Journalism Education for a Digital Age
Since the turn of the 20th century, the nation’s colleges and universities have successfully prepared American journalists. From high-brand Columbia University, to entrepreneurial Arizona State, to the personal-touch liberal arts of Hiram College, academia has in diverse but effective ways adapted to meet the changing needs of the profession it serves. But as the news-and-information ecosystem morphs to digital first, many of the nation’s most prestigious programs are scrambling to keep pace.
“We have played almost no part in the transition,” said Medill’s dean, Bradley Hamm. During transitions in the business world, “you could have picked up the phone as a CEO and called business professors who you knew were experts and you would have brought them in to work with you. … When [the digital-first shift] hit our world … Were you calling anybody in journalism education to help you? If you wanted to have thought leadership, in my opinion, you would have gone to the students.”
Even today, there exist no campus-based journalism education equivalents to the digital-native upstarts that are transforming the professional media landscape. A handful of university programs have evolved in recent years as the sector’s outsider-innovators, including the graduate program at the City University of New York under the leadership of Sarah Bartlett and, at a different scale, Christopher Callahan’s entrepreneurial, ever-growing program at Arizona State University. CUNY has established a master’s degree in social journalism, and Bartlett insists that professional, part-time faculty are critical in keeping her curricula current. Callahan has created a combined news operation that rivals any other in the state and plans to hire a “chief of disruption” to recruit his campus colleagues to join his “teaching hospital.” But both are innovating within existing constraints, and such incremental change is unlikely to produce radically new, disruptive models.
Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab and a Knight Foundation trustee, says it’s time to innovate at the boundaries of those traditional systems. “I’m on the board of The New York Times, so it’s not that I don’t think there’s a place for good, traditional journalism,” he says, “but I think the J-schools are like newspapers: They have faculty, a structure, and a system that train people in a traditional way. It’s OK to have some of that, especially until we figure out what we’re going to do next. But it feels like it’s time to start experimenting with new faculty and new students, with innovation on the edges of where we used to be.
“I think more and more of the really interesting journalists aren’t coming from J-schools. If you start thinking about where people are coming from and how they learned what they learned, you have to ask, ‘Do we need J-schools?’”
Slow turnover among longstanding, tenured faculty can make it more difficult to bring fresh perspectives, innovation and currency into higher education in general, he says. “Nothing against our senior people in the field, but like any other academic discipline, journalism programs are challenged by a tenure system that, unless you increase the number of faculty slots, requires more traditional senior faculty members to retire before you can bring in new people who think differently about all of this. The field is just moving more quickly than the speed at which senior faculty retire. And that’s a challenge.”
The data confirm it: A 2013 study by Fidelity Investments reported that 74 percent of current full-time faculty aged 49-67 say they plan to delay retirement until after age 65, or may never retire at all.1
Another study by the National Science Foundation found that, since the 1970s, only 28 percent of higher education faculty retired by the age of 65.
A 2013 national survey by the University of Georgia shows that more than a third of the full-time journalism faculty were aged 56 or older; a meager 202—or just under 3 percent—of the 7,446 full-time journalism faculty retired in 2013.
This 2013 survey by Lee Becker and his team at the University of Georgia shows the aging of full-time faculty in journalism education.
The solution, Ito suggests, is starting something entirely new, where you “go out and get the Jonah Perettis and the Nate Silvers and you’re done.”
“Maybe you change the model altogether,” he suggests. “The Media Lab grew out of the Architecture Machine group in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, and now has faculty members who are scientists and engineers, but we don’t report to either MIT’s School of Engineering or School of Science. And we have a director who is a college dropout. It’s about creating a journalism school that’s kind of a hack. It’s about creating a journalism school that is nontraditional.”
What should journalism educators today be doing to prepare students for the media world of 2025? After six months of listening to some of the most experienced and thoughtful journalists and educators in the world, I offer three observations. As assertions, they appear self-evident; as starting points for discussion and debate, they beg critical consideration of what Ito’s journalism school hack might be and do.
Those guiding principles are:
- Currency is the new core value.
- Faculty cannot teach what they do not know.
- Accreditation standards should value educational outcomes rather than institutional traditions.
