August 9, 2013

The scary thing about a disruption is that you don’t know where it will go.

Forty years ago, we didn’t realize the first cellphone call would lead to mobile computing and smartphones. Twenty years ago, we didn’t realize that Amazon would transform retail shopping. Ten years ago, there was no Facebook or Twitter.

You just don’t know where disruptive innovation will lead.

What we do know, however, is that the future of journalism education is at a critical point for two reasons.

1. Time is running out. Disruption, driven by economics and technology, is coming to the university system much more quickly than most administrators realize.

2. Journalism education will undergo fundamental shifts in how journalism is taught and who teaches it. Those who don’t innovate in the classroom will be left behind — just like those who chose not to innovate in the newsroom.

For more than a year, a heated discussion has raged about the future of journalism education. Academics, foundation leaders and professionals are still debating what the future of j-education will look like, just as we are all arguing about what the future of journalism will look like.

These discussions have been fueled in part by a survey that Poynter’s News University conducted in the spring of 2012, in preparation for a speech I gave at the European Journalism Centre. I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that the positions of both educators and professionals haven’t changed much in the past year.

A new Poynter NewsU survey conducted during the past three months shows no shift in attitudes for either group. With more than 1,800 responses, equally divided between professionals and academics, there is still a wide gap — more than 40 points — between the two groups of survey respondents.

Today, 96 percent of those who identify themselves as journalism educators believe that a journalism degree is very important to extremely important when it comes to understanding the value of journalism. That’s almost identical to the 2012 result.

Professionals — editors and those who work in journalism — have a less favorable opinion, with 57 percent saying that a degree is very important to extremely important when it comes to understanding the value of journalism. That’s unchanged from last year’s survey.

Also unchanged is the gap between educators’ and professionals’ view of the importance of a journalism degree when it comes to “abilities in newsgathering, editing and presenting the news.” Almost all educators (98 percent) say a degree is very important to extremely important when it comes to newsgathering skills. But only 59 percent of professionals share this view, with almost one in five saying a degree is not at all important or is only slightly important in terms of newsgathering.

There is a big disconnect between professional journalists and the academic community. But even journalism educators worry that journalism education isn’t keeping pace.

Thirty-nine percent of educators said journalism education is keeping up with industry changes not at all or a little. Newsroom leaders and staffers are even harsher, with 48 percent saying the academy isn’t keeping up with changes in the field.

As for whether a journalism degree is valuable when it comes to getting a job, the gap between professors and professionals is smaller. More than half (53 percent) of educators think a journalism degree is very to extremely important to getting a job. Forty-one percent of professionals share that belief.

But those who identify themselves as “working on their own” hold an even lower opinion of a journalism degree; only 38 percent say that a journalism degree is very important to extremely important to getting work.

That means that, even though attitudes haven’t shifted from last year’s survey — or maybe because attitudes haven’t shifted — we need to redouble our efforts to rethink journalism education.

Last year, I said “journalism education can’t teach its way to the future.” That’s still true.

What’s important is that journalism degrees are in danger of becoming perceived as irrelevant. This is reflected in the elimination of journalism programs or the incorporation of journalism into the wider communications curriculum in many universities.

Let me emphasize this critical point: I worry about the future of journalism degrees (and programs) more than I worry about the future of journalism — and, by extension, journalism training.

The real disruption that colleges and universities face is that degrees are declining in value — even while education and training remain important to an individual’s future. In the near future, I believe, there will be a huge economic challenge facing our educational institutions: convincing prospective students and their parents that the traditional degree still has value.

College administrators face the same dilemma as their news-industry counterparts. Trading tuition dollars for digital or e-learning dimes might be the only way to survive.

That, however, is only the beginning.

The disruption

The same disruptive forces that battered the media industry are threatening the economics of private and public universities. The traditional media players were slow to recognize how their business model was going to be undercut by technology and how the Internet would transform a precious commodity into something with little or no value.

News was a valuable commodity because it was scarce. The Internet turned scarcity into abundance by providing new outlets and new platforms for consumers to access news and information.

The same thing, I believe, is about to happen to education.

More and more parents, students, government officials and education pundits are questioning the wisdom of spending six figures for an education that doesn’t provide a clear economic return. This isn’t just a journalism-education issue but a broader challenge, a questioning of the orthodoxy that highly values a college education.

Even though on average, the benefits outweigh the costs of a college education, a Brookings Institution report released in May argues that “a bachelor’s degree is not a smart investment for every student in every circumstance.”

The cost of tuition, the students’ personal attributes, the major they choose to study, and their likelihood of graduating all factor in to the calculation of whether college is worth the investment.

“College is a not a homogeneous thing, and a degree is not a uniform ticket,” Brookings’ Isabel Sawhill told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jill Tucker. “There are lots of different types of tickets, and some of those tickets take you nowhere.”

