Not So Fast

Many journalism educators are criticizing a foundation letter about their field as simplistic and unfair to Ph.D.s.

August 10, 2012

Journalism professors are in Chicago this week for an annual conference to discuss research and teaching.

One issue is dominating discussions at the meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference: a letter issued last Friday by foundations that fund journalism schools saying that most programs are not changing fast enough to adapt to seismic shifts in the industry.

The letter warned that programs have to change or run the risk of becoming irrelevant. It called on schools to adopt the “teaching hospital” model, where programs not only teach and train students but also serve the community they are in by producing news. The vision, according to Eric Newton, a senior adviser at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is for schools to have a single core curriculum instead of teaching print, broadcast or magazine as separate areas to specialize in. And they must do so by hiring top professionals from the industry (instead of career academics).

Detractors of the letter, whose number appears to be growing in the week since it came out, are calling it simplistic and unfair to Ph.D.s. There is no “one-size fits all” model, many say, and journalism might play a very small part of a communications school that also teaches public relations and advertising. And many have institutional and budgetary constraints that the best schools do not have.

"I teach at University of Maryland, which is a ‘j-school.’ Maryland has worked very hard to come up with a relevant program that meets the full needs of students and also meets and even anticipates the needs of journalism,” said Linda Steiner, AEJMC’s president and a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, in an e-mail. “But my point is that the conventional j-school is rare these days: Some programs have journalism (including, often, PR and advertising) and other media fields…. Different schools have different understandings of their priorities and their mission.”

Steiner said many faculty members have professional experience but also a commitment to research, and they are able to help design a curriculum that trains students not only for the industry, but also “digital living and working.”

“Some programs teaching journalism and other media fields/professions have been slow to change, but sometimes this reflects their decision, which is not unreasonable, to avoid seemingly merely reactive to the newest gadgets, in order to respond thoughtfully over the long haul,” she added.

But have schools spent too much time being thoughtful and less time actually trying to change?

“We are in the same lifeboat together,” -- Glenn Frankel, director, School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin

Conversations with program directors at various schools suggest that although most schools are changing or plan to change their programs in the near future, they have been slow to do so. Their reasons range from the slow pace of change in the academy to the attitudes in the news industry, which, they say, has been very slow to change and adapt.

This fall, the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin will introduce a new curriculum heavily focused on digital journalism for its undergraduates. "We’re eliminating the old walls between print, magazine, photojournalism, multimedia and broadcast, and we’ll be emphasizing good writing and critical thinking from day one,” says a description on the school’s website. One of the first required courses for undergraduates is a "digital storytelling basics class" where students learn about multimedia components --  text, audio, video and photo.

Glenn Frankel, the school’s director, who previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, said his biggest challenge when he arrived at the university two years ago was innovation. “We are in the same lifeboat together,” Frankel said, referring to the predicament of j-schools and the news industry. “We are behind, and we have not been practicing those skills.”

Faculty members at the school have attended a digital boot camp organized by the Poynter Institute, a journalism nonprofit based in Florida, to upgrade their skills, Frankel said, and they have been critiquing each other’s teaching styles.

Although last week’s letter stirred fresh discussion, AEJMC listservs have been abuzz about similar issues for months. Some of the themes in the letter were brought up in a speech by Newton, of the Knight Foundation, at a journalism educators' conference at Middle Tennessee State University in May, leading to frenetic discussion.

Last month, Steiner, the AEJMC president, weighed in on the association’s website and suggested that the debates on the issue are escalating because of the scarcity of resources. "[B]ecause professional journalists face this loss of credibility and authority, they are lashing out at journalism educators for not doing more to help what professionals call ‘the industry,’ ” she wrote.

Steiner, who is also the director of research and doctoral studies at the University of Maryland's journalism school, pointed out that many journalism researchers with a Ph.D. started out in newsrooms, and criticized Newton, of the Knight Foundation, for ignoring this issue. “He is correct that degrees are not more important than competence. But the Ph.D. should not be regarded as ‘disabling,’ as if people who spend five or six years to earn a Ph.D. and launch a research trajectory suddenly forget everything they learned while in the newsroom, and become, as professionals suggest, uniformly unable to teach professional courses."

Beth Barnes, director of the school of journalism and telecommunications at the University of Kentucky and president of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, said that to her the debate seemed like a choice between teaching the fundamentals of the profession versus teaching about the “coolest, newest toy on the block.”

Her school still offers separate print and broadcast options, but Barnes said that existing courses have been changed to incorporate digital elements. “That was easier and faster to do,” she said, than eliminating separate tracks. The school is aiming to change its curriculum more substantially next year, by including more digital requirements for basic news-writing  and advanced reporting courses while students will be required to learn multimedia storytelling for a capstone course. “The changes have occurred at a glacial pace. We have had budget cuts at the university,” she said.

But even with the changes, students at the school will graduate with a degree in “broadcast-online” or “print-online,” Barnes said.  That decision reflected the needs of employers in local and regional markets in the state, she said. “They are hiring our students. From what I see, there doesn’t seem to be a disconnect between what we teach and what the industry is looking for.”

Newton took issue with some professors' contention that career academics (or those who have spent a lot of time in academe) can be as effective as those who have been recently working in the filed. He said that just the time taken to get a Ph.D. by a faculty member would mean that person has been out of the newsroom for a while. “I’m not saying professionals are better than researchers, I’m saying they are equal. A top professional is every bit as intellectually powerful as a researcher,” he said, adding when the best professionals work with the best researchers, it improves the quality of scholarship.

Although Newton acknowledged that every program was different, the students attending these programs were similar in that they are all “digital natives” and they need to know more about what is “current.”

“A faculty member being up to date is not a function of the size of the school. It is a philosophy that the best professors have,” Newton said. “If anything, in the digital age you can be more nimble.” As for public relations or advertising, the same issues apply, because technology has changed everything, he said.

The University of South Florida and Illinois State University are among journalism and mass communication programs that will change soon to have a core curriculum reflecting technological changes.

Fred Pearce, director of the School of Mass Communications at the University of South Florida, said that a radical change in the program takes several years. “We are getting ready for an accreditation visit next spring, and we will probably have a more wholesale change in curriculum after that. It is too messy to try and deal with everything at the same time,” Pearce said. Public relations and advertising students will also have a new curriculum designed around changes brought about by technology, he said.

Pearce felt that journalism schools are about a decade behind when it comes to necessary changes. “My goal is to be more responsive, but we cannot do everything at once,” he said. “I want to provide as many tools on [students'] tool belt, as I possibly can.”

At USF, the journalism program might look traditional on paper, but multimedia elements have been incorporated into different courses, Pearce said. One example: an introductory reporting class also teaches how to use a cell phone to gather news.

Larry Long, executive director of the school of communication at Illinois State University, said that while he wants to make changes, money is hard to come by. Even so, the school will go the direction of many other programs next year with a converged curriculum for journalism students.

 “Our program will mandate that students know how to write, produce audio and video, and have online  skills,” Long said. “To ignore what is happening [in the news industry] would be doing our students a disservice.”


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