When the controversy over the future of journalism education erupted at Columbia this summer, I thought of a meeting we held a few months before to pick apart the new media curriculum I direct here at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. We’ve had these gatherings for several years, periodically bringing in editors and publishers at online and traditional media companies, entrepreneurs in the information and technology industries, and others to critique our course offerings. But at this latest meeting, the criticism was more sweeping: Journalism schools and the media were failing to address a whole range of pressing issues. Among them:

  • The war brewing over intellectual property and copyright laws that could shape the future of technological innovation, the media, and public access to information.
  • The proliferation of nonprofit and other non-media Web sites that were reporting and publishing their own news stories, posing both a challenge and an opportunity for media organizations.
  • A batch of new technologies being cooked up in university and private laboratories that promised to be every bit as disruptive to media business models and the practice of journalism as the Internet had been.

We were also chastised for not better motivating our students to break out of traditional media molds, to be more experimental and innovative, take more risks, launch their own ventures.

In earlier meetings of this sort, the main message had been the need to train students in solid reporting and writing skills and sound journalism ethics and practices. Why the difference now? Maybe something had changed out there. Perhaps it was just a different mix of people. Whatever the reason, I came away convinced that journalism education somehow needed to do a better job of both—teaching the basics, while confronting new issues. This seems like much the same dilemma Columbia now faces—training future journalists, while questioning the role of that profession in society.

But how can all of this be put into a single curriculum? Should survey and lecture courses be added to analyze the media and society? If a school moves in that direction, where then do professors find time to teach solid reporting and writing skills, while providing ample time for students to experience realistic assignments?

Tackling New Topics in Journalism By Using Weblogs

Here at Berkeley, we tried to begin reconciling some of these competing demands with a new course called “Creating an Intellectual Property Weblog.” It was an effort to address the issue of the delicate balance between copyright protections and the free flow of ideas. By offering this course, our students can join in the growing discussion about the power of the media and entertainment industries, a debate that has been elevated to the Supreme Court in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case. That lawsuit challenges Congress’s most recent extension of copyright terms as unconstitutional, saying it stifles innovation to protect the profits of giant media conglomerates.

What is also important about this course and approach is that we are tackling this topic by using a newer media form—the Weblog—that challenges many of the basic assumptions of journalism. Weblogs allow journalists to create simple Web pages to which they can post short, constantly updated commentaries on issues they are covering, with links that direct people to stories and background information elsewhere on the Web.

What happens to journalistic objectivity in a medium like this that begs for personality, voice and opinion? What becomes of a story narrative when a Weblog posting is mainly a pointer, marking the beginning of a conversation in which other readers will construct the rest of the story? What role do we give those readers? Are they to be fenced off in a “comments” section of the Weblog or allowed to be equals who can contribute directly to it? What distinguishes a journalism Weblog like ours from a Weblog published by a private citizen acting as a “journalist?” And who edits the damn thing? Or is it edited at all?

In this class, we made the traditional skills of reporting and writing central elements of our work, requiring students to produce original stories that will be integrated into our Weblog. We also teamed up with an investigative reporting class that will slice off a piece of the intellectual property issue to produce a more in-depth story. Finally, we opened up the class to students from other departments in an attempt to bring into our discussions and work nonjournalistic perspectives. The class is a mix of students from the School of Information Management and Systems, the law school and the computer science department, as well as the journalism school. In addition, we brought in guest lecturers from the legal profession and the Weblog community.

As I write this, we are barely halfway through the semester, so it is far too early to know if the class will be a success. But it has been one of the most intriguing and stimulating courses I’ve ever been involved in. And it might point to some ways out of the quandary Columbia and journalism education are now in.

This course, or others like it, might help to address the big-picture issues about the future of journalism and do so within the framework of reporting and writing. Such courses can thus serve double duty—allowing students to explore ideas and issues, while also working on improving their technical skills.

This approach offers other benefits, as well.

  • By making classes more interdisciplinary, by bringing in instructors and, probably more importantly, students from other academic departments, we can gain fresh perspectives and insights.
  • By having online, digital media be more a part of normal coursework at a journalism school, rather than a separate program, the interactive, multimedia and democratic nature of these new media makes students think harder about exactly what it means to be a journalist.

Other schools have already experimented in this area. Northwestern University journalism students designed prototypes of news and information packages for digital tablets. At the University of Southern California, the journalism and engineering schools have partnered to devise ways of presenting news in immersive 3-D environments. Columbia itself was a pioneer in working with students to use the 360-degree “omnicamera” to cover public gatherings and other news events.

Approaches like these take traditional journalism and apply it to new media forms. As students continue the important task of learning to become better reporters and writers, they also are forced to come to grips with what journalism is—as well as with what it could and should be.

Paul Grabowicz spent most of his journalism career as an investigative reporter at newspapers, principally The Oakland Tribune. At U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism he is new media program director. He co-teaches “Creating an Intellectual Property Weblog” with John Battelle, founding managing editor of Wired magazine and former publisher of The Industry Standard. The class Web page is at: www.journalism.berkeley.edu/program/newmediaclasses/weblogs/

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