If you are a web content professional your job is linking, navigating and searching far more than it is content creation. On the Web, your content is valueless unless it is well linked, easy to navigate to and easy to find. That is not someone else’s job. It’s yours.We don’t work on the homepage. We work on the network. The Web is a network and those who work on the Web are networkers. The link is the essence of the Web. Web writing is link writing. Don’t think control, think sharing. How shareable is your content? Don’t think homepage. There’s no direction home on the Web because home changes based on the context of what people want to do…..Links are the currency of the Web, not content, and links are an inherently collaborative and sharing activity. Nothing lives in isolation on the Web. Every page is a homepage for someone.
Gerry McGovern, The continued decline of the homepage, Nov. 30 2014
As journalism educators, we need to widen our conception of what we teach so that it has meaning to the entire scope of communication our students will engage in.
Lots of very smart people are writing about metrics for measuring engagement with content, topics, brands and sites. I wanted to think about measuring meaning on a more intimate scale.
It seems counter-intuitive to evaluate longevity and meaningfulness by asking journalists about their own work. Yet journalists are the first ones to know what work is thin or contrived.
This isn’t about journalistic prizes or awards. It’s about what individual writers/producers/ creators experience personally and within their own networks as a result of a particular piece of work.
If we find journalists who are moved and excited by what they are doing, it’s likely they will be connected to subjects and communities that feel similarly. It’s another set of data points to help us define and measure what has lasting impact, what engages, what is meaningful.
If the role of a journalist is to be a neutral, dispassionate observer, this approach might not yield much of interest. But as journalists develop agency and autonomy to create content, tracking their work in terms of longevity could yield useful insights about what engages a creator as well as a participating audience.
Here are some (rough draft) types of questions researchers could ask journalists:
- In the past week, which story (video, dataset, interview, photo…) has meant the most to you personally? On a scale of one to five, how much did this particular story change your thinking or behavior? (For an example of a “5” on this scale, see this story about Boston Globe reporter Billy Baker.)
- How many people from outside your organization or immediate circles contacted you this week about a story you wrote/edited/produced/shot? This could be face to face, email, text, phone. What stories did they contact you about? Why?
- Which story, to your knowledge, received the most interaction on social media this week? What kind of interaction did you notice? What was your role in it?
- Which story, to your knowledge, received the most online comments this week? What general themes did you see in the comments?
Other questions could be developed to draw out the impact of stories on anyone connected to a particular piece of content. Did their lives, experiences, judgments change as a result of a particular piece of journalism?
These questions could ask journalists to consider longer periods of time as well. If answers were collected by researchers in different communities, read carefully, organized into themes and insights, we could learn about the patterns of content/news/journalism that has meaning to the people most intimately connected to it, and potentially, has meaning to others as well. (Anyone up for a collaboration?)
Information/technology companies value human capital far more than many traditional news organizations. Paying attention to the judgments of the people who create the products we want to measure honors their role in the making of media and meaning. Other metrics are useful, too, but talking to the makers could enrich our understanding of value. Genuine engagement takes genuine commitment.
How might journalists spark more creative innovation in their work? Is design thinking a useful igniter for journalistic innovation?
This was the focus of the latest Carnival of Journalism conversation, which attracted low numbers but high quality responses from dedicated carnivalists. Defining design thinking, understanding audiences and working iteratively were three themes that emerged from the discussion, along with some overall thoughts on innovation.
What is design thinking?
David Cohn (Carnival leader and Director of News at Circa) started the conversation off by providing one view of design thinking: “the TED-talk of market research.”
Adam Westbrook (a web video maker in London and Paris) followed up with a detailed analysis of how design thinking can be much more, applying it to story design. He provided this elegant definition:
Design Thinking is about taking a disciplined, objective and methodical approach to solving a design problem: clearly defining the challenge, creating multiple solutions, picking the best and executing.
Carrie Brown-Smith, a journalism educator at the University of Memphis, praised design thinking because it “can be taught and practiced, making innovation more practical than relying on a sudden brilliant insight that may never come.” And Jonathan Groves, a journalism educator at Drury University, connected design thinking to Clayton Christensen’s “jobs to be done.”
