pubs by other not-yet-tenured profs like Jonathan Groves of Drury University, Nikki Usher of George Washington University, Seth Lewis of University of Minnesota, Chris Anderson of CUNY, and many more. We aren’t waiting for institutions to catch up; we are just doing it. 

  • Mu Lin

    That is so true that it is a (much) greater challenge to re-imagine journalism education. You need people who have the willingness and capability to adapt to the new digital environment for journalism. I was told by one journalism professor how much resistance there was to merging conventional journalism tracks to a new overhauled program.

  • Mu Lin

    That is so true that it is a (much) greater challenge to re-imagine journalism education. You need people who have the willingness and capability to adapt to the new digital environment for journalism. I was told by one journalism professor how much resistance there was to merging conventional journalism tracks to a new overhauled program.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry about the bad formatting in my post. Instead of pasting it in, I should have just provided the URL for my blog:

  • Hif

     I think the greater challenge is to re-imagine journalism education.  Perhaps partnering in the classroom isn’t enough. 

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for picking this up, Howard. It’s an important (and continuing) conversation, as I said in my column responding to Jerry’s piece——which I posted to the AEJMC list, launching this conversation. My argument is that there are ways that many journalism programs are partnering with professionals, both in the classroom as full faculty colleagues and in the workplace. There are ways to make this happen.
    Ted Pease
    Utah State

  • Anonymous

         This discussion
    is worthwhile, but it sounds a lot like one that the Newhouse School sponsored
    at Syracuse in 1985.  Have things really
    changed so little since then?


         From my remote
    perch, it appears that the Web has created all sorts of new research questions
    that ought to interest practitioners and academics alike. A few right off the
    top of the head:


                — Under
    what circumstances do bloggers become agenda setters?


                — What
    happened to Mr. Gates? Can the concept of gatekeeper be refitted to apply in


                — If, as
    Knight Ridder’s Hal Jurgensmeyer claimed, influence is a marketable commodity,
    how can digital news media package and sell it?


                — How is
    the Web affecting the minimum efficient scale ( for
    a news business?


                –Is the
    enabling of “issue publics” by the Web a cause of what social psychologists
    call “risky-shift” in decision making? Is that the source of group polarization
    that we see today?


    newspapers thought they were in a steady state, the conflict between academics
    and practitioners was mostly one of time scale. The academy’s time horizon was
    long, practitioners wanted information they could use right now. That won’t
    change, nor will the fact that the best short-term results depend on some
    long-range theory to provide context and justification.


    Weatherly Sharp edited a report of that Syracuse meeting into a nice book:  “Communications Research: The Challenge of
    the Information Age,” Syracuse University Press, 1988.