Commentary

To Prepare 21st-Century Journalists, Help Students Become Experts

Art Valero for The Chronicle

December 01, 2014

The field of journalism is in crisis, and that means journalism education is also in crisis. Jobs at traditional newspapers and TV stations are shrinking, and wages are stagnant. The switch to digital media, while spawning new roles for journalists, has resulted in a drastic net decline in full-time jobs. Further pain is likely. Robot journalists, usually in the form of software or digital networks, are starting to produce usable stories, at least for the routine matters that make up most news.

The upheaval is translating into slightly lower enrollments for undergraduates studying journalism, according to an annual survey by the University of Georgia. The survey prompted the American Journalism Review, published by the University of Maryland, to observe in July: "Declining journalism enrollments put pressure on administrators to make drastic changes in structure and curricula."

Those changes emphasize giving students a steady diet of digital skills—how to use social media to create videos and other web-first content quickly, and to report on people, places, and topics with the full range of multi­media tools. My university, Arizona State, which houses the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has been in the vanguard of those reforms for some years now, emphasizing tools over knowledge, teaching students to become equally adept at print, photo, video, and multi­media "packages."

Many journalism programs are emulating that model, to varying degrees, raising the question of whether the innovative embrace of digital skills will be ultimately self-defeating because tools change rapidly and get easier to use. As that happens, they also become easier to embed in automated digital systems (think autofocus on your camera). The image of a TV anchor team alone in a studio, aided only by computer-controlled cameras, sound, graphics, and security systems, is already a reality.

That digital tools can paradoxically be a good in themselves and yet set up students for failure has dawned on some perceptive educators. "Journalism schools have tended to orient themselves too much toward the profession and too little toward the university," concluded "Educating Journalists," a 2013 report from the Columbia Journalism School.

The central recommendation of that report is embedded in its subtitle: "A New Plea for the University Tradition." The report calls for striking an equal balance of instruction in journalism practices, specialized subject matter, and research. I find the proposed Columbia recalibration unworkable and overly optimistic. But I agree that the promotion of digital tools has become a new orthodoxy, a meek response to the radical changes in who journalists are and what they do.

The issue isn’t esoteric. For the tens of thousands of journalism undergraduates in the United States, the shift toward digital skills comes at a cost: alienation from the core of the university, an institution dedicated to knowledge acquisition and knowledge production. While journalism students acquire skills, other students, who devote themselves to traditional academic majors, and especially to the sciences and biomedicine, acquire knowledge that gives them a platform or paradigm for both lifelong learning and a lifetime contribution to journalism.

The truth is that good journalism depends on expertise that arises from subject-area mastery, deep engagement with rigorous disciplines, and interdisciplinary skills. As journalism schools embrace digital tools as a solution to threatened extinction, journalism consumed by the wider public is increasingly created by experts who reach mass audiences directly through TED talks, blogs, articles, and tweets, for example. Think of Paul Krugman, an economist now best known for his journalism on economics, public policy, and world affairs. Or Nate Silver, who also holds economics degrees and is among a handful of the hottest journalists on the planet.

Many knowledge workers channel their own inner Krugman today, flooding the web with deeply informed content that not only competes with journalism (and uninformed content!) but increasingly is the model for all human-created journalism. We might call this artisanal journalism to contrast with what journalists have traditionally done. When I began journalism work, in the late 1970s, logistics trumped expertise. I thrived on a kind of arbitrage. I went to City Hall and observed a meeting. I went to the police station and got a report. I acted as intermediary between a star athlete and his fans.

The days of arbitrage journalism are long gone. Journalists instead need deep knowledge. No one needs to learn this lesson more than undergraduates and those who teach them. Observers of technological change accept that the "creative destruction" wrought by the digital revolution is unlikely to cease. Twitter, one of the most important news tools since the telegraph, didn’t exist 10 years ago. Instagram, the photography revolutionary, didn’t exist five years ago.

Perhaps the only certainty in journalism is—or ought to be—that the tools you learn how to use today surely won’t remain current for long. On the other hand, requiring students to gain knowledge about well-defined subjects, such as physics, philosophy, economics, and computing, "would move journalism education in an intellectual direction" and would promote an approach that recognizes the value of "knowledge of how to use knowledge," argues Thomas E. Patterson in his 2013 book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism.

Patterson’s orientation has profound, if unacknowledged, importance for reform. To help journalism students raise their levels of expertise and enhance their futures, we should consider two innovations:

  • Encourage, or mandate, joint majors for undergraduates. Students would be given the time in their schedules to also major in economics, physics, or politics, for example. The knowledge gained through devotion to an academic major would enhance the journalism skills and digital tools students are also acquiring.
  • Require journalism faculty members to maintain closer ties with academic disciplines. That can be achieved by asking them to identify the area of scholarly content that they perceive themselves closest to and then awarding joint appointments, or perhaps affiliations, with those departments. Cross-discipline communication with scholars and scientists would help journalism professors teach students how to blend subject-area mastery with the power of quality journalism.

The creative destruction of journalism as an occupation remains in full swing. Much is uncertain, but this much is clear: In an era of pervasive digital networks that instantly deliver news with scant human help, the successful journalist will be, above all, a knowledge maker.

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and shares his academic appointment with Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (www.cspo.org).