As David noted, design thinking has a faddish tinge that, like all TED-ified ideas, can be overly simplistic. However plenty of people and organizations have found the process valuable for leading to innovative solutions, as Adam and Carrie noted. Steve Outing (journalist, analyst, educator, and media futurist) described five useful tips for innovative thinking unconnected to design thinking, demonstrating there are many paths to innovative destinations.
Where does the audience fit in?
Everyone agreed that innovation requires considering the needs of users. How to do this can be tricky for journalists who value independence and avoid “pandering” to audiences as a point of pride. Negotiating audience needs, desires and behaviors is clearly part of the post-industrial journalistic process; how to do this in a way that is insightful and intellectually honest is something we’re struggling to develop.
David identified the emphasis on audience as an integral part of design thinking:
I think as D-Thinking’s spread to other disciplines, what translates the most is the idea of sympathy for users and trying to identify their problems.
Carrie sees the emphasis on audience as a key focus:
The most important thing we can do to build news products that people will actually use is to learn what our audience really needs and wants. [Design thinking] reinforces the need to start building a new product only after talking to users…
The idea of starting with users — and with a need that needs to be filled or a workflow/habit that needs to be respected — is so, so important.
Jonathan Groves picked up the theme, concluding:
As we develop the next generation of news content, we must embrace the audience and its needs. Such a focus doesn’t mean we should shamelessly cater to all audience wants and desires. It just means we must consider the audience and the contexts of media consumption more completely as we develop our content, whatever form it may take.
Adam, who did a brilliant job applying design thinking to the creation of a narrative story, wrote about the importance of user experience (UX) when creating any kind of journalism displayed on any type of device:
…the design problem is identifying and delivering the meaning of your story in the mind of your audience in the most memorable way.
He showed an example storyboard, plotting not just the content, but his understanding of “the audience’s frame of mind at each stage. What do they know? What don’t they know? What do they want to know?”
Finally, Steve Outing wove in elements of audience considerations in his first tip to sparking innovation in your own thinking. In Tip #1 (Clear the past from your mind) he used as an example innovation at the Washington Post:
For purposes of innovation proposals for the Bezos team, you should focus solely on what new products consumers want or are likely to respond to in a big way.
My take away from all this is that attention to audience is permeating journalistic thinking far more explicitly than in the past. But figuring out best methods for understanding the needs of the audience could use much more analysis. Who do we imagine we are working for, and to what ends?
Model early and often
A second theme that emerged in the posts is that of rapid prototyping, agile development, of mapping ideas and building on them using simple materials, rather than investing serious resources in a product that hasn’t been well tested.
Carrie emphasized this idea as an educator, explaining how design thinking helps journalism students learn to “iterate constantly rather than waiting until you’ve invested many hours in your ideas to test it.”
Jonathan focused on the value of iteration for news organizations:
To survive in this environment, news organizations must become as experimental and nimble as the upstarts. They no longer have the luxury of lengthy content testing; they must push nascent products into the marketplace and iterate while learning from the audience.
Adam illustrated his process of mapping narrative, using [the ultimate design thinking tool] post-it notes. He writes:
Great storytellers in fiction and non-fiction from John McPhee to Rebecca Skloot to Vince Gilligan have praised the simple Index Card as crucial to their Story Design and I feel the same.
Then again, David points out:
…perhaps Design Thinking has a method of clearly exploring potential solutions through sketches, prototypes and mind-mapping, etc. But I don’t think these are specific to Design Thinking. If they are – then who isn’t a design thinker?
Design thinking isn’t the only way to come up with innovative ideas though, as both Steve and David pointed out.
For David, innovation has important moments:
- The aha moment (It’s the most adrenaline filled. The initial idea is a spark and the goal during this period is just to take that spark as far as you can.)
- The spidey-sense (In almost every project I’ve worked on, at some point, I get a “spidey-sense” that something is wrong about a specific aspect.)
- The pivot (It’s how projects iterate and push forward. And it is wholly creative both in that you are re-inventing the project and in the sense that creating anything is also about what you choose NOT to do.)