All of this is playing out during a period in which journalism and communications enrollment is embarrassingly high, and the traditional hiring by legacy media organizations is at an all-time low. When it comes to value for dollars invested, journalism degrees may have much less value than they did in the past.

The technology shift

What journalism schools or programs do in the coming years to combat this perception will be critical. Time is not on the side of the established institutions during periods of innovation. Time and momentum are on the side of the disruptor.

Disruptive innovation in the news industry means journalism created and distributed on new platforms by independent entrepreneurial journalists. It means journalism outside the traditional business model of mass media.

“To teach journalism in the digital age you have to teach both journalism and the digital age — and use modern tools to do it,” the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton argued earlier this year. “That’s why the schools that are serious about this are getting bigger, not smaller.”

E-learning is one obvious new way of teaching. Even within the confines of an ivy-covered building, j-schools can also explore other methods, such as:

  • Innovations labs, such as the one run at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
  • Hybrid learning programs that mix e-learning with classroom work
  • Classroom sessions that are discussions of online training materials rather than lectures

Schools are trying other innovations as well. They may or may not be successful. Two that come to mind are massive open online courses [MOOCs] and the digital badge movement.

Most journalism educators — 84 percent — say they are at least slightly familiar with MOOCs. Yet only 22 percent think journalism should be taught as a MOOC. Slightly more educators, a little more than one-third of respondents, said they would be willing to teach journalism via MOOCs. An equal number said they weren’t sure and 28 percent said no.

There are big questions and doubts around the effectiveness of MOOCs. I’m slightly skeptical about the power of public MOOCs, given dropout rates quoted as high as 90 percent. But, with journalism education, that’s not the issue. Public MOOCs are open and free, and sometimes people just want to see what’s being taught.

MOOCs are valuable because they give us the opportunities to experiment. This form of delivery helps us figure out new ways to teach using technology. We need to find out what works and why.

San Jose State University experimented with the MOOC format and has learned some hard lessons with the five online courses it offered in partnership with Udacity. The courses were elementary statistics, college algebra, an introduction to programming, entry-level math and introductory psychology. While completion rates were very good at 83 percent, the majority of students (56 percent to 76 percent) failed the final exams.

Although SJSU “paused” this experiment, I think the real wisdom comes from Udacity’s CEO, Sebastian Thrun, who wrote on the company blog:

In our pilot, we stuck to a traditional, 15-week semester timeframe. While that schedule may work for full-time students on campus, we know it doesn’t for everyone. As we broaden the base of students we reach with these classes, we should broaden our perspective on what a “semester” looks like. Imagine a world where you could take these classes for credit, while setting your own pace and deadlines to fit within work schedules, within times when you have access to computers, or within high-school classes schedules.

That’s the spirit of a startup: Launch, fail/learn, iterate and relaunch. Then do it all over again.

Changing skills, changing journalists

Much has been written about how the thousands of independent journalists are creating new outlets and opportunities. And we have written extensively about the new tools journalists need to use in this ever-changing environment.

What’s less known, however, are the specific skills that journalists will need to be successful in the future.

Two-thirds (66 percent) of the educators who responded to our survey believe their schools or departments are responsive to changing curriculum. This is an exciting finding, because journalism education can remain relevant only if it takes the lead in anticipating the skills that will be needed and ensuring that students learn these skills. But the finding also raises the question of why there aren’t more experiments. Are schools open to change but just don’t know what to do?

Part of that strategic rethink involves closing the gap between professors and professionals. And it probably means letting go of some of the current thinking about what is taught in the classroom and what journalism education is.

What skills, attitudes and knowledge will make a journalist successful in the future? We can all speculate, but we don’t have much data to look to for the answers. So, NewsU producer Lauren Klinger and I created a new survey about the future of journalism competencies.

We’re asking educators and journalists to help identify what’s important in four areas:

  1. Knowledge, attitudes and personal features
  2. News gathering skills
  3. News production skills
  4. Technical/multimedia skills

We don’t know what we’ll find with this survey, but I expect there will be new ideas to help us rethink journalism education.

What we do know, however, is enough to get us working to reinvent our future:

  • We know that technology is disrupting how education is delivered.
  • We know that technology is disrupting the economics of education.
  • We know that journalism is changing more quickly than journalism education.

It is not too late to reshape journalism education. But time is not on our side. I know many educators will struggle with the idea of giving up parts of what they love — such as teaching in a classroom — and others will struggle with learning new technologies and approaches to the craft of journalism.

Dealing with disruptions means we can either mourn the past or we can work together to invent the future.

This article is adapted from a report on the Future of Journalism written and edited by Howard Finberg (@Hif) and Lauren Klinger. To download a copy of the report, which includes additional data from the 2013 survey, visit Poynter NewsU.

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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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