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.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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