Ask A Pro
J-Schools Play Catchup In his second month as a professor at Arizona State University, Tim McGuire was standing in front of 13 students teaching “The Business of Journalism” when his inner voice interrupted. “You dummy,” he recalls thinking, “you are teaching a history course.” It was fall 2006, and he was talking about the production of a daily newspaper, but not about the parallel production of a 24-hour-a-day Web site. He was explaining the collapse of the print classified advertising market, but not the striking success of Google search advertisements.
The course, new to the curriculum, was in desperate need of a revision already. Mr. McGuire, a 23-year veteran of The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, was in need of a re-education himself.
“I knew what I knew until I realized there was an earthquake underfoot,” he says. He immersed himself in Internet business models. He started a blog. The course was renamed “The Business and Future of Journalism.” He quickly learned that today’s journalism students don’t enroll to hear, in Mr. McGuire’s words, “old newspaper farts telling them that the business is doomed.”
“They know the model is broken,” he says. “They think, We’ll just have to fix it.” And so he started this semester by outlining an intimidating theme for the course: “How do we pay for journalism?”
Right now, there may be no other field of education where “I don’t know” is spoken so often.
At the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, on Arizona State’s Phoenix campus, and across the country, professors are hustling to figure out how to teach journalism at a time when the field is undergoing a sweeping transformation.
The American Journalism Review estimates that 15 percent of the nation’s newspaper newsroom jobs were lost in 2008 as news consumerscontinued to gravitate to online sources and as traditional revenue streams dried up; so far this year, major newspapers in Denver and Seattle have folded altogether. At the same time, the shift from a print-based, scheduled world of media to a digital, on-demand world of options is changing how journalists do their jobs. “New media” doesn’t mean transplanting old media to a new medium; it requires a new vocabulary, a new relationship with the audience — a massive social network that now talks back — and, sometimes, a new set of expectations about objectivity and timeliness.
At stake is a generation of reporters, and the continued role of journalists as the eyes, ears and questioners for the public.
The changes are forcing colleges and universities to rethink what a journalism education should look like. The perennial debate about journalism programs — theoretical teaching versus professional skill building — has been displaced by more urgent questions: How can you help students find sustainable business models, while introducing the formerly verboten subject of the business side? What are the implications for the craft of journalism in the shift to digital? And how do you position students for an uncertain future in the media?
“I don’t know a journalism dean in the country who knows what the solution is, or where the journalism industry is going,” says Christopher Callahan, the dean of the Cronkite School. “I am convinced that those answers are going to come from people of their generation,” he says of the students. “Not my generation.”
To raise its national profile, Arizona State has invested heavily in its journalism program. In a new curriculum, Mr. Callahan is trying to instill an ethos of innovation — a sea change for an industry that has acted for decades like a slow-moving train, with J-schools the caboose. “Newsrooms have tended to be highly inflexible; innovation was not encouraged,” says Mr. Callahan, former associate dean at the University of Maryland’s journalism school. Deans across the country say they can’t afford to be the caboose anymore.
The new forward-thinking approach is to bracket traditional journalistic values withWeb classes and an entrepreneurial spirit. Take the weekly entrepreneurship course at Arizona State taught by Dan Gillmor, a former columnist for The San Jose Mercury News, in which students create products for news consumers — last fall, a team built a site for local filmmakers. The purpose of the course, Mr. Gillmor says, is to learn to “invent your own jobs.” (Because they may have to.) Mr. Gillmor also runs the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, a catalyst for the student projects; that the center even exists is a testament to the changes that are afoot within journalism education.
First-year students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University now take “Multimedia Storytelling” and “Introduction to 21st-Century Media.” In the fall, the school of journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, will be adding an immersion experience in “communication, business and entrepreneurship.” With $8 million from the former newspaper executive Leonard Tow, the graduate schools at Columbia University and the City University of New York are creating two centers for new media innovation.