Steve provided five tips for sparking innovation, all worth attending to, ending with this final tip useful for faculty, journalists and designers:
Set aside time in your schedule for innovation work. Being more innovative requires more than good intentions; it requires committing at least part of your regular work schedule to regular “innovation time.” A weekly team meeting on Innovation Initiatives and Ideas for your news organization would be a good start.
And, of course, you’ll want to get everyone in your team involved. Innovation in the news industry is not a luxury, and it can cover a lot of ground.
Here are the posts, worth reading in full:
- Design Thinking and where creation happens, David Cohn
- Design Thinking and Journalism: A Vital Match in Changing Times, Carrie Brown-Smith
- Storytelling + Design Thinking, Adam Westbrook
- How to spark innovation in your own thinking (journalism edition), Steve Outing
- #jcarn: Finding the communication ‘jobs to be done’, Jonathan Groves
Here we go! This month’s Carnival of Journalism question:
Have you applied design thinking in your work? Has it been useful? Why or why not?
Or, Plan B: How do you get your own creative juices flowing? What sparks innovation in your own thinking, your newsroom or classroom?
Blog your responses to either question and post a link in the comment section below, tweet it (hashtag #jcarn) by Feb. 24 and I’ll post a wrap up by Feb. 28. Many thanks to Carnival master David Cohn for keeping the Carnival running!
Plenty has been written about the need for news organizations to be more innovative and entrepreneurial. Now the challenge is how to be innovative, both at the organizational and individual level. Design thinking is one process that many people have found useful for sparking innovation.
The Knight Foundation recently selected 24 projects to receive $35,000 each from the Knight Prototype Fund. As a first step, Knight provided each of the grantees an intensive two-day workshop in design thinking. [ADDENDUM Feb. 17: See this useful post from the Knight Foundation on using design thinking for community information needs.]
In December, the New York Times featured a story on the D.school at Stanford, which champions design thinking, calling out the work of two students who created a news-reading app bought by LinkedIn for $90 million.
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a process that helps journalists think more explicitly about their work from the perspective of the people who read, watch, listen and share what journalists create.
This doesn’t mean that journalists give up their independence or dish up what they think audiences want. It’s not about focus groups or reader surveys. It requires, first of all, letting go of what we think the problem/story is and really listening to and observing the people who are experiencing whatever we’re concerned with. It starts with people, not technology.
Choosing people to talk with is key. Once the interviews are complete, the team focuses on looking for connections from the various interviews that lead to new insights about the challenge at hand. Discerning people’s needs (articulated or not) and how journalists might better respond to them, can spark new ways of approaching any problem or goal.
The next step also subverts traditional newsroom routines. Rather than planning to make a change and writing memos and forming committees, design thinking encourages people to sketch ideas, get feedback and iterate their ideas quickly. Rapid prototyping forces ideas to be articulated, tested, and improved in a short and low cost way. “Demo don’t memo” can be a useful mantra in faculty meetings or news meetings.
Building, implementing and marketing are separate activities from the design thinking process. The usefulness of the approach is in coming up with innovative ideas for addressing whatever the need is: a better process in the newsroom or classroom, a better story idea, better storytelling, better news product. It’s one way to improve routines, habits and products that we have long stopped seeing.
Design thinking is not new (read this wonderful article on Wicked Problems in Design Thinking from 1992) nor is it new to the news business (see these Gannett videos from 2008) and it’s not always well received (Gannett partnered with design thinking firm IDEO in Detroit in 2008 to some ridicule). Plenty of people have written about the limitations of design thinking. Helen Walters wrote a thoughtful piece in Fast Co. about what design thinking can and cannot do:
…design thinking does not replace the need for design specialists, nor does it magically appear out of some black box. Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.
Instead, it turns up insights galore, and there is real value and skill to be had from synthesizing the messy, chaotic, confusing and often contradictory intellect of experts gathered from different fields to tackle a particularly thorny problem.
No tool is a panacea for every problem. But plenty of people are finding success with incorporating design thinking skillfully at the right moments.
For example, media entrepreneur start-up accelerator Matter uses design thinking to foster the development of projects such as Zeega and OpenWatch. metaLAB projects at Harvard incorporate design thinking. Poynter wrote about design thinking at the Voice of San Diego and a news project in Brazil.
Have you applied design thinking in your work? Has it been useful? Why or why not?
