In the fall of 2000, I sat in the large seminar room at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism listening to a lecture about whether journalists should be allowed to use digital cameras. It was meant to be a difficult, complicated discussion about ethics. The problem was, I’d just moved to New York City from Tokyo, and in my pocket was one of the first mass-market camera phones. To me, it seemed more useful to talk about the ethics of accepting photos from readers, since we’d all be using similar phones within five years.
I raised that point as I held out my phone and took a photo of the whole class. The technology had not yet made its way into the U.S., but I argued that within just a few years, my classmates would see a dramatic change in their mostly analog mobile phones. Consumers would be able to take photos, e-mail them to friends on the spot or even post them to the Internet, without ever having to use a PC.
But I was immediately, and somewhat embarrassingly, dismissed. “Why on earth would anyone print a low-quality photo in the newspaper or show it on TV? That won’t happen,” my professor snapped back, returning the conversation to the ethics of digital cameras.
Of course, the rest isn’t history; it’s the present. In classrooms across the country, students are being taught about a media ecosystem that’s already been eclipsed by new platforms, devices, and business models. Some of them might be wondering, as I did, whether they’ve made a mistake in attending journalism school at all.
I am deeply concerned about the future of journalism education in America. Journalism isn’t a licensed profession in the United States, and so anyone—journalism degree or not—can call herself a reporter. It can be argued that universities exist solely for scholarship and to teach, and that they do not play a role in the day-to-day practice of modern news media. I disagree with both assertions. Universities must propel the profession forward and become the connective tissue between what’s come before and what’s still to come. Journalism’s problems are journalism education’s problems, too.
There have been many efforts to rethink journalism education, including at my alma mater. Stephens College president Dianne Lynch, Baruch College media law professor Geanne Rosenberg, the American Press Institute, and, of course, the ongoing Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education are all working on various aspects of this issue. Indeed, all of these worthwhile endeavors have crystallized the need for reform. Now, we must advance the foundation they created and radically evolve journalism education for a digital environment that is in constant flux, where the means of transmission are being built and are controlled outside the core profession and where anyone can produce content that looks like—but isn’t necessarily—vetted, reported news.
Some schools welcome the disruptive change. They’re offering classes in virtual reality and wearable technology. Some are betting on code, mandating courses in data science, even if syllabi don’t integrate well within the rest of the curriculum. Still others are slowly transitioning away from traditional concentrations like newspaper, magazine, broadcast, and PR to entrepreneurial journalism and data journalism.
If we can all agree that journalism education is still necessary, that its purpose serves the future of our society, then I believe we must figure out a way to make the degree matter more.
As part of my Nieman Visiting Fellowship at Harvard, I spent the past several months developing a new blueprint for journalism education. To do this, I solicited respondents through the Online News Association’s educators network, via influential thought leaders in journalism and academia, and through various social media channels. I surveyed faculty and administrative staff working in academia and professionals working in all areas of journalism (publishers, editors, reporters, broadcasters, designers, product managers, and developers as well as people in sales and finance). I conducted in-depth interviews with academic leaders (deans, department chairs), journalism faculty, and professionals working in various roles within media, technology, journalism, and finance.
Together with a research assistant, I analyzed the degree and major requirements, courses offered, and faculty community at 31 universities, which are representative of the various programs throughout America. I also read all of the available research on the future of journalism education, including works from the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. Finally, I worked with researchers, administrators, and professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to learn more about leadership and management within universities, educational models that must serve a changing profession, and change management within a rigid environment like academia.
Though I am not an academic, I have served as an adjunct professor at Temple University, University of the Arts, University of Tokyo, and the University of Maryland, teaching emerging technologies and data-driven reporting. I’ve consulted for a number of universities, including Colorado State University, Columbia University, and the University of California-Berkeley. And I serve on the advisory board for Temple University’s Department of Journalism.
