Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dear Eric Newton, good ideas, but now some reality

(Updated 5/17 to add link to Reese article)

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.
These are not insignificant problems.

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?

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At 5/17/12, 8:58 PM, Blogger djw said...

I have a degree in journalism education, one in educational curriculum and design, and one in technical communication and rhetoric. I teach technical writing in a university petroleum engineering department where my three degrees earn me less than two of the department's "administrative assistants" and three of its "accountants." My student help (writing majors) get summer internships where they work for free; my petroleum engineering students get internships where they earn from $20 to $35 per hour.

You gets what you pays for, don't you?

And those of us with these degrees get to do our jobs for the "love" of it...

At 5/18/12, 2:06 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Good or bad, it's a pay-to-play world. I like a lot of what Newton says, but journalism has always assumed it can get these things - and many others - for low cost or free. The world is just not that way anymore (if it every really was).


At 5/19/12, 2:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who is intimately familiar with the work of j-school graduates, I'd like to note they are almost universally unprepared, but not because they lack technical skills -- they lack the skills to do good journalism and the ethics to realize that trustworthiness, not technical ability, is our most important asset. The Knight Foundation's consistent drumbeat about "innovation" is undermining the foundations of good journalism, and its heavily promoted (and funded) replacements are not more entertaining or likely to win lost readership. Quality and consistency have taken a nosedive, and Knight's throw-the-baby-out approach is not helping. These kids don't even know how to write a good sentence, and they don't think it's important. I recall a conversation between Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko -- both great storytellers and reporters. The first problem they saw was that newspapers had grown boring, and, in the end, they acknowledged they'd never be hired in their updated newsrooms. This was 20 years ago -- it's much, much worse now. Give me someone who knows how to write and report -- he or she can learn the technical side on the job. Don't turn j-school into a gloried version of DeVry.

At 5/19/12, 3:47 PM, Blogger Doug said...

As one who teaches editing and reporting primarily, I can't broad-brush it quite so much. Among my graduates this year, for instance, one just landed a job with Dow Jones and another has a DJ editing internship. A couple of others are headed for magazines. Out of 16, I'd say at least half are prepared - and given what we start with sometimes, that's not a bad average.

But I agree that too many of our students are in journalism without really knowing what it is. They have no idea how the world works, and while we can teach some of that, it's really a matter of preparation growing up.

I agree to some extent on your observation about learning the technical side of the job - if you limit it to that perspective. But I want my students to learn more than simply the technology. I want them to learn how to manage it, use it, apply it and extend it, and consider the ethical issues involved. In other words, I want them to approach the technology with a broad view in the service of storytelling and journalism that will serve them and the profession not just now but when they - hopefully - get into positions of leadership.

In that respect, I think a j-education that incorporates technology is valuable. And I don't see Newton as just advocating "button-pushing" in that regard.

I think journalism must have innovation - innovation in writing and storytelling with the framework of truthfulness as you note. I get a little jiggly when folks in the industry tell me innovation is not so important - it's terribly important, but as with everything, not to the exclusion of other things, just as writing and reporting are important, but are no longer enough in a world where others are more likely to own your channels of distribution and production.

At 5/24/12, 12:20 PM, Blogger Eric Newton said...

I agree with several of Doug's points, especially about the industry's lack of funding of journalism education.

I would disagree with other comments above that innovation and journalism excellence are incompatible, and that students are incapable. Students at UC Berkeley won Pulitzers, students at Northwestern helped get the state's death penalty system revamped, students at Arizona State have won almost every college journalism award there is for News 21.

The best schools and the best students can indeed thrive in a teaching hospital model.

At 5/24/12, 1:14 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Thanks for commenting. Maybe we can meet on a panel or for a drink sometime. I think we'd find more agreement than disagreement.

I think the point where we disagree is this "the best schools and the best students ..." For many years, I have been predicting that j-education will take on a dumbbell shape - a relatively few elite schools such as the ones you've cited, getting the bulk of industry support, and then a group of other schools that will be largely focused on skills training. There are reasons for thinking this, such as efficiency of philanthropy, that I won't get into detail here.

Among those will be some state schools (Indiana, North Carolina, Missouri and Arizona state quickly come to mind) that have a history of tapping into resources and a certain degree of independence.

There probably are too many schools doing journalism/communication, a perfectly rational condition from the boom times of the 1990s and early 2000s.

But I'm not sure the dumbbell is healthy, and I have great concern for those schools in the middle, most of them I would venture, state schools such as mine, that are important to contributing to journalism's diversity and to (we hope) keep raising the standards in places where many of the "elite" grads are not as likely to go.

Those schools truly are caught between what they see the journalism industry needs and what the academic "industry" demands. You're not going to change the schools simply by issuing demands or denouncing things like SACS. You're going to have to build respect for those schools so that they have the muscle inside the halls of academe to hold their own when they want to depart from the script laid out by places like SACS. So far, the industry hasn't done that and, in fact, continues to seem to want to do everything it can to undercut that ability.

At 5/24/12, 1:16 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Here is a comment I left on the ONA educators site on Facebook that might further explain where I am coming from:

Leslie: I'm not missing the big picture. I've been fighting the fight from inside for a decade after 30 years in the business. But the big picture includes understanding that you're working within a larger system that has its structures and shibboleths - and whether we like it or not (largely put me on the not side), these things affect people's livelihoods, just as all the detritus that's still around in the media industry affects the livelihoods (and socialization) of news people. You can't just come in and demand change when you've largely been ignoring and even cutting down the work of the same schools you now want help from. Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee is not a strategy. I personally believe journalism is best taught as a two-year graduate degree. I agree SACS is a problem, as are a lot of other strictures in the academic environment. And I firmly believe education, as one of the great middlemen, is the next to be destructively innovated with great anguish. But I also live in reality, and change to be effective has to be organic from the inside. You can't just come in and demand it. You have to work to change the incentive structure, and that starts, unfortunately, with paying the dues, monetarily or with industry support and respect akin to that given business schools.


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