Or, Plan B: How do you get your own creative juices flowing? What sparks innovation in your own thinking, your newsroom or classroom?
Blog your answers, post links in the comments below, share on Twitter (hashtag #jcarn) and I’ll provide a round-up of the responses after the Feb 28 deadline.
More resources on design thinking:
TED talk by IDEO CEO Tim Brown: Designers — Think Big!
TED talk by IDEO founder David Kelley: How to build your creative confidence
Stanford’s d.School: Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking
Helen Walters, Fast Co.:The Seven Deadly Sins that Choke out Innovation
Book by Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King, and Kevin Bennett: Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works, Columbia University Press
Sarah Soule: Why Design Thinking Is an Effective Tool for Social Entrepreneurs
As I’ve written elsewhere (From the Teaching Hospital to the Entrepreneurial Model of Journalism Education), I think the metaphor of a ‘teaching hospital’ for journalism education is problematic. But setting aside the limitations of the concept, Eric Newton recently gave a speech to Dutch educators that includes three useful suggestions for organizing journalism education:
(1) build capacity for emergency journalistic first aid
(2) run clinics for practice in community journalism
(3) create entrepreneurial labs for experimenting with new tools and practices
It’s worth watching/reading: The ‘teaching hospital’ — a goal for journalism education
The “Newton Triad” can be a useful way to categorize the activities of journalism schools. But clinics/labs/classes/skunk works/programs — whatever we call them — we need to better understand and provide what our students (and faculties) need to be able to question, analyze and rigorously test old assumptions and new opportunities for journalistic practice. Watch George Brock of City University of London reflect on Eric Newton’s speech here, making a related argument:
Working at a university is interesting. One spends a great deal of time with people who never age. To counter the angst this can occasionally cause, and to remind myself that I’ve arrived where I am by choice, not accident, I’ve written the following letter from my young self to my present self. (Thanks to this month’s Carnival of Journalism for inspiring this reflective moment.)It’s Christmas, 1977. I’m a junior in college and still haven’t chosen a major. My strategy has been to take classes that sound interesting. My father gives me another lecture and pulls out the latest Berkeley catalog. He tells me to write down every course I’ve taken and figure out which major will get me the closest to graduating. It takes me a number of hours to work through by hand all the possibilities but I finally figure it out: Political Economy of Natural Resources. The following semester I declare my major in a subject I don’t even understand and by May, 1978 I’ve graduated.
Now it’s Christmas, 1980, and I’ve nearly finished my master’s degree in Science, Technology and Public Policy from George Washington University, another degree I only partially understand. I am facing a choice: do I stay in Washington DC and look for the perfect DC career job? Or do I move back to California, my family and a boyfriend I’ve been breaking up with for years? A professional job in an exciting town or a friendship I need closure on?
I decide I can find a job anywhere if I try hard enough; finding what would make me happy might be harder. So I choose California, heading back west where my parents and grandparents also made their way.
Within two months I am engaged. The boyfriend turned out to be even better than I remembered. But now we face a choice together: do we look for career jobs and figure out where to settle down? Or do we take this chance to do something crazy?
We go for crazy. We work temp jobs for the Forest Service. I drive a garbage truck called the Maggot Wagon. I work as a temporary clerical worker at Pier 39 in SF. We save all our money and decide to marry on the sixth anniversary of our first kiss.
By Christmas, 1981 we are in New Zealand. We eat strawberries and play tennis. In April we fly to Australia. We spend two months working temp jobs in Sydney. We spend a week on the Great Barrier Reef. We drive across the outback and break down.
In August we fly to Bali, totally unprepared for life in a foreign language. We figure it out and spend my birthday at an archeological site on Java. After a month we go to Singapore, another month in Malaysia. We find our way to a baby elephant training camp in Thailand and spend time in Chiang Mai. In October, we land in Calcutta, seasoned travelers.
We trek for a month in Nepal and eat our Thanksgiving turkey in Kathmandu. By Christmas we are in Delhi and we spend sunrise on New Year’s Day at the Taj Mahal. We ride camels in Rajastan and tour a toothpaste factory in Bombay. In the spring we head for Europe, luxuriating in a tiny pension in Rome and a cooking for a Servas host in Paris. We skip Frankfurt but land in London with a sister for a month.
