When journalism was a craft, we could get along without journalism schools. But the craft model isn’t working anymore. As long as journalism was in a steady-state condition, with neither the skills nor the environment in which they were applied changing very much, it worked fine as a craft. But just look around. We’re being phased out!
The old economic model of advertiser- supported editorial products is falling apart and being replaced by forces that put advertising, spin and entertainment ahead of truth and public service. It’s time to circle the wagons, redefine ourselves as a profession, and start protecting our values in an organized way.
The craft model ruled when President James B. Conant rejected the idea of using the Nieman bequest to start a Harvard journalism school. He decided that whatever knowledge base existed was insufficient to compose an undergraduate major or graduate degree. Now there is a knowledge base. And the disruptive effects of new communication technologies are forcing it to expand, whether we like it or not.
When the Nieman Foundation was established in 1938, journalists were basically finders and transporters of information. Now the balance of our effort has shifted away from that hunter-gatherer model and toward processing. It used to be enough to get information into people’s hands. Now we have to worry more about getting it into their heads.
This paradigm shift is comparable to the effect of technology on the development of the food business. In 1947, production was more than twice as important as processing. Farmers contributed 2.2 times as much to the gross domestic product as food manufacturers. That ratio evened out just 20 years ago. By 2000, farming’s contribution to the gross domestic product was less than three-fifths that of food manufacturing.
Processing is similarly moving to the forefront in journalism. We live in the age of the editor. It is no coincidence that the most successful newspaper, USA Today, is also the one most carefully formatted, designed and edited for maximum ease of information retrieval.
There was always a body of knowledge in journalism, of course. The newspaper industry recognized this when it began taking the majority of its new hires from journalism schools. Its elements include the history and values of the craft, media law, the skills of reporting, writing, editing and critical thinking and, with luck, enough about the economics of the media to convince young journalists that their paychecks do not come from the stork.
Transforming Journalism Into a Profession
A professional school teaches from first principles: not just how to write a lede, but the theory behind a particular way of writing one. Courses in the process and effects of mass communication and in the science of collecting, analyzing and drawing inferences from data are leading us toward the sort of esoteric knowledge base that defines professionalism. At the same time, the demand for pure craft courses is increasing as students realize that they might be asked to produce content for print, broadcast and the Internet all on the same assignment.
The other distinguishing feature of a profession is the adoption and enforcement of professional standards—both of competence and of morality. Journalism education is a form of certification. A baccalaureate degree from an accrediting institution implies competence, not just in the field in general, but in specific courses successfully completed. (Grade inflation has obscured that function somewhat, but here is a tip: Students in the best journalism schools have grade-point averages in their majors that are below their overall averages. It’s a sign that the faculty is aware of its certifying role.)
On the moral side, some chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) are starting to speak out on specific cases and draw a visible line between certain specific behaviors and professional standards. SPJ is one of the places where educators and practitioners come together, and these efforts need to be encouraged.
Finally, there is the research function of a professional school. The more mature professions look to their professional schools to advance their knowledge base. If journalism has been an exception, it is because newspapers, for most of the 20th century, saw themselves in a steady state. They didn’t have to innovate to survive, so long as they could dominate their markets.
Making money was so easy for monopoly newspapers that they neither invested in research and development on their own nor encouraged the research efforts of journalism schools. The only pressure to produce scholarship in journalism schools was internal, from the conventions of academe. And so it tended toward the trivial.
But now managers of even the old media are starting to realize that they need new theories and ways to test them. They still aren’t funding basic research, but some of the fortunes created by the newspaper business have found their way into charitable foundations with an interest in professionalizing our trade. Methodological innovations such as civic journalism and precision journalism were born or nurtured in university environments and with foundation backing. And now some of us are turning our attention to ways to help the economic system recognize and reward quality in journalism.
We need journalism schools with faculties that can discover new ways of doing journalism as well as impart the old craft ways. We need certification programs for journalists who realize in mid-career that their skills need updating. Above all, we need institutions that can look at the long-term trends in journalism and ponder ways to keep First Amendment values alive. A risk-averse industry can’t be relied upon to do it. Professional schools must be the keepers of the flame.
Philip Meyer, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, is a professor and Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.