Thursday, August 16, 2007

J-school education: Confused and concerned

I just spent a week at the annual confab for we journalism educators, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and I came away with as many questions as answers. The conference tended to spark other blog posts, such as this one: J-schools must teach multimedia and a good post on Inside Higher Education (pay special attention to the comments)

Some quick observations:
  • Good to see the education establishment finally embrace the wide range of questions and issues raised by the digital shift. Previous meetings have kind of stuck a toe in the water, but found it a little chilly. This conference was studded with good panels and papers.
  • Having said that, I detect the first signs of panic among some of my colleagues, akin to the panic that has hit may newspaper newsrooms. In short: We know we have to do something, but we aren't sure what to do. So let's throw a bunch of Jell-o against the wall and see what sticks. If you listened closely in the sessions and the halls (and exclude the evangelists), there is a begrudging acceptance but still some serious doubt.
  • That doubt is aggravated by some serious traditional and institutional factors that work against any quick transition. Not the least of these are the lead times needed for course changes and technology purchases. And then there are tenure and promotion guidelines, often at odds with the quick morphing that appear necessary to survive and thrive in this phase of things. Especially of note: The insistence on Ph.D.'s when many of the cutting-edge skills are not being learned in graduate school but in the school of hard knocks. Add to that:
    • The too-often (but not always, please) disconnect between the demands of research and those of teaching.
    • And the industry's anti-intellectual bent that helps to devalue the research it says it wants and needs inside academic institutions in favor of the esoterica the industry then uses to say j-school education can irrelevant, etc.
(That entire last thread on institutional and industry factors could be a lengthy series of posts on its own, so please allow me the short but admittedly inadequate treatment here.)

One of the things that struck me as I came away from the conference and a session at API going over the Newspaper Next report was an uneasiness that our standard is shifting in the journalism business to "good enough."

Sure, we're always known we were doing good enough -- you don't get a paper out the door if you do only perfection. But I get this sense that before, while we shot for perfection and settled for good enough, now we are willing to shoot for good enough and settle for ...

I fear we are taking Clayton Christensen's explication of "good enough" as disruptive technology and using it as a de facto standard, instead of understanding what he really means.

And when I view all the newspapers' separate online sites for entertainment, and busy mommies and sports teams, I come away going, "So what is the connection to the ideal of a free press in promoting democracy?" (When I asked that question at API, I got the verbal equivalent of a blank stare.) On none of those sites I saw do you find, say, a small box that might point users, for instance, to recent stories about child-care tax credits, etc. -- the kinds of policy things that if they are not talked about tend to make people wake up one day and go "why didn't you tell us?"

In the process, of course, those things might get people to click back to the main news site where they might find some other stuff of interest (you know,that old serendipity thing). Instead, we seem to be running away from the "newspaper" (a term I use because we don't have a better one right now for the evolving large newsroom). I think there has to be a happy medium somewhere.

Lots to think about and work through. Will probably turn it into a column down the road soon and cross-post here. Meantime, input appreciated.

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7 Comments:

At 8/16/07, 4:22 PM, Anonymous Mohan said...

Interesting observations. Wonder if you also discussed the need for J-schools to also focus on the "business" of publishing?
. . . my two cents on“Newspapers and the New Paradigm” in a recent ACM ubiquity piece.

 
At 8/16/07, 9:17 PM, Anonymous Brian Cubbison said...

I wonder what you think of this project, which was done at Ohio University by the Visual Communications school (and whether a school of "visual communciations" might be the more natural birthplace for this kind of thing.)

http://soulofathens.com/

 
At 8/17/07, 10:09 AM, Anonymous Steve Buttry said...

As the person who gave the "verbal equivalent of a blank stare" to Mr. Fisher's question about the free press promoting democracy, I will tell you what I really said and elaborate (because obviously, if Mr. Fisher was listening, I failed to make my point). I made the Newspaper Next presentation at API and my answer was twofold:

First, under the current business model, newspapers are buying out and firing (not laying off, though publishers like to use that euphemism) large numbers of the journalists who supposedly are protecting democracy. If we want a vigorous, healthy free press, we need a stronger business model and a bigger audience. That is what we hope to achieve with the Newspaper Next project.

Second, journalism isn't exactly getting that job done these days. When we do report on problems (the Times-Picayune had warned how vulnerable New Orleans was and dozens, if not hundreds, of media outlets had documented the decline and neglect of our infrastructure) the public yawns and we still react with surprise when levees break and bridges collapse. And that was when the media did our job well. We have too many cases of failing to do the job Mr. Fisher worries about, such as all the media except Knight-Ridder in reporting on intelligence before the war in Iraq.