1. Currency is the new core value.
A recent and frustrated graduate of a prestigious graduate journalism school said it best: “Journalism education needs to be about discovery, about constantly learning how to learn,” he said. “Everything you teach should be the next thing, and the next, and the next after that. You have to have a culture of no sitting down, no resting, you always have to be pushing it out the door. There’s no longer a persistent or permanent model of journalism that can be passed on from one generation to the next, or even from one graduating class to the next. And if you’re not up for that as a faculty member, you really should go find something else to do.”
There is no debate that journalists today still need to know “the basics”: how to ask insightful questions, collect and verify complex information, and operate under deadline pressure. But journalism schools have no monopoly on that skill set and (as noted in Part 4), the ages-old argument rages on about whether the liberal arts provides better preparation). And there are as many assertions about what else a journalist needs to do and know as there are people willing to offer an opinion.
Stacie Chan, a partner operations manager at Google News, graduated from Stanford University in 2010 and says her connections from grad school opened the door at Google. But her ability to “stop on a dime and pivot” is what makes her successful there. “The definition of journalism is changing all the time,” she says. “It’s still valuable, relevant, timely information, but the presentation of that has been completely deconstructed.” Journalists who parachute in to cover a breaking news story don’t have the same authenticity as the citizen on the scene who posts a live feed to Twitter, Chan says. “We used to have very explicit gatekeepers. If you didn’t work for an accredited institution, you weren’t credible. But that’s not how it works anymore. Today, we have a very egalitarian, democratic approach to journalism. My only concern is that people aren’t educated about who has credibility and who doesn’t.”
Like many of her counterparts, Chan isn’t convinced that the common curricula of journalism schools remain as relevant as they need to be. “With the birth of citizen journalism, it’s important to know how to use people on the ground as a valuable resource, how to vet tweets, or how to vet people who write in to offer photos or quotes. Part of journalism now is being able to discuss what’s going on with other people interested in the space and figuring out this new model.
“Journalism schools need to be open to looking at [those] different models, to realizing that it’s not the same as it was 20 years ago,” Chan says. “We need a fresh perspective every time we look at different news sources; new startups are investing in different kinds of business models about how to present news in meaningful, engaging ways. Journalism schools probably need to be much more like business schools.”
Lindsey Cook, who graduated in 2014 from the University of Georgia with a major in journalism and a minor in computer science, is now a data journalist at U.S. News & World Report. She says journalism is, by definition, a changing profession, yet “a lot of publications aren’t changing as quickly as they should, and there are a lot of areas of journalism that haven’t changed as I would have expected them to.”
While Cook chose to begin her career at a legacy news organization, she says that’s no longer the career goal of every young journalist. “It used to be that every journalist wanted to work at The New York Times, but now people are going to these small startups,” she says. “That means ideas are moving around in a way they didn’t before. It’s great for journalism and great for training journalists. We should be excited there is no end of the rainbow anymore. As a journalist, there’s no point when you are going to say: ‘I’m done, I’ve made it to The New York Times, and now I am going to retire because there is nowhere to go from here.’ That doesn’t exist anymore, and that is exciting.”
Paul Grabowicz, director of the New Media Program of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, echoes Ito’s suggestion that it’s time to create a journalism school that can evolve at the speed of media.
“I would tear the whole thing down. … The whole curriculum and the way it’s structured do not make any sense. … You have to just blow it up,” he says. “You have to be saying that all we are thinking about here is how the kids are going to work in digital—not in newspapers, not in broadcast. … Part of [the new industry] we already know, and part of it will always be evolving. It’s not like the old days when you didn’t have to pay attention to that. You can’t plant your flag in the old world and then add the digital stuff on after as a layer. It’s got to be digital first.”
Journalism schools have for decades structured curricula around the core journalistic values of truth, commitment to the public good, editorial independence, watchdogging the powerful, effective storytelling, and objectivity and balance. Schools hired faculty with the appropriate expertise to teach both content and skills courses grounded in these core values, and that expertise, once established, enjoyed long staying power.
Today, currency—the capacity to identify and master emerging market trends and media technologies and to integrate them quickly into journalistic work—is as critical to credible journalism education as command of Associated Press style and the inverted pyramid used to be.
2. Faculty cannot teach what they do not know.
Legacy journalism schools have long taught “the basics”: newswriting, reporting, editing, law, history and ethics. Content courses have been delivered in large lecture, typically by tenured faculty with academic degrees; skills courses have been taught by an array of instructors, including graduate students, working or retired professionals, and depending upon the institution, full-time faculty. Occasionally, new specializations such as computer-assisted reporting or citizen journalism have prompted flurries of conference presentations and professional training seminars. But for the most part, faculty have been comfortable teaching what they know, semester after semester, year after year, decade after decade.