I began my research with a set of assumptions about what the future of journalism education should look like. Like most non-academics I interviewed, I thought that eliminating tenure and reforming curriculum was the only path forward. Midway through my work at Harvard, I realized that catalyzing real change requires a cultural revolution. I now believe that the entire mission of journalism education must be recast for the knowledge economy, which implies recalibrating approaches to leadership, tenure, and accreditation. What follows is my analysis of the hidden challenges in journalism education—and a blueprint for how to overcome them. Because there are so many variables—some schools of mass communication include PR, advertising, and corporate communications, while others only offer journalism degrees—I am focusing exclusively on undergraduate schools that would currently meet accreditation standards and offer journalism majors.
“Three retirements and an act of God”
What one survey respondent said it would take to reimagine their j-school curriculum
Overcoming Hidden Challenges
A century-long strain exists between journalism schools and other departments within universities. In their paper, “Educating Journalists: A New Plea for the University Tradition,” former journalism school deans Nicholas Lemann of Columbia, John Maxwell Hamilton of Louisiana State University, and Jean Folkerts of the University of North Carolina offer a meticulously-researched, detailed history of three strands of journalism education: as a social science (University of Wisconsin), as a laboratory approach (University of Missouri), and as a liberal arts hybrid (Columbia University). Outside of journalism education, this debate continues, with some dismissing journalism education as a professional endeavor serving no real purpose inside a serious research institution.
Journalism programs are an academic unit within a broad university community, even if they offer some skills-based coursework that services the profession. “Sometimes we don’t do a good enough job explaining what we have to offer and how that contributes to the university’s research and scholarly mission,” says Maryanne Reed, dean of the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University.
Journalism programs must make a decision: to split from the university or to fully assimilate. Forming an independent school requires significant funding, hiring lots of faculty and administrative staff, and vast investments in branding and marketing, not to mention a lengthy accreditation process. “Over the decades, some professors have speculated about going independent of the university, especially when things looked fiscally bleak a quarter-century ago, but that would have been a terrible mistake,” says Sree Sreenivasan, former dean of student affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Integrating more closely with the rest of the university, he adds, affords opportunities to experiment, to work with other departments on research, and to help lead—rather than follow—the industry. For journalism education to thrive, it will require funding, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and research partnerships.
My research suggests that journalism faculty and administration do not have enough clout within the university community. Deans and administrators set the vision and the overall strategy for their departments, but external faculty governance committees determine tenure requirements and promotions and set the rewards structure for others within the university. High-ranking faculty and university administration are not always clear as to what value journalism programs add to the broader community. “Journalism faculty don’t really act like other faculty,” says Matt Waite, professor of practice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications and founder of the school’s Drone Journalism Lab. “Many of us are former journalists. We didn’t come up in academia. We tend to seek leadership positions in our profession, not within the university.”
Journalism faculty must ascend the academic ranks. The executive management within universities tends to come from other disciplines. There are rare exceptions: Vincent Price, a communications scholar, is the provost at the University of Pennsylvania; Susan Herbst has a PhD in communication theory and is now the president of the University of Connecticut. As is traditional within academic departments, department chairs of journalism programs tend to rotate every one to three years, and the position carries little responsibility. Worse, faculty members often reject the additional layer of leadership and instead task the department chair with tedious administrative issues. When asked about the most critical skills necessary for academics working in journalism departments today, not a single respondent mentioned anything about leadership training, organizational management, or administrative strategy. By and large, departments do not mentor faculty to become university leaders. Louisiana State University created a weeklong leadership academy to help new chairs, deans, and directors from journalism schools across the country build their leadership skills. But that one week of training can’t possibly catalyze organizational change without intensive buy-in and support from faculty and administration once the fall semester starts.
While research fields like science and engineering can count on outside funding, most journalism programs are funded almost entirely out of their university’s general funds. Sally Renaud, interim chair of the journalism program at Eastern Illinois University, notes that “schools are struggling to finance the equipment [and] technology” required to teach classes. “Journalism has to learn to defend itself better and to educate the public about its role [within a university]. We don’t do this very well.”
