The Future of News

Ryan Thornburg

Journalism at Universities: Research Should Lead, a Journ.D. Would Raise the Ante

(This blog post is a belated act — an encore shall we say — in the Carnival of Journalism, organized by David Cohn. It’s a rushed draft. Please send me corrections in grammar, fact or logic.)

Leadership Will Come From Research

Fewer Journalists, Better Journalists, Higher Pay

Journalism Schools and We the Media

Why Have Journalism at Universities Anyway?

At least once a week I get an e-mail with an amazing offer for students – “write for my fledgling entertainment/product-review/sports/music/opinion Web site and be rewarded with fame, a clip and a variety of other compensation that don’t pay the rent.”

If you’ve sent me one of those emails recently, there’s a pretty good chance you’re still waiting for me to take advantage of the opportunity.

Maybe I’m missing out on the chance to make UNC the “hub of journalistic” activity in a changing news environment. After all, this recommendation from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of the Community is really an economic one – its goal is to reduce the cost of providing news and information. And one of the ways that news organizations have always reduced the cost of production is to rely on an apprenticeship system of unpaid college students. The benefit for the student has always been that “clip” – currency that can be later traded for a paying gig.

But with those paying gigs becoming fewer and farther between, this relationship between the classroom and newsroom is going to change. The only students left taking unpaid writing opportunities are those who do it for their own psychic gratification or who don’t get the changing economics of journalism.

If universities are going to be “a hub for journalistic activity” in a world where Demand Media and Associated Content have turned low-quality “news” writing into hourly shift work, we’re going to have to be part of this economic shift in a way that benefits our students, our faculty and the communities that those of us at public universities are paid to serve.

Leadership Will Come From Research

Universities can lead change not my managing it, but by informing it – by providing the road map of answers to complex questions.

Innovation is the buzzword that we all toss around when we talk about the risks that many media companies are unwilling to take. The theory goes something like this: universities can innovate because they don’t have to show a return on their investment. They don’t have to spend resources on product maintenance.

But innovation without a problem and a hypothesis is aimless. Universities don’t need to create new stories or better stories for a market in which there’s insufficient demand. They need to formulate precise questions with answers that will impact the free exchange of ideas and support communities’ information needs.

It’s not that universities aren’t conducting research in the fields of psychology, economics, management, political science, sociology, biology that are relevant to the information needs of communities. But it seems as if there’s a failure to connect that research to environments where it can be applied.

The failures come both from the newsroom and the classroom side. Newsroom leaders, as a broad generalization, are too myopic in the questions they think are significant to the futures. Driven by incredibly demanding and increasingly frequent editorial and financial deadlines, the requests they make of universities are narrow in scope and short in term. On the other hand, academic research tends to further theory rather than change newsroom behavior. The standards of academic research FAR exceed the standards of industry research. The statistical rigor, the theoretical grounding, the editorial process of academic journals and conferences favor slow, careful dialog. We need to find a way to get “half-baked” research into the hands of industry where it’s more important to take an educated guess today than to make air-tight reviews of missed opportunities.

If I had the time, I’d love to go through the last five years of published academic research on all fields of mediated communication and create a “So What?” guide that would identify places where the direction of research can lead newsroom decisions about story choice, story presentation, audience development and information efficacy. Maybe someone’s already done this, but I’m going to bet that fewer than 5 percent of all working journalists in the U.S. today could name a single academic journal related to their field. If I’m even close to being right, then this is a foundational disconnect for which both the newsroom and classroom bear responsibility and for which the price is a an industry and a public discourse that is less healthy than it could be.

And maybe industry – and government –  is already paying for academics’ time. But my guess is that the information industry invests far less in research and new product development than they spend on research in the health sciences. If universities are going to be the hub of journalistic activity then they are going to need to make research a spending priority and they are going to have to find businesses, governments and foundations willing to provide long-term financial commitments to it.

Universities aren’t going to lead the journalism industry by providing undergrads with new skills. They will only lead if they are providing a new roadmap founded in research. This is primarily the job of faculty in journalism, but also faculty in a broad range of fields with which academic journalists need to continue to seek collaboration. We can and should expose our undergrads – and certainly our grad students – to research. If we do that, then we’ll be churning out leaders who can get into newsrooms with an appreciation of research and understand how to manage its application.

