In New Media Programs, Who Benefits?

Many journalism schools offer online or multimedia concentrations, and foundation money is pouring in. Is that what future employees -- and their employers -- are looking for?
July 31, 2008

Journalism schools have always had to contend with some amount of skepticism from academics on one side and working journalists on the other. Educators sometimes ask whether teaching practical skills justifies an entire degree, while arguing that broadening the curriculum so that students also grapple with ethical issues and delve into other subjects simply dilutes existing fields. Those in the industry, many of whom never studied journalism in college, might wonder what graduates gain in school that they wouldn't otherwise learn on the job.

Some of those concerns are resurfacing now that many journalism schools across the country are offering concentrations in what's alternatively being called new media, multimedia or interactive journalism -- the still-evolving forms of media that are redefining how people produce and consume journalism on a mix of different platforms, from television to the Internet to mobile phones. Among the questions some are asking: What are the key new media skills needed today? Are journalism schools staffed to provide the training? Does training on the latest technology make any sense when the tools and industry are changing so fast that today's "cutting edge" may be tomorrow's electronic typewriter?

Many schools gradually branched into video editing, Web design and blogging, among other media, as they became more widely accepted over the years. More recently, courses are being organized into concentrations and in several high-profile cases, the programs are receiving significant backing from foundations seeking to improve and reform journalism education for the 21st century.

Branching into new territory last month, the Tow Foundation announced both a $5 million grant to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a $3 million grant to the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, each of which will require matching and, in Columbia's case, double funding from other sources. The CUNY grant will go toward a Tow Center for Journalistic Innovation intended as an "incubator" for entrepreneurship and a sort of new media think tank for emerging business models. Columbia's grant is focused more on education, establishing a "center dedicated to the research and teaching of professional journalism in new and emerging media."

"As traditional media, including print and broadcast, encounter tightening budgets and changing audience habits, new media are responding to the evolving needs and interests of the public," said the announcement last month. "The gift will help bolster and inform the existing curriculum for the new media specialization as well as other new media initiatives at the Journalism School."

And earlier this month, the University of Florida announced a new Center for Media Innovation and Research at its College of Journalism and Communications. "I don’t think it’s realistic for us to think that we could turn out students who can both turn out a great print journalism story and a first-rate network-quality piece of video, but it is not just reasonable but imperative that we turn out students who understand how both of those kinds of media are produced," said David Carlson, who will be the executive director of the program.

Broadly, each of these programs, and many existing ones, emphasize the need to focus on interdisciplinary collaboration, train students for the next generation of media outlets, prepare them with the necessary background in ethics and practice, and decouple journalism from any particular medium -- ideally, to train journalists who can, if needed, write for the Web in the morning, deliver a TV report in the evening and produce multimedia, interactive projects in the meantime. Such skills imply a contrast with veteran working journalists, many of whom have been forced to learn -- on the job -- about the very technologies that are upending traditional media.

"I think one of the main benefits of encouraging convergence and learning how to tell stories not just through one medium but many media" -- such as video cameras, cell phones, pen and paper, Twitter and other tools -- is "creating an environment [in which] you are not just preparing a journalist to tell a story with one method," said Ellyn Angelotti, an adjunct faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, and interactivity editor of its Web site.

"You’re able to help a journalist tell a story and then figure out the best way to deliver that story. I think it kind of breaks down the craft a little bit more where before we were teaching the art of journalism in the context of writing a story [or shooting a story on video], but through convergence you’re learning to add tools to your arsenal but you’re also learning the craft of journalism and how to best serve that craft through different mechanisms."

Yet questions still remain. In today's landscape, defining "the media" isn't nearly as clear-cut as it used to be. Big-name newspapers and networks mingle with cable channels, all-purpose Web sites and blogs in the minds of the average news consumer, and for good reason: They are, in many cases, converging, with widely read blogs run by newspapers and online Web stories originating from cable networks. Meanwhile, a number of relatively new outlets have become powerful forces in their own right, taking advantage of the speed and connectivity of the Internet to scoop the mainstream media and blur the distinction between the producer and the consumer.

Moreover, much of the new media eschews precisely the kinds of journalistic conventions still taught in school, preferring instead to apply pressure to ideological opposites, using blogs, crowdsourcing and other citizen media techniques to gather raw material for the next humorous or polemical viral video.

Maybe that's the point. Part of the Tow Foundation's mission in supporting the programs at Columbia and CUNY, said Emily Tow Jackson, the executive director, is to prepare students to do a "balanced and informed job of reporting the news" -- something that, by implication, needs to be emphasized to the next generation of new media journalists as they uphold and build on the standards set by their forebears. Or in the words of Susan Robinson King, the director of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education: "We don’t care what medium they’re working in. The values of journalism must stay the same."

