Keeping J-School Relevant

Proposed curricular changes at Columbia U.'s journalism school aim to integrate new media and business skills with traditional reporting coursework.
March 25, 2009

Despite the recent demise of a handful of newspapers around the country, applications to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism have risen by about 40 percent since last year.

To give graduates a better chance of success in uncertain times for an ever-changing industry, the school is yet again considering a set of significant curricular changes. Only four years ago, the school made one such shift, introducing a one-year master of arts program meant for seasoned journalists to hone their knowledge in a specialized area of coverage. It retained, however, its more traditional master of science program, meant for mostly first-time journalists, without many changes.

Now, some officials at the school hope to substantively change this "bread-and-butter" program by better integrating new media and business skills within its traditional reporting curriculum.Though Columbia administrators insist the Journalism School is "not playing catch-up" with the new media revolution -- the school has had a new media concentration since 1995 -- some faculty members expressed concern that they might not be embracing it throughout the curriculum fast enough.

The City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, for example, recently announced that students will no longer have to pick a media concentration. This, its officials argue, will allow students to customize their own program for the "increasingly converged world of journalism." Also, two years ago, Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism introduced a new curriculum in which "multimedia storytelling is integrated through all reporting classes, and quantitative skills and ethics are woven throughout the curriculum."

Leading the Columbia Journalism School’s charge into the great unknown is Bill Grueskin, former deputy managing editor for news at The Wall Street Journal, who was named the school’s new dean of academic affairs last summer. Grueskin is sponsoring two major initiatives that could shake up the school’s established method of training would-be journalists in its 10-month master of science degree program.

Among other required courses, these students currently take a law course and a course combining journalism history and ethics. Grueskin’s first initiative would shuffle these courses slightly, splitting history and ethics into separate courses and bringing a more modernized approach to the law course. As journalism has moved predominantly online, he noted, legal discussions surrounding it have shifted in a way that demands students be aware of how copyright and other laws apply in this new environment.

“These courses should be taught with a different agenda in mind,” Grueskin said of his revamped requirements. “Students will be going off, when they leave these walls, into a very different environment than the one that greeted them years ago.”

In addition to covering the typical bases in their law course -- studying defamation, fair use and libel among other topics -- journalism students would also focus, in their required courses, on how the industry and its practices have changed with the times.

Having this historical perspective, Grueskin argued, is vital to becoming an accomplished journalist in the 21st century. Still, he noted that being a little business savvy would not hurt, either.

Grueskin advocates adding to the law, history and ethics courses one in business -- which would be a first for the school’s traditional curriculum. Though he acknowledged that the course would bridge the longstanding gap between the business and editorial sides of the journalism world, he did not think this would present an ethical problem for students. If anything, he said, it might help them in a market where some journalists have had to become entrepreneurs to find an audience for their work online.

“Most journalism schools have a historical aversion to teaching the business of journalism,” Grueskin said. “It, however, is incumbent upon us to show our students the [changing business] model. We’re not blurring the lines between business and editorial. The truth is, business considerations have always enabled or disabled journalism -- more the latter than the former as of late. We’re not trying to graduate people to work in ad departments but those who can talk to those in the ad department.”

Grueskin’s second initiative would make significant changes to Reporting & Writing I, an introductory course required of all journalism students. Though all incoming students receive some formal new media training prior to their first term at the school in a technical skills “boot camp,” the proposed changes would further embed the instruction of these skills within the introductory course’s traditional reporting exercises. This change would probably affect students in the broadcast, magazine and newspaper concentrations the most, as students in the new media concentration already receive significantly more training with these tools.

Currently, most student work in the introductory course is in print -- sometimes published by a professor on a course’s Web page. It is Grueskin’s hope that, in the future, these students might produce more multimedia-driven pieces at this early stage as well.

“It’s important for the school and for our students that Web training not be segregated from the core journalism curriculum,” Grueskin said. “I think it’s important for us to address digital skills training for everybody, not just those who will be new media majors. Students who are multi-talented will have the intellectual dexterity to adapt to some of the technological change that will come in the next 5 to 10 years. Still, at the core is journalism. All of the [new media] tools in the world don’t cover up bad journalism.”

The proposed changes, currently being considered by the school’s Committee on Instruction, have been well-received by faculty. Some of the school’s more traditional faculty members, though ultimately supportive, are considering these proposals with some caution.

LynNell Hancock, member of the Committee on Instruction and journalism professor at the school since 1993, said the wall between the business and editorial side of the journalism industry is always “an incredibly sensitive topic,” especially in today’s online marketplace, where the line is often blurred. Considering this, however, she argues a course exploring this nuanced landscape is needed to help the journalists of tomorrow.

“For those of us who were in newspapers and magazines, the wall between the two was sacred,” Hancock said of the business and editorial aspects. “Still, if we don’t approach this with integrity we might as well just give up. It’s a different model. There just isn’t a choice anymore. As much as you’d like not to think about it, you have to.”

Regarding the proposed changes to the introductory course, Hancock was also cautiously optimistic. A healthy integration of new media skills in the classroom, she argued, should not take away from the nuts-and-bolts of reporting basics.

“If we look at these tools as just another way to tell stories differently, then it’s an exciting advance,” Hancock said. “The overall concern is how do we integrate these techniques and not lose all the other things we teach. A combination is essential.”

Though there has been some talk among the school’s faculty about potentially abandoning the media concentrations students must choose in favor of a more open-ended degree program -- much like at CUNY -- the move has not generated much traction.

Nicholas Lemann, dean of the school, said he would oppose such a move, calling specialization “the lifeblood” of the journalism industry. He argued that creating “Swiss Army Knife all-purpose journalists” would make employers less likely to hire the school’s students.

Lemann reported that the school has hosted more prospective employers this year than last. With news outlets opening and closing daily and technology always on the move, he said journalism schools still have their place and offer their graduates an advantage in the job market.

“None of us knows what the economy is going to look like or what journalism will look like in the future,” said Lemman, noting that he believes the school has always tried to keep pace with the changes. “Not that long ago most employers were just looking for a good old fashioned general assignment reporter. Now, it’s actually easier to make the case for journalism school because there’s a more specialized set of skills that we’re finding employers are looking for.”


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