Unlike partnerships between large companies and academic departments, which put universities at the forefront of research and development, partnerships between journalism programs and the broader journalism community have been largely transactional: Students research a project as a class or provide content as interns. And for the most part, that primarily benefits the schools. “We were asked to host interns,” says Zach Seward, senior editor of Quartz, echoing a common sentiment among those interviewed: “This created more work for us than anything else. It wasn’t a true partnership in any sense, where we were creating value together.” News organizations, which are already strapped for cash, do not have a rubric for corporate involvement within journalism schools.
There are very few exceptions: for example, Syracuse University and Gannett are working on a virtual reality news environment using the Oculus Rift. While I applaud this effort, it would further everyone’s interests to create partnerships where universities research and prototype the future of news from a more practical standpoint.
Meantime, in other fields, critical research and development is conducted in partnership among universities and external partners: Stanford School of Engineering’s corporate partners include Intel, Google, Boeing, Bosch, HP, and more. The MIT Media Lab counts Hearst, DirecTV, Comcast, Pearson, Twitter, and Google among its corporate lab members. Aside from a very few cases (for example, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia), these partnerships and programs do not exist at other journalism schools. As it stands, the future of news is being built by those working at the epicenter of technology.
The lack of political standing within a university community has a direct impact on the resources allocated to that department or school. As a result, journalism programs often struggle for funding relative to other liberal arts programs. “It’s hard to continually get funding from our university to update computers, video recorders, cameras, and software and to get access to data sets,” wrote one associate dean of a mid-sized journalism program who wished to remain anonymous. “University administration doesn’t understand the changing nature of storytelling tools. I have to keep reminding them that we’re not the English department.”
Journalism programs believe that appointing non-academics to leadership positions will stimulate interest from foundations and corporations and will attract larger numbers of student applicants. In the January 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review, John P. Kotter, professor emeritus of leadership at Harvard Business School, argued that “major renewal programs often start with just one or two people. In cases of successful transformation efforts, the leadership coalition grows and grows over time. But whenever some minimum mass is not achieved early in the effort, nothing much worthwhile happens.” In order to build that coalition, the leader must be respected and trusted among her peers. In fact, I am one of those outsiders—I’ve been approached about four dean’s positions in the past 18 months. I may be an expert on the future of media and technology, but I lack all the academic credentials and qualifications required to be viewed as an equal among established academics.
Departments and schools must redouble their efforts to identify capable, charismatic leaders, to cultivate them, to provide them mentoring, and to enable them to rise through the administrative ranks of academia. Because faculty are rarely promoted to deans from within their own departments, the entire journalism and mass communications academic community must agree to work collectively to support this change. If all schools accept this burden, it will pay significant dividends for all programs well into the future.
Curriculum development doesn’t keep pace with changing realities
The current system prevents curriculum development from keeping pace with the changing realities of modern journalism. A curriculum redesign might require the approval of several key stakeholders: department faculty and leadership, faculty governance committees, a university’s central administration, accreditation committees, or, for some public schools, even state boards of education. While this environment is intended to safeguard a high quality education, it can cripple fields that are in the midst of great change. When asked: “If you were to reimagine your entire curriculum now, what steps would be necessary?” one survey respondent wrote, “Three retirements and an act of God.”
Many survey participants reported that their departments only self-audit curriculum once every three years, and that’s mainly to ensure that courses offered are still relevant. At several schools, there is no ongoing, holistic approach to curriculum development. Survey participants cited administrators and faculty who “don’t understand the value of digital journalism,” “meetings upon meetings” in which “one person can completely derail everything,” before a plan is formed. Therefore, meaningful change is difficult to muster. “Many of our electives could have been taught 10 or 15 years ago,” wrote one assistant professor at a large university in the South.
Some schools have reframed their curriculum so that concentrations are not tied to any publishing medium or technology. Course descriptions are written so that they can be updated continuously. One strategic approach is to decouple educational components from publishing mediums. “It strikes me that much of journalism education is still very rooted in print design mentality,” says Justin Ferrell, fellowships director at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University and the former digital design director at The Washington Post. “That’s designing for a certain type of narrative. Web design is not about narratives. It’s about behavior. This requires a much more holistic approach to curriculum.”
