I’m doing something few university student journalists ever do. I’m writing an article to be published on the pages of a magazine. There won’t be an iPod version, or a video to accompany its eventual appearance online, or interactivity for discussion and debate about what I say, or a blog or slide show—just words on the page. Only gradually is Nieman Reports adapting to what every journalism student must adapt to quickly—the evolving multimedia environment. With university journalism education, we can no longer train print journalists, or radio or TV journalists, or photojournalists; today, these are all pieces of a larger pie we call multimedia journalism.
Boom! That’s the sound heard as journalism schools blow up their curriculum. That’s what we’re doing here at Kent State, and the leadership comes from a pleasantly surprising place—Fred Endres, the senior facultymember, who is like Thomas Edison in that he will stop coming up with innovative ideas on the day he dies. A former print reporter turned professor, in 1987 Endres started the computer-assisted reporting course at Kent. He then developed our first online journalism class in 1999, and three years later started a collaborative course where print and broadcast journalists fight—I mean work with each other—on news projects.
“It is all about multimedia, interactivity, 24-hour deadlines, and new methods of delivering the news,” says Endres. “It’s more than we ever expected of students 10 to 15 years ago.” In every class, students are forced to think—and perform—across a variety of platforms. Photojournalism professor Teresa Hernández observes that “multimedia has become the way of the still photographer,” and this means the visual gets immersed in sound. “People want to hear and see things more and read less,” she says. “Like it or not, that is the reality.” There’s another reality, too, that every journalism professor must recognize—the job market. “Many of the photo internships are now for multimedia,” Hernández says.
Jan Leach, a journalism professor who came to Kent State a few years ago from a print newsroom, shares this experience. “I’d be surprised if any newspaper editor would hire a student right out of j-school who didn’t have a good understanding of writing/producing online,” she says.
In the school’s legal issues class, Barrett v. Rosenthal is to the Internet what New York Times Co. v. Sullivan is to libel, as citizen journalism becomes the “next major battleground” for online speech, in the view of Professor Tim Smith. In the courtroom as well as the newsroom, the news media landscape is changing rapidly, so for students to succeed, the classroom—and the university in which it is embedded—must change as well. “If we want our kids to be competitive, we need to prepare them for the world they are about to enter,” Smith says.
In Kent State’s audience analysis class, Professor Max Grubb’s students don’t analyze only the TV Nielsen ratings, but they also examine the use of the Web. It’s no longer just about circulation and ratings. Grubb, who spent 15 years on the sales/marketing side of the broadcast business, contends that blogs, citizen journalism, and interactivity have transformed the structure of the media business into what he calls the “architecture of participation.” “As media professionals,” says Grubb, “our students need to understand and facilitate rather than resist it.”
Creative thinking consultant Roger von Oech contends that nobody likes change except a baby whose diaper is wet. Too many j-school students seem proof of that notion. Beginning this fall semester, the j-school is moving into a new building with wireless Internet, high-speed video servers, and a converged newsroom. Student leaders are working with faculty to develop the organizational structure for student media. At a recent planning meeting, one of our brighter and more talented students listed a few potential stories, then asked the student from the school newspaper what she would put on the front page. He then posed the same question to the student representative from the TV station; how would she lead her newscast? He was demonstrating the ways in which newspapers and broadcast media approach the telling of news differently. But nobody raised any questions about how to cover these stories for a multimedia Web site. Each saw coverage only from inside of his or her own silo.
Such attitudes spell doom—in contemporary newsrooms and classrooms. “The more ostriches in your newsroom or on your faculty, the more likely your organization will quickly join the list of endangered species,” Endres cautions. Amid the downsizing of newsrooms now going on, even veteran journalists are finding it essential to learn new skills. And some are returning to school to do so. Kent State’s graduate coordinator, Von Whitmore, recognizes that “graduate programs will have to adapt to this new demand by developing alternative ways for working professionals to take classes [that] must teach students about multiple platform content from the very first course in the curriculum.” Graduate student Susan Kirkman spent 20 years working as a journalist at the Akron Beacon Journal, most recently as the managing editor for multimedia and special projects. Kirkman’s advice to journalists for managing change applies as much to newsrooms as it does to journalism schools: “Figure out how to create cultures that support innovation.”
This is the toughest challenge we face—given how difficult cultural shifts can be to make within a university. “Some faculty will never be able to collaborate with those in other disciplines; others will do so, but reluctantly,” says Endres. “Still others, maybe a third of current faculties, will find the move out of silos to be exciting and invigorating. You can probably identify those faculty members already. They’re the ones with all the most forward thinking and aggressive students hanging around their offices.”