And then it’s over. We return to California, broke, happy, together. We find jobs at a non-profit in Marin County. We decide to go back to graduate school and have children at the same time. We spend seven years living in a 500-square foot apartment in Berkeley, have three children, live on the cheap, scrape by.
As your younger self, I want you to remember other Christmas’s too. The one in Strasbourg, France, when you took the kids to Europe for seven months and taught in Spain. The year you spent New Year’s with your son in Patagonia. The Christmas just a few years ago when all five of you drove from Rome to Switzerland in an old van and went skiing. The years you spent holidays playing bunco with friends in the Bay area.
Remember? And now, now I see into the future — it’s Christmas, 2013. You are worried that you’re not productive enough. You think you never spent enough time working as a professional journalist. You never won any prizes. You haven’t landed any big grants. You didn’t submit any conference papers this fall. You know you need to be writing more research articles for publication. You need to grade faster and answer all your email. You think you should have paid more attention to your career and achieved more.
I’m writing this letter to remind you that you made some really good choices back then. You know what? You just celebrated your 32nd wedding anniversary. Your children are happy and doing their own crazy things. Your students will get over waiting for grades. You can still write something worth reading. You’ll dump all your email and no one will suffer.
So … here’s my advice to my older self: Own your choices. Remember what’s important long term and remind your students. Live your values and don’t get caught up in comparisons. Don’t play it safe. Keep making those risky choices you made when you were 21, and when you’re 90, you’ll be really glad you were wild in your 50s.
This month’s Carnival of Journalism delivers a rich conversation about the future of college media, full of excellent advice about what college media could be and should be: a local community news source, entrepreneurial, innovative, radically experimental, process rather than product oriented, and ready to drop the “student” label.
So, how do we get from here to there? And what is the role of journalism educators in this transition?
I can speak only to the situation on the Nevada campus; mileage varies in terms of how this might apply more universally. But on our campus the journalism school has no official relationship with any of the college media outlets. We don’t offer course credit, internship credit, formal mentoring or resources. Occasionally editors will ask for advice informally or form an advisory board that lasts only as long as one editor’s tenure.
The result is that when we have strong editors and engaged students, the newspaper, magazine and budding radio station provide an invaluable experience, preparing students for jobs at respected national media outlets and serving the campus community. But when we don’t have adept students with the passion and means to work long hours for little or no pay, the outlets don’t get close to fulfilling their potential.
Serious innovation isn’t going to happen just because we hope it will. Short-term commitments, financial pressures and inexperience are barriers to innovation that we as educators need to address much more directly.
What are some levers educators could employ to help the process along?
Value the work: Consider offering course credit or internship credit for participating in campus media. This would enable students to commit more time to their efforts and cause educators to take the work more seriously.
Improve recognition of high quality, innovative work: When students produce exceptional work, take notice. When they do something radically experimental, recognize it. Encourage regular post-production quality review; build a school culture that recognizes and makes explicit standards of excellence in regards to journalistic quality and to innovation.
Help students build support networks that inspire innovation: Invite alumni, community leaders, faculty in other colleges, and student media leaders from other campuses to visit and talk about innovations in community and college media.
Build skills related to innovation: Conduct design thinking workshops or enable students to attend design workshops elsewhere; facilitate entrepreneurial learning through courses or others means; sponsor films, events and speakers focused on processes of innovation; teach prototyping and usability testing; partner with other units on campus and community businesses/organizations engaged in innovation and entrepreneurship.
Identify new roles within media organizations: Most college media are built around long-established newsroom roles: reporter/editor/photographer. Educators are in a good position to talk about emerging roles in news media: community managers, social media coordinators, visualization experts, data journalists, coders, interactive designers, multimedia storytellers and more traditional roles of increasing importance: investigative journalists and breaking news teams. Help students see the possibilities of specialized focus for themselves and their student news organizations. Facilitate partnerships, online training resources and courses to help students learn the skills necessary for the jobs they want to pursue.
Facilitate connections with the local community: If campus news media are to expand to the surrounding community as advocated by Aram Zucker-Scharff, help build connections with the local community by embedding community relationships in course work and inviting local community leaders to speak and engage with the school.
