How to build a better journalism school: Part 7, trades & professions

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

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

One of the first reactions to this series of posts on journalism schools was from my friend Curt Chandler, professor at Penn State. He saw a gap in my proposed curriculum: discussion of “innovation, disruption, the business of freelancing and other practical issues facing modern reporters.”

In fact, the initial spur to create this curriculum was reading so many other recommendations for journalism school reform that proposed adding more about technology, entrepreneurship and financial issues. That came on top of having discussions about just what level of technology should be used in journalism classes — Videolicious vs. Adobe Premiere, in an extreme case. In one of those discussions, I heard myself say that I didn’t think journalism education should be a trade school.

That was a nice, concrete phrase, but my thinking about this is much less consistent. So, in no particular order, here are some thoughts:

Levels of technology

In my ideal journalism school, students would be able to satisfy core requirements using only the simplest, cheapest hardware and software. One counterargument is that we should prepare students for what they’re going to encounter on the job. If some students are going to work for TV stations, they’ll encounter professional video cameras and editing software, so all our video training should be based on that. That triggered several threads:

  • We can’t possibly guarantee that the software and hardware we teach will be what they’ll use on the job. Different employers use different brands. Upgrades come out. Time spent teaching the ins and outs of a particular piece of sophisticated technology could be better spent on skills and techniques that apply in all cases.
  • There are lots of great ways to learn specific technology, like Rather than forcing professors to keep running to keep pace with each new release, why not cut a deal with an outfit like that to offer each student a certain number of hours of online training? Among other things, that will push the idea that even after college, they will need to take charge of their own learning. (Advance Digital recently made the classes available to its newsroom employees. If it’s good enough for the pros, it should be good enough for the schools.)
  • If journalism schools don’t want to pay for a commercial firm’s online instruction, perhaps a consortium of colleges could put together training that could then plug in to each school’s curriculum. For example, all students learn some basic framing, exposure, focus and lighting techniques as part of the Grammars course. Those who want to add a specialization in photography take some online training in high-end digital cameras, Photoshop and Premiere before getting into the regular photo class.
  • Why are we so concerned about making our students perfect fits for existing jobs? It’s as if our college football programs, concerned that they weren’t commercial enough, required coaches to use playbooks taken from the pros.

Entrepreneurship and freelancing

When I went to school, we learned nothing about the finances of the industry. It was assumed we’d all end up working for some big media outfit, so we didn’t need to know about finding freelance jobs or setting up on our own. But times have changed, right?

I acknowledge that the idea of preparing undergraduates for more than just producing content isn’t new. Magazine programs, in particular, have often included courses in magazine management. Northwestern’s Magazine Publishing Project is about as old as my degree, teaching students to conceive, create and sell new publications.

So why would I shy away from adding an entrepreneurship or freelancing course to my curriculum?

I only have so many courses and so much to teach. I’m going to presume my university includes a business school. Could students what they need to know there? I’d even accept making one of those courses a requirement, in the same way that I require journalism students to take basic courses in English, science, etc.

Given the current state of the journalism industry, how deep is the pool of people qualified to teach students how to make money at it? Not to be unkind, but I suspect that if there’s anyone out there who really has figured out how to make journalism pay, he or she is doing just that, not teaching others. (I’ll concede that there are many, though, who could teach about freelancing.)

Do we need to include this material in our core courses, or can we offer students what they need through extracurricular opportunities — seminars and speakers, mostly?

What’s a journalism degree for?

Thomas Frank, writing for Salon, said:

Everyone in the age of inequality knows that the purpose of a college education isn’t to benefit the nation; it’s to give the private individual a shot at achieving a High Net Worth.

I ran across a grim example of the kind of thinking Frank dislikes when I searched for lists of the best journalism programs. Prominent in the results was a story that referenced a top 10 from The standard used to rank them? The median mid-career salary of graduates. That makes my skin crawl.

Frank argues that this kind of thinking contributes to the outrageous inflation of university tuition, or at least provides administrators with an easy way to justify it. I’ll buy that. I’ll also argue that basing our decisions about curricula on what will pay off is at odds with the things that make journalism journalism. Yes, we should be concerned with whether people see our journalism. Yes, we should pay attention to audience metrics. But if the value of an education is to be judged by how high a salary it will lead to, why bother with journalism at all? Or why not teach students that ignoring truth — say, by pitching every health fad that comes down the pike — can pay off?

Journalism schools from their very beginnings have been too much like trade schools, shaving students to fit the round holes of newspapers. One motivation for coming up with course titles such as Facts and Grammars was to break away from the industry’s language. A recent Nieman Report warned:

Universities are shutting down or proposing to shut down journalism schools, or merging them with other departments. Enrollment is falling—dramatically, for graduate programs—while it’s rising at newer institutions and those with an emphasis on digital media. New forms of teaching online and new credentials menace all of higher education’s monopoly on academic credit.

Maybe the problem isn’t that journalism schools haven’t been keeping close enough ties to the industry; maybe it’s that they’ve been too close. Maybe, if we thought about journalism in college more as a pursuit in its own right and less as a ticket to a job, we wouldn’t be stuck trying to figure out how to weld online tools onto reporting classes designed to match print demands.

Are we professionals?

Among the many reasons that I lack complete confidence in the arguments I’m making here, one is that my experience in academia is limited. I know journalism education, and I’ve got a master’s degree in education (with a focus on adult learning). When I say that some elements of journalism education strike me as too focused on future job opportunities, I stand ready to be told that almost every other university degree has similar appurtenances.

But one thing my limited experience has going for it is that I’ve learned a lot about pseudoprofessions. Both journalists and adult educators (at least those with advanced degrees) like to refer to themselves as professionals. And, you know, doctors and lawyers are professionals, and their schooling is based on what they’ll need to succeed in careers, isn’t it?

Journalism isn’t really a profession. There are no licensing requirements. There are no continuing education requirements. There is no government regulation, no generally accepted code of ethics. Like my fellow adult educators, we journalists like to call ourselves professionals because that sounds more respectable, more important. And, sure, we’re in white-collar jobs. But let’s be frank: Most of us are not making Chelsea Clinton money, we’re not our own bosses, we’re not not setting our own hours. Our collars have a distinct tinge of blue.

If journalism’s not a profession, then maybe we can split journalism as an academic program away from journalism as an industry. Because the journalism industry sucks right now. But the skills that accompany a journalism degree — the ability to uncover facts in a wide variety of ways, to verify that information, to translate it to different audiences and present in a variety of ways — those skills are a worthy academic pursuit, and they can lead to a wide assortment of careers.

This is the seventh in a series about improving journalism education.