Fewer Journalists, Better Journalists, Higher Pay

My UNC colleague Phil Meyer was right when he said back in 1991 we are “raising the ante on what it takes to be a journalist.”

Part of my emphasis during my four years on the faculty at UNC has been to find a way to “infuse online journalism” into courses that already exist in the curriculum. Lord knows I’ve tried and continue to do so. <plug>The most tangible evidence of my efforts is my new textbook Producing Online News.</plug>. But my problem has been this: the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication requires that at least 80 hours (out of a typical 120-hour four-year undergraduate career) be taken “outside of the unit.” Infusing new skills and concepts into journalism education is a zero-sum game. I can’t add new lessons without removing something. Or I have to find a VERY creative way of teaching the old and the new both at once.

I actually strongly support the goal of the ACEJMC requirement. Journalism students MUST have a broad understanding of the world. A broad liberal arts education ensures that a journalism degree doesn’t just mean that students have learned the trade of laying out pages in CSS or operating a camera or applying AP style. I tell my intro news writing students that a good definition of news is when the world doesn’t behave as you’d expect. And that means you have to be familiar with the natural, social and economic rules that determine how the world usually behaves. You don’t learn those rules in the J-school.

So rather than narrow the breadth of a journalism degree or reduce the importance of spelling and grammar, I’d like to see the ACEJMC introduce a new professional journalism degree that is neither an undergraduate nor a graduate degree program. The model for this would be the Pharm.D program that the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy created in 1990 for pharmacy students.

(For those of you heard me mention this idea at the ONA conference in October, I hope this further explanation helps with your well-founded suspicions that I might have finally gone off the deep end.)

Here’s how a “doctor of journalism”, or Journ.D., program would work. Students would take the standard 80 hours of “General College” requirements, half of which would need to be in communication-intensive courses (selections in departments such as communications, psychology, politics, literature, sociology, computer science, and – yes – even journalism). Introductory course from the journalism school – such as news writing, media law & ethics, design, photography, media history, and media criticism — might even be required

This requirement would be similar to requirements at the Pharm.D. program at UNC — 40 hours of general education and 45 hours of math and science course at the undergraduate level.

After completion of the general education requirements, students would take a test and be selectively admitted to the Journ.D. program. This program, again modeled on the Pharm.D. program, would require another 80-100 hours of classroom instruction in communication skills and subject-specific reporting techniques. It would also require nine to 12 months of supervised field work. From freshman year to graduation, the degree would take six years to complete.

The supervised field work supports the Knight Commission goal of creating a hub of journalistic activity and it has a model in the Pharm.D. program. Pharmacy students at UNC are sent to work with one of 500 “preceptors” – or professional mentors – at one of 275 sites around the state. Some students also choose – at greater expense to themselves – of working at national or international sites. While many of the students want, understandably, to work near Chapel Hill, the field work is done all over the state including urban and rural environments that desperately need health care professionals beyond those that the private market alone can support. Can these communities need any less the civic capital and personal decision making tools that high-quality journalism supplies? Are a community’s information needs any less important to just public policy and rural economic development? I know from working with small and medium sized newspapers, non-profits, public radio stations, and hyperlocal bloggers that there ain’t a one of them that couldn’t use more journalistic firepower. They do, after all, come seeking free undergraduate labor…

Precpts, for their part, may or may not get some salary from universities. But they certainly all get free labor and access to the university’s faculty expertise and research. In exchange, they develop a curriculum with learning goals and give the students a pass/fail grade. And that to me seems like a fair trade.

In some cases, universities provide pharmacy students with subsidized housing at their fieldwork sites. But in other cases, the students foot the bill.

And discussions about footing the bill is perhaps where the Pharm.D. model begins to show some flaws. From my cursory research as well as from anecdotes provided by friends in both fields, starting pharmacists in any market and at any level of experience make about twice what journalists make. Pharm.D. students are willing to invest in six years of tuition payments because their return is much better.

I think Phil Meyer was right – being a great journalist today takes a lot more than being a great journalist 15 years ago. The need for advanced training is clear. But the justification for students to invest in it is pretty weak. Until the demand for high quality journalism increases and/or the supply of high quality journalists decreases, we have a pretty weak argument for requiring students to spend more time and money breaking into the field.

Universities, through research, should play a role in increasing demand. If advertising, social pressure and public policy changes can get people to exercise, quit smoking, seek counseling, stop bullying, recycle, and eat local then those same tools can certainly be used to increase demand for public policy news and information – maybe not among everyone equally, but some.