Those times are behind us. Today, many faculty acknowledge that it’s all but impossible to teach the tenets of a digital-first news culture they have neither experienced nor studied. At a 2014 conference of journalism educators, one faculty member pleaded for help. “Why don’t the foundations just give us the resources we need to retrain us all?” she suggested. But training for the new environment isn’t an event; it’s a never-ending process. And many faculty have neither the energy nor the capacity to recalibrate their careers and take on that kind of continuous challenge.
In fact, a full 39 percent of journalism educators in a 2013 Poynter Institute study acknowledged that their programs are not keeping up with the changing industry.2
Despite that glum self-assessment, an astonishing 80 percent still asserted that a journalism degree is very to extremely important to understanding newsgathering skills. The industry is less generous: nearly 50 percent say academia isn’t keeping up (little or at all), and only 25 percent think a journalism degree is important to newsgathering skills.
“Some of [my colleagues] are pathetic,” said one media-savvy professor. “They ask me to help them, and I don’t even know what to say or where to begin. The learning curve is so steep for them that I don’t know what to do. Most of them have come around to do it, but it’s too late. I thought about whether we could do a ‘train the fossils in academia’ sort of model, give them the basic level of this stuff so they can add enough to their classes so the students are getting something from them. It’s not enough, but it’s more than they are getting now.”
Our students deserve better. But even educators who acknowledge the problem argue that they cannot be expected to become masters of every new tool, approach or strategy emerging in a radically disrupted profession.
“I do think that the next thing on the list we will be asked to do is cure cancer,” Robert Stewart, director of the Scripps journalism program at Ohio University, says caustically. “I think it’s a little irrational to think that we can keep teaching how to write a lead and a great headline that is clickable, and do big data and do video and all these other things, and be a good citizen.”
Recent graduate Lindsey Cook says journalism faculty don’t have to know all of that—but students do. “If you are going to be a political reporter or a coder, for example, you shouldn’t be taking all of these ethics and law classes [in journalism school],” she says. “I think I took three or four in my degree; I’m totally down with that, but I don’t think I needed all of them. At the same time, I had to drop my CS [computer science] major into a minor because of all the problems of trying to major in two separate schools. … There are a lot of educational barriers that are preventing people from being better journalists. They can’t do political science and journalism to be a political reporter, or computer science and journalism, and journalism is about all the connections between the different fields, so that doesn’t make sense.”
Other academic systems are just as troubling, according to Sarah Bartlett, dean of the new CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Bartlett wrote an articulate and deeply thoughtful essay about her first year as dean, in which she takes exception to the systems of higher education she says hamper innovation and adaptability:
I worry whether, over the long term, academic graduate programs can be counted on to provide the education and training that is so desperately needed for our profession to thrive. Do our structures and systems, including the reverence for tenure and professional accreditation, allow us to be responsive enough to industry change to train the next generation of journalists? Or do they tie our hands so much that we cede that ground to other more nimble competitors in the for-profit sector?
Perhaps Stewart, Cook and Bartlett are all correct: The solution rests not in the retraining of every legacy journalism faculty member, but in the creation of new ways to deliver expertise to our classrooms. It’s time for Ito’s journalism school hack: a startup, digital-first program with all new systems, structures and operating assumptions, designed to ensure that all faculty, in every classroom, are teaching what they know.
3. Accreditation standards should value educational outcomes rather than institutional traditions.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation says the accreditation process is “like a very hard test. It requires every part of a school or program to be examined and judged by experts.” The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC) echoes that theme: “Parents want to know that their children will have an educational experience of high quality that will help prepare them for a career. … Practitioners seeking to hire entry-level or more experienced candidates know that accredited programs prepare students with a solid professional education and a firm grounding in the liberal arts and sciences.” Accreditation is supposed to provide assurance that a program’s graduates are liberally educated and prepared to succeed in the professional marketplace.
