Sign of the Times for J-Schools

New Northwestern journalism dean will seek to bolster business smarts of students -- and some alumni fear loss of focus.
December 19, 2005

When Abe Rakov, a student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, applied for summer internships this year, he got something other than the standard rejection letters.

"They were really apologetic," Rakov said. "They'd say that because of the state of the industry, the paper will not be hiring summer interns this year." And some of those were from major newspapers, like The Oregonian and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

As far as Medill is concerned, journalism students better start learning about the biz. And students and faculty members say that the recent dean change reflects a shift in philosophy at the school, generally regarded as one of the top journalism schools. John Lavine, director of Northwestern's Media Management Center, will take over from journalism professor Loren Ghiglione on January 9.

Some alumni don't like the shift. "I always saw Medill as a place of independent thought and old-school journalistic ideals and this is definitely not a return to its roots," wrote a recent grad on an alumni listserv, according to The Chicago Reader. 

While there have been reports of trepidation among Medill alumni about having a dean from the Integrated Marketing Communications side of Medill, several faculty members said that further integrating media management into the journalism education is now essential for a well-rounded education, and plans had been discussed for nearly a year. In a statement, Lavine referred to much of the media's inability to keep up with technology and consumer preferences as "seismic challenges in journalism that put at risk having an informed society."

Additionally, Tom Collinger, an associate professor of integrated marketing communications, will become the associate dean of student services. Collinger said that the moves are partly in recognition of the growing need for media outlets to increase their marketing savvy, but also to help students understand trends in how people consume media.

Details on substantive changes to a Medill education are not available yet, but Collinger said they will certainly make marketing a larger part of the average journalism student's experience. Collinger said that marketing knowledge doesn't necessarily "infect" journalistic content, but that if journalists want readers, they need to know how to produce good work, but also "how the audience wants to get it, and who they are."

Northwestern is on break, and Lavine could not be reached for comment.

Roger Boye, an associate professor emeritus of journalism, said that some media may "have lost their way, forgotten the cardinal rule: think about our audience," he said.

Journalists "are not Emily Dickinson writing poetry on backs of envelopes, not caring whether anybody reads them."

Given the state of the industry, with newspaper circulations dropping and publications closing, Collinger said that part of the plan is to develop data and "customer driven communications" is integral to making sure the "cobbler's children have shoes," he said. 

With the rise of blogging and citizen journalism, delivering news the way readers and viewers want is becoming more necessity than luxury, even for major news outlets. The Medill students interviewed seem to recognize that any change in the interest of their business IQ is a good one.

"It's a new age of journalism," said Zach Silka, a Medill student. "I think [Lavine] is just more equipped for that."

Lee Ettleman, a Medill student, said he understands the need for a "concrete wall" between advertising and editorial at a newspaper, but added that "from an educational standpoint, you can only gain from" learning about media marketing.

Laura Olson, another Medill student, said that students realize it's important for them to know about marketing, "but that's all we know about it." She added that students were a bit surprised at the mid-year dean change -- Ghiglione was set to step down in August -- and a few were a little concerned at having a dean "from outside the Medill we know." But she said students are keeping open minds about it.

For Rakov, the student who applied for cancelled internships, a bit more focus on business might even keep some journalism students interested. "Some classmates are like, 'wow, I don't know why I'm going into [journalism],'"because of the market conditions, Rakov said. "Maybe they can find other ways to find jobs," he added, "or understand why they aren't there."


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