Journalism education needs an update. You can and must teach and honor the timeless fundamentals of journalism and still prepare journalists for the dynamic job market they will be entering.
Journalists and educators who play the “basics” card in resisting overhauls of journalism curriculum fail to acknowledge how basic to journalism resourcefulness and problem-solving are. When a county attorney who didn’t respect the law denied me access to a file in the local courthouse, I found the records I needed in the Iowa Supreme Court and got the story. When I couldn’t persuade intimidated friends of a victim to speak on the record for a story about domestic violence by a football player, I used a draft of the story using unnamed sources to prod reluctant coaches to confirm and clarify details on the record. When floods cut off streets in much of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, my staff covered the news in boats, chest waders and by finding alternate routes. Good journalists adjust to the situations they face and they don’t use obstacles as excuses.
We need to adjust to digital challenges and journalism educators need to stop using “basics” as an excuse. They need to develop ways to teach the basics along with principles and skills of innovation.
I don’t know whether the University of Colorado will find the right future for journalism education by planning to close its journalism school in favor of a new school of information and technology. But I’m certain that the way forward will not be found by looking backward.
Tony Rogers, writing for About.com, quoted a succession of journalism professors wringing their hands over the supposed erosion of fundamental instruction:
“You have to wonder how much you can cram in a curriculum without diluting the essentials,” says Virginia Breen, a SUNY Purchase journalism professor. …
Fred Bayles [of] Boston University’s journalism school … says the skills taught in a traditional public affairs reporting course – coverage of beats like cops, courts and city council – are needed now more than ever.
At Temple University in Philadelphia, Professor Linn Washington … worries that “too much emphasis has been placed on the bells and whistles of technology and not on the fundamental purpose of journalism – to provide information to the public and to serve as a watchdog on government.”
In a blog post for the American Copy Editors Society, Teresa Schmedding asked this falsely skewed question: “Should journalism schools be ditching the basics and loading up on tech-based curriculum?” It’s not a matter of one or the other. I don’t know of anyone suggesting that journalism schools ditch basics. I have suggested that journalism basics need to be taught in a context relevant to today’s journalism. I don’t advocate a “tech-based curriculum.” I advocate a journalism-based curriculum that recognizes how journalism and the industries that support it are transforming in response to technology and market changes.
More from Schmedding:
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve been frantically waving my hand over my crystal ball for that past five years to no avail. I still can’t see into the future. None of us can. … Once we acknowledge all that we don’t know, we can focus on what we do know. People will need information. We as journalists want to provide accurate, fair, authoritative, ethical and clear information. And what we need to be teaching the journalists of the future is how to gather, write and edit information following those guidelines. …
If our universities have invested the bulk of their teaching efforts in Twitter, then those students are valuable only as long as Twitter rules. How useful are those Twitter students if we all have Apple chips implanted in our brains and download/upload information by just thinking?
Does that mean J schools shouldn’t teach any technology? Absolutely not, but technology will change faster than most curriculums can, and we are dooming the future of our industry if we lose sight of the importance of our core journalistic principles.
She’s right that we can’t predict the future. But we know we’re not going back to the past. The casual dismissal of Twitter waves off how it has transformed journalism. Yes, Twitter may not rule forever, but whatever takes its place will provide even better tools for real-time crowdsourcing of breaking-news coverage and instant reporting of news in short bursts. The days of working hours on your story for the morning newspaper are over. So journalism schools need to teach students how to gather, write and edit information using the best breaking-news tool we have and that’s Twitter. Students who learn those skills with Twitter will be best prepared to adjust and use the brain chips Schmedding speculates about, or whatever tool comes next.
You don’t need to eliminate a basic reporting course to make room in the curriculum for a Twitter class. You integrate Twitter into the basic reporting course, because it is now basic to reporting and those skills will remain basic, even if the brand name of the tool changes.
The truth is that too many journalism schools and journalism educators turn out students who can’t get to the point in 140 characters. That skill, which Twitter demands and teaches, helps you write a better story for the morning newspaper, so every old-school professor who loves the basics should love this teaching tool.
As for the public-affairs course that Bayles favors, you can’t cover crime, courts or the city council effectively today without understanding how to use social tools and databases. The police reporter needs to know how to use Twitter, because that’s where breaking stories invariably unfold. The court reporter and city council reporter need to learn the skills of liveblogging, because that’s how they will use their basic writing skills to report trials and council meetings. All three of those reporters need to learn data skills, because you can’t practice the basic skills of investigation and verification now, or however the future unfolds, without knowing how to access and analyze data.
Praising the basics and fundamentals feels good. But Schmedding’s own recognition of how unpredictable the world has become underscores that innovation has become one of those basics (if it wasn’t always). I don’t know of many journalism schools that teach the fundamentals of disruptive innovation. For much of my career, my peers and I were blissfully unaware of how our businesses operated, in large part because the divide between journalism and business operations started in journalism schools. That was wrong then and it’s unconscionable now. Far too many journalists and journalism school graduates know next to nothing about the business of journalism and that status quo is indefensible.
The journalism student graduating today will need to either be a small-business entrepreneur or succeed as a valuable contributor to a nimble, entrepreneurial business. Entrepreneurial journalism is one of the basics today. That’s not a technology class, though the instructor will need to teach students about the opportunities and disruptions that technology presents. (Disclosure: I am co-teaching a course in entrepreneurial journalism this semester for the Master of Professional Studies in Journalism program at Georgetown University.)
Schmedding describes what her ideal curriculum would teach:
The journalist of tomorrow that I want to hire is one that is skeptical and smart, can smell a good story, is a headline genius and an editing whiz, understands designs basics in any platform … and one that knows the right questions to ask and is not afraid to learn.
That skeptical and smart journalist can see how the world is changing. And he or she will know the right question to ask: “Why are you using ‘basics’ as an excuse to avoid teaching me what I need to learn?”
A response: I am a friend and longtime admirer of Teresa Schmedding, the ACES Executive Committee member quoted most extensively above. We have worked together on seminars for the American Press Institute and the Mid-America Press Institute. She’s an outstanding editor and teacher. I sent her a draft of this post, inviting her to respond, and she did:
I’m not sure we disagree as much as you think. Either extreme is bad: curriculum that teaches only technology or curriculum that teaches none.
I know there’s a finite number of courses colleges can teach, and I’d hate to see those basics lost in the latest trend. Do I think j profs should stick their heads in the sand and still teach students to crop pix using a photo wheel? Heck no!
Missouri’s editing courses used to include instruction on using the telegraph machine. Should today’s editing courses include how to edit for Twitter v. FB v. print? Sure. But j schools shouldn’t be teaching FB/Twitter courses with a splash of editing. It’s the core editing skills that won’t go the way of the telegraph machine.
Thanks for the heads up. I enjoy the discussion. I just want to make sure I still get kids who’ll jump in a boat to cover that flood.
Other responses, from Fred Bayles and Linn Washington, are in the comments below.