Of the nine standards of accreditation, eight focus on institutional structures, processes, and systems. Only Standard 2 centers on the quality of a program’s curriculum and instruction, and of the 12 relevant metrics, only one refers to technology and “the digital world”: “Apply current tools and technologies appropriate for the communications professions in which they work, and to understand the digital world.”3
Acceptable evidence includes faculty resumes and teaching awards, but there is no mention of job placement, employer satisfaction data, or external professional assessment of new graduates’ skills or competencies. Standard 4 speaks to the professional and scholarly expertise of the faculty, which must be “kept current through faculty development opportunities, relationships with professional and scholarly associations, and appropriate supplementation of part-time and visiting faculty.” Simultaneously, however, the standards require that “full-time faculty have primary responsibility for teaching, research/creative activity and service.”
Today, the ACEJMC Council comprises 31 members. Of those, 17 are academics and 14 are either public members or representatives of legacy media and nonprofit organizations. No digital-first companies or nonprofit investigative news organizations are represented. The ACEJMC institutional membership includes representatives from 11 professional organizations and six educational associations. The Online News Association, the largest professional association for journalists working in digital news, is not among them.
Of the 480 journalism degree programs in the United States, less than 25 percent are accredited. Those who have invested the time, effort and expense to acquire that disciplinary stamp of approval have been required to produce massive documentation about their governance, diversity, community service, facilities and faculty. What they have not been asked to do is to make their case to a team of evaluators as well versed in the dynamics of a digital-first media marketplace as they are in the policies of a faculty governance handbook. Nobody has asked them to define success—not for their institutions, programs or faculty, but for their students—or to provide significant evidence that it is being achieved.
Bartlett’s essay describes CUNY’s accreditation process as both inspiring and troubling, and she concludes that “the professional accreditation process reinforces the biases inherent in academia. The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) is the body that sets the standards for undergraduate and graduate journalism programs. It has nine standards that it has developed over the years to help discern which programs deserve to be accredited. Two of those standards explicitly endorse a more theoretical approach to journalism education and the primacy of full-time faculty.”
The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism was accredited on its first try, and Bartlett says the faculty found the process helpful and informative. “But at the end of the process, when it came time for the council to vote,” she writes, “it became clear that some members strongly disapproved of our approach. We were criticized for not having enough theory courses, relying too heavily on adjuncts, and lacking Ph.D.s on our teaching staff. The message I took away was that we were not academic enough.”
That message was both surprising and frustrating, she writes. “I still struggle to understand how encouraging a professionally oriented school to pursue a more theoretical, academic program would be helpful at a time when our profession is undergoing such sweeping, real-time transformation. … The fact that many of the members on the accrediting council who were questioning our approach were from the public relations and advertising disciplines made me wonder how much they knew about the specific challenges facing our industry. Yet this is the body that decides what signals to send to this country’s 200-plus graduate journalism and mass communications programs.”
It is commonly assumed that accreditation signals to a journalism school’s stakeholders that it has met the rigorous and relevant standards that are the hallmarks of educational excellence. After two years of soliciting comments, the ACEJMC updated the standards in 2013 to allow eight more credits within the major (requiring 72 credits to be completed outside the major, down from 80); it also revised the standard by requiring students to apply “current” tools and technologies appropriate to their professions, and added the phrase “to understand the digital world.” Accredited programs also must post to their websites data on graduation, retention and job placements (difficult or impossible to find on many school sites). The revisions did not address the rapid changes occurring in the profession, nor their impact on faculty competencies, budgets, student satisfaction, enrollments, or outcomes. As journalism education changes in response to the transformation reshaping the industry, so, too, must the standards and metrics against which it is measured.
Currency, expertise and relevant assessment are the pillars of a commonsensical, widely replicable new model of journalism education. Its curriculum would combine full-time faculty expertise with rapidly iterating, immersive skills instruction, melding academic depth and digital-first professional adaptability.
The following three recommendations offer a practical, effective option for schools dedicated to preparing the next generation of digital-first journalists:
Establish a digital-first academic startup, the educational equivalent of the ProPublicas, FiveThirtyEights and Vox Medias of the news-and-information marketplace.
Leverage the disciplinary expertise of the full-time faculty while creating new delivery structures for skills-based learning.
Create a mission-specific accreditation process for programs that define as their core mission the preparation of 21st-century journalists.
1. It’s time to create a digital-first journalism school.
In October 2013, three of the academy’s best-respected scholars issued a treatise aptly titled “Educating Journalists: A New Plea for the University Tradition.” Focused largely on the status and role of journalism schools within academic institutions (and in the eyes of their administrators), the report concludes that graduate journalism education has drifted too far into the realm of professional practice. As it confronts the challenges of profound change, the authors assert, journalism education has a rare opportunity to refashion itself as a more balanced enterprise committed as deeply to scholarly research as it is to quality instruction and students’ professional preparation.
