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Reforming J-School: A four-phased, digital-first approach

Note: Originally published May 8, 2014

At this critical moment in United States history when government surveillance, health care and immigration reform dominate the national consciousness, the American public has a great need for balanced and hard-hitting journalism. What currently exists in the form of the professional press, however, is quite far from the ideal. The digital era has led to an information overload, as anyone with access to the Internet is now a content producer. Consequentially, traditional publications of the newspaper and television mold have lost the interest of their consumers: According to a June 2013 Gallup poll, only 23 percent of Americans still have a “great deal” of confidence in either print or broadcast media (Mendes). Struggling to stay afloat as advertisers flee to the hills, companies are slashing jobs left and right. Since 2000, the number of employed newspaper writers has decreased by 32 percent, and the number of staff photographers has dropped by 43 percent (Pew Research Center). Not even broadcast media giants are immune to the industry’s implosion, as CNN cut ties with 40 reporters at the end of 2013 (Beaujon).

While newsrooms around the country have been abandoning their printing presses and flirting with online paywalls to deal with such challenges, the business of journalism education continues to thrive. As put by former Columbia School of Journalism Dean Nicholas Lemann, “the education sector is just about the only part of journalism whose business model is still in excellent health,” (Lemann). Throughout the country, 111 journalism schools have received the gold star of accreditation from ACEJMC, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (Bhatia). Each year, these schools churn out thousands of journalism graduates from both bachelor’s and master’s programs, the majority of whom inexplicably find immediate employment. According to the University of Georgia’s “Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates,” only 10.7 percent of 2012 j-school graduates were unemployed a year after earning their diplomas (Becker).

These institutions are certainly proving their worth to their customers, but industry experts argue that graduates from even the top universities are not prepared to face the challenges of the 21st-century newsroom. In the 2013 Poynter Institute for Media Studies “State of Journalism Education” report, 48 percent of surveyed media professionals said universities are not up-to-date with the the industry, and 39 percent of educators agreed (Krueger). In a 2012 open letter to 500 university presidents, representatives from six top journalism grant-making foundations echoed those claims by threatening to pull funding from j-schools that don’t place technology at the center of their programs (Bell). Eric Newton, a senior adviser at the Knight Foundation, called journalism education a “symphony of slowness” compared to what’s going on in today’s newsrooms (Newton). Simply put, there is a major disconnect between the academy and industry, and the “countercyclical” model that currently awards j-schools financial stability for inadequately training graduates to staff economically ravaged newsrooms is not sustainable (Lemann).

The public has lost its trust in the media, and the media has lost its trust in j-schools. Both sectors are “bound together,” as Poynter’s Howard Finberg says, “caught within the other’s vortex, spinning within today’s turmoil of change,” (Finberg). Neither side knows what the economic model of journalism will look like 20 years from now, and neither side can guess how technology will further affect the media landscape in that time. What then, is the solution? The journalism profession needs massive reform, and it should start at the ground level. J-schools should no longer strictly cater to the needs of professional newsrooms — grumbling from the industry proves that approach is broken — but instead focus on how new media and core journalistic principles can be used to create a new definition of “journalist.” Journalism education should indeed be bundled into a degree, though programs offering that academic track must scrap the ACEJMC rubric and replace it with a digital-first model that infuses literacy, reporting and writing skills, production, economics and web technology with real-world experience. No doubt this is not a groundbreaking argument, but much of the debate on j-schools in recent years has focused merely on what programs should include. This proposed model stresses the importance of sequence, and in doing so pulls the best elements from existing programs to create an undergraduate experience that will prepare students to better serve the American public in this ever-changing media ecosystem.

First and foremost, institutes of higher education need to offer journalism degrees. Select professionals and j-school graduates believe that scrapping a university’s journalism program — be bachelor’s or master’s — is a good way to start solving the industry’s problems. They argue that many journalists who currently work in the industry don’t have journalism degrees, and today online training programs like and Poynter’s can replace traditional classroom instruction (Thornton). Some universities, notably the University of Colorado and Emory University, have already acted on that advice and closed their journalism programs altogether (Rosenstiel). Abandoning j-school, however, eliminates the academic setting that is so crucial to the development of young journalists in this digital era. College campuses give students the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from an array of professional disciplines, which in turn fosters the exact type of innovation and interdisciplinary knowledge the journalism industry desperately needs. The term “disruption” is tossed around frequently among those actively engaged in the j-school debate, as professionals argue the root cause of the media industry’s decline was its inability to adapt to the technological changes other professions imposed on it nearly 20 years ago (Finberg). Placing young journalists at the same table as those who are studying business, engineering and computer science ensures that journalism will grow alongside these professions, avoiding another potential “disruption” that would further cripple the industry.