Building a J-School Faculty
It’s impossible to teach what you don’t know, yet learning new software programs and developing multimedia skills requires the investment of time, resources and money. “It’s the trifecta of money, time and personnel,” says Whitmore. “[But] foundation money for journalism programs is shrinking while federal and state support for higher education has all but vanished.”
Without universities willing to bring in faculty members with the skills and experience necessary to prepare students to meet the rapidly changing demands by getting rid of some academic barriers—such as requiring faculty members to have a PhD—journalism schools will remain on the precipice of becoming irrelevant to the profession. Editors are not determining which stories to tell and how to tell them by reading academic journals, yet universities reward publication of such articles more highly than they do teaching or passing on cutting-edge multimedia skills or figuring out how to get students to think creatively and broadly about how journalistic values mesh with the changes brought about by technological progress.
With this in mind, the requirements posted in the advertisements in The Chronicle of Higher Education for jobs as j-school professors seem all the more troubling. Recently I checked 20 of them, and all but one indicated that a PhD was required or preferred. Most did not require or give the preferred number of years of professional experience, though for one position the ad stipulated two years of professional experience. (I certainly know how much I knew after only two years on the job.)
Why so little experience would be deemed sufficient by any journalism program pinpoints a major disconnect between academia and the demands of the marketplace. Hiring someone to teach a reporting class who has never reported is like signing up a doctor who’s never been in the operating room to teach surgery, or asking a lawyer who’s never had a client or filed briefs or been in a courtroom to teach law. Educating journalists has always required more than an academic orientation—and this imbalance of university requirements vs. faculty relevance has always been a part of journalism school’s uneasy fit inside the academy. But today the fit isn’t just uneasy, it’s untenable.
Universities will need to adapt or their j-schools will die of irrelevance. With soaring tuition costs, prospective journalists will refuse to waste time and money learning what they don’t need to know while a glance over their shoulder will spot plenty of young people finding stimulating, on-the-job tutorials in places other than classrooms.
Kent State understands this. In its rich mix of faculty—in which nearly every member has spent years working as a journalist—a tenure-track professor can focus either on research or on practice. At a recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, a professor from another university asked me how I could be on a tenure-track position without having a PhD. At Kent State, I am the only faculty member on staff who has worked professionally in digital media. Indeed, our situation may currently be out of the norm, but to survive, it’s the direction j-schools that want to remain relevant must head. To achieve that, those directing j-school programs must be able to explain to provosts and deans and university presidents the ways in which journalism differs from other scholarly pursuits—and why the mesh of classroom learning and on-the-street and in-the-newsroom reporting lessons and experiences are essential.
At Kent State, the faculty also appreciates what many news corporations have forgotten—that journalism is essential for our democracy to function. In the Winter 2006 issue of Nieman Reports, former Nieman Curator Bill Kovach stressed the importance of the “journalism of verification.” Journalism isn’t rumor, isn’t about repeating gossip, and isn’t about celebrity. The statement of purpose for the Committee of Concerned Journalists—the organization Kovach founded—should be placed at the entryway of every school of journalism. It states, “The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need in order to make informed judgments in a self-governing society.” As former “Nightline” producer Tom Bettag in his article “Evolving Definitions of News” so aptly stated, “Credibility is so valuable today because it is so scarce.”
For these reasons, and so many more, journalism education has never been as important as it is today. All of the software, streaming video, interactivity, flash animation, blogs and audio all become irrelevant when the journalism they are called to serve isn’t solid. Students need to learn how to secure and dig through documents, to comprehensively prepare for interviews, to determine whether a story holds up to tough scrutiny or loses its legs as more information is gathered and assessed, and to appreciate what journalism is and why it matters. “The major obstacle facing journalism schools is the stark realization that students need to have critical thinking skills first, and then we need to ask them to start applying the multimedia skills on top. Without the first, there can be no use of that second that makes any sense,” says Kent State journalism professor Barbara Hipsman.
Delivery platforms for news and information have changed—and at breakneck speed they will continue to change. In the past, it might have been possible, if not ideal, to pass along to students the fundamental principles and skills of journalism even if professors never had direct engagement with newsroom techniques and skills. Too much is changing too quickly in the digital news environment—and consequently in the marketplace these students will enter—to allow this mismatch to continue.
Karl Idsvoog, a 1983 Nieman Fellow, is an assistant professor at Kent State University.