Universities can also help throttle back the supply of journalists who are anything less than excellent. The market is doing a pretty good job on its own of reducing the ranks of experienced, expensive journalists. But we owe it to our young students that they are not just cheap production inputs that the industry needs today. Every journalist student must be equipped for long-term success and inoculated as best as we can against the next generation of young, cheap, inexperienced labor.

Many of our journalism students are incredibly idealistic and would work for not much more than food. But how are we rewarding and supporting their engagement in public life by chucking as many of them as possible as quickly as possible into a market that doesn’t value them?

Looking at the success of trade publications, Congressional Quarterly and Bloomberg lead me to believe that high quality reporting that has a direct impact on its audience will always have a market.

We need to raise the ante on what it takes to be a journalism student.

Journalism Schools and We the Media

For at least 100 years, one of the biggest criticisms of journalism programs at universities is that they are anti-democratic. Who are you, pointed-headed professor, to tell us who is and who is not qualified to participate in public debate, to watchdog the government and to tell our own stories of the world the way we experience it?

And with the decreased barriers to publishing journalism, this criticism only gains traction. The distance between a non-partisan professional journalist, a professional advocacy journalist and an amateur journalist – once the audience – is smaller than ever.

More and more people are banging down the door of the MSM and the institutions that develop it. While raising the ante on what it takes to become a professional journalist, J-schools can also throw open their doors and take advantage of amateur interest to develop more and better journalistic activity and capacity in the communities we serve.

Journalism schools – perhaps staffed by some of those new Journ.D. students in their fifth or sixth years – should be running programs that teach technical – and that includes writing – skills as well as programs that advance the journalistic values of verification, precision, brevity, relevancy.

Amateur journalists, engaged in narrow and personally satisfying swaths of public life, are an important tool in filling the information needs of a community. These amateurs will report small datapoints that aren’t economically rational for a professional journalist to ferret out. Those datapoints, in the hands of professionals, can help illustrate trends and structures that might otherwise remain obscured or misunderstood.

Amateur journalists who appreciate journalistic values will also have a greater appreciation for professional journalism.

Journalism schools should be places that train and – hang with me on this one – accredit amateur journalists. I would never – NEVER – support any legal privilege that would make the First Amendment work better for one person than another. Accreditation of amateur – or professional — journalists is merely a way that can help the marketplace of ideas function more efficiently. The more accrediting bodies the better (up to, I suppose, a point of diminishing return). The market of individual choices can determine what the different accreditations actually mean. But at least give that blogger who completed nine continuing education credits in reporting, community management and communication law put a little JPG on her site. Degrees have value, and they differ from accreditation badges only in scope and scale.

Why Have Journalism at Universities Anyway?

I don’t know whether the Knight Commission intended this, but it seems to emphasize the role of community colleges as hubs of journalistic activity. Maybe I have my own insecurities about this, but I wonder if that’s not part of a broader trend in academia that historically, and I suspect increasingly, doesn’t value journalism schools, classes, departments as much as it values history, biology and mathematics. I think that many professors at research universities might see journalism as a trade more apropos for a community college.

Perhaps that’s because we in J-schools talk – a lot – about job placement of our undergrads. The students and faculty measure our own success in these terms probably as much as any other. But journalism belongs at universities not because we teach students how to be journalists, but because we teach students how to think journalistically.

Journalistic thinking approaches the world in a certain way. As I mentioned earlier, it values verification, curiosity, precision and brevity. And those values – perhaps sparing brevity – are the values of the academy. But journalistic thinking also values immediacy and proximity. A shorter way of saying it might be that it values impact. Curiosity leads to verification. That leads to answer that help people make personal and public decisions here and now.

Journalists, as the Knight Commission said, connect the university to the world. Journalists democratize intellectualism. Universities and higher education aren’t just a tool for economic development. Curiosity and verification and precise communication are tools for civic engagement – for social change as well as social stability.

For all our emphasis on changing communication technologies and changing economics of media, universities are a hub of journalistic activity when they yield curiosity, rigorous verification of fact and wisdom that has immediate impact.

Journalism is essentially applied or clinical social science. Universities should just be hubs of journalistic activity. Journalism programs should be hubs of universities.

Correction, 2/15/11: An earlier version of this article misnamed the professional mentors in a pharmacy program. They are called preceptors.

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