The Future of Journalism Education

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.

27 thoughts on “The Future of Journalism Education”

  1. BRAVO, Dan! You should be running a J-school! I particularly find points five and seven hit the proverbial nail on the head. I can’t tell you how many times in my newspaper career I’ve seen young journalists (and a few seasoned ones) completely butcher statistical information, a scientific principle, or a basic business issue. A 101-level class could do nothing but help. And if those student choose at some point not to enter classic journalism, the classes will still be of use.
    Excellent outline of what a J school should be — and what one should represent — in our evolving world.

  2. I want to see MEDIA LITERACY EDUCATION receive more attention in the nation’s K-12 schools. We (teachers and parents) need to be teaching kids healthy skepticism; media analysis and production; encouraging media literacy from K to 12. But it’s just not happening. Too much emphasis is placed on math and science, while critical thinking about media messages is not a priority. The schools still slam the door on new media tools: YouTube, social networking, blogs, wikis and more. The growing NEWS LITERACY movement is a start in the right direction. Frank Baker, Media Literacy Clearinghouse

    1. Ohmygosh! You mean we teaching children how to think critically and use the universal language of science? The horror! We’d best stop that immediately and start teaching them ‘media literacy’ (whatever that means) before it’s too late!

      Come! On! As a professional scientist, the biggest problem I see in journalism today is the almost-complete lack of any sort of scientific or mathematical literacy. Journalists seem to think that numbers are like salt–something to be sprinkled into articles for flavor. Rarely do I see any though given to presenting statistics in a way that makes it easy for the reader to comprehend their meaning. And it drives me absolutely nuts!

      For a recent example, see the second-to-last graph of this Newsweek article:

      Why are white women with college degrees and “their less-educated sisters” compared to black women with college degrees and black women who never completed high school? Hello?? Anybody home? Nevermind that no data is given to compare the relative samples sizes (i.e. graduation rates)!

      Are readers to infer from the imprecise language that the reference to “less-educated sisters” actually means high-school dropouts rather than high-school dropouts, high-school grads, associate degree holders, and college dropouts combined? And you wonder why media consumers have a difficult time understanding you? Have you ever considered that science journal articles might be so dense precisely *because* their authors are trying to eliminate ambiguity? Sheesh!

  3. With the exception of multi-media, which didn’t exist yet when I was in college, the University of Montana’s J-School pretty did 80% of these things. And it has only improved since then. Note that I am just a graduate, not affiliated with U of M in any way. I just think it is one of the nation’s most overlooked programs for budding journalists.

  4. Very well-written and thought out. If journalism schools headed this advice years ago the industry may not have suffered in the same way it has. Having graduated from journalism school close to a decade ago, I quickly took on jobs that were not traditional journalism jobs but ones that helped me blend my writing skills with new technical/programming skills and those choices have helped immensely in staying employed and have allowed me to continue doing what I love to do. Here’s hoping your vision takes hold.

  5. All right on target. As a former journalist who is now teaching public policy students how to make their research accessible and relevant to wide audiences, I’m reminded yet again how rare and valuable strong writers are in any field. Journalism is indeed a great liberal arts education. And as a director of a digital media program that helps print journalists make the transition to digital media storytelling, I wholeheartedly agree that the track system should be recognized for what it is — a remnant of another era.

  6. Nice suggestions. I especially like the bit about Persuasion. This has become a very powerful area. Currently there are 4 PR people to each journalist. (This is from the book the Death and Life of Journalism). The ratio was 1 to 1 in the 1980’s.

    I wrote Dan last Monday about a problem I don’t see addressed much. How can you get into news conferences if you are not part of some “official” media organization? The whole concept of citizen journalism is kind of busted if during the times when people in power need to answer questions they can avoid it by lumping you into “the public” instead of “the media.” and keeping you out of their conference calls and events. “Sorry, credentialed media only.”

    Let me give you two examples.
    In 2007 I organized 6 bloggers investigating the tainted pet food crisis. We uncovered new information, coordinated our research and we had excellent questions to ask the players, but the FDA would not allow us into the press conference. I made sure to get the info to the establishment journalists following the story, but they didn’t always have the same deep insight as we did (based on our original research). Because of this the FDA never answered some of our questions, like “Which Chicken Processor fed the recalled tainted pet food to 20 Million chickens?”

    I know who it was, I did the leg work. I made the phone calls. I called the top ten chicken processors in the state of Indiana and found out who it was. But I couldn’t get it confirmed by the FDA because they wouldn’t let me on the call. (The very fact that the FDA wouldn’t reveal the name should also be a concern, who were they protecting the people or the processors? Clearly it was the processors.)

    Now because the FDA would not acknowledge the name of this chicken processor 20,000,000 chickens who ate the same food that killed 4,000 cats and dogs went into the human food supply. Does that concern you? It should.
    The industrial chemical that killed babies in China (melamine) and the pets in the us was fed to chickens which then went to schools, hospitals, restaurants and supermarkets.

    The Chicken industry put pressure on the FDA and the USDA to let the food go out. They threw together a report that had “weak science” as the science reporter from USA Today told me. The Union for Concerned Scientists also had problems with it but they had other battles to fight the FDA on so they dropped it. The “Dilution effect”, suggested by the weak science in the report, on out.