In the survey, fewer than
of those working in media said that a
journalism degree is necessary
for the profession
Another approach to overcoming curriculum stagnation: put advisory boards to better use. Many schools maintain advisory boards, but they often convene only twice a year and have little responsibility in curriculum development. Instead, schools should create advisory boards with a combination of industry change-makers and open-minded faculty in order to meet a nexus of innovation and institutional support. Board members should be tasked with reviewing syllabi, offering feedback on courses, and performing an annual curriculum audit.
The courses offered within journalism programs are not marketed aggressively enough to others around the university. “What’s taught in a journalism program should translate into all domains,” says Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science, and technology research at the Pew Research Center and a former U.S. News & World Report managing editor. “Any organization is now its own broadcaster, its own media enterprise. A central business function is being able to find information and explain it in a way that’s compelling and makes sense to others. The right kind of journalism degree should be highly desirable by any organization.”
Building a coalition across campus to include journalism courses in general education requirements will solve a problem for other schools and will ultimately communicate the value of journalism education throughout the university. Yet, undergraduate journalism students must take nearly all of their general studies courses (economics, statistics) in other departments. Remarkably, English composition is still a requirement for nearly all journalism majors, and those credit hours must typically be taken in the English department. Courses in the journalism school rarely count toward requirements for non-majors.
For example, the syllabus for a data-driven reporting class offered at the University of Texas-Austin includes subjects like data analysis; identifying data needed to test hypotheses; how to gain access to needed data sets; how to clean, analyze, and compare data; and how to synthesize the information into an impactful story. What’s taught in this class is unique to journalism but could be applicable to students elsewhere at the university, including those studying at the College of Pharmacy, the McCombs School of Business, and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
Accreditation in journalism education is a paradox, simultaneously making programs stronger and stifling momentum. There are currently 114 journalism and mass communication programs fully accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC). Because accreditation is standard peer-review practice within a university, journalism departments need accreditation in order to be recognized as equals. In addition, many parents highly value accreditation when helping their children make decisions about college.
However, by its current design, accreditation can unintentionally encourage the status quo. Including preparation time, the accreditation process can take three to seven years. Most often, administrations must get new courses passed through faculty governance, which takes additional time. And, once a school begins that process, it is using accreditation standards that will have been set a minimum of one year earlier.
To its credit, the ACEJMC now includes among its criteria “instruction, whether on-site or online, is demanding and current [ACEJMC’s emphasis], and is responsive to professional expectations of digital, technological and multimedia competencies.” The ACEJMC is already working to emphasize applied research that informs the practice as a criteria for tenure and accreditation.
Currently, there is no incentive or reward for iteration or to significantly modernize journalism programs within a reasonable timeframe. By the late 2000s, it had taken so long for many journalism programs to incorporate interactivity into their curricula that students were graduating with skills in Flash, a software product that was already being retired in newsrooms. Although it is working to update the criteria for accreditation so that they more closely reflect the changing needs of the profession, the ACEJMC hasn’t yet fully recalibrated its model to propel the future of journalism education forward.
One concern is accreditation council and committee membership. From an outsider’s perspective, and certainly mine when I first started my research, the council may seem oddly staffed. Any organization with an interest in journalism or mass communications can apply for membership on the council, which is why some groups such as the American Press Institute, the Public Relations Society of America, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have representatives on the council. The ACEJMC was designed to serve the profession first and parents second—not the university system—making sure that schools produced the kinds of students news organizations wanted to hire. From a practical standpoint, the ACEJMC is serving its intended purpose.
But the members holding those seats—those charged with determining what’s “current”—are not themselves working in the forefront of professional practice or in emerging pedagogical research. Currently the Accrediting Council meets only twice a year—once to discuss policies and requirements and once to discuss accrediting decisions. Accrediting Committee members, who are voted on by the Council, meet once a year to review reports from observations by accreditation site visit teams. Council and Committee members serving current terms have strong leadership and academic experience, but none are working on future of news projects or within the digital media space. In many ways, the ACEJMC’s challenges mirror the professional-academic divide of the communications departments they serve.