A rigorous degree program in any academic discipline can—and often does—serve as the grounding of a successful journalism career. Schools focused on faculty publication and the disciplinary hierarchies of their home institutions may have much to offer students interested in a broadly theoretical, liberal education. Some of the profession’s most successful and revered practitioners take pride in their degrees in the humanities and sciences. But as Bartlett suggests, the demands of preparing students for a newly dynamic media environment may require a reconsideration of the classic professional-scholarly debate: What is the mission and purpose of professional journalism education? And does achieving that mission in a digital age require systems and structures different from those of the more theoretical schools imagined by Folkerts, Hamilton and Lemann?4 What kind of professional instruction are we talking about in the first place, and what place within the larger university might a hyper-professional focus take?
It is the assertion of this project that there is room in the academy for a more nimble, innovative, intentionally disruptive and hyper-professional journalism school. Such a digital-first school would define success in terms of its measurable contributions to and impact upon the profession it has reinvented itself to serve. As a startup—like its digital-first media counterparts—it would actively depart from the structures, processes, assumptions and outcomes of its legacy predecessors and peers. It would by definition require different types of university-wide connections.
Structured to facilitate rapid iteration and continuous revision, a digital-first school would foster the skills and habits of mind critical to journalism in the 21st century: self-instruction; numeracy; data analytics; human-centered, iterative design; active curiosity; and early adoption. And its mission would unabashedly be the exceptional preparation of journalists for an industry it can neither anticipate nor imagine.
Such a degree program would be a dynamic hybrid of existing immersive programs such as Matter, NUvention and Studio 20,5 mimicking the MIT Media Lab’s “separate-but-symbiotic” relationship with its home institution. Designed to meet academia’s credit-hour and faculty governance standards, an accelerator journalism program would nonetheless be exempt from the scheduling, staffing and organizational systems and structures of the academy. It would be a true “journalism school hack,” current by its very design. And it would simulate the dynamics, challenges, iterative culture and operations of the profession for which it prepares its graduates.
2. A digital-first journalism school would integrate the disciplinary expertise of full-time faculty while creating an adaptable and dynamic delivery structure for skills-based learning.
The digital-first model would observe the most basic boundaries of institutional accreditation, faculty governance and available resources. It would be of the academy, and yet freed from academia’s constraints; grounded in a discipline-based and liberal arts education, yet immersive and current in its professional training. Happily, other professional schools—including medicine and teacher preparation—have long-established programmatic structures that serve as a ready model.
A digital-first journalism school would:
- Be structured at the undergraduate level to distribute the degree program’s traditional content credits, taught by full-time academic faculty, throughout a student’s academic plan. Common curricula would likely include reporting, editing, law, history and ethics (15 credits); specializations by media platform or subject area (12 credits); and two internships (2-6 credits). Similarly, at the graduate level, students would devote one full-time semester (or the equivalent distributed over a more extended period) to discipline-specific and subject-area coursework;
Include an immersive, semester-long experience free from the distractions and interruptions of other coursework. Just as education majors plan their lives around their student-teaching semester, and residents give over their lives to the teaching hospital, so, too, would journalism students be expected to devote full-time attention to the program—thereby eliminating the need to schedule learning experiences around the rigid course grid of an academic institution;6
Invest in a system or cadre of highly qualified professional instructors who would either physically or digitally deliver relevant short-courses or immersive workshops during the immersive semester;
Be re-created every semester through active engagement with professionals, incubators, accelerators and faculty to design boot camps, lectures, seminars, workshops, field trips, and self-taught tutorials designed exclusively to meet the learning needs of students now;
Mimic the immersive, focused, integrated experience of an accelerator, directed not toward the creation of new products but toward the preparation of 21st-century journalists;
Partner with a professional advisory board whose expertise would guide the accelerator’s curricula each semester;
Enlist faculty from computer sciences, business, art and design, law, mathematics, political science and other on-campus disciplines to deliver short courses, evening lectures or intensive workshops, enriching student learning without requiring faculty colleagues to commit to semester-long courses; and
- Include a revenue-generating “training track” for visiting faculty.
