ARE JOURNALISM SCHOOLS STILL RELEVANT?

Recently a column in USA Today suggested that journalism schools such as New York’s venerable Columbia University should simply shut their doors because they have become irrelevant given today’s deluge of Internet information and new digital delivery platforms.
Allow me to put on my Dean’s attire for a moment. In the University of Illinois’ College of Media, where I toiled 7 years as Journalism Department Head and 6 years as Dean, the objective was to turn out students who had learned the basic fundamentals of journalism–clear, concise writing, editing, producing compelling packages (for our broadcast majors) and, of course, good story telling that kept readers, viewers and listeners engaged.
I think teaching those fundamentals, with the understanding, of course, that one hones and tempers those skills in the competitive heat of the professional world, is a basic requirement of any journalism program–be it a school, college, department or simply a collection of courses.
Beyond that, however, I think it is absolutely critical that journalism students have a broad education in areas such as economics, history, political and social sciences, international studies, business/economics, law and even languages. We encouraged our students to specialize in at least one of these areas.
Now to Columbia University. Its journalism school is strictly a graduate program and traditionally was intended to take students who had backgrounds in one of the above areas and teach them how to be journalists. That is how we ran our graduate program at Illinois—most of our grad students came to us with bachelor degrees in areas such as law, business, political science, etc. We then did what Columbia did: teach them the fundamentals of journalism–be it print, broadcast, online, etc.
My college had about 1,200 undergraduate students, about 30-40 master’s students and about 40 PhD candidates who were studying in our Institute of Communication Research.
As with all journalism programs, the College of Media has been in a state of flux as the world of professional journalism as changed and adapted to the realities of new technologies, delivery platforms, etc.
Students at Illinois are taught how to use the new technologies, but they are not short-changed on the fundamentals and responsibilities that are so important for journalism students to learn and embrace. I often told students that journalism is not about the journalist, it is about the people the journalist is responsible to. When journalists begin to believe they are more important than the story, then they have lost their way and forsaken those responsibilities.
In the USA Today column, the writer suggested that journalism schools employ old journalistic hacks who may have lost their jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth at Illinois (and at other first tier journalism programs).
During my tenure, I hired three Pulitzer Prize winners–hardly the kind of individual Michael Wolf alludes to in his scathing indictment of Columbia. Most of my faculty teaching in the journalism program were former professionals who brought real world experience and with it, professional credibility, into the classroom.
The College of Media also had a Department of Advertising and a Department of Media and Cinema Studies. Even in those departments we looked for faculty with professional backgrounds (Roger Ebert, for example, one of our journalism department’s alumni, was a mentor and adjunct professor) in addition to academic and teaching credentials. The College also had a professional operation: WILL-AM-FM-TV and Online–the PBS/NPR affiliate for Central Illinois. Many of our students were able to get real world experience working at those operations.
The author of the USA Today piece wonders why Columbia isn’t disgorging “information entrepreneurs.” I am not sure what an “information entrepreneur” is. Is it a blogger who has never taken journalism classes? Hardly my definition of a journalist–no matter what kind of technology he/she is using.
Journalists and the organizations they work for need the trust of readers, viewers, listeners, twitter followers, web surfers, etc. They must earn that trust by being consistently accurate in their reporting and by producing stories that are “fair and balanced,” to use a rather overused phrase.
Sadly, it seems that too many journalists (or those who like to call themselves journalists) have forgotten that and as a result, the public trust that we once took for granted is eroding.
The USA Today column does make a valid point about the employment prospects for newly minted journalists. Opportunities are more constricted compared to when I began working for the Chicago Tribune (1969). Newspapers are losing traditional readers, and while some are finding new readers via their online and mobile device editions, advertising revenues are not keeping up. News organizations, in the end, are businesses. If they don’t make a profit they can’t remain in business.  That means fewer traditional journalism jobs.
At the same time, the skill sets demanded by news organizations have grown immensely. Journalists today must master a much more complex array of technologies than when I began back in the Stone Age. They must know how to shoot video, blog, tweet, do live stand ups, etc. By contrast, in addition to pounding away on a 10 pound Underwood typewriter (a what?), when I was first sent abroad as a correspondent, I prided myself in knowing how to use a telex machine (a what?).
Does that mean “non-traditional” journalists will supplant the more traditional variety? In some ways, they already have, up to a point. However, I believe traditional news organizations have a clear mission to provide the kind of vetting process that the Internet with its plethora of bloggers simply cannot.
For example, I may see an interesting piece online somewhere–produced by a blogger or by some organization with an obvious axe to grind–but I always go to a recognized news organization to see how it is reporting the same story or event.
Finally, if Columbia and other such institutions should shut their doors forever because “media experts” keep writing obituaries for the news business, then where will tomorrow’s journalists come from?
Will they be the “information entrepreneurs” the article seems to be so fond of who have never heard of the Society of Professional Journalists nor the principles of journalism it stands behind and promotes?
Will they be an army of self-absorbed bloggers who have abandoned the practice of fair and accurate reporting in favor of their own un-vetted and idiosyncratic propaganda?
Or will society simply abandon the idea of privately-owned news organizations in favor of government-run websites and blogs without the traditional watchdog function that the Fourth Estate has traditionally provided?
That is not a world that any of us should feel comfortable living in.

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