    Now I didn’t have the backing of a news organization to protect me from food disparagement laws (What the beef industry used against Oprah.) had recently had my blog shut down by ABC/Disney because I exposed the violent rhetoric of KSFO hosts to their advertisers, so I wasn’t in a place where I could piss off another industry giant. Therefore I dropped it after passing it onto the reporters at the LA Times to include in their FOIA request of the FDA/USDA. We might have proof of what I found out in 2012 if we are lucky.

    Another example: I wanted to call into the most recent News Corp Q2 financial conference call. I have a very relevant question. Here it is:

    The group Color of Change convinced 81 advertisers to pull their ads from the Glenn Beck show because of his race baiting. I know you won’t break out the numbers, but when can the NewsCorp shareholders expect Fox to provide the revenue the Glenn Beck show *should* be generating based on its ratings.

    Now I tried to get the media present to ask the question which I though should be relevant during a financial conference call. I contacted 6 of the reporters who might be interested in the advertising publications as well as the mainstream. They didn’t ask it and instead wanted to know if Avatar will have a sequel. Real hard hitting questions there folks.
    I had the data to back up my question. I knew what they did and did not have to reveal because of financial regulations, but because I wasn’t an official member of the press I couldn’t get on the call. And even then unless I had a “press” sounding name for the blog I was writing for I doubt they would call on me.

    All the people who think that bloggers will pick up the slack on reporting are fooling themselves.

    I’ve been trying to use the journalism skills I’ve learned to help the public, but it’s hard to do when even if you do the work and are willing to ask the questions the old metaphors are stacked against us.

    (By the way, the work that we bloggers did was praised by Sen. Dick Durbin during the testimony from the pet food processors. USA Today did a story about the bloggers whose work I coordinated. All of that is nice, but it still didn’t convince the FDA to let us on their conference calls on the issue.)

    1. I couldn’t agree more that government is falling behind and becoming a barrier to this media transformation. I’ve recently run into similar problems as a freelance broadcast journalist. I was basically denied access to film because our primary broadcast outlet is a major internet search engine site. So the smallest, rural TV station (oh wait, they got sold and left town) can have access because it’s traditional media (or at this point, nonexistent media). But if your outlet happens to be a search engine that reaches millions of viewers, forget it! I’m a print dinosaur and even I can see how silly it is to base a news policy on platform — not content.

  7. Hi Dan! I read “We The Media” in my graduate course at the University of Nevada Interactive Environmental Journalism program (pardon the plug).

    I do think you hit on a lot of key points – especially entrepreneurial aspects of building good journalism products. That has to also include some sort of course in innovation where students are challenged to come up with new ways to do journalism.

    But one area I have to disagree with is the implication that people have to be “taught” how to consume media. I’m a firm believer in understanding how people use the news then building from there.

    In an IDEO type exercise for another grad course, we created 3 wallets – one designed for ourselves, one designed for a classmate without discussion with them, and one designed with their input. Needless to say, the third type of wallet was superior. Media today, however, seem to be designing products for themselves and not their audiences.

    We get so bogged down with The First Amendment, morality, and ethics that we don’t stop to consider how everyone else is dealing with it. Instead of asking parents to seek out our help in understanding the media, we should be seeking out parents to help us understand how we can make our information clearer, more useful, etc.

    That is really how collaboration with other disciplines can foster. Without user-centered design, we’re all just throwing theoreticals and hypotheticals around the chamber.

    It’s a much more uncomfortable position, I would wager, than being PR agents for journalism.

    Thank you for your post and I hope that this sparks lively debates within journalism schools across the country.

    1. Alisha,

      I’m not saying we have to show people how to consume media. We don’t. But I do think we can help people learn how to use media better. There’s a big difference.

      Love the wallet exercise…

  8. Great list, Dan. At BU, we are trying to do most of those things, and we are about to roll out a local news service, to try to address the loss of reporting power in Boston’s newspapers and other media. For a while, we have run a news service focused on the Statehouse beat, and editors plead for wider coverage from our students.
    One thing I would add is an elaboration on your opener about a liberal arts education. We limit the number of journalism courses our undergraduates can take and encourage them to develop both a broad education and, wherever possible, a subject where they go deep into the content. (A lot of our students are double-majors in history, economics, or international relations.) We also beg them to learn other languages, which is a hard sell to a lot of American students.
    Within a journalism curriculum, I have to agree: “tracks” make little sense any more, and almost all of our students need to strengthen their grasp of math and statistics. I would also say it would be important to hold on to some traditional courses, like the journalism’s history, ethics, and law.

    1. Chris, I will do that elaboration. My understanding is that accredited programs require students to study more widely than just journalism. I love the idea of language training, too.

  9. These are great suggestions, all requiring a considerable investment in resources, right?

    Second, what’s to be done about the legacy faculty in journalism schools? Many places have tenured Ph.D. folks who are teaching communication theory. Other places have journalists teaching what they learned in the heyday of legacy, i.e. long-form narrative, in print radio and video, even though the “market” has moved away from these products.

