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What’s Next for Newspapers and Journalism Education?

Supported with a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation

Speech by Jan Schaffer, J-Lab Director

Five things come to mind when I think of newspapers and journalism education – and I would say it extends to broadcasters and online journalism education as well. In no particular order they are:

  • Skill set
  • Mindset
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Journalism Conventions
  • Recruiting

SKILL SET For so long now, we have focused our journalism training on honing a particular set of skills. Clean writing, good grammar, spelling – especially of proper names. How to cover a beat. Ethics and law courses. And something I find curious and amusing: We’ll give a whole semester to the history of journalism and no time to the future of journalism.

Or we treat the future of journalism with a narrow course on “convergence.”

I know at the University of Maryland, kids will get a failing grade for an assignment that has a misspelled proper noun. But I find that only certain skills are validated. The faculty member who runs the internship program, gives course credit for writing assignments, but not for Web production work.

So I would ask: With journalism students needing to master so many more skills than what I needed when I graduated from Medill – writing skills, software skills (Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Flash, InDesign, SoundForge, and more) production skills, search and database skills – how should those needs be triaged? What are the most important things students need? And how do we give it to them in the equivalent of about 12 courses?

I would suggest that maybe they should be allowed to specialize in new areas besides just specializing in a particular platform: print, broadcast and online.

Do they really need to know where to hook a comma in a paragraph more than they need to know Dreamweaver or how to upload a digital photo or edit digital audio? Maybe some students are better at copyediting, and we need to be training an elite corps of copy editors. Maybe other students are better at digital production. Maybe some students are better at business strategies and others are better at new product development … oops, where do we find those things in J-School curricula?

That brings me to my second and third concerns: MINDSET and ENTREPRENEURSHIP. I think we’re focusing so much on skill set that we’re neglecting to prepare students for the kind of mindset they will need to enter a profession that not only has daily deadlines, but new competition, new products, and hopefully new revenue streams.

Tomorrow’s journalists will not only need to scoop the competition on news, they will need to scoop the competition on new ideas for products, niches to be filled, delivery systems to be used and options for making money.

I am a huge advocate of finding some ways to impart a more entrepreneurial mindset in our journalism students. Invite students to create a product, develop a prototype, test it with a focus group – maybe even find some venture capital money to launch it. Wow! Imagine how that would look on a resume.

Maybe we should expand the possibilities of where students can intern to include product-development departments of news organizations.

When I look at the last two years of winners of the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism, I see the likes of Adrian Holovaty, creator of the database and now the U.S. Congressional Votes database. A two-time winner. He is able to automate the process of scraping other public databases – he scrapes seven databases daily to produce the Votes Database – only because he partners his journalistic mindset – as a Mizzou grad – with the skill set of a computer programmer. Is anyone training students to have computer programming skills in their journalism curriculum?

I would offer an important assertion here: Look at the inverse ratio of women in J-Schools, who comprise about two-thirds of most schools’ enrollments, and women in newsrooms, where they comprise about one-third of the workforce. Then take a look at social-science research on women and their capacity for innovation.

I would suggest that if you open the doors to women innovators in journalism you will do a better job of retaining women journalists in the profession – and, at the same time, women donors to your journalism schools.

Fourth: I worry about the CONVENTIONS of journalism that we are teaching our students. I worry that some of the conventions that were used both to define “news” and to safeguard fairness and balance in journalism are being gamed by media strategists for their own ends. The result is a journalism that is not serving the public well – and that the public doesn’t much trust. What kinds of conventions am I talking about?

  • Framing news as conflict.
  • Keeping score with scorecard journalism of who the day’s winners and losers are: Israel or Hezbollah? Dems or Reps? The Mayor or City Council?
  • Rendering journalism as glorified stenography: Parroting quotes just because an important person said them, even when we know that what they said was not true. Chaining people to 30-year-old quotes or comments without license to allow them to change their minds or grow in their thinking.

I read several newspapers a day now. I read them now first as a citizen, second as an old Type A assigning editor. So often, I find myself unsatisfied with the stories and angry at the coverage.

I see obvious questions that are never addressed. I see issues put through a political lens instead of a solutions lens.

I see acres and acres of expensive coverage on issues that I do care about – but no way in the world that I could read that much text. Take Lebanon. I care. I fear. I’m enraged. I find it hard to keep the players straight. I can’t even imagine what the solutions are. And I get four open pages of reports from the battlefield. All the stories, sad as they are, sound so alike – sort of repetitive – and I just can’t read them all. And I know all too well how expensive that real estate was to fill.

I see journalists so slow to pull the thread on obvious issues – global warming, pensions, deficits, the gap between the haves and have-nots. It seems to take an Al Gore movie, or a Hurricane Katrina, or a major pension default to justify good reporting – but it comes awfully late in the process.

And I hear and see a range of emotions among citizens – rage over the crumbling American narrative, fear of a third world war, of an encroaching depression, rage over wasted resources and missed opportunities – and I fear that we do not have the journalism conventions that allow us to report on or validate the emotions of citizens – and conversely, rage over abortion and gay marriages.

I think we need to test drive some new conventions that address some of these bad habits.

Finally, I think the academy itself needs to create some oxygen for entrepreneurship and innovation in journalism. We need to rethink our RECRUITING. We reward long-time professionals, who often don’t have the skills to bridge the new media environment. Indeed, one of Maryland’s marquee professors doesn’t even do e-mail. When I suggested this year that all professors be required to put their course syllabi online, I was told it was not the kind of thing that the school could require and besides a lot of people wouldn’t know how to do it.

We reward long-form storytellers and feature writing, even though a lot of newspapers and even magazines don’t run long stories or features. We reward Ph.D.’s when often their research is not very relevant to the future of journalism – and in many cases, in my view, doesn’t really add a lot of value to the knowledge base of journalism.

I think we need to find new ways to recruit a new diversity of people – diverse in their skill sets and mindsets – to our faculties. Maybe they are with us for two to three years, then go back into daily journalism to refresh their skills, then back into academia. No more sinecures.

And I think we need to adjust the curriculum so that we can add some “mini topics” – either in between-semester short courses or in a cluster of mini courses that make up a semester unit – so we can turn out students with the kinds of skills they are really going to need. 

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