Reviving the J-School

Editors, executives and journalism deans gather to discuss what J-schools should teach, and why they're still necessary.
January 10, 2008

If journalism -- and the role of the press in American society -- is in a state of flux, then what about journalism schools?

For as long as doomsayers have predicted the decline of civic-minded reportage as we know it, reformers have sought to draft a rewrite of the institutions that train many undergraduate and graduate students pursuing a career in journalism. Criticisms of journalism schools have ranged from questioning whether the institutions are necessary in the first place (since many journalists, and most senior ones, don't have journalism degrees) to debating the merits of teaching practical skills versus theory and whether curriculums should emphasize broad knowledge or specialization in individual fields.

All of those issues, and others, came to light on Wednesday at a meeting of journalism school deans, editors and news executives struggling with the perennial questions of what aspiring journalists should learn, how they should be taught and how schools should adapt to the fast-evolving and ever-fragmenting media landscape.

The sessions were part of an effort to evaluate the function of journalism schools in an age of new media and the public's declining faith in the fourth estate: the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, which in 2005 enlisted top institutions in the country to bolster their curriculums with interdisciplinary studies and expose students to different areas of knowledge, including politics, economics, philosophy and the sciences. The initiative, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, also works with journalism schools to incubate selected students working on national reporting projects.

The Carnegie Corporation's "Journalism in the Service of Democracy" summit, held at the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, didn't produce definitive answers to the questions that face journalists and journalism school deans seeking to escape the perception by some that their schools are little more than revenue generators. But the central issues fueled discussion as well as exploration into how schools are putting the Carnegie-Knight initiative's principles into practice.

One question that panelists didn't consider in any depth was whether journalism schools were needed in the first place. It's a "non-dialectical issue," said Carnegie's president, Vartan Gregorian. "The fact is, we have to live with reality," he added: They're here, so the question should be how to reform them.

Still, Gregorian, a former president of Brown University, acknowledged a wide range of quality among the nation's journalism schools, and said the focus should be on how to identify incentives and "pressure points" to improve teaching.

But is formal teaching necessary? Panelists seemed to suggest that good journalism requires talent and a set of basic analytical and writing skills that can be learned -- either at school or on the job. The same could be true for business: "There are lots of people who are brilliant businesspeople who don't have an MBA," noted Alberto Ibargüen, the Knight Foundation's president and CEO. But people without the necessary talent won't become successful by earning a business degree, he added.

Even so, with the media in a state of upheaval, Ibargüen suggested that J-schools faced a unique opportunity to lead the industry and, at the same time, fight any negative perceptions from others in academe. Rather than following tried-and-true methods and relying on the experience of journalists-turned-educators, schools "ought to be real hotbeds" of experimentation, he said -- trying out new techniques and embracing new approaches to the craft.

One might expect a prominent mainstream editor to push back on that idea. But Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, said he viewed himself as a "convert" to the "cause" of journalism schools.

Ten or 12 years ago, in his first editing job, "I'd have said, ‘Follow the traditional route [by starting out at small dailies], apprentice yourself to that mythical, grizzled editor ... and build a body of work, and learn by doing it.' But a lot of those local and regional papers no longer exist, a lot of those grizzled editors have been bought out, and along the way I've come to think of journalism schools as maybe the last resort in a lot of cases."

Keller said that the Times didn't tend to hire graduates straight out of journalism school -- although more than half have earned journalism degrees -- so it was difficult to pinpoint whether their skills came from formal education or subsequent employment. David Westin, the president of ABC News, said he hadn't encountered a single colleague who believed that there was a correlation between quality journalists and graduates of journalism schools. He suggested that the schools actually performed a sifting function, allowing motivated and talented students to self-select into enrollment.

Whether J-school is a last resort, as Keller suggested, or if it's a significant path to a journalism career, as many graduates and deans attest, what students learn will ultimately determine the usefulness of the degree. And in designing what is taught, individual schools may emphasize a particular blend of theory and practical skills.

Keller offered a single guideline: "Nobody should get through journalism school without the experience of getting written about."

Beyond that advice -- surely gleaned from ample personal experience -- Keller suggested that the divide between theory and practice was a "false choice." Learning the inverted pyramid scheme, research techniques and how to "suspend your prejudices and report against them" are all teachable skills, he said -- yet they also represent "a lot of what liberal arts education is about inherently."

He also addressed the tension between broad knowledge and specialization in the newsroom -- and, by extension, in the classroom.

Many journalists take pride in quickly becoming familiar with a subject to write an "authoritative sounding" story, he said (to a good deal of laughter). In short, they tend to have broad generalized knowledge about many subjects, or, as Keller put it, "adult A.D.D." At the same time, Keller noted that reporters who do have in-depth or first-hand knowledge of a subject -- legal reporters with law degrees or business reporters who have studied economics -- tend to be the best.

The consensus among the panel seemed to be that both breadth and depth matter, a sentiment that neatly fits with the Carnegie-Knight initiative's programs emphasizing more study in specific fields as well as interdisciplinary work. "There’s a sort of 'learning how to learn' factor," said Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He suggested that students who delved into a specific subject such as business, science or politics -- like those in the university's one-year M.A. programs intended for recipients of a journalism degree -- would also benefit when they covered other areas.

Programs like the one at Columbia also have advantages for aspiring journalists over more traditional degrees such as law or business because they "map the expertise onto journalism practice," Lemann added.

In a pair of breakout sessions, Lemann and other deans and journalism professors discussed how the Carnegie-Knight initiative's goals worked in practice. At Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, for example, a $250,000 grant funds an undergraduate minor in religion and media as well as the Carnegie Legal Reporting Program. Such collaborations, they suggested, could improve relations between journalism professors and their peers in other departments -- but recruiting journalism students to fill the classes remains a problem.

Lemann, summing up many of the participants' concerns, said: "The question I keep asking myself as a dean is, What can we do for you that isn’t irrelevant ... but that you can more easily acquire in a university" than in the work place?


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