With journalism education secure under a university umbrella, the conversation shifts to a uniform, up-to-date curriculum for j-schools across the nation. This approach will focus on the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree, as master’s programs such as the Columbia Journalism School — an institution that has already taken a massive step to transform its curriculum — typically cater to professionals looking to expand their knowledge of the industry (Glaser). As mentioned, the current benchmark of a j-school’s value is whether or not they have ACEJMC accreditation. The organization, founded in 1945, establishes guidelines for schools of journalism and mass communication in each of the following nine categories: Administration, curriculum, diversity, faculty, scholarship, student services, resources, professional/public service and assessment (Bhatia). Critics argue that this model for j-school success encourages deans to keep their curriculums firmly rooted in the 20th century. It is, Newton says, a key reason why schools are failing to produce graduates that know how to manage digital newsrooms: “ACEJMC needs a standard covering technology and innovation: All students must understand why the everyday technology they know so well is part of a profoundly new digital age of communication,” (Newton).

But instead of modifying an entity that for 20 years has widened the gap between the academy and industry, administrators need to collectively abandon ACEJMC and establish a new governing body for j-schools. Such a move would symbolize willingness to break away from the shackles of the past, something many educators groomed in the era of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have repeatedly showed reluctance to do (Krueger). It is time, as City University of New York Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis once said, “to blow everything up,” (Jarvis). Under a new accreditation system, the guiding principles would place, in terms of importance, digital literacy and interdisciplinary collaboration aside writing and reporting. As professionals have come to discover over the past decade, journalism is no longer about hitting the streets with a pen, notebook and voice recorder. In 2014, the practice entails no less than hitting those streets, keeping a healthy relationship with communities where reporting is conducted, writing a story with accompanying audio and visual elements, providing a larger context to maximize potential audience size, independently publishing that information on any number of content management systems and promoting the package globally via social media. The new  administrative agency should not just encourage j-schools to push their students down that road — as ACEJMC currently does — but require them to do so as part of the accreditation process. As Columbia graduate and jack-of-all-trades journalist Patrick Thornton put it, students need “to be in a program that will teach [them] how to start [their] own projects and be entrepreneurial … a program that realizes that the (social) Web is the present and future of journalism,” (Thornton).

Under this new model, j-schools would still be required to establish their own credit systems under individual university regulations. The core curriculum and sequence of subject material taught, however, would ideally be similar at any two j-schools. Consistency across the board is the best way to ensure that every professional newsroom is stocked with journalists who share at least a base knowledge of the same skills. Were this arrangement in place today, editors could explore innovative ways to produce content instead of wasting months getting every reporter up to speed with newsroom practices. While it is an arguably impossible task considering that editorial independence is a core principle of journalism, it is nonetheless something that the industry should request and a united academy should strive to provide. At the heart of this idea is the equivalent of a four-year course track during which students build on a foundation of digital literacy, not reporting or writing, and work their way through j-school before ending their undergraduate careers in a yearlong internship or fellowship. At the suggestion of Newton, “print and broadcast silos” merge into one streamlined program that teaches the versatility required to succeed in today’s industry (Newton). This plan combines elements from top journalism programs in the nation, though uniquely demands that j-schools complete student assessment in the following sequence.

Digital and News Literacy

The core of this education model is digital and news literacy. Before a student even writes one sentence or picks up a microphone, he must take courses that teach him how to create content on the Internet and analyze media. “Digital tools” courses would require proficiency in content management systems, coding and social media. A reasonable objective for such a class would be for a student to build a personal website that will ultimately host all assignments he completes over the course of his undergraduate career. This web-first approach immediately instills the idea that journalism is as much about digital literacy as it is storytelling, which is a necessary departure from traditional j-school dialogue. The industry, as Lemann says, puts many new graduates to work “at understaffed websites … where they have to be comfortable with web publishing from Day 1 and have to handle quite advanced and specialized editorial content without much advice,” (Lemann). Flipping the script of journalism education lets students know what they’re getting into, weeding out the ones who aren’t on board for digital grunt work.

The news literacy side, on the other hand, would be a set of courses dedicated to what Jarvis calls “study:” media history, ethics and law (Jarvis). Prior to whipping out the pen and notebook to report, students need to understand how to walk the fine line that separates the good journalists from the bad ones. J-schools can create their own code of ethics, as Temple University did in 2013, or adhere to the professional standards of their local media outlets (Hare). This category should also include a media analysis class, in which students study and compare the work of various local, national and international print, digital, television and radio organizations. To advance to the next year or stage of the curriculum, students should complete a set number of courses, determined by the individual j-school, in both the digital and news literacy subdivisions.

News Writing and Reporting — The Teaching Hospital (Staffer)

Having learned basic digital tools and guidelines for exceptional journalism, students move on to the “writing and reporting” phase of their studies. These courses give students newsroom writing instruction and field experience, skills that distinguish the professional journalist from his citizen equivalent. Mastery of both broadcast and print writing should be demonstrated in two separate courses, which upon completion filter into on-the-ground training. A current model of this approach can be found at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles. Undergraduates, typically in their second year, study the construction of articles and broadcast scripts for one semester. Instructors give them campus or local neighborhood reporting assignments, but assess them on the quality of their writing rather than their editorial judgement. The following semester, students identify, pitch and produce text pieces and video packages about regional “beats” in L.A. County. One student might cover homelessness in Santa Monica while another reports on business developments in Long Beach (“Journalism Curriculum”). Under the proposed curriculum, students would publish all stories on the professional website they created in the digital literacy courses.

