Networked Journalism Education

J-schools: Leaders, partners or followers?

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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.

Written by Donica

January 31st, 2010 at 9:23 am

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