It is vital to recalibrate membership model so that those determining accreditation standards also include professionals with a deep understanding of the future of academia, the future of journalism, and the future of the workforce.
The number of tenured and non-tenured j-school faculty causes additional tension and cultural division within departments. Because journalism departments struggle for funding, they must rely on a very large number of adjuncts to teach classes. There is widespread agreement that adjuncts are seen as a connection to the professional world, relieving tenured faculty of the need to stay current with the changing media landscape. While adjuncts may have a firmer grasp on what’s happening in modern journalism, they lack pedagogical training. Worse, they may have come to the profession without any formal training in ethics, law, and history.
Tenure itself is not the problem. There should be incentives to keep learning
Many in the profession blame tenure as a primary source of journalism education’s problems. Tenured faculty who have spent their whole lives in academia and have never worked in a newsroom are often chided for their lack of professional experience. What we forget is that those faculty have a wealth of institutional knowledge about how universities work. Just as adjuncts are valued for their newsroom experience, we must value tenured faculty for their ample experience in academia. Tenure itself is not the problem. Instead, faculty must be incentivized to continue learning, collaborating, and experimenting, which they can do on campus, at conferences, or via MOOCs offered by companies like Coursera. Departments must carve out enough time and budget each year to pay for training and continuing education. Likewise, a condition of ongoing membership within a department must include ongoing learning and collaboration.
There are numerous options, from auditing courses around a university to participating in hands-on training sessions or simply enrolling in a Coursera class. Last summer, I created a Summer School for Journalism Professors syllabus and released it online. It was a simple, self-directed eight-week course intended to help tenured faculty better understand the evolving nature of media and technology, a low-touch, high-impact way to catalyze ongoing learning.
Overcoming these complex challenges requires a dramatic, internal shift within departments, but that shift is necessary for the future of journalism education to thrive. In “Immunity to Change,” a book about organizational change leadership, Robert Kegan, professor of professional development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), and co-author Lisa Laskow Lahey, also of HGSE, write: “The memories of most higher education institutions are littered with failed efforts and broken dreams on the school-wide reform front, as one idealistic aspiration after another runs into the reality that it is far easier for small factions to impede a process of change than for a larger, like-minded group to bring it about.” However, in the case of journalism schools, Kegan told me that change is indeed possible: “To unlock the potential for change, deans must create a revolution, a sense of urgency and motivate their departments towards the horizon.”
That revolution must begin within departments, but it cannot be fully realized without a new blueprint for the practice of journalism education.
2 semesters of newsroom co-op
Key component of the journalism school blueprint
A New Blueprint
Previously, a journalism degree had been viewed as an asset to new journalists entering the workforce. That is no longer the case. In my survey, fewer than 25% of those working in media said that a journalism degree is necessary for the profession. Instead, degrees in computer science or data science are in demand. Executives and hiring managers interviewed at a number of newspapers, magazines, and websites indicated that a journalism degree does not impact their decisions about hiring new employees. If we agree that in order to thrive, journalism programs must become more visible and powerful within their universities, then we must also agree that the programs themselves must be recast with three key components: a foundation of exceptional liberal arts scholarship; robust, forward-thinking specialized concentrations in journalism; and a compulsory experiential learning component.
Rigorous liberal arts coursework
Among all groups surveyed and interviewed, courses centering on critical thinking, emerging social structures, and writing were reported as top priorities. Required general studies courses for a journalism major should include a semester each of macro and microeconomics as well as a probability and statistics course taught within the journalism department. Rather than the general math requirement, which only requires three credits of any math course, the degree should require empirical and mathematical reasoning, so that students learn how to apply abstract principles and theories to difficult problems. They should be exposed to coursework that mandates challenging writing while broadening their worldviews: three credits each of comparative religions/cultures, cultural anthropology, and comparative literature. In addition, the degree should require three credits each of American politics or public policy.
