May 27, 2005

J-School: The Priesthood Gets Funding for a New Church

A while back I offered ASNE members some unsolicited advice about the focus of their recent convention. Among the priorities, I said, should be hiring people whose skills match the complex needs of today's news organizations, abilities that are not necessarily learned in journalism school. I wrote:

Hire Do-ers, Learners and Critical Thinkers First, Then the J-School Grads. Journalism isn't rocket science and a journalism degree doesn't mean its holder will do work that is interesting, compelling, exciting, innovative or even up to the basic standards of reporting and editing. Some do, but many more don't. What qualities does a newspaper-based news organization need in its employees in order to change and succeed today? Here's my list: Personal drive and accountability, collaborative communication skills, the ability to learn new things with minimal direction, literacy in several media, a sense of adventure and risk and competitive instincts. Let's get that those people and then teach them the journalism skills. [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.]

The journalism education community finally agrees.

Yesterday, five large journalism schools, the Carnegie Corporation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a $6 million program intended to re-configure journalism education. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation pays my freight on the Tomorrow's Workforce project.)

The thinking behind the initiative lies in a study done, pro bono, by the McKinsey consulting group, which, interviewed 40 news executives of all stripes and concluded that journalism schools should be:

 "Teaching basic reporting and writing skills, as well as the paramount importance of getting the facts right.
 "Developing news judgment and analytical skills, including the ability to separate fact from opinion and use statistics correctly. As one interviewee put it, 'An astonishing amount of journalism requires strategic thinking and planning.'
 "Mastering specialized expertise and critical language skills (e.g. economics, medical research, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi).
 Raising admission standards and helping the best and brightest land challenging jobs."

In other words, teach them how to do it, what to do and what not to do while doing it, topical knowledge, and cultural literacy and - this is important - direct those with the aptitude into the profession, meaning, that those would-be journalists without writing chops, curiosity or the ability to parse complexity should be "channeled" elsewhere.

These are all good things, especially the last one about raising standards. Although anyone can be a journalist, not everyone can be a good one. Part of the reason for the rise of mediocrity in newspapers is the dearth of talent in many newsrooms, mostly those that can't -- or won't -- pay for it. (Hold the rotten vegetables! There is plenty of talent in U.S. newspapers; it's just not distributed equitably or developed fully.)

(It's still astonishing how many reporters and editors simply cannot write well or cannot tell complex stories clearly. Yes, the newspaper industry should spend more on training, but what journalism school took the money from these well-meaning, but tin-eared stenographers and graduated them? Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley, one of the five schools receiving the Carnegie-Knight funding, told me in interview for this American Journalism Review story, referring to the lecture approach to journalism education: "They come in being unable to write and they leave being unable to write. You can't be lectured into good writing. You have to be worked with, like gymnastics.")

Back to the education initiative: The question, of course, is one that confronts all institutions trying to change: Can the priesthood reinvent itself or will good intentions - even those with a $6 million underwriting - be swallowed by tradition and intransigence?

One indication that the temple guards - to continue the metaphor - are still going to control the acolytes is the emphasis the new initiative places on investigative reporting. The New York Times story on the grant reported the program's goals as:

"Their goal is to revitalize journalism education by jointly undertaking national investigative reporting projects, integrating their journalism programs more deeply with other disciplines at their universities and providing a national platform to try to influence the discourse on media-related issues."

Investigative reporting is a critical differentiator for professional journalism from the media noise we live in, but should it be a core element - an emphasis - of journalism education over other components? I'm not so sure.

I would substitute and start with community journalism (which I know does not exclude investigative reporting). Most journalists coming out of school are confronted either with small town newspapers or suburban news bureau in their first jobs, where investigative reporting is about as popular -- or wanted -- as first-person essays. There is already a high frustration level among young reporters from better J-schools who end up at small newspapers where they bemoan, for example, their inability to practice the CAR techniques they learned in school and don't appreciate the opportunity they have to report on a local community.

Howard Finberg, creator of NewsU at Poynter, has a good backgrounder on the debate over journalism education and the role it should play in preparing journalists for an ever-changing future of news. He says:

"There has always been this push-pull between the intellectual side of a journalism education - media history, communications theory - and the occupational training - newswriting basics - needed to enter the workforce."

Finberg quotes Betty Medsger, former chair of the San Francisco State University Journalism department, from a 1996 essay she wrote following her report on J-school education, "Winds of Change":

The "heart of the dispute, as currently framed, is whether to prepare students with the intellectual skills of journalists or to prepare them to be general communicators."

I vote for door No. 1 - and door No. 2. We need to equip journalists to think, be critical (not criticizers), act decisively and purposely - and then communicate, continuously.

Medsger, a friend, has done a lot of good thinking about journalism education. In 1998, at a presentation at Poynter she said (emphasis added):

"The first thing I'd like to do is to state what I think most of you will regard as a preposterous idea. When it comes to how journalists look at what they do and what their institutions do, journalists do not believe in education, and that they instead believe in magic.

"... I'm going to give you three quick pieces of my evidence. I'm sure that a lot of you have heard journalists say something like this when criticized about a story. 'It's not our fault. We just cover what happens.' Implying no perception of the fact that there might be 100 different ways to cover any one event or issue, rather than the one that was used. Another example, 'We had to go with it because the Washington Post or Drudge went with it and forced our hand.' You notice a helpless quality here."

Those types of statements reflect an absence of personal responsibility, an obtuse lack of professional self-awareness rooted in our industry's pride in doing rather than thinking. We do journalism; we don't think about it. That's someone else's job. [Read: Eliminating the Bimbo Factor.]

(Here's more by Medsger, this for NYU: "Consider this possibility: Journalism education gets in the way - in the way of creating good journalism and in the way of getting a good education.")

All in all, the money and the commitment by these schools is a good beginning. I'm glad to see Berkeley and Schell involved. He's a bit of a maverick and when you invited a maverick to dinner the meal gets a lot more interesting.

In my interview with Schell two years ago he said:

"Journalism school have to make students love history, literature, poetry, philosophy. In some small measure, give them a little resonance. It's very warping for undergraduates to go to journalism school and then become men and women of the cloth. They miss a whole range of study. They should be out reading good novels as undergraduates."

Can the priesthood reinvent itself? It has to.

Other points of view:

 Andrew Cline, Rhetorica: "... we who teach journalism should be preparing our students to practice it well at any news organization--especially the small, local operations. Who is the audience for journalism?"

 Exegesis, a J-school graduate: "I wonder even if it is necessary for journalism programs to continue organizing themselves around a 'trade' school model that trains future professionals for the industry. It seems to me that in a new digital era, where information is abundant, everyone is a potential content producer, and everyone has access to a variety of sources for their news, information management is becoming the most important part of the craft of journalism."

 Bob Stepno, who teaches journalism: "Maybe there will be some online forums and blogs for teachers to talk about their craft, as well as the craft of journalism... and the challenges of getting students interested in real news today."

 Jeff Jarvis: Quotes Hodding Carter, head of the Knight Foundation: "The great dirty secret in journalism and journalism education is that we are inherently conservative in the way we do things."

 Paul Conley: "I tend to doubt that much good will come from the announcement "

 Donica Mensing, PJNet: "Whether universities can break free of some of the institutional patterns that tend to trap them in passing along the approved canon instead of innovating and changing journalism, is an open question."

 B&C Beat, graduated last week: "Earning a master's degree is like buying a PC. Just as soon as you get one, the manufacturer rolls out a newer, faster model."

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Posted by Tim Porter at May 27, 2005 11:17 AM