Rich Beckman, a professor of visual journalism at the University of Miami and a guru of new media education, confirms the evolution:“There were deans all over the country saying, ‘We’re never going to teach computer programming in J-school.’ Well, now they are.”
The required-reading list in Mr. McGuire’s senior-level class is telling. It includes Romenesko, a blog that many reporters and editors start and end the day with, and, more notably, Mashable, a blog about social networking that is equally influential in technology circles.
One day earlier this semester, Mr. McGuire bluntly told the students: “You’re not going to go to work for Gannett or a lot of big media companies.”
Gannett owns The Arizona Republic, Phoenix’s daily newspaper, which is located just two blocks from the school. The Republic has suffered several rounds of staff layoffs in recent years.
The students don’t deny they are worried about the job market. Some December graduates are still having trouble finding jobs in the field and are working at banks and accounting firms and writing freelance in the meantime. Alyssa Aalmo, a senior who is on the public relations track, says professors will sometimes say they are “job hunting with the rest of you — that’s hard to hear.”
Public relations students take many of the same classes as broadcast and print journalists, which inspires some gallows humor in the hallways. Ms. Aalmo recently printed out a poster and hung it in her apartment. It says: “Want stability in journalism? Get a job in P.R.”
The earthquake underfoot, as Mr. McGuire put it, is enough to leave an observer wondering: Why would any college student choose to study journalism today?
Despite feeding an industry that is struggling in all quarters, mass communication schools, which cover advertising, public relations, broadcast and print, are increasingly popular. Undergraduate enrollment reached an all-time high in 2007, according to an annual survey by the University of Georgia.
Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia’s graduate journalism school, says the number of students specifically majoring in journalism is also strong. “For whatever reason, and I’m knocking on wood as I’m saying this, journalism school has been a growth industry,” Mr. Lemann says. He points to an evolving sense that the field requires training and interest in journalism as an applied alternative to liberal arts.
Still, while the majority of students at Columbia are enamored by print, the percentage of applications for that track is dropping, to 49 percent for fall 2009 from 64 percent in 2007; at the same time, applications for the digital media track are up 10 percent.
Leigh Munsil, a junior specializing in print at Arizona State, sums up the mystique: “There is no other feeling like seeing your name in print.” Stephanie Riel, a senior, says “the history behind it” excites her.
“With the advances of technology over time, the way we write has evolved and changed, but for me, it is still exciting to be involved with the print process,” she says. Ms. Riel was blissfully unaware of the newspaper business’s hardships until she enrolled in her first classes. “I wish I had known,” she says, but still she does not waver. She considers herself to be a pioneer, kindling a notion of new media as the Wild West. “It’s exciting to help decide how news will get to the public” in the future, she says.
It is instilled in students like Ms. Riel that the decline in mainstream media provides an opportunity. Talking about the gaps in local coverage that suddenly exist in Phoenix and elsewhere, Mr. McGuire imparts, “Your opportunity is going to be to find those holes and fill them.”
Training students to fill the profession’s holes requires a different kind of education. The Cronkite School, named for the CBS anchor, in whose honor an endowment was set up 25 years ago, underwent a comprehensive curriculum revision in 2007, and appears to be predicated on the notion that tomorrow’s journalists will have more career options but in a much more complicated environment. “All-platform journalists,” in the new lexicon, should be able to shoot a video, narrate an audio clip, and put up a Web site as well as write an article and blog about it.
Last summer, the school moved to a new building in downtown Phoenix, with two high-definition studios, a bright red news ticker over the front entrance and gleaming rows of new Mac computers in each laboratory, causing some faculty to quip that it is overequipped.
The school’s budget and the roster of faculty members have doubled in the last three years, including the addition of familiar names like Aaron Brown, the former CNN anchor, and Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post. About $25 million in recent donations has helped offset some of the budget cuts now decimating the campus. Arizona State has taken steps to shutter four dozen academic programs this year.