At its best, a digital-first approach could be adopted by any journalism school in the country—as an additional option at major and well-resourced institutions with multiple tracks and program choices, and as an affordable, manageable and sustainable strategy at the hundreds of less-resourced schools of journalism struggling to find a way to retain their qualified faculty and still integrate 21st-century skills and understandings into their programs.
For some programs, a digital-first approach would refine rather than replace current practice. For others, it would be revolutionary, requiring faculty to fundamentally rethink their entire curricula and delivery systems, their professional networks, and their core obligations to their students.
“There are all kinds of challenges, cultural challenges, to make this work,” ProPublica CEO Paul Steiger7 says about a “teaching hospital” journalism school. “There are also advantages. What do universities have? They have office space. They have computers. They have lawyers. Things you need. I’m defining away the problem. If there were a will to do it, you could take resources that previously were underused. There was underemployment in the journalism education domain. You could have a faculty that was built more on people that come from the cutting edge of the practitioner track as opposed to the theoretician track.”
That kind of immersive journalism program would be well poised to take on major journalistic projects that would benefit the profession and industry as a whole, says Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief and co-CEO. “We all know that the greatest need right now is people in the world of journalism who are not innumerate,” he said. “And we know when you train people in those fields, they will have jobs. … What if there was a program whose purpose was to create important data about a state? What if the journalistic execution of that involves some combination of students and local journalism institutions?
“It’s a great model because each of those projects and data sets requires a different journalistic skill. Each story is going to teach you how to report a story, what’s a fact, how to write a story, how to transform data into something that people actually read. You then get a hybrid of what The Texas Tribune does for Texas and what we do for the nation. It seems like if you combine these skill sets of traditional journalism professors with the new data journalism—programming, numerate thinking—everyone may benefit.”
3. A disruptive, digital-first journalism school needs a disruptive, digital-first accreditation process that establishes measurable metrics of programmatic success and impact.
Journalism schools that choose to apply for accreditation through the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication say it provides a public “stamp of approval” for their stakeholders: institutional administrators, parents and prospective students. For some, the current accreditation standards are a good match for their own values and practices: They adamantly agree that full-time faculty should have primary responsibility for their program’s teaching, research/creative activity and service, and that full-time graduate faculty should teach the majority of professional master’s degree classes. Other schools and programs disagree, believing that the staffing restrictions keep them providing students with access to current knowledge, including the ever-changing digital-first skills.
Just as troubling, as discussed earlier in this section, is that the accreditation standards focus largely on the internal processes and structures of academia, with little attention to educational outcomes, currency or faculty adaptability.
For programs whose articulated mission is the professional preparation of the next generation of journalists, a new and more focused accreditation process would provide substantive review of the extent to which they are meeting their goals. Like the current process, such a system would involve peer reviewers; unlike the more traditionally academic process, however, a professional accreditation process would engage a team of highly qualified digital-first journalists to help review a program’s curriculum, assess its currency, measure its outcomes and confirm its quality.
The benefits of such a program are obvious: Every institution collects outcomes data, and those with the greatest credibility and market position know well the placement rates of their graduates. If accreditation is a badge of honor and a brand builder, surely one that attests to excellence in the interdisciplinary professional preparation and relevant job placement of graduates has enormous value. Additionally, journalism schools that reach out to their professional colleagues to engage them actively in the evaluation, planning and improvement of student learning would build partnerships that would produce better-prepared graduates—a plus for the institution and for the profession.
A Final Word
Over the past several months, it has been my privilege to watch and listen as experienced, dedicated and creative professionals and academics wrestled with the challenges and opportunities emerging in journalism and journalism education. Out of that process evolved a core set of common themes, a slate of conclusions and observations expressed in diverse ways but speaking to the same issues and questions. This report has attempted to bring those insights together in the hope that it will trigger a larger discussion about the future of journalism education.
Its recommendations propose a “journalism school hack” outside the structures and constraints of a standard academic enterprise, but well within its regional-accreditation and budget requirements; 25 years as a faculty member and academic administrator have honed my capacity to discern credible options from illogical what-if’s.
My takeaway from six months of listening is that the common concerns of professionals and academics alike can, in large part, be attributed to the rigidity of an academic system inadequately designed to provide and support the flexibility, immersion, iteration and professional currency that are such necessary attributes of the professional preparation of 21st-century journalists.
