Archive for January, 2010
You could argue that with the massive downsizing going on in American newsrooms, the last thing we need are journalism schools churning out graduates by the thousands. No one argues that medical schools are critical to the practice of medicine but arguments about the relevancy of j-schools are endless (a recent example: The end of the world as we know it).
Yet, this could be a moment for j-schools to escape their sometimes second-rate status and become central players in some of the most important questions facing society. How do we improve public discourse? How can people most reliably become their own critical information editors? How can we reinvigorate public decision making systems? What should the university of the future look like?
This isn’t just wishful thinking on the part of a j-school prof thinking about her own future. Here are three (important) notes on the potential importance of journalism education in the coming year(s):
(1) C.W. Anderson, writing for Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, wrote a post in December on “Next year’s news about the news: What we’ll be fighting about in 2010.” He identifies five questions worth exploring in 2010, #4 of which is the future of j-schools:
4. What’s the future of journalism school? This one’s fairly self-explanatory. But as the profession it serves mutates, what’s in store for the venerable institution of j-school? Dave Winer thinks we might see the emergence of journalism school for all; Cody Brown thinks j-school might someday look like the MIT Center For Collective Intelligence. Either way, though, j-school probably won’t look like it does now. Even more profoundly, perhaps, the question of j-school’s future is inseparable from questions about the future of the university in general, which, much like the news and music industries, might be on the verge of its own massive shake-up.
Since the links in C.W.’s post didn’t come through, this post is also worth reading: Dave Winer’s “What does a J-School of the Future look like?” (His answer: I think everyone should have a basic education in journalism, at least one semester. We need people to understand the basic practices: How to do an interview, the structure of a news report, what does integrity mean and why it’s so important. What should we expect as consumers? Or are we users now? Audience? Participants? How to write up a bad experience with a company. With the government. With the university you attend. … How to be a citizen in the 21st century.”
(2) The October 2009 report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age made 15 recommendations to help meet the information needs of communities. Five are relevant to journalism schools:
Recommendation 3: Increase the role of higher education, community and nonprofit institutions as hubs of journalistic activity and other information-sharing for local communities.
Recommendation 5: Develop systematic quality measures of community information ecologies, and study how they affect social outcomes.
Recommendation 6: Integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.
Recommendation 12: Engage young people in developing the digital information and communication capacities of local communities.
Recommendation 15: Ensure that every local community has at least one high-quality online hub.
(3) Len Witt is doing a series of interesting interviews on the future of journalism on his site for the Center for Sustainable Journalism. In an interview with Michael Schudson in December, Schudson touched on a role he sees for j-schools:
A lot of qualified and experienced journalists are losing their jobs and there is a gap opening up, it seems to me, in mainstream local accountability journalism in particular. And that needs filling for the sake of our society, for the sake of our democracy. How to do that? …
We are interested to see universities step up to the plate as well and they are doing it too, journalism schools in particular. But we’ve seen it at environmental studies programs and ed schools as well are getting into the publication business, writing directly for the general public. … We need a mixed model of funding streams and we need society to take a kind of common responsibility for providing news to the democratic public.
None of this will come to pass if j-schools continue to conceive of themselves primarily as educators of tomorrow’s newsroom, public relations and advertising agency workforce. That’s part of what got us into the current predicament: failing to educate for more than the first job, focusing on the latest technology more than on what our work was really accomplishing, getting mired in professionals v. scholars debates instead of producing useful work.
So, we have some moments of opportunity for j-schools to remake themselves as leaders in shaping the post-newspaper information environment and worthy partners for innovation and experimentation. Building relevant public scholarship, engaging in community conversations, inspiring university students will insure that we become genuine contributors to the future of our communities and our discipline.
The word “networks” gets thrown around a lot (including in the title of this blog). In terms of journalism, one could argue that journalists have always been about networking. We network with sources, subjects and readers and use that networking to our advantage when finding and writing stories.
“Social” networking in this age, however, means something different. A recent post on the Harvard Business Review by John Hagel III and John Seely Brown had a powerful description of the difference:
In the classical networking approach, the game is about presenting yourself in the most favorable light possible while flattering the other person into giving you their contact information. This approach quickly degenerates into a manipulative exchange where the real identities of both parties rapidly recede into the background, replaced by carefully staged presentations of an artificial self. These staged interactions rarely build trust. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect, putting both parties on guard and reinforcing wariness and very selective disclosure.
A learning disposition leads to a very different approach. Now the effort focuses on understanding the needs of the other, with a particular focus on understanding the biggest issues others are wrestling with. This requires intense curiosity, deep listening and empathy that seeks to understand the context that other person is operating in. It also requires willingness to disclose vulnerabilities, since it is often hard to get the other person to share their most challenging issues without a sense that you are willing to do the same.
