Starting From Scratch

Talk of ending journalism school at CU-Boulder is latest effort to transform such programs, suggesting the only way to build them anew is to tear them down.
September 2, 2010

The dramatic announcement last week that the University of Colorado at Boulder will explore the discontinuation of its journalism school is the latest iteration of an intensifying conversation about how best to train the reporters of the future and what kind of industry will be in place to absorb graduates.

Discussions about the transformation of journalism education are hardly new, but Boulder’s case is distinctive inasmuch as it suggests an existing school may literally need to be destroyed before a more effective model can be realized. To that end, supporters of the move have given the tacit admission that the university’s current curriculum is not only ill-positioned to help tomorrow’s students, but may not be appropriately serving today’s either.

“They are getting a healthy portion of what they need,” said Paul Voakes, dean of Boulder’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “I would say that, yeah, they are getting 80 percent of what they need, because we have a strong curriculum. But there are other things they need that we are in no position to provide, and by that I mean an understanding of applied technology and an understanding of business entrepreneurship [and design]. These are not areas that are typically [covered] in a journalism program.”

A working theory at Boulder is that a new program for information and communication technology might be poised to deliver what some see as lacking in the school's current offerings. A task force, which Voakes co-chaired, laid out a broad vision for such a unit, suggesting it could wrangle together multiple disciplines to train students in “computational thinking, creative entrepreneurial strategies and innovative interdisciplinary approaches to solving challenging and socially relevant problems.…”

“We’ve got a choice of going along, doing what most journalism and mass communication programs do, and we’ve also been presented with the opportunity to really take some risks and go out there and declare that there is a new type of journalism education that integrates new kinds of thinking,” Voakes said.

Actually, the first choice Voakes presents -- the status quo -- may not be available for too much longer. Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano has initiated the formal process of “program discontinuation” for the school, and a three-member committee -- with no journalism faculty representation -- will recommend whether to retain, alter or eliminate the school.

And, despite Voakes’s expressed desires, there’s no assurance a new entity that absorbs journalism instruction will continue offering journalism degrees down the line. While campus officials say they are committed to awarding journalism degrees to those currently enrolled in the program, two separate committees are charged with recommending whether journalism degrees should be offered beyond the life of the school, said Russ Moore, Boulder’s interim provost. The recently-appointed committees, which differ from the original task force that first issued a report on the idea of an information school, include a committee assessing the journalism school's discontinuation and an exploratory committee further exploring how an information school might be organized.

The discussion unfolding at Boulder has elicited a familiar response from journalism professors across the country. While many applaud any move that appears designed to address an undeniably altering media landscape, there are notable concerns that training students to work with the new bells and whistles offered in the Internet age may come at the expense of the basic writing, reporting and critical thinking skills so crucial to journalism on any platform.

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, said he is concerned about whether colleges enamored with new technologies will lose sight of the broader qualities journalists need, such as storytelling ability, news judgment, evidence-gathering skills and a notion of what the mission and purpose of journalism really is. Most importantly, journalism schools should be the kind of places that teach students to think critically about the world they inhabit, Clark said.

“The journalism school should be a place where the faculty should be engaged not in just turning out little journalism machines,” said Clark, who earned his Ph.D. in medieval literature before taking on the position of writing coach for the St. Petersburg Times in the late 1970s.

Some of the qualities Clark would like to see incorporated in journalism training are given weight in Boulder’s broad vision for a new department or school of information and communication technology. Even so, the details in the task force's report are sparse.

“The whole thing is full of unknowns,” said Len Ackland, co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and an associate professor at Boulder. “The big question for me on this whole thing is whether or not the senior administration, by taking this action, is intending to strengthen journalism education or kill it. And we don’t know; that remains to be seen.”

Those who have most vociferously supported the closure of the journalism school have done so with the assurance that they would like to see the preservation of the “best classes” offered in advertising, news writing, reporting and television. So said a letter from the school’s external advisory board, which includes alumni and others who have worked in media.

“We support the closing of the SJMC,” the board wrote to DiStefano in April. “As long-time news and advertising professionals who revere the rich tradition of journalism, we make this recommendation soberly and thoughtfully. And yet, we are clear-eyed about the current and future landscape and the need to prepare our students to thrive in a new, diverse and digitally rich information environment.”

The board’s letter followed a more harshly worded “white paper” authored by Doug Looney, an alumnus who formerly chaired the board and wrote for Sports Illustrated, the Denver Post reported.

"The SJMC and its dysfunctional faculty are hopeless," Looney wrote, according to the Post. "Prospects for improvement are nonexistent. It should be closed."

The school houses 28 full-time faculty members, of whom 18 are tenured. University officials have said the tenured faculty would be reassigned if regents approve the school’s closure, but the fates of the non-tenured are uncertain.

Berkeley Model Differs

The Boulder task force that looked into a future college of information cited several other universities that have such programs, but the extent to which journalism thrives in those other programs isn’t explored in great detail within the report.

The University of California at Berkeley, which has a School of Information, is among the institutions mentioned in the report as a potential model. It would be inaccurate to suggest, however, that Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism -- the lone journalism school on the campus -- has been enveloped by the information school in the way some have suggested Boulder may do, said Neil Henry, Berkeley’s journalism dean.

“There are no formal linkages,” said Henry, who was not contacted by anyone on Boulder's task force to discuss the issue. “There are plenty of informal collaborations … but as far as that kind of folding of different disciplines into the other, that’s not taken place.”

It’s not likely to take place, either.

“We believe very strongly in the independent integrity of this enterprise on campus,” Henry said.

New Media Offers Hope

One of the ironies that’s still something of a mystery to journalism deans across the country is the fact that enrollments in many journalism programs have not fallen, despite the well-publicized struggles of daily newspapers and the difficulty that journalism graduates have finding jobs. With nearly 650 undergraduate majors, and hundreds more seeking competitive admission, journalism remains among Boulder’s most popular majors.

A national survey of 2009 journalism and communication graduates found the lowest full-time employment of any time in the study’s 24-year history. Just 55.5 percent of such graduates with a bachelor’s degree found full-time work within a year of leaving school, according to the University of Georgia’s Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates.

“It’s a lousy market for our students, but it’s a lousy market [for most students], so that has to be kept in mind as well,” said Lee B. Becker, a Georgia journalism professor who co-wrote the survey. “I think the more important point is that it’s obvious that we are going through a sea change in the industries we have been linked to historically, and I would look to that more than I would look to the current job market.… I think it only makes sense one should rethink how one prepares students for a set of occupations that are different than in the past.”

While newspapers and other traditional media may be struggling, Becker echoes many others in journalism who see a new future opening up.

“My sense is that we are not in a situation where communication is any less important or communication skills are any less important,” said Becker, who directs Georgia’s Cox International Center. “When I pick up a newspaper or look at a magazine or look at what’s on any of the online sites I check, I see a tremendous amount of evidence that the communication industry -- broadly defined -- is vibrant.”

That optimism about emerging media may explain why there hasn’t been more public outcry from Boulder faculty or members of the news industry. Dan Haley, editorial page editor at the Denver Post, said there's a sense that Boulder may be taking necessary steps to adapt -- even if it's not entirely clear what the advisory board's agenda was in pushing so forcefully for the school's closure.

“We did talk about the issue [as an editorial board], and we thought that it was a good move,” he said. “It’s a smart move; you have to retool journalism schools in order to educate tomorrow’s journalists.”


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