Next week I’ll be attending a one-day conference at the Paley Center for Media in New York. The center and the Carnegie Corp. are asking what the future of journalism education should be — who should do it, how it should be done, and for what purpose.
I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and have blogged a number of ideas in the past several years, and one chapter in my upcoming book, Mediactive, will look closely at media education. Here’s an excerpt:
If I ran a journalism school, I would start with the same basic principles of honorable, high-quality journalism and mediactivism, and embed them at the core of everything else. If our students didn’t understand and appreciate them, nothing else we did would matter very much.
With the principles as the foundation, I would, among many other things:
- Emphasize undergraduate journalism degrees as great liberal arts programs, even more valuable that way than as training for journalism careers. At the same time, focus graduate journalism studies on helping people with expertise in specific areas to be the best possible journalists in their fields.
- Do away with the still-common “track” system for would-be journalists where students focus on print, broadcast, online, etc. These are merging. There would be one track. We wouldn’t just recognize our students’ digital future; we’d immerse them in it.
- Encourage, and require in some cases, cross-disciplinary learning and doing. We’d create partnerships around the university, working with business, engineering/computer science, film, political science, law, design and many other programs. The goals would be both to develop our own projects and to be an essential community-wide resource for the future of local media.
- Teach students not just the basics of digital media but also the value of data and programming to their future work. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to become programmers; but they absolutely need to know how to communicate with programmers. We’d also encourage computer science undergraduates to become journalism graduate students, so they can help create tomorrow’s media.
- Require all students to learn basic statistics, survey research and fundamental scientific methodology. The inability of journalists to understand what they’re reading is one of journalism’s — and society’s — major flaws.
- Encourage a research agenda with deep connections to key media issues of today. More than ever, we need solid data and rigorous analysis. And translate faculty research into language average people can understand as opposed to the dense, even impenetrable, prose that’s clear (if it really is) only to readers of academic journals.
- Require all journalism students to understand business concepts, especially those relating to media. This is not just to cure the longstanding ignorance of business issues in the craft, but also to recognize that today’s students will be among the people who develop tomorrow’s journalism business models. We’d discuss for-profit and not-for-profit methods, and look at advertising, marketing, social networking, and search-engine optimization, among many other elements.
- Make entrepreneurship a core part of journalism education. Arizona State University, where I’m working, is among several schools working on this, and the early experiments are gratifying. Several of our student projects have won funding. At City University of New York, Jeff Jarvis has received foundation funding for student projects to continue after the class is over, based on semester-ending competitive “pitches” to a judging panel of journalists and investors. We need to see more and more of these and other kinds of experiments.
- Recognize that not all, and probably not most, students will end up as entrepreneurs. But they will all come to appreciate two key elements of entrepreneurship. One is the notion of taking ownership of a process and outcome. The other, which may be the most important single thing students — of all kinds — need in this fast-changing world is an appreciation of ambiguity, and the ability to deal with it. This means reacting to changes around us, being flexible and swift when circumstances change. Ambiguity is not something to fear; it is part of our lives, and we need to embrace it.
- In a related area, recognize that many of our best students, particularly the ones with a genuine entrepreneurial bent, will not graduate as scheduled, if ever. They’ll create or join startups while they have the passion and energy, and we should encourage them to try.
- Appreciate our graduates no matter where their careers have taken them. If we understand that journalism education is a valuable step into any number of professions, we should not just celebrate the graduates who’ve gone on to fame (if not fortune) in journalism, but also those who’ve made marks in other fields.
- Persuade the president (or chancellor or whatever the title) and trustees of the university that every student on the campus should learn journalism principles and skills before graduating, preferably during freshman year. At State University of New York’s Stony Book campus, the journalism school has been given a special mandate of exactly this kind. Howard Schneider, a former newspaper journalist who now is dean of Stony Brook’s journalism school, won foundation funding to bring news literacy into the university’s broader community, not just those enrolled in journalism courses.
- Create a program of the same kind for people in the community, starting with teachers. Our goal would be to help schools across our geographical area bring mediactivism to every level of education—not just college, but also grade, middle, and high school. We would offer workshops, conferences and online training.
- Offer that program, or one like it, to concerned parents who feel overwhelmed by the media deluge themselves, to help turn them into better media consumers and to give them ways to help their children.
- Keep what we now call public relations as part of the mission, but move it into a separate program. Call it “Persuasion,” and include marketing and other kinds of non-journalistic advocacy in this category. As we recognize that the lines are blurring, sometimes uncomfortably, we’ll require all journalism students to learn the techniques of persuasion. But Persuasion majors would conversely be steeped in the principles of honorable media creation.
- Provide for-fee training to communicators who work in major local institutions, such as PR and marketing folks from private companies, governmental organizations, and others. If they could be persuaded that the principles matter, they might offer the public less BS and more reality, and we’d all be better off for the exercise.
- Enlist another vital player in the effort to help people appreciate the value of solid, ethical journalism: local media of all kinds, not just traditional media. Of course, as noted earlier, they should be making this a core part of their missions, given that their own credibility would rise if they helped people understand the principles and process of quality journalism. But we’d very much want to work with local new media organizations and individuals, too.
- Advise and train citizen journalists to understand and apply the principles and best practices. They are going to be an essential part of the local journalism ecosystem, and we should reach out to show them how we can help.
- Augment local media with our own journalism. We train students to do journalism, after all, and their work should be widely available in the community, particularly when it fills in gaps left by the shrinking traditional media. At Arizona State, the Cronkite News Service provides all kinds of coverage of topics the local news organizations rarely cover, making our students’ work available to those organizations. Soon, we’ll be publishing it ourselves on our own website.
All this suggests a considerably broader mission for journalism schools and programs than the one they’ve had in the past. It also suggests a huge opportunity for journalism schools. The need for this kind of training has never been greater. We’re not the only ones who can do it, but we may be among the best equipped.
Note: Seth Lewis at the Nieman Journalism Lab is looking for ideas in this space. He’s dead-on in wanting to see students come out of the experience with great flexibility, and his piece has already attracted some excellent comments.