The Internet is redefining international boundaries and opening up new communication channels to anyone with a connection. Coursework to help students gain perspective on other nations is essential. A three-credit course on international politics or public policy should replace the foreign language requirement at many schools. Because of the rigorous demands of college coursework, it is highly unlikely that a college student will gain enough fluency to use the language studied. The time is better spent learning about the histories, religions, and political structures of other societies.
These courses should include work on the following subjects specifically geared toward journalists but should not be segmented by distribution medium (such as print or digital). There are far fewer required technical skills courses in this model because that material is covered by the Newsroom Co-op below.
Mandatory courses for a journalism degree should include a history of Silicon Valley and the philosophy of the Internet as a stand-alone class, as well as a class on the First Amendment and mass communications law with up-to-date case studies. All students should be required to take business-side classes: finance for newsrooms (includes basic finance, accounting, and discussion of revenue models) and audience engagement (discussion of the attention economy, A/B testing, search, and social optimization). All students in the major should take courses to give them a more holistic foundation in journalism: design for news (principles of design elements across all mediums); deep research (methods for data mining, evaluating sources, and investigating algorithms); introductory programming (in a modern language).
Finally, the standard reporting and writing requirements should be replaced with much more focused courses that will apply across the entire field of journalism as it evolves. All students should take a nonfiction writing class: the fundamental method and practice of storytelling, regardless of medium. (Many schools use newspaper writing as the basis for this instruction.) What’s taught doesn’t always translate to the Web, to mobile, or to continuous digital coverage across devices. The class I’m proposing isn’t about leads and nut grafs, but rather about mastering the fundamentals of great journalistic writing. The general reporting requirement should be replaced with a mandatory investigative reporting techniques class: students should learn how to find sources; obtain data sets and documents; file Freedom of Information Act and public information requests; conduct research and interviews; obtain and understand property records, court records, search warrants, and police records; and organize large amounts of data and reporting so that it can be used for whatever story is produced.
Advanced courses on design, interactivity, and data-driven reporting as well as subject-focused reporting and writing (gender, science/medical, the arts) should be offered as electives within the department.
Two semesters of newsroom co-op
For many years, Eric Newton, the Knight Foundation’s senior adviser to the president, has been advocating for a “teaching hospital” model for journalism education. “People learn by doing,” he says. “Law schools have clinics, where students learn to handle cases. In teaching hospitals, medical students work alongside real doctors to learn about disease, how to deliver babies, how to practice their craft. It is hard to believe that there is no journalism education program in America using a fully developed version of that same model.” Newton’s assertion is right, and there is a way to advance his theory by adding in a mandatory co-op component to journalism majors.
In this new blueprint, each journalism department would be responsible for creating and maintaining a “newsroom,” a hyperlocal digital publication or digital news broadcast. The purpose of the newsroom would be threefold: to transfer real-world skills within a meaningful environment to students; provide the community with a local publication, and to catalyze external partnerships through research and development work.
While some in the academic community will be quick to argue that such a program already exists, the Newsroom Co-op does not mirror what’s currently being offered. Students and professors would be required to work full time in the newsroom for two semesters. Successful co-op models in other subject areas are already in effect at many universities: Drexel University is just one of the schools requiring at least one six-month co-op for nearly all of its majors. At these schools, the co-op is taken off campus at a local employer. This model can be applied internally to the newsroom. In practical terms, this replaces the internship requirement for some schools and adds in the experiential learning component missing from so many curricula. Tenured and adjunct faculty would work together, mentoring students and ensuring continuity of coverage, even during the summer.
The newsroom model requires a vastly different approach to existing programs: Students would be required to rotate through key divisions of the newsroom, just as medical students make rotations through specialties. In two semesters, newsroom students would spend equal amounts of time in the following departments: editorial, business, production, PR/marketing/advertising, and management. Rotating students through these disciplines not only ensures that they develop practical skills required to file on deadline, but in learning all of the roles of a news organization they will have gained invaluable perspective and empathy before starting their careers in earnest.