How to build a better journalism school: Part 2, breaking silos

Journalism education, like the typical newsroom, is in need of rebuilding.

Journalism education, like the typical newsroom, is in need of rebuilding.

In many of the undergraduate journalism curricula I’ve reviewed recently, students spend a lot of time in mode-of-delivery silos: writer/editors separated from broadcasters separated from photographers. In some cases, magazine students are isolated from those fedora-wearing news people.

In my ideal journalism school, most of that changes. Students learn that while each modality has its own techniques and its own grammars, core journalism skills and values go across all of them. Students are allowed to focus on a particular modality that they prefer for a couple of courses, but there’s no such thing as a “print/online major,” for example. They are journalism students, full stop.

As someone who has often noted that he has a face for radio and a voice for print, I don’t take lightly the argument that students cannot be expected to be expert across all modes of delivery. But then, that’s not the goal of my program. I want to make them competent across all modes.

What about, to take one example, the wonderful photojournalism program at the Missouri School of Journalism? There’s no way to cram all that it delivers into the few courses my program allows for specialization. How do I defend that? In a couple of ways.

First, the Mizzou photojournalism program is an outlier — because it’s so well-developed, and because it sits alongside an equally excellent writing/editing program. (I know the school offers more than 30 majors, including some in broadcast. I’m not denigrating those; I just happen to be most familiar with its photo and news grads.) I have to wonder just how wonderful each major is at the many other J schools that provide a full-course menu. By reducing the number of specializations offered and the number of courses within each specialization, perhaps the quality of instruction would rise.

Second, I am cheating. I have designed a program to develop students who are jacks of all modes, and possibly masters of none, because I know that not all schools would adopt such a program. Actually, I hope they don’t. There will always be a place for journalists who are simply incredible writers or brilliant photojournalists or whatever. But there’s no way the many J schools around can each promise to produce all of those specialists on top of producing the all-around pros who are best adapted to changing times. I would hope that my curriculum would exist in the context of other journalism programs that change by concentrating on a particular mode. I’m intrigued today by the standalone program in literary journalism at UC-Irvine.

That said, I think most journalism students would be best served by a broader approach, and I think the industry would benefit as well.

Even before the Internet made it possible for reports to combine text, static and moving visual images and more, newsrooms had a silo problem. Well, at least the print newsrooms I’m familiar with. Text reporters tended to fill the management ranks, carrying with them the attitude that design, photography and graphics were service departments. Though visual journalists fought long and hard for respect and got a fair measure of it, I don’t think the NPPA or SND could ever hang up “Mission Accomplished” banners. And when online came along, newsrooms mostly just erected new silos.

Those silos were bad for journalism:

  • They made it harder to tell stories in the best possible way. Service departments are often shut out of planning. Their efforts may be considered window-dressing, not content.
  • They tended to place limits on talented people. I’ve cited Lynn Ischay, a Plain Dealer photographer, in this vein before. Encouraged by changes at The Plain Dealer to see herself as a complete journalist, she’s shown herself capable of writing every bit as evocatively as she shoots, shown in packages like her recent one on family businesses.
  • They discourage teamwork. Although I had been in The PD’s newsroom for a quarter-century before I shifted full-time to online journalism, I quickly felt that I had moved from “us” to “them.”

That’s not even considering the history of enmity between newspaper folk and broadcasters, which hasn’t made it easy to converge those different newsrooms in some cities.

Journalism schools may not encourage such attitudes, but tracking students by modality certainly doesn’t discourage them. My proposed curriculum would train students to expect to work together. Each student would have basic competency in all modes and would know enough to speak the same language. As students move through the program, they would switch from working solo to working in teams.

Of course, the expectation that teamwork and mutual respect are the norm might be dashed quickly in their first jobs working for old-school bosses. But I would hope that in time the weight of my alumni’s expectations would help tilt the balance in newsrooms.

This is the second in a series of posts about improving journalism education.

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