My presentation to AEJMC included examples of watchdog reporting aided by the techniques of Newspaper Next. API's President, Drew Davis, tells of his first boss in this business, who told him the only guarantee of a free press is profitability. API aims to lead the industry to a more robust, innovative business model that will protect the free press and democracy for generations to come. That's going to take some willingness to push people beyond their comfort zones and it's going to take more than hand-wringing.

 
At 8/17/07, 12:58 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Mohan:

A good piece worth reading. I think you bring out a good point in mentioning "goodwill." That's part of the problem with the business equation. Much of a media company's assets are actually goodwill, but it's darn hard to value that. In a way, that's what Meyer is trying to do in "The Vanishing Newspaper." The preponderance of that goodwill is refleted in the outsize value given to subscription lists in many transactions.

The problem with goodwill, of course, is twofold: It is hard to value and it is hard to turn into cash. That latter point is critical in an industry that expects hefty cash flow and wide profit margins. While goodwill may contribute to the overall value of the organization, it contributes relatively little to the yearly cash flow needed operationally (though it does some through depreciation).

It's the same problem states like South Carolina face -- they are land rich but jobs (and thus cash) poor -- the cash being needed by those who own the land to carry it. Thus you end up with policy decisions to eliminate property taxes (taxing the asset) in favor of sales taxes (taxing the cash flow). Not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea.

It is so very true that news organizations by and large are businesses and need to be thought of thaat way. And in some ways I read the current climate in the industry as saying to the rest of the world "pleeeease think of us as a business." But I see two traps there. First, if journalism wants to be "just any old business" then journalists better get ready to deal with the vagaries of just any old business (yes, I do teach the business of journalism as part of my senior semester editing class -- and that's one of the things we look at). That has many implications too involved to go into here, but one is that if we keep being a commodity business (i.e., information is pretty much a commodity), then get used to Econ 101's teachings that in the commodity business you get big and you get cheap.

But I think the public actually has seen us as a business -- the public utility model. We have had many of those characteristics:
-- Monopoly or oligopoly pricing
-- Demanded reliability
-- Peak capacity

The first one of those, of course, is being shattered by technology. The second is the idea that in good times and bad we were "always there." I wonder if we are getting to the point where that promise no longer will be made.

From a business sense, though, peak capacity has always been the management challenge and is the real problem now. As long as there was monopoly or oligopoly pricing power, news organizations could staff for peak capacity, just as a utility maintains capacity above its base load (in fact, that's really what the majority of your power bill is for -- the carrying cost of that only occasionally used capacity designed to meet your needs on that hot summer day). The pricing and regulation of that peak capacity, which could be abused in a monopoly situation, is one of the main rationales for utility regulation.

News organizations, likewise, had to have peak capacity to meet the demand with disasters, etc. They were not regulated, of course, but the effective pricing power they had in the market allowed them to pursue a similar strategy. (And, yes, I know there will be plenty of examples of skinflint publishers, but I'd submit that by and large, staffing was generally more generous than cold, hard business calculations would dictate.)

One of the benefits of having this peak capacity in a newsroom was that in other times the resources could be directed toward things like enterprise and investigative reporting. After all, you already had the carrying costs, so you might as well use it.

What we are now seeing in the industry is in many respects the shaking out of that peak capacity as the monopoly pricing power is broken. Thus, not only the layoffs but the bemoaning of the loss of enterprise and investigative reporting. In a competitive market, those can exist, but they become a strategic decision, a method of value-added differentiation and branding, that usually means you then have to cut back in some other area.

A long comment, but maybe some more to chew on.

 
At 8/17/07, 1:22 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Brian:

Yes, I've seen that project. And being familiar with the Athens area from my time at Ohio State and at AP in Ohio was impressed with it.

As for the question about whether a school of "visual communications" is the more natural birthplace ... hmmm. No, I don't necessarily think so. While we are clearly a visual society, not everything can be done visually (or we wouldn't have the complaints about TV that we do). And call me chauvenistic, but I think there still needs to be a good injection of journalistic values, too. The challenge is how to do both. We, for instance, are trying to figure out in our school, among other things, the role of our new visual communications track vis a vis the more "traditional" sequences. (I recommend our Wiki, http://sjmcdigital.wikispaces.com, for a lot of good resources on this entire debate of where j-education is going.)

