Eric Newton: Journalism education suffers from ‘symphony of slowness’

Knight Foundation | Common Sense Journalism
Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight, didn’t hold back in his criticism of the state of journalism education in a speech last week. Although he praised a handful of schools that have revamped their programs to help chart the future of news, he spent a lot of time criticizing “the middle of the bell curve.”

With all due respect, journalism and communication education plays at least second chair, and sometimes first chair, in the symphony of slowness. What I mean is the reaction time to new things. Consider this: On one side of campus, engineers are inventing the Internet, browsers and search engines. But the news industry is slow to respond. Then public radio slower still. Foundations even slower. Government slower yet again. Then comes the journalism and communication schools, on the other side of campus from the engineers. And finally, public television.

Who suffers from the symphony of slowness? Students and society.

You can tell students are hurt by looking at a finding, I believe it was two years ago, of the annual graduate survey. A huge number of the nation’s journalism and communication school grads, something approaching half, did not think there had been any major changes in media in the previous five years. … Who is teaching these people?

Newton said journalism schools must start to value professionals as much as scholars, criticizing an accrediting guideline that says competence is less important than academic degrees when hiring faculty. He called for journalism schools to create “teaching hospitals.”

You simply can’t run a teaching hospital without doctors. But you can run one without researchers. Please understand: The best do both. Still, the doctors are required. …

At this unique time in communications history, we need teaching hospitals. We need doctors treated equally with scholars.

Among his ideas: a specialized master’s degree — an MJA, like an MBA or an MFA — and a professional doctorate. And then there’s tenure.

Sometimes, I think if I had a magic wand, I would suspend tenure in journalism and communication education for a generation. Revoke it for everyone, put the professionals and scholars on equal footing, on merit-based contracts. Or, at the very least, offer a massive number of early retirement programs.

Doug Fisher, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina, responded to Newton in a blog post in which he, in his words, “injects a dose of reality” into his vision.

The industry also has a long skein of at best ambivalence toward anything smacking of academics. While news managers cry “Woe is me” as the digital disruption overtakes them, much of this was foreshadowed in the literature – the academic literature – more than a decade ago.

He also points out that some of the other fields of study that Newton refers to have licensing requirements and more rigorous educational requirements. (The doctors-in-training at those teaching hospitals are enrolled in medical school.)

And unlike business and engineering schools, Fisher says, the news business has done a poor job of supporting journalism schools.

Let’s say that, yes, we can get the standards up (sans license) and put in those teaching hospitals with the accompanying rigor and somehow graduate all those talented professionals. Is the industry ready to hire them at something other than $20,000 to $25,000 a year? Because you know what journalists with a science bent call themselves? Engineers and doctors. And those with an academic bent? Lawyers. And there’s a reason for that.

Let’s call it as it is: This industry, on the whole, is c-h-e-a-p. And you can’t earn the respect you want on college campuses as a professional program if that’s the perception of the industry you serve.

There’s no shortage of calls-to-arms in journalism, but Newton’s speech and Fisher’s response are worth a read this weekend.

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  • Anonymous

    some people have been saying this for half a century, and there’s even a bit of truth to it. BUT a journalism degree is NOT “useless,” because, among other things, it also includes requirements that students take numerous liberal arts courses. a journalism grads obviously knows a whole lot more than who, what, when etc. etc. 

  • Anonymous

    Doug Fisher is right. And while we’re waving magic wands, I’d like to wave one at the Knight Foundation and abolish–or at least soft pedal — the arrogance. You guys don’t know everything about the future of journalism or what goes on in academia. It would be nice, and maybe even innovative, if you stop acting as though you do.

  • Anonymous

    The best solution would be to close the journalism schools. A journalism degree is basically useless and has been for a long time. If I was hiring I would always look for someone with a strong liberal arts education and a journalism minor or a few basic journalism courses. Narrowly focused journalism majors need not apply.

  • Reykjavik

    It’s interesting that business school classes are taught mainly by academics — with some former business people thrown in — but b-school faculty are usually very current on what’s happening in the business world and are sources of great expertise. In contrast, j-school faculty tend to be isolated and out-of-touch — it’s rare that a professor could be a better source of learning than a battle-tested editor/reporter/producer. Why the difference?

  • Billy Budd

    As someone who is intimately familiar with the work of j-school graduates, I’d like to note that they are almost universally unprepared, but not because they lack technical skills — they lack the skills to do good journalism and the ethics to realize that trustworthiness, not technical ability, is our most important asset. The Knight Foundation’s consistent drumbeat about “innovation” is undermining the foundations of good journalism, and its heavily promoted (and funded) replacements are not more entertaining or likely to win lost readership. I agree with Sherry — quality and consistency have taken a nosedive, and Knight’s throw-the-baby-out approach is not helping. These kids don’t even know how to write a good sentence, and they don’t think it’s important. I recall a conversation between Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko — both great storytellers and reporters. The first problem they saw was that newspapers had grown boring, and, in the end, they acknowledged they’d never be hired in their updated newsrooms. This was 20 years ago — it’s much, much worse now. Give me someone who knows how to write and report — he or she can learn the technical side on the job. Don’t turn j-school into a gloried version of DeVry.  

  • Sherry Bennett

    Those are some insightful views. In fact I believe journalism is losing its shine at the hands of money and power. the quality and consistency is lacking. Moreover fresh grads lack the patience journalism requires.