Increase interaction with faculty and students from strategic communications and marketing: These folks specialize in engagement and attention; news students could learn a lot from some of their approaches. It’s not enough to simply push content. Understanding audiences and what people pay attention to and why will improve the findability, shareability and relevance of journalism.
Involve advertising students: The advertising model for online journalism needs as much (or more) innovation as the news side. Encourage advertising faculty to engage with these questions in their classes and use college news organizations as examples and clients.
Provide seed funding: Encourage small teams of students to build collaborations and college news experiments by sponsoring challenge grants, seed grants and securing local funding and in-kind donations.
Require students to create and maintain online portfolios of their work: Show students the value of creating a professional online identity and of producing work that is evidence of their talents, skills and experience. Stress the value of creating a college media experience that helps them produce this work.
College media has the potential to:
- Provide excellent training for students for their future careers
- Make valuable contributions to local communities through journalism
- Build noteworthy examples of sustainable journalism for the future
- (Addendum: Teach students habits of citizenship that will benefit them regardless of their future careers (as well as strengthen our democracies)
How else might we facilitate this potential?in a talk at the Reynolds School, David Cohn, director of news at Circa and founder of Spot.Us made the point that technology companies are becoming media companies: Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook all started as technology companies — in Apple’s case, a hardware company — yet all have moved closer and closer to sponsoring, producing, aggregating and selling media.Last week
Wired just published a thought provoking interview with Andrew DeVigal (thanks to Craig Silverman at Spundge for the tip!) in which DeVigal speaks to the question of whether media companies (in this case, The New York Times) should become a technology company:
…Part of the challenge there is that the New York Times, which is a media company would then become a software company. Not to say that isn’t the right thing to do, but is that what the Times wants? It’d be a pretty major shift in mindset and operations, you know, to support customers and support the technology. Do we really want to see teams of journalists turned into teams of support technologists?
It makes me wonder if a team at Apple ever asked themselves: Do we really want to turn ourselves into a music company? Or whether the early team at Microsoft that decided to adapt an encyclopedia for the Web (remembering Encarta) worried about whether their engineers knew enough to create media. Will journalists lose their critical space in the network because they can’t imagine how to reconfigure themselves?
DeVigal goes on to describe the next frontier in interactive news, which to me reinforces one of the reasons why media and technology have to move closer together:
Trying to capture a narrative around data is still the missing link. How do we blend interactive story telling with information?
We’ve recently reconfigured our curriculum to include narrative, data and social journalism courses. But what I get from DeVigal is that after these foundational courses, we should be pushing ourselves to integrate these concepts and produce something new that marries media and technology. We can’t tell stories on one page and display data on another; these two forms of information need to be integrated in ways we’re just beginning to invent.
DeVigal emphasized the need to more deeply engage readers, and one way to do that is through games. Let the reader simulate driving a car while texting, or play different roles within a documentary of the Haitian earthquake. We have to experiment to understand how to arrest attention and help people focus on the message/the story/the issue we are presenting. Integrating narrative with data through the framework of a game may be the closest template we have at the moment for thinking through a new form of news.
DeVigal’s final advice on what we should be teaching:
Strong Storytelling Skills (“Know Story” he said)
Facility with Software (being able to whip out an idea is valuable)
Ability to Collaborate (absolutely critical)
If journalism/media companies are to become tech companies, then journalism schools have to become much, much more tech saavy. We who prepare students: Are we preparing them to jump start new types of news, with the attitudes necessary to grok the merging of numbers, stories and social?
We can’t start the journalism curriculum by drilling AP style, the inverted pyramid and 1:30 second news packages and expect students to come out on the other end with new ideas. Maybe it’s on us to become Schools of Information, in all its forms, to make sure we stay in the game.Brown Institute for Media Innovation (and drool a bit) over the thought of having resources to spend on journalism/engineering collaborations between Columbia and Stanford students. Learning from their innovations, as well as from the Knight News Challenge grants, the work of folks at the MIT Media Lab and many other pockets of creative thinkers hooked to generous resources, brightens the prospects for journalism spectacularly.It’s fun to read about the new
I think it helps everyone when an entity is able to decide what it’s about and build an idea. Lots can be done at a smaller scale, too, and I am excited to see how different programs, including ours, answer that challenge. I see a great need for programs to develop innovative products using all open-source, freely available tools, or to use old tools in new ways. There’s plenty of invention and experimentation to be done, and bravo to anyone who gets the traction and support to unfold a solid strategy.
Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation, published another post in his series about journalism education this week: “Do universities hear the critics of journalism education?” His post identifies important directions for where journalism education should go — but his prescription for how to get there is way off the mark.
His analysis includes this excellent graphic laying out the transition in journalism school curriculum; these markers reflect the evolving focus in the industry as well as in journalism education:
Urging schools to focus more on the Web, on community engagement, on creating new story forms and to respond more fully to other content creators makes perfect sense. Judging from the enthusiastic response to panels on these topics at recent conferences, many faculty members are in agreement.
The rub is in what to do about it.
Eric’s solutions are:
- Make sure journalism programs remain independent from other academic units
- Keep scholars away from running journalism programs
- Hire professionals and make them equal with scholars
- Create professional doctorates
- Make journalism schools nimble
- Connect with the rest of the university
- Innovate with digital tools
- Master more open, collaborative tools
- Become teaching hospitals
I have three concerns about these recommendations:
(1) Hiring more professionals isn’t going to fix journalism education. There are probably more change-resistent professionals in j-schools than out-of-touch academics. Some of the biggest obstacles to change in journalism programs are professionals who defend old habits and socialize students into believing that ‘real’ journalists make fun of Twitter and would never ‘engage’ with the audience and taint their independence.
The truth is both scholars and professionals can be innovative or resistent to change — the difference has a lot more to do with attitude and mindset than training. My concern is that reviving the anti-intellectual thread in American journalism that has contributed in some measure to the current crisis doesn’t help journalism education or the industry and in fact could do a great deal of harm. Simply adding more professionals to journalism programs — absent other changes — will not make schools more nimble, open, or innovative and in many cases could slow these initiatives.
(2) Arguing for large stand alone journalism programs overlooks other models that might generate new ideas. Journalism programs have to connect with the rest of the university — on this we are in agreement. Whether that’s best done between colleges, or between colleagues within colleges, is an open question. For example, journalism faculty could play critical roles in interdisciplinary programs that combine computer science, art, business and other disciplines, regardless of how the journalism program is configured.
Eric argues that journalism schools should be both large and nimble, a difficult mix. Rather than dictating institutional structures, however, why not rigorously experiment with different types of programs, large and small, in various configurations? ASU, Missouri and Columbia are like The New York Times — institutions to aspire to but not applicable to every organization in every university.
(3) The teaching hospital metaphor is of limited usefulness in journalism education. A colleague and I are presenting a paper at ISOJ in April that explores this topic in much more depth. The primary component of our argument is that teaching hospitals focus on delivery of content — the same mindset as the professional news organizations that are imploding. They are all about supplying more and better journalism.
But as the demand for what we supply is radically shifting, we need fresh ways of working, not formal institutional structures with external obligations. We need flexibility and nimbleness to build one product one semester and something entirely different another semester. In an era of tight budgets, investing in year-round news making infrastructure works only for the largest, most well-funded journalism education programs.
The students and journalists who infiltrate the rest of the working news world need more flexible and entrepreneurial training. More journalism programs should be about educating the future disruptors. We need more than ‘teaching hospitals’ to create new routines and practices and help students understand that journalism includes a wide array of important work that might not look anything like the front page of the Washington Post or the ABC Evening News.
The Knight Foundation has been the leading funder of innovation in journalism. The Knight News Challenge grants and Information Needs of Community program have kickstarted an explosion of entrepreneurial initiatives. But the foundation’s message on journalism education has been much more mixed. More good work is going on than is apparent in the broadsides aimed at the academy.
We hear our critics — they are sitting in the front rows of our classes every day. What we need is the equivalent of News Challenge grants for educational initiatives. Empowering the kind of thinking that has gone on in that competition — encouraging educators, students and others to build on the disruptive transformation going on in education as well as journalism — could remake journalism programs from the slow moving creatures that Eric criticizes to truly transformational programs.