Saturday, September 15, 2012

Guest Post: Journalism Education's Future

As I catch up on things, the ongoing simmering debate about the future of journalism education shows up about every inch or two I dig down into the pile -- perhaps future archaeologists will be able to name the periods of upset by the layers.

The most recent might be called the Newtonian Period and the Finberg Epoch of the Mid-Digital Upheaval Era after the deliberate bomb-throwing at journalism education by the Knight Foundation's Eric Newton - the follow-up letter with its dark threats by the heads of six foundations that do much of the journalism education funding - and the writings on either side of the incident by Poynter's Howard Finberg.

I've picked my own bones with Newton, not so much over his ideas (which, in many cases, I heartily agree with) but over the presumption that an industry that has shown relatively little support for journalism education feels it can dictate the terms of engagement to those whose livelihoods are intimately tied up in the academy (for the record, I am not on tenure track and hold year-to-year contracts). You don't change such things by fiat, but by understanding and working with those inside the institutions to change them.

(Or, I suppose you could bypass them, which is at heart the whole threat in all of this, but then why bother wasting time on anything else? To do so is either a fool's errand or evidence that it might not be as easy as it seems?)

And so in playing catch-up, I have rediscovered this email a colleague of mine, Augie Grant, sent to Finberg when Finberg was soliciting responses to the kerfuffle. It never made it into Finberg's column, but it contains some excellent points, and so I share it as a guest post:

Howard:  I was forwarded your request for responses to the letter released last week to university presidents calling for changes in journalism schools. I have a few reactions that represent my personal views. (I’m not attempting to represent the University of South Carolina or any other organization.)

I strongly agree with the underlying premise, that journalism school must aggressively evolve in order to keep up with changes in technology, media organizational structure, and social changes. But I take strong issue with the approach of this letter, and I hope you’ll consider sharing all or part of my perspective in your article.

1.       The “teaching hospital” analogy is severely flawed. The “professionals” in teaching hospitals all have advanced degrees, and the core of their job is applying medical research for both treatment and prevention, and research is the heart of the field. And, as much as I would love to train journalists for seven years and have them receive a six-figure salary upon graduation, I doubt such a scenario is likely to play out in the near future.

2.       As a media practitioner who moved to academia, it has been frustrating to me that the majority of journalistic organizations make so little use of primary and basic research to understand journalistic processes and effects. Virtually every other major industry in the U.S., from manufacturing to telecommunications, makes substantial investments in R&D, including supporting university-based research. But few journalism organizations have made similar investments, and the output of journalism researchers is more often ignored by the industry rather than being applied. I frequently consult with businesses regarding new media and audience behavior. In my experience, high-tech organizations invest significantly in this type of research, but journalistic organizations rarely make these investments.

3.       Almost everywhere I’ve taught in a teaching and research career spanning 25 years, the faculty has included a mix of former practitioners and academically-oriented faculty members. The best environments have included individuals who have both professional experience and advanced degrees, and these individuals have proven to be both great teachers and great researchers.

4.       The biggest barrier for many professionals entering academia is realizing that a faculty position is much more than a “teaching job.” In order to earn tenure and advance in academic ranks, anyone—practitioner or academic—must generate and share new knowledge about the field. The creation and sharing of knowledge requires a combination of research skills and expertise in publishing—in books, journals, trade press, and online. In my view, the practitioners who fail to qualify for tenure and promotion are those who neglect the part of the job that requires creation and sharing of knowledge. And to state that a special category should be created for someone who teaches but does not study the industry or audience and does not publish indicates a basic misunderstanding of the fundamental role of universities in the production of knowledge.

5.      The foundations have applied their resources to support schools that appear to be taking their advice. But the foundations could be doing a great deal more to advance their cause. Specifically:
a.       They should institute a broader program of funding journalism-related research. The efforts that are currently funded are admirable, but the entire field—both the industry side and the academic side—needs greater availability of funding for basic media-related research. (One interesting side note is the rapid growth of programs in Health Communication, which have become much more important than traditional journalism education because of the availability of high levels of funding for research in all areas related to health and health communication. This trend is shifting the interests of some of our best researchers, who have a mandate to conduct funded research and cannot do so in traditional media research because available funding is so limited.)
b.      They should consider founding a new journal that would be devoted to basic research on journalism and media, using the journal to establish stronger flow of research between academics and practitioners.
c.       They should sponsor research projects to study and analyze journalism education. The (mostly) anecdotal accounts that predominate this discussion have a much lower credibility with university presidents and others who understand the power of systematic, theory-based research. 

I hope these comments contribute to a constructive dialogue in the field. There is a need for greater understanding in the academy of the need to advance journalism education as well as a need for those signing the “open letter” to better understand academia and the synergies that are possible with greater interactions among media practitioners and researchers.  

Update 9/19: Neiman Lab is doing a series of posts on J-education. Some of it's the same old stuff, but there are some new voices and nuggets worth checking out.

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At 11/12/12, 11:57 AM, Blogger kknudsen said...

It seems the "thinking" part of journalism has died. It's become a ladder climbing, sensational group of lefties who cannot see the entire story...not because they consciously ignore it, but their public school and liberal professor educations have drained the ability to question properly out of them. That's why I wrote this parody.


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