During a panel at AEJMC, I said that journalism, as such, will always remain a cottage industry. "Journalism" is still a one-to-one relationship, reporter to source. You don't get the goods with a gang. (I was posing the question, after listening to yet another presentation on Flash, how valuable is it for a reporter to know Flash vs. how to root around in a database.)

But production -- that's a different story. It takes a village to put out a paper or a Web site or whatever these days (even if you are a solo, you still are using all these widgets and open-source programs and other things created by others).

We didn't really have to face that so much in j-education before. There was such specialization of duties in a newsroom that we could teach reporters to be "reporters," editors to be "editors," etc. One specialized in the gathering, the other in the preparation. And there was yet a third branch that specialized in production. The move of pagination to the copy desk began to change that, and now we have to figure out how to teach reporters and editors the skills of those jobs while also giving them enough production skills to survive in an ever-flattening production chain.

My concern for "traditional" j-schools and AEJMC is that they ignore the growth of hybrid programs, such as this at Winthrop, http://www.winthrop.edu/informationdesign/ that have incorporated aspects of journalism with the design/production part. Those programs often reside outside the normal accredited tracks because accreditation still is and will continue to struggle with the ideal of a liberal arts education combined with enough technical knowledge (not necessarily skills, but the knowledge of how it all works so that you can adapt) to make students not only employable but leaders.

 
At 8/17/07, 1:51 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Steve:

I take no quarrel with your basic ideal -- we have to shore up the business model to help journalism survive as we would like it to (and for more on the economics, see my earlier comment to Mohan).

I have long spouted to publishers and editors in various seminars, meetings and bars, that the days of ROP are over and now it's about aggregating "streams" of revenue and using innovative ways to obtain those streams. (See, for instance, my "A New Metaphor for Journalism" of last September. When asked "how can I use the Web to drive people to my newspaper," I have responded that that is the wrong question, that the question is "how do I drive people to my advertisers."

But maybe I'm having a bit of buyer's remorse. I've seen several Newspaper Next and related presentations now. And I've sat in numerous others dealing with current issues and how to survive in today's world.

But this time around it finally hit me that as much as I look at all these alternative sites and examples, I don't share the same feeling of robustness that you do in many cases. I guess it really struck me during the "mommy" sites. A hot demographic. Yet, and perhaps I missed it, where on those sites is integration of relevant editorial content from the newsroom -- and by that I don't just mean the latest trend story, but that piece on the debate over child-care credits, or health care for children, etc.?

No, I'm not suggesting these offshoots look like, act like or fully integrate with the main news site. But I guess I had hoped for a bit more ... at least some more genuflecting to the role the press plays in democracy by at least giving a better chance for the visitor to the offshoots to "discover" relevant news items.

Roanoke's BigLickU, for instance, takes a step with its "Around Campus" section that includes items "submitted by the Roanoke Times." But today, for instance, when I click on a Virginia Tech item, that's all I get. It's a cul de sac. Why can't there be a pointer to other related stories the paper has done, maybe back to the paper's site.

It's my impression too many news organizations are running away from their core, rather than trying to integrate parts of it as advisable with the offshoots necessary to broaden the business base.

As for the observation about New Orleans' problems, that sounds too much like the whine heard from other quarters that "no one listens to us anymore." I think that's naive. I would submit that many people never really listened because they wanted to -- but because they had to; we were the only or one of the few games in town. In competitive markets like New York, I remember my grandfather avidly read the Daily News and the Journal American. If it was in the Post or the Times, he wasn't listening, either.

It's going to be disconcerting to a lot of us as the public figures out who it wants to pay attention to.

In fairness, my question and the remark about the verbal blank stare may have been unfair. My question came at the end of the presentation and is one that we probably could spend a whole morning on. So my apologies for perhaps implying more than was there. But it's a question I think we have to prepare to deal with more -- and proactively.

I support wholeheartedly what API is trying to do to get journalists to rethink things, to formalize that process, and to broaden the business base. I just fear as we have seen with some past initiatives that the industry hears the half it wants to hear and forgets the rest. So far, that seems to be more of the evidence.

 
At 8/18/07, 5:57 PM, Anonymous Brian Cubbison said...

I definitely agree about not choosing sides and I'm a huge fan of reporters doing video. The Athens project drew me partly because I grew up there but also for the multidisciplinary approach. I wonder sometimes if we're still thinking in print while trying to speak new languages. That might be true of J-schools too. It's not just video, but databases and new kinds of reporting.

 

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