But can that added value only be obtained from a degree in new media journalism? And whose values are the programs being tailored to -- those of major news organizations? Influential blogs and Web sites that could increasingly hire new graduates? Or the foundations themselves?

The Journalism Pipeline

Statistics on how graduates of new media programs fare in the job market are hard to come by, since most of them are relatively new and many graduates don't end up in "media" but opt for jobs in public relations, graphic design or other related fields. Most J-schools like to tout their statistics for recent graduates, but they often encompass multiple industries over varying periods of time and it's hard to compare their performance with those of students who didn't study journalism at all.

"I think that what we’re still very interested in are very smart, critically thinking people with excellent communication skills who obviously are early adopters in technology and online journalism, and more and more, we’re seeing resumes that are multidisciplinary, and it helps to have exposure ... outside just traditional journalism," said Jennifer Carroll, vice president for new media content at Gannett's newspaper division. "But at the end of the day, it’s still the curious mind and the critical thinking mind that is important. Because a lot of the other skills can be taught," and especially now, new hires come in with experience in video, RSS and other technology, she added.

In "some cases," she said, that means looking for students who have graduated from journalism programs focusing on converged or digital media, because they're "exposed to a much wider range of expertise” than graduates of traditional J-schools. But she added that the skills and experience -- like, say, those of a student who built his or her own Facebook application -- were what counted, whether or not they were obtained in a formal university program.

That said, Carroll works closely with journalism programs such as the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, which this month won a $7.5 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to "direct a bold, experimental digital media program at 12 leading U.S. universities," including several that launched news "incubators" as part of the organizations' journalism education initiative in 2006. The Carnegie-Knight initiative has been at the forefront of a movement to bolster J-schools' stature within universities and to broaden the curriculum so that students are introduced to subjects such as politics, economics, philosophy and the sciences.

"A lot of our newspapers and broadcast stations are in communities with strong universities, and we actually welcome having close ties and sharing with them what sorts of resources we need," Carroll said.

Such collaboration between J-schools and industry suggests that these programs don't just reflect an idealistic, philanthropic view of how to reform journalism education that's divorced from reality. Nevertheless, it isn't always clear that the news industry itself is fully aware of what kinds of people it needs -- and where it needs to go.

"The point is not to try to prepare students for today’s news industry. The point is really to try to give them some of the tools [for] how to think about what the industry will be like in the future and quite frankly ... for some of them to be the leaders of that industry," said Christopher Callahan, the Cronkite School's dean.

Since newsroom cultures can be somewhat "change-averse," Callahan continued, much of the innovation in new media is coming (or should come) from journalism schools and digital incubators like the one at ASU. While he didn't have quantitative data on graduates of the program who went on to work in new media, he said there was plenty of anecdotal evidence.

Angelotti, for one, graduated in 2005 from a converged journalism program at the University of Kansas, where she learned everything from how to write a press release or a news story to how to produce a radio interview and shoot a video. At the same time, she worked for a newspaper that was "reverse publishing" -- producing content first for the Web that was then edited into printable form. "I think one of the best things that we can really teach young journalists ... is that they can’t be complacent with the media that [are] available to them right now, that there is going to be constant innovation," she said.

J-Schools: Hotbeds of Innovation?

There's only one problem with this formulation: Journalism schools haven't historically led the way when it comes to new developments in the industry, and there is little history of innovation as there is for other sectors, notably business.

"It has not been able to be that [source of innovation] for the news industry. I think there’s a lot of people who now realize it should and want to go there, and that’s good, but it takes more than good intentions," said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who frequently writes and comments on new media and citizen journalism.

"The journalism school has been very effective at reproducing within itself the culture of news work that prevails in big news organizations. The culture in journalism school is very similar to the newsroom culture," Rosen continued -- not surprisingly because many journalists leave at the end of their careers to teach. "That’s historically been the case. That culture right now is one of the biggest problems this industry has and the profession of journalism has."

One notable exception, he added, was an effort at Northwestern University to essentially fund a year of study for faculty members to learn about new technologies and skills. "That's pretty dramatic," he said. "By trying to get caught up [with] innovation, the journalism school could really transform itself." (Some critics worry that Medill's most recent curricular reform places too much emphasis on public relations over journalism, potential technology innovations aside.)

But it will always be only one part of the pipeline for graduates to enter into journalism in the 21st century.

"Between 40 and 60 percent of the working profession has always been journalists who never went to journalism school," Rosen said. "That’s been consistent. I think it’s about 55 now ... that tells you that of course it’s not necessary. No way. It can’t be."


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