To complement their coursework, each second-phase student would work on the staff of a journalism “teaching hospital.” Since Lemann proposed this idea in a 2009 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, it has been at the center of virtually every debate on the future of j-school (Lemann). Best defined by Tom Rosenstiel of Poynter, a journalism teaching hospital is where “students produce journalism for public rather than classroom consumption under the watch of a skilled professional editor teacher. In doing so, the journalism they produce is better, more digital, more connected to the community, and helps make up for some of what’s disappearing from commercial newsrooms,” (Rosenstiel). A campus newspaper on steroids,  these teaching hospitals are essentially professional newsrooms funded by the universities themselves. The “Missouri Method” is the best example of this in practice today. University of Missouri journalism students run a number of print, digital, radio and television outlets that are the go-to sources of news for residents around the state. Not only does the community benefit, but students gain professional experience as part of a team that produces real-time, in-depth multimedia content (“The Missouri Method”).

Economics and Reporting Electives — The Teaching Hospital (Producer/Editor)

The third phase of undergraduate journalism education would focus heavily on economics and data analysis. A bulk of a journalist’s career, no matter if it’s in the entertainment or sports sector, is spent sifting through reports, spreadsheets and court documents that overflow with numbers. Unfortunately, few j-schools today equip their students with the knowledge necessary to create stories from that type of data. As Slate’s economics reporter Jordan Weissmann says, understanding statistics is currently “far more important than doing man-on-the-street interviews” for success in the profession (Khazan). CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism offers a “Business & Economics Reporting” concentration, which requires students to study journalism’s intersection with local and global economies, Wall Street and international business (“Business”). Incorporating this approach into an undergraduate journalism track would better prepare students for the workforce and encourage them to explore solutions to journalism’s failing profit model.

Additionally, students would take reporting electives that, for the first time, let them cover subjects of personal interest like sports, entertainment, government and international affairs. With reporting and news gathering experience already under their belts, they would be able to hone their skills in whatever specialized area they choose. This is not a departure from the standard j-school curriculum already in place, but it does emphasize that students will only be able to cover preferred beats once they demonstrate proficiency in general journalism. On top of these courses, they would continue working for their school’s teaching hospital, but as editors and producers instead of reporters. In these roles, students would learn how to become newsroom leaders under the close supervision of professional journalists and educators.

Advanced Web Technology and Electives — Professional Internship 

Students in the fourth and final phase of instruction would spend two semesters studying new storytelling methods, web design and content layout. These courses would advance the “digital tools” studied earlier in the program track, giving students the opportunity to innovate and break away from the barriers that confine traditional storytelling. Students would have to create motion graphics, defined by the Society for News Design’s Terence Oliver as “video footage, animation, information graphics, photography, 3D, typography, sound and voice-over narratives,” using tools like the Adobe Creative Suite and Google Glass (Oliver). USC Annenberg Professor Robert Hernandez is among the most prominent j-school figures already teaching courses on such subjects. In 2013, he and a group of undergraduates used smartphones and augmented reality, “technology that superimposes computer-generated images and information on real life objects,” to tell the history of the Los Angeles Public Library (Reed).

Accompanying these “web-tech” courses would be more reporting electives, as well as professional internships. Each j-school should establish working relationships with local news affiliates, requiring students to successfully complete two semesters of training. While the teaching hospitals would effectively serve the same purpose of acclimating students to the speed and pressure of the professional newsroom, moving them out of the university setting before graduation is critical for development. Internships teach students how to adapt and excel under unfamiliar editors and organizational structures, which is incredibly important given the industry’s constant state of transformation. As the internship would be a required component of the j-school curriculum, students should not be compensated for their work. That does not mean, however, that the academy should “sell” their students to the industry like Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism currently does, pocketing $1,250 for every student placed at a professional outlet (Brandeisky). All sides should drop their individual interests and understand that an unpaid, for-credit model is what’s best for the journalism profession itself.

This four-phase, digital-first model of education understandably raises a number of questions. Even if it did incorporate all the skills both educators and professionals feel are vital to 21st-century journalism, how could each one of the 111 accredited institutions ensure that they employ quality professors? How are budget-restricted schools going to provide all of their students enough web storage space to host four years’ worth of multimedia content? The fundamental goal of proposing this model, holes withstanding, is to push dialogue on the future of j-school in the right direction. Continuing to tie journalism education to the archaic ACEJMC model, as Finberg says, would be “bad for democracy and for citizens who depend on fair and accurate information,” (Finberg). For the sake of the industry and its own livelihood, the academy needs to innovate how and what it teaches undergraduates. Implementing a digital-first model that emphasizes skill sequence would be a good first step in that direction.

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