Thursday, July 31, 2008

Trouble in the academy - part XXIV

Mark Glaser's Media Shift interview earlier this month with Robert Niles on the demise of Online Journalism Review has been bugging me for some time. It's these two paragraphs:

One of the biggest challenges for OJR is that there is no dedicated online journalism program at Annenberg School and no faculty that specialize in online journalism. At one point, longtime OJR administrator Larry Pryor was an online journalism professor, but he was moved into environmental journalism and other research projects. Now, Wilson’s charge is to hire two or three new faculty with online experience. The problem he will have is one that has dogged journalism schools: How do you attract faculty in a nascent field where they can make more money in the private sector?

“It’s hard to get senior, tenure-able faculty in a field that’s barely 10 years old,” Niles said. “It’s always been a little bit difficult in journalism because so many people in it are professionals in the field and not getting PhDs. We’ve always been a field that’s light on PhDs. I know [Annenberg School] was looking at some people for online but they couldn’t get tenure for them. And I looked at those names and said, ‘If you can’t get tenure for those people, you can’t get tenure for anyone in online.’ I’ve heard the same from people at other schools, so you have to be willing to be taking people and put them on the tenure track earlier…That’s a tough process.
The more I think about it, the more I think that says so much about why journalism schools are unlikely to lead the "revolution," even at a time when the industry actually is making noises like it might listen.

Here's the problem:
  • Academe pretty much requires a PhD these days
  • Journalism, when it produces PhDs tends to produce people steeped in the current media culture, not looking forward to new ones
  • This is exacerbated by the overall culture of communications in the academy where much of the research is critical (thus, almost by definition, backward-looking)
  • Therefore, your chances of leading the crowd are even less
Yes, yes, I know there are some innovative programs. Any broad brush is going to have its exceptions. But I think as you look at j-schools, you'll find more truth here than exception.



At 8/1/08, 11:01 AM, Anonymous John Zhu said...

Good thoughts. One question: Do you think it's necessary to have a big number of tenured faculty to have a good program? For instance, I work in a pharmacy school. There are two aspects to the education here: Pharmaceutical research (training people who will work in universities or in the pharmaceutical industry doing drug research) and professional (training the pharmacists who work in your local CVS). The research faculty are almost all PhD and many are tenured (and some of them do teach professional ed classes), while the professional ed faculty is a lot more mixed and has a lot of people with just the basic degree needed to practice pharmacy. Only a couple of the professional ed faculty are tenured. Yet they have one of the best professional ed programs in the country. Do you think j-schools can/should switch to a system where students get the principles in the classroom, then get exposure to the latest industry practices through intensive practical experience programs (akin to residencies)? Of course, most of the professional ed staff are also practicing pharmacists, who have to update their skills to get annual re-certification, and the research faculty are usually the ones doing the basic research leading to new advances in the industry, so they are a lot more on the edge of innovation than their counterparts in j-schools.

At 8/1/08, 11:23 AM, Blogger Brian B said...

Good post, Doug. Thanks.

One hurdle worth elaborating on is institutional. Case in point: At my school a leading scholar of blogs and online social networks was recently denied tenure. Depending on who you ask, this happened either because that professor didn't publish enough in the "right" (i.e., established, old-media) journals, or because the old guard wanted to defend their turf. Either way, if this is not an isolated incident, it indicates that even PhD holders face thick walls when trying to get established in academia.

At 8/1/08, 11:51 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


That is thoroughly depressing. Communications schools need to be embracing those studying social networks or, once again, they will simply be doing cleanup behind sociology, anthropology and even computer sciences -- all those others that are actively studying it. In fact, in a recent paper I did, a key article on encouraging contributions to online sites came not from a communications journal, but from a computer science one. ...

Many journalism schools used to have professional tracks (known as clinical in many of the health sciences). But those are going away in many schools as they find themselves trying to gain "status" among other humanities and social science programs that don't have those. The "advantage" of the pharmacy school, such as it is, is that it has a license at the end of the education. Don't underestimate that as a validating credential in the institution. Communications journals also have a status problem when it comes to rankings in the institutions. And part of this is the profession's fault.

Click on the "journalism education" tag for several things I've written on this. See especially:


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