Dear Eric Newton, good ideas, but now some reality
Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation, really laid into journalism educators last week.
J-schools are too slow in change, he said. They risk losing private sector funding. They are too academic, too siloed.
In many ways, I very much agree that there needs to be more collaboration, that top professionals need to be given the same respect for their talents, that there probably need to be some new professional-level master's and PhD degrees that recognize the changing culture and digital reality. I agree that accreditation needs to change so that journalism students take more hours in their major - but no more than half so we preserve the important liberal arts component (in most cases, this would still be 60 semester hours in liberal arts and general education, about 20 courses since most are three hours of credit).
He worries, as I have, about the great middle - many of them state schools gamely trying to serve their state populations with shrinking resources and students whose skills are also "middle of the bell curve."
There is so much to like, and Newton certainly can speak with the force that comes from a senior position at what has been one of the most consistent sources of funding (thank god) for journalism schools and innovation.
I was indirectly a beneficiary of one of those grants through J-lab to start the Hartsville Today community news site. I also had 30+ years as a reporter and editor in broadcast, print and wire service before moving over to academia. So I am one of those "professionals" Newton waxes on about, though whether I fall even close to his "top" tier I'll let others decide. (And, in case it matters, I don't have and have not sought tenure.)
Thus, it pains me to suggest that Newton also needs to inject a dose of reality, for he - as have many others - conveniently ignores the role the journalism industry has played in getting j-schools to where they are now.
Newton hangs quite a bit on creating j-school models akin to teaching hospitals. Great. So just a few observations:
- The doctors who go through those teaching hospitals you so revere have more, and more rigorous, education by the time they reach that level. So are you willing to make hopeful journalists pass the equivalent of biochem and then take graduate-level education? (Bully, if you do; when I talk to news people and ask that, they generally recoil in horror and just say "teach 'em how to write.")
- You also hold engineering and similar professions up as potential role models. Those all generally have a licensing test at the end of the educational rainbow. How are you going to equal that?
- Wander down to most engineering, medical or business schools and you will find all sorts of artifacts that indicate how much these professions' industries support their schools. Go down to most j-schools (I'm not talking about the elite dozen or so, but about that great middle that has you so agitated) and try to find the same artifacts. I'll bet you'll find a lot fewer.
As to the academics: You can say all you want about tougher standards, but the industry's practice belies that. There is the episodic debate about whether a degree, especially a journalism degree, is needed at all. But the industry also has a long skein of at best ambivalence toward anything smacking of academics. While news managers cry "Woe is me" as the digital disruption overtakes them, much of this was foreshadowed in the literature - the academic literature - more than a decade ago. There is plenty in the current literature that could help. (You might start with this article by Stephen Reese (PDF) taking a look at journalism education from another angle.) When was the last time you knew a publisher or manager who even gave a glance to that stuff? Look, the value system of universities is academics. You need to learn to work inside that framework better (while, yes, trying to change its more egregious aspects), and you can start by giving a bit more respect to the work product of those actually researching your business and industry. (Yes, academic journals also run lots of marginal stuff. There's also lots of crap in newspapers and on broadcasts. So your point is?)
And if you are willing to jettison a significant number of those who start your programs, as many other professional schools do, please tell me how you do that in an era where the political push is for retention and accountability measured by job placement. After all, you don't have the crutch of a license to fall back on.
As to the license: Like it or not, academia is a caste system and is likely to be for some time. It's not just the degrees or tenure. Most "professional" degree programs gain an acceptance in that ecosystem because, falsely or not, licensing puts an imprimatur on them. Not only is it seen as a seal of quality, it also evidences that programs have their industries' support, since many of those licensing schemes are created and maintained by industry groups. Journalism will always have that strike against it.
As to industry support: But, you might say, the general business degree is a good analogy. No license there, and business schools generally are held in esteem - or at least are genuflected to - on most campuses. Go look at the history - when business schools first appeared, there was robust debate about whether they belonged on college campuses. Then they attracted industry money. Nothing buys tolerance - if nothing else - like industry support.
Now compare that to the relative pittance most j-schools have received in support from their industry.
But let's say that, yes, we can get the standards up (sans license) and put in those teaching hospitals with the accompanying rigor and somehow graduate all those talented professionals. Is the industry ready to hire them at something other than $20,000 to $25,000 a year? Because you know what journalists with a science bent call themselves? Engineers and doctors. And those with an academic bent? Lawyers. And there's a reason for that.
Let's call it as it is: This industry, on the whole, is c-h-e-a-p. And you can't earn the respect you want on college campuses as a professional program if that's the perception of the industry you serve.
(Duly noted are the cases like ASU that found funding to keep News 21 going. It doesn't change my observation that, overall, journalism programs get relatively less respect in the competitive academic world because for decades they have gotten much less industry support - and respect - relative to their peers.)
So, yes, by all means, let's fight the good fight. Push for more respect and response.
But don't love j-schools, even if it's tough love, only when you perceive you need them to save your butt (rough translation: keep churning out the cheap labor, but make sure it's better educated than ever in ways that will make us change) without forgetting how the industry got them here.
You've fired your broadsides and pulled the trigger on your blunderbuss.
Now how are you going to deal with reality?