    Given the sad state of publicly funded universities, growth of journalism education is highly unlikely.

    1. William, this is a mostly fair critique. It may well be that the only way to do this kind of thing is to start something new.

      But I don’t think it’s fair to assume that “legacy faculty” are all incapable of being part of the changes. And I very much want to include the comm theory stuff into what’s coming — which is why I said I’d encourage research into highly esoteric stuff if it’s also relevant to where we’re going.

  10. Hi Dan. Hard to argue with any of this, but I think ethical training is understated. One former newsroom grunt’s opinion is that ethical failures, brewing for decades and far more extensive than indicated by even the most spectacular of media scandals, have been pivotal in the erosion of daily journalism.

    1. Mike, good to hear from you. If honorable behavior is understated here, that’s because it’s a primary focus of the book draft from which it’s excerpted. I did link to key principles at the top of the piece, as core values we should teach, and I hope you’ll consider them as incorporated into what followed.

  11. We’re seriously approaching a broad reworking of our JMC curriculum for a unique student group from 30+ former Communist countries. I’m having trouble finding this one-day conference on “journalism education” that you reference above. Can you help me find a website for this conference? I couldn’t find reference to it on either Paley Center or Carnegie websites.

    Many thanks,

    Phelps S. Hawkins
    Assistant Professor

    1. Phelps, I don’t think they have a link for the conference. It’s basically a gathering of the Knight-Carnegie News21 schools, I gather.

  12. Some schools did heed this advice — yet they don’t have the pedigree of Columbia. Editors gave tests on how to recast an article — and never tested on how to interpret data.

    A good journalist needs to be part ethnographer (do any know what that means), a diviner of secondary research, a psychologist to pull out 1st hand information, an acute understanding of virtual any subject, a keen business sense, ability to read a P&L like a CFO, the logic of a lawyer — and the ethics of a theologian.

    If there isn’t a journo job waiting for them — these would be the skills i would want in a great CEO.

  13. Great ideas. If I were a chancellor you’d be my next journalism dean. One suggestion, though, involves including journalism history in a relevant way. A bit self-serving, perhaps, since I’ve written a history of the public-service Pulitzers. But I find in current curricula too little appreciation of what great journalism has done for society. To paraphrase Santayana just a bit: “Those who cannot remember th past have no way in hell of repeating it.”

    1. Roy, this is a fine suggestion. I’ll add it to the updated version of this post when I get all of the best suggestions together.

  14. Thanks for this excellent post — many great ideas. One of the questions I struggle with as we think about our j-school curriculum is your first assumption: that we should be great liberal arts programs. I believe this as an ideology, but in practice I worry that it’s not accomplishing what we think it is:

    1. Our students take courses in many disciplines but few understand how to connect the ideas they’re building into any coherent understanding of the world. They aren’t building broad knowledge as much as collecting credits from random courses. Journalism courses that worked to build those connections make might a huge difference. For example, they can take science and math courses, but have trouble translating that knowledge into explaining science or statistics well in stories. What are we missing?

    2. If journalism is moving from mass distribution to niche publishing (as I think it is), then our students would be better served by going deep rather than broad. Perhaps this belongs in graduate school, but if our students want to create, or work for, community niche sites, they would do well to study communities and their dynamics deeply. If they want to do journalism for environmental/medical/art/health/business organizations, they would do better to become deeply familiar with those disciplines than superficially acquainted with many. Perhaps…

    Thanks for sharing these ideas.

  15. Dan,

    Many many great thoughts on this post, you have plenty of great ideas for the future of journalism education. I especially like your ideas about getting rid of the common “track” or “major/minor” within higher education.
    It makes sense to have a major, but not so much a specific concentration. I run a program out of GWU called the Semester in Washington Journalism Program ( We teach students how to take many communication skills into their internships and back to their home schools. Instead of taking a whole course on say video production, students explore multiple aspects of media at GWU while they are here for the semester. Each week we focus on a new set of skills, so its as if they are taking many mini media seminars, to learn how to become well rounded journalists.
    Again great ideas from a superior J School. ASU is always at the front of J school Innovation I like your thoughts. I look forward to reading more!
    Best Andrea

  16. I like this article. I think more schools should be thinking like this. I am a student majoring in journalism and I hate the “track” system. At first I thought I wanted to do news print then I changed my mind to magazine, then I even considered changing again to advertising or PR. I also took a class on photojournalism. I like all the areas and think that students shouldn’t have to choose because all of these areas are shifting together, like mentioned in the article. One more change I’d like to see in teaching journalism is, to start with the basics and build our way up. In my classes I feel like the professor would give us a lecture on a subject, then tell us ok go write a story. Then after writing the story they would tell us what we did wrong. I think we should know all the basics and work our way up to writing a well thought-out, researched story.

  17. Hai Dan, good hear from you. I read your article. This is great ideas. I like this article. However, from a student point of view, there is vast different bestween Asian tha western journalism curriculum. I think we should think about it seriously and as soon as implement in Asian based college/schools.

    Many thanks


    A student of journalism/Nepal

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