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.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/sophie.cowles.58 Sophie Cowles

    I work for University College Falmouth in the UK and we’ve recently launched an online undergraduate degree in Journalism to encourage innovative, flexible and fluid international study. Online learning, if done right, is a brilliant way for Journalism, an increasingly digital vocation, to be learnt.

    Because the course is online professionals can also study short courses that are part of the degree to enhance their abilities, something that would be much more costly and time consuming in face to face learning.

    It’s important to build on the solid foundations we already have in teaching journalism and broadcasting and online learning really embraces the change that journalism teaching needs. http://www.falmouth.ac.uk/onlinejournalism. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1581501487 Joe Hayden

    AEJMC could start by raising the number of journalism hours a student can take.  I’m all for a liberal arts education (I’m a product of such a school, in fact), but it’s difficult to squeeze all the theory and skills (writing, reporting and technical) that students need into 40 hours.  What do you discard to do that?  History, law, ethics?  That’s a terrible mistake.  Students need both.  So AEJMC needs to give us a little breathing room.  As it is, there’s precious little. –Joe Hayden, University of Memphis

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1581501487 Joe Hayden

    AEJMC could start by raising the number of journalism hours a student can take.  I’m all for a liberal arts education (I’m a product of such a school, in fact), but it’s difficult to squeeze all the theory and skills (writing, reporting and technical) that students need into 40 hours.  What do you discard to do that?  History, law, ethics?  That’s a terrible mistake.  Students need both.  So AEJMC needs to give us a little breathing room.  As it is, there’s precious little. –Joe Hayden, University of Memphis

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  • http://twitter.com/augiegrant AugieGrant

    I strongly agree with the underlying premise, that
    journalism school must aggressively evolve in order to keep up with changes in
    technology, media organizational structure, and social changes. But I take
    strong issue with the approach of this open letter. In my opinion, 

    1.       The “teaching hospital” analogy is severely flawed. The “professionals” in teaching
    hospitals all have advanced degrees, and the core of their job is applying
    medical research for both treatment and prevention, and research is the heart
    of the field. And, as much as I would love to train journalists for seven years
    and have them receive a six-figure salary upon graduation, I doubt such a
    scenario is likely to play out in the near future.

    2.       As a media practitioner who moved to academia, it has been frustrating to me that
    the majority of professional journalistic organizations make so little use of primary and
    basic research to understand journalistic processes and effects. Virtually
    every other major industry in the U.S., from manufacturing to
    telecommunications, makes substantial investments in R&D, including
    supporting university-based research. But few journalism organizations have
    made similar investments, and the research findings of journalism researchers are more
    often ignored by the industry rather than being applied. I frequently consult
    with businesses regarding new media and audience behavior. In my experience,
    high-tech organizations invest significantly in this type of research, but
    journalistic organizations rarely make these investments.

    3.       Almost everywhere I’ve taught in a teaching and research career spanning 25 years, the
    faculty has included a mix of former practitioners and academically-oriented
    faculty members. The best environments have included individuals who have both
    professional experience and advanced degrees, and these individuals have proven
    to be both great teachers and great researchers.

    4.       The biggest barrier for many professionals entering academia is realizing that a
    faculty position is much more than a “teaching job.” In order to earn tenure
    and advance in academic ranks, anyone—practitioner or academic—must generate
    and share new knowledge about the field. The creation and sharing of knowledge
    requires a combination of research skills and expertise in publishing—in books,
    journals, trade press, and online. In my view, the practitioners who fail to
    qualify for tenure and promotion are those who neglect the part of the job that
    requires creation and sharing of knowledge. And to state that a special
    category should be created for someone who teaches but does not study the
    industry or audience and does not publish indicates a basic misunderstanding of
    the fundamental role of universities in the production of knowledge.

    5.       The foundations have applied their resources to support schools that appear to be
    taking their advice. But the foundations could be doing a great deal more to
    advance their cause. Specifically:
    a.      They should institute a broader program of
    funding journalism-related research. The efforts that are currently funded are
    admirable, but the entire field—both the industry side and the academic
    side—needs greater availability of funding for basic media-related research.
    (One interesting side note is the rapid growth of programs in Health
    Communication, which have become much more important than traditional
    journalism education because of the availability of high levels of funding for
    research in all areas related to health and health communication. This trend is
    shifting the interests of some of our best researchers, who have a mandate to
    conduct funded research and cannot do so in traditional media research because
    available funding is so limited.)
    b.     They should consider founding a new journal that
    would be devoted to basic research on journalism and media, using the journal
    to establish stronger flow of research between academics and practitioners.
    c.      They should sponsor research projects to study
    and analyze journalism education. The (mostly) anecdotal accounts that
    predominate this discussion have a much lower credibility with university
    presidents and others who understand the power of systematic, empirical

    I hope these comments contribute to a constructive dialogue
    in the field. There is a need for greater understanding in the academy of the
    need to advance journalism education as well as a need for those signing the
    “open letter” to better understand academia and the synergies that are possible
    with greater interactions among media practitioners and researchers.

    Augie Grant, J. Rion McKissick Professor of Journalism, University of South Carolina