June 27, 2012

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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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…
Howard Finberg

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