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Journalism Curricula? Get Me Rewrite

A year ago, in February 2014, the metrics on journalism education were trending in worrisome directions. Enrollments were down at some of the most prestigious programs in the country for the second year in a row, and a Poynter Institute study revealed that journalism faculty members viewed their programs as far more central to the journalistic enterprise than their professional colleagues did. More troubling, almost 40 percent of educators themselves acknowledged that their programs were not keeping pace with changes in the industry.

At the same time, the profession was awash in new money and stellar talent. Tech billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and eBay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, were investing in legacy and start-up media. Huffington Post was snagging the kind of unique visitor traffic each month that most legacy publications could only dream of, and some of the profession’s luminaries were leaving flagship newsrooms like The New York Times and The Washington Post to sign on to new digital start-ups. There appeared to be a renaissance of interest in the possibilities of digital news and information, not just by those of us who can wax poetic about the role of journalism in a democracy but by those who had the resources and clout to create 21st-century value out of 19th-century tradition.

The questions for journalism education were obvious: Where was the digital-first start-up journalism school, the academic equivalent of the Vox, BuzzFeed, and First Look Media? What kinds of big, exciting ideas were being developed and proposed by the nation’s talented and committed journalism educators to prepare students for the 21st century?

I contacted Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and he suggested I go find out. We agreed on the rules of engagement: This was not a research project but a series of conversations with the smartest and most creative people I could find. I would record and transcribe every conversation, and then provide the transcript to the interviewee for editing and revision. This wasn’t “gotcha” journalism, after all; it was an effort to understand these leaders’ best current thinking.

I started with the educators. The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication distributed my survey to its members, and I sent a hard-copy letter to the 500 administrators of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication. The survey asked four questions: What is journalism today? What will it be in 2025? What qualities and skills will a journalist need to have in 2025? What should journalism education be, do, and teach to prepare the journalist of 2025? The response was disappointing, at best. In total, 44 journalism educators responded; only 20 of the 44 completed the survey.

Over the next six months, I interviewed more than 50 educators, professionals, entrepreneurs, new graduates, and current students. Here’s what emerged: Journalism’s core purpose hasn’t changed, but the way it is being produced and monetized is in a state of rapid flux. As a result, journalists are no longer simply writers and editors; they’re technologists, entrepreneurs, data analysts, and community mobilizers. They are among the players in a media environment in which news is being produced not just by reporters but by audiences and, increasingly, by computers. Journalism education, mired in the systems and structures of higher education, is not keeping pace with an industry changing at Internet speed.

In addition to what my interview subjects told me, I came to a few conclusions of my own:

1. Currency is the new core value. Today, currency—the capacity to identify and master emerging market trends and media technologies and to integrate them quickly into journalistic work—is as critical to credible journalism education as command of Associated Press style and the inverted pyramid used to be.

As one frustrated student told me:

“Journalism education needs to be about discovery, about constantly learning how to learn. Everything you teach should be the next thing, and the next, and the next after that. You have to have a culture of no sitting down, no resting, you always have to be pushing it out the door. There’s no longer a persistent or permanent model of journalism that can be passed on from one generation to the next, or even from one graduating class to the next. And if you’re not up for that as a faculty member, you really should go find something else to do.”

2. Faculty cannot teach what they do not know. Many faculty members acknowledge that it’s all but impossible to teach the tenets of a digital-first news culture they have neither experienced nor studied. At a 2014 conference of journalism educators, one faculty member pleaded for help. “Why don’t the foundations just give us the resources we need to retrain us all?” she suggested. But training for the new environment isn’t an event; it’s a never-ending process. And many faculty members have scant interest in or energy for recalibrating their careers to take on a daunting and continuous challenge.

3. Accreditation standards should value educational outcomes rather than institutional tradition. Accreditation provides assurance that a program’s graduates are liberally educated and prepared to succeed in the professional marketplace. But longstanding accreditation standards and practices may not adequately assess the success and quality of programs with widely varying academic missions essay help. While appropriate to research institutions steeped in academic tradition, current accreditation standards may be an awkward fit for a program whose mission is unabashedly professional.

Sarah Bartlett, dean of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, was delighted when her program was accredited after its first application, but the process both surprised and troubled her. “I still struggle to understand how encouraging a professionally oriented school to pursue a more theoretical, academic program would be helpful at a time when our profession is undergoing such sweeping, real-time transformation,” she wrote. “The fact that many of the members on the accrediting council who were questioning our approach were from the public-relations and advertising disciplines made me wonder how much they knew about the specific challenges facing our industry. Yet this is the body that decides what signals to send to this country’s 200-plus graduate journalism and mass-communications programs.”

It is time, I’ve concluded, to create and launch digital-first academic start-ups of dissertattion writing. There is room in the academy for a more nimble, innovative, intentionally disruptive, and hyperprofessional journalism school. Structured to accommodate continuous revision, a digital-first school would foster the skills and habits of mind critical to journalism in the 21st century: self-instruction, numeracy, data analytics, active curiosity, and early adoption. And its mission would emphatically be the exceptional preparation of journalists for an industry it can neither anticipate nor imagine.

Such a program would leverage the disciplinary expertise of the traditional full-time faculty while creating new delivery structures for skills-based learning. A digital-first journalism school would assign traditional academic faculty members to teach what they know: core courses in reporting, editing, history, law, and ethics, as well as specialization courses in broadcast, magazines, photojournalism, etc. But it would include an immersive semester-long journalism accelerator that would engage professional and interdisciplinary faculty members in a nontraditional, full-time schedule of workshops, seminars, field trips, self-taught tutorials, and boot camps. Mimicking its teacher-education counterpart, a journalism accelerator would allow students to focus on, and be available for, a rapidly changing stream of learning experiences designed with currency and practice in mind.

A disruptive, digital-first journalism school needs a disruptive, digital-first accreditation process. For programs whose articulated mission is the professional preparation of the next generation of journalists, a new and more focused accreditation process would provide substantive review of the extent to which they are meeting their goals. Like the current process, such a system would involve peer reviewers; unlike the more traditionally academic process, however, a professional accreditation process would include a team of highly qualified digital-first journalists to help review a program’s curriculum, assess its currency, measure its outcomes, and confirm its quality.

“Journalism,” says Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, “is a field in the process of reinventing itself, and where and how people learn to become journalists is being reinvented. The real question is whether journalism and education will be able to reinvent themselves together. … I think there will be some optimal moments similar to this, when we can create a new kind of journalism school–one that is practice-oriented and interdisciplinary.”

Perhaps that moment is now.

Dianne Lynch is the president of Stephens College and the former dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. She was the founding executive director of the national Online News Association. This essay is adapted from a report released today by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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