An accelerator journalism program (and the accreditation program designed to appropriately assess it) isn’t the answer for every institution, nor is it the only solution to the problems and challenges before us. It is, however, a model that has the potential to upend some of the constraining operating assumptions of academia—about everything from scheduling and staffing to core curricula and learning outcomes—that contribute to the truly troubling current state of affairs. It may have the potential to move journalism education forward.
Importantly, the proposal does not suggest particular curricula, beyond assuming a grounding in the core competencies of traditional journalism: writing, reporting, history, ethics and law. It is instead a model of innovative systems and structures, designed to be adaptable to the strengths, capacities and opportunities unique to every journalism program and its faculty.
I am grateful to Knight Foundation for the opportunity to engage in truly inspiring and enlightening conversations, and to the scores of professionals, students and educators who shared their biggest and best ideas with me. Their perspectives were as diverse as their newsrooms, programs and experiences. Some argued that new tools don’t alter the core skills of journalistic practice, and the basics are still relevant and sufficient. Others suggested that social media has created a digital network of attention and impact that journalists have not yet begun to manage and leverage. And still others say we are heading rapidly into an era in which journalists will feed content into data systems that will tell the world’s stories—about us and to us.
Providing news and information to communities has always been the mission and purpose of journalism, says the MIT Media Lab’s Ito, and that hasn’t changed—even as everything else about it has. “I think the business model will be very different, the way that people become journalists will be very different, and the tools will all be different,” he says.
“Journalism is a field in the process of reinventing itself, and where and how people learn to become journalists is being reinvented. The real question is whether journalism and education will be able to reinvent themselves together. … I think there will be some optimal moments similar to this, when we can create a new kind of journalism school—one that is practice-oriented and interdisciplinary.”
Perhaps that moment is now.
Fidelity Investments “Three-Fourths of Higher Education Baby Boomer Faculty Members Plan to Delay Retirement, or Never Retire at All,” Fidelity Investments press release, May 17, 2013. Accessed online Nov. 8, 2014 https://www.fidelity.com/inside-fidelity/employer-services/three-fourths-of-higher-education-baby-boomer-faculty-members ↩
Similarly, about 40 percent of journalism graduates responded to the Becker survey that they were not adequately prepared technologically for the job market. ↩
By comparison, Standard 1 (with five measures) describes a program’s mission: its mission statement, strategic plan, faculty handbook, minutes of faculty meetings, and the ways in which the administration is evaluated by the faculty. Standard 3 focuses on diversity and inclusion (five measures); Standard 4, full- and part-time faculty (five measures, including the assertion that “Full-time faculty have primary responsibility for teaching, research/creative activity and service,” and “The faculty has respect on campus for its university citizenship and the quality of education that the unit provides”); Standard 5, scholarship and creative work (five measures); Standard 6, student services (five measures); Standard 7, resources and equipment (five measures); Standard 8, public service (five measures ); and Standard 9, assessment of learning outcomes (five measures). Taken together, the nine Standards of Accreditation reflect a comprehensive overview of the traditional practices, systems and structures of academia. ↩
Folkerts, Jean, John Maxwell Hamilton, and Nicholas Lemann, “Educating Journalists: A New Plea for the University Tradition,” Columbia Journalism School, 2013. Accessed online October 2014, https://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/785/original/75881_JSchool_Educating_Journalists-PPG_V2-16.pdf. ↩
Matter is the San Francisco media accelerator funded by Knight Foundation and KQED that provides media entrepreneurs with a five-month immersive development incubator and $50,000 in seed funding. NUvention is Northwestern University’s interdisciplinary entrepreneurship course that engages students in product, customer and business development activities across six market segments, from analytics and the arts to nanotechnology and the Web. New York University’s Studio 20 master’s degree program, designed and directed by Jay Rosen, engages students in Web development and innovative problem solving in collaboration with media partners. ↩
Federal standards stipulate that a credit hour is awarded for an amount of work that approximates one hour of classroom instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week for approximately 15 weeks or the equivalent for laboratory work, practica or studio work. An 18-credit accelerator semester dedicated entirely to on-site experiential learning would require 150 minutes (three hours) per credit hour per week, or 2,700 minutes (45 hours) of classwork per week. ↩
ProPublica has won two Pulitzers and a MacArthur Foundation Award, among scores of others awards, since its launch in January 2008. Steiger, its founding CEO, is a member of the Knight Foundation Board of Trustees. ↩