Listening before thinking ahead
Ten months ago, when the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation asked me to track down the best ideas I could find about what journalism education should be and do in 2025, we agreed on a few basic rules of engagement:
This was not a research project in the social-scientific manner of traditional academic research. Its interview and survey subjects would not statistically represent any particular group or population; in fact, I would talk to anybody I thought might have something interesting to say.
I would record every conversation. I’d then return to each of the interview subjects to confirm that their words were not simply what they had said—after all, I had the recording on my iPhone—but what they had actually intended to say. In other words, my interest is in presenting what they really think.
Having only a few rules seemed to fit the expansive nature of the assignment. Think of what journalism students will need to know to be successful graduates of the Class of 2025. It immediately brought up a larger question that I did not wish to take on alone or without preparation: How do we educate students for a media world we honestly can’t imagine?
The following report offers, I hope, a way to begin to look at the challenges ahead. This brief introduction is followed in section 2 by an overview of the state of American journalism in 2014, followed in section 3 by a summary description of the state of journalism education. Before leaping ahead, it seemed helpful to provide context by aggregating much of the best reporting on the relevant issues (with clear pointers to the sources).
The substance of the work is presented in section 4. There, the people who contributed their time and energy to this project speak, largely for themselves. My questions were open-ended; their responses ranged from discussions of economics and civic engagement to audience metrics and “What’s wrong with just teaching students the basics and letting it go at that?” No matter how hard I tried to balance synthesis with snippet, grouping those disparate discussions into themes was a challenge. It’s my hope that curious readers will spend time with the interview transcripts in the Appendices.
Section 5 contains my conclusions and a set of proposals for the future of journalism education. They will surprise some readers. I hope they also will spark discussion, commentary, criticism and yes, even well-considered rejection by those with ideas better than my own.
What do I think? I’ve been a journalism faculty member and a communications school dean; I’m currently a college president. So it would be easy to see the world through the lens of the familiar: tweak here, adjust that, bolt on, and reorganize, and, as the defenders of the status quo say, our students will graduate with the foundational skills they’ll need. It’s a tempting notion, and it’s less work than blowing everything up. But it’s not an idea to which I can subscribe.
Evidence is building that the “good enough” approach is, in fact, not good enough. A 2013 Poynter Institute study of journalism education raised a troubling divide between academics and professionals over the value and quality of a journalism degree:
- 96 percent of journalism educators believe a journalism degree is very important to extremely important when it comes to understanding the value of journalism. Only 57 percent of media professionals agreed.
- More than 80 percent of educators but only 25 percent of media professionals say a journalism degree is extremely important when it comes to learning newsgathering skills.
- 39 percent of educators say journalism education keeps up with industry changes a little or not at all. Editors and staffers are even harsher, with 48 percent saying J-schools are not keeping up with changes in the field.
- Thinking back to the last person their organization hired, only 26 percent of media professionals say the person had “most” or “all” of the skills necessary to be successful.
Given that scorecard, it should come as no surprise that enrollments in journalism programs seem to be stagnating or on the decline. Lee Becker, lead author of the study of journalism education conducted annually by the University of Georgia’s James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research, reported in August 2014 that his data showed journalism school enrollments were down in 2013 for the second year in a row—precipitously so at some of the country’s most prestigious graduate programs—even as they’re up in most other disciplines.
Scant progress in postgraduate employment was reported in 2012, and that stalled in 2013, as did the numbers of new graduates who expressed satisfaction with the quality of their education: Fully a third of new graduates surveyed said they wish they hadn’t studied journalism in the first place, 40 percent said they had spent the time and investment to earn a journalism degree but weren’t prepared for the market, and 30 percent said they didn’t have the necessary skills to succeed in the profession. Of those employed, 75 percent said they were dissatisfied with their jobs. Hardly a sustainable state of affairs.
Michael King reported it this way in the American Journalism Review:
At the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism, enrollment fell 9 percent over a recent two-year period, then rebounded after the university moved aggressively to boost financial aid to attract more incoming students into all majors.
Enrollment declines have been steeper at other schools—falling 33 percent over five years at Columbia College Chicago, for example, and 20 percent over five years at Indiana University-Bloomington, according to data collected by the Georgia team. At Indiana, the journalism program is merging this summer with related fields in the arts and sciences college.
Are students voting with their feet? Are declining enrollments enough of an incentive for journalism education to take stock and make real change? Do the apparently rapid drops at some schools—tempered to some extent by increases at others—portend a fork in the road for journalism education?
Some journalism educators are not inspiring confidence in the market value—present or future—of a journalism degree. Jay Eubank, director of career services at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication, told the Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, that “journalism is an industry that’s just crying out for innovation” and acknowledged that the growth in students studying PR and advertising—up to 60 percent of total enrollments at UNC—had buoyed overall enrollment in the school.
The same reporter asked Becker to explain the decline in journalism education’s place in higher education. His response bears inclusion here:
I think if you ask most young people if journalism is growing, they would associate journalism with newspapers and say it’s a dying field. To an extent, the term “journalism” is dragging us down.
The purpose of this 10-month project has been to gather and share the best ideas about the future of journalism education. My listening tour collected the perspectives of an array of professionals, nonprofit entrepreneurs, journalism educators, recent graduates and current students—each deeply committed to the critical importance of journalism in a democracy, and all eager to transform journalism education into a pursuit that lifts us up, rather than dragging us down.
Reports such as this tend to have a relatively short shelf life. But if it serves as an assigned reading in an intro journalism class; if it drives traffic to reports from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Nieman Lab, EducationShift, Pew Research Center, Knight Foundation’s blog or Eric Newton’s Searchlights and Sunglasses; if it inspires even a single assistant professor to create a different kind of class or program; or if it rouses a single program to launch a new degree, it will have made the contribution it was designed to make.Next