Much can be learned simply by exploring the experiences of the other person, but even more can be learned by finding common ground — identifying common issues that you both face. This provides a context to work collaboratively in addressing particular challenges or opportunities that draw out the experiences and knowledge that you both have and end up creating new knowledge. Now we are beginning to tap into not just flows of existing tacit knowledge, but generating flows of new knowledge.
Journalists may have always hoped to be engaged in ‘social’ networking as described here, but calling sources to extract perfect quotes in an already conceptualized story is the opposite of “a learning disposition.” Getting people to divulge information while developing a contrary story angle, assuming the worst from politicians and bureaucrats, playing up partisan divides for easy story lines makes for a very particular kind of journalism — the kind being rejected by millions, regardless of what device it appears on.
In j-schools, we’ve been really good at drilling AP style and the importance of meeting deadlines, at teaching the craft of 500-word stories and headline writing with verbs. Some of these skills are still needed, obviously, but if we don’t set our sights much, much higher in many ways and address the type of networking Seely Brown describes here, we’ll not be meeting the needs of our students, our discipline, industry or the public.
If we want people to read our journalism, to interact with the issues we feel so deeply about, to fix corrupt government and respond to community problems, we can no longer operate in a vacuum, networking at our own convenience. We have to understand how our roles have changed and what place we have in already existing networks.
We can’t afford to not be “generating flows of new knowledge.” That’s where we could excel and contribute as journalists…and how we could produce a “journalism that matters.”
Does “community engagement” belong in the j-school curriculum?
Robert Niles, writing in the Online Journalism Review, Doing journalism in 2010 is an act of community organizing, says absolutely, yes:
The journalists who succeed online are the ones who understand that they are no longer simply reporters… they’ve become community organizers.
Consider these examples:
Jonathan Weber, the new editor-in-chief of the Bay Area News Project, spent the past four years building New West, a multi-platform, multi-revenue stream media network covering local news in the west. In an interview with Baynewser, he talks about what he’s looking for in some of his new staff (he’ll be hiring 15 editorial staff to start with):
a part of the staff will be devoted to the community development relationship-building, collaboration-building with both other media organizations and with bloggers and lots of other kinds of contributors [like] UC Berkeley, not only the [journalism] students but also the faculty, perhaps other departments at Berkeley. So some of the full-time staff will be devoted to developing and nurturing those kinds of relationships, and that is a somewhat different skill set than a traditional journalism skill set.
Because Weber has solid and successful experience doing this kind of work for New West, he knows what he’s talking about. It’s not a theoretical conception of journalism, but a working knowledge of how journalism works online.
Another example is this job description from John Temple, the new editor of Peer News in Honolulu. He’s also looking for reporters and says: “The job will require more interaction with readers and the community than is typical at most local news operations.” (I’m moving to Honolulu…)
Interacting with readers takes a different approach to journalism than we teach in most j-school courses, where students are taught to develop news sense, story ideas, sources and writing style independently from contact with people in the community. Calling expert sources for a quote doesn’t count. Listening to what people need and want to know about and building journalism around that premise, rather than building our journalism sense in isolation, would get us much closer to the kind of journalism that I think will be successful online.
Umair Haque has a Harvard Business Review post on “Google, China, and the New High Ground of Advantage” today that continues his theme on new capitalism. It’s made me think about how news organizations of the future can build on the high ground that Umair describes:
The old high ground was built for 20th century economics: sell more junk, earn more profit, “grow” — and then crash. An ethical edge operates at a higher economic level. It is concerned with what we sell, how profits are earned, and which authentic, human benefits “grow.” It’s a concept built for the economics of an interdependent world.
I could never understand how large scale news capitalists could sustain a business model that treated reporters like hamsters (as a Gannett reporter friend used to describe it) while funding lavish corporate expenditures. That’s a stereotype of course, and there were many exceptions, but in large part, ours was an industry that expended little energy on building the human capital of newsrooms and a great deal of energy on building the financial capital of corporate investors.
In this frustrating transition from the large corporate newsrooms of the 20th century to the smaller new organization of the future, we can’t just downside what we have. We have to start from fundamentally different premises:
It’s time for a great reboot. Today’s great challenge isn’t blindly building countries, companies, or households on a broken set of institutions. It is reimagining new institutions for a hyperconnected world. Answering that challenge begins, from my tiny perspective, with an ethical edge as the cornerstone of every kind of organization. Seeking an ethical edge is the truest test of a Constructive Capitalist.
The ethics he describes aren’t the rights-focused narrow conception of ethics taught in many j-schools today. It’s an ethics that encompasses the entire organization — not just reporters and editors, but publishers, human resource managers, community journalists and all of the organization’s participants — and places the entire organization within the context of the community in which it operates. This is not impractical. It’s the path to the economic and social future for sustainable news organizations. J-schools need to be one place that forge and build this new vision for journalists and their emerging new organizations.