J-school undergraduates here take a liberal arts curriculum, and sign up for a media specialty, including, since 2007, digital. Many schools still require concentrations like print or broadcast, despite the move away from such specialization in the marketplace. But distinctions are blurring. Last month, CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism told students they no longer had to commit to a track. “All media become one,” Jeff Jarvis, the director of its interactive program, wrote in a blog post.
At Arizona State, “even the classes we call ‘print classes’ are not,” Mr. Callahan says. In writing classes, students learn to upload their articles onto the Web; the online reporting class learns how to subscribe to syndicated news feeds and design a Web page. In all the classes, they are learning to manage the torrent of information on the Internet. In his entrepreneurship course, for example, Mr. Gillmor discusses the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which he calls the “best place to start” but “the worst place to stop.”
In its curriculum review, Arizona State placed more emphasis on vocational skills. It made internships required for all undergraduates. To provide students with enough clips, videos and other examples of work to interest employers, it added a number of immersion experiences, including a newswire that distributes student articles to newspapers across the state.
J-schools have always offered writing and editing exercises and real-world experiences in combination with, to varying degrees, courses on ethics and theory in which the underpinnings of a free press or the implications of bias are given their due. Some believe that more intellectual substance is needed in the classroom, leaving skill-building and “delivery systems” for on the job.
Press the refresh button, to 2002, when Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, challenged the appropriateness of teaching craft at a graduate school of a leading research university, and halted the search for a dean until the school of journalism had articulated a mission. Mr. Lemann was ultimately brought in as dean.
Today, Mr. Lemann says he approaches journalism education as a three-legged stool of skills, values and intellectual substance. Students, he says, need training in the journalistic applications of audio, video and content management. Columbia’s program now starts with a Web boot camp in which students learn their way around Adobe Flash Player, Final Cut Pro and Photoshop; this August, multimedia training will last three full weeks. But for every comment about technology, Mr. Lemann is quick to reiterate the importance of instruction in historical values and sophisticated reporting strategies.
Fundamentally, J-schools are about teaching students how to be storytellers, says Tom Fiedler, the dean of the College of Communication at Boston University. He subscribes to the philosophy that “it’s the soup and not the bowl that provides the nourishment we need.” He adds: “We want to teach our students to make a great soup. What they serve it in matters little.”
Mr. Beckman would beg to differ. The new media, he says, have required professors to revise their classes on media ethics and law. Multimedia reporters must know how to edit audio and video without taking quotes out of context, and to abide bycopyright law when incorporating music. In updating a blog post, they must recognize when a formal correction is warranted. They are called upon to alternate between objectivity and self-expression — a new New Journalism enabled by the Web, for a generation raised on Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly.
The last decade has demonstrated that every person can be a communicator but not necessarily an effective or ethical one. As Retha Hill, the director of the New Media Innovation Lab at the Cronkite School, says, students may already know how to create a blog, “but they need to know how to do it ethically.”
Emily Graham, a senior, says ethics class addresses reportorial voice. She operates an outpost of ABC News at Arizona State, contributing video to television on some days and to the Web on other days. In an Inauguration Day blog post on ABC’s Web site, Ms. Graham was free to write in the first person and share her feelings about the event.
Mr. Callahan acknowledges that striking a balance between traditional standards and the expectations of the Web is a “great concern” for journalism schools. That’s especially hard to do when the technology is speeding the pace of journalism.
Mr. Gillmor emphasizes often in class that the changes in the field should beput into historical context. “This isn’t new,” he says,pausing his PowerPoint presentation about the decentralized media of this era. He flashes a picture of the camera that Abraham Zapruder used to record President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to show that citizens have always been acting as reporters. The change, he says, is that in the near future, dozens of high-definition cameras will be pointed at major news events by citizens, and each one will be connected to high-speed digital networks.
“That’s incredibly different,” Mr. Gillmor says, “and I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know what that means for the future of news. I just know that it’s going to change a lot.”Copyright 2009 The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.