“THE PRECARITY OF THE JOURNALISM DEGREE AT A TIME OF INDUSTRY UPHEAVAL”
This article aims to explore the various approaches to journalism education prevalent in Canada and the U.S. currently. The article will put recent academic work in conversation with news commentary and industry reports. The questions that my article will explore are: is a journalism degree useful at a time when tuition costs and ever-changing industry standards make a future in journalism so tenuous? What new or proposed models of journalism education that point toward shifts in the ways that journalism is practiced and discussed in an academic setting? The proposed article will provide an overview of the debates between both industry professionals and those interested in journalism’s place in North America. Some of the models to be discussed include: the medical school model of journalism education, which puts a premium on the interaction between students and practicing journalists, and the entrepreneurial approach which encourages creativity and self-promotion along with a knowledge of new media communication. The article will provide insights into the place that journalism educations has historically occupied within Canadian and American universities, before moving to a final discussion about how that space has been made problematic by the monumental changes to journalism practice. As newsrooms tackle the problem of creating revenue and communicate effectively in an online news environment, this article explores how are journalism schools are attempting to create curriculum that meets journalism’s needs but also allows students to be think critically about the industry many of them hope to enter.
Keywords: journalism education; journalism; new models; journalism degree
Teaching good old-fashioned skills such as reporting and editing is no longer enough. We need to better prepare students to meet the needs of the rapidly changing world of the media. We need to rethink not only what professional skills are taught but how they are taught.
This article aims to engage with current debates around the role of journalism programs in Canadian and American universities. It aims to provide an overview of the recent scholarship in the area of journalism education, and to put that scholarship in conversation with recent popular accounts and opinions about the state of the relationship between journalism processes as they are being taught in the university and journalism as it is being practiced. As Stephen Reese argues, because of the pivotal role that the academy and the press play as ‘cultural authorities, both spaces experience “significant struggle during institutional crisis.” Even in the face of such crisis, undergraduate and graduate degrees in journalism and mass communications are found in almost every country on earth, with more than 500 journalism schools in North America and 3,500 worldwide. It is in university journalism departments that these two worlds comingle and where the struggle to maintain authority demands a consideration of journalism as theoretical fodder, as practice, as an academic discipline, and as a profession. Even as the problems of industry guide the conversations in journalism department classrooms, the sense of urgency to make changes may be lacking. As Camp writes, “as long as enrollment remains stable, universities may lack the incentive to reevaluate their journalism programs and their place in the broader academic community.” This article hopes to serve as a snapshot of journalism education, currently, as new directions are being explored. To what degree they are new though will be a focal point for the following sections.
The article will rely on a small number of scholars, but will tease out their respective arguments and contextualize them to make the ties between historical and current evident. The overarching aim of this article is to bring into sharp relief the precarity of the journalism degree as shifts in communication technology, news production and information consumption – among other factors – have made it hard to know what training will be necessary for students aspiring to be journalists. In terms of the teaching of journalism within the university, the article will explore the historical rifts that have between journalism programs and university administration and other academic disciplines. There will be a particular focus on the relationship between journalism and communications departments. Camp explains that as the death knell continues to toll for newspapers in North America, the rise of the amateur journalist has also meant that the future of professional journalism has been called into question. With amateur journalists taking to the Internet, Camp (2012) explains the plight of the professional journalist, and poses the question: “If professional journalism is in decline, what is the justification for journalism schools?”
Industry and scholarly debates about journalism education
On August 8, 2013, the journalism think tank Poynter Institute published its News University’s The Future of Journalism Education: 2013, which included a survey of members of the journalistic community as well as journalism school faculty, conveys a disparity between the two groups in terms of the value that is placed on a journalism degree. The report concludes that “journalism degrees are in danger of becoming perceived as irrelevant. This is reflected in the elimination of journalism programs or the incorporation of journalism into the wider communications curriculum in many universities.” In the wake of the report, it is useful to look at debates both within academic institutions and the journalism industry, in the U.S. and Canada, which have garnered increasing scholarly and industry attention in recent years. These contemporary opinions reflect dialogues that have existed between journalism education and practice since the first North American journalism schools opened their doors in the early 20th century. Before discussing current trends within journalism education, this section will explore the tensions that have long existed between journalism as it is taught and journalism as it is practiced.
In the early 1900s, New York publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer foresaw that journalism programs would proliferate across America and “would be seen in roughly the same lights as schools of law, medicine, and engineering.” He was correct on one account, as new journalism programs and streams continue to emerge in Canada and the U.S., but journalism still struggles to achieve the status of academic discipline, for various reasons, including the hiring criteria within journalism programs – who are under pressure to strike a balance between practical experience and academic accomplishment – and the relationship journalism departments have with the public. There were early indicators that, like other programs that offer professional training, journalism education would find itself in perpetual limbo, caught between theoretical concerns over the place of journalism in society and trying to fill the needs and expectations of the journalism industry.
Two competing approaches to journalism education emerged quickly, drawing a line between practical and theoretical early on in the discipline’s North American formation. The first, William Bleyer’s approach at the University of Wisconsin, integrated journalism with the liberal arts, while the University of Missouri’s Walter Williams promoted “hands-on training in a ‘real-world’ environment”. Current journalism education practice usually falls into one of these two camps, although contemporary iterations have taken on myriad forms. In general, colleges and polytechnical institutions take the skills-based approach advocated by Williams, while universities usually opt to emphasize theory and critical thinking alongside courses on writing, editing and news-gathering techniques. Contemporary debates around journalism education continually refer to these two opposing approaches, although current talk around the future of university and college journalism programs, whether as part of a liberal arts education or as part of a practical skills method, mirror those that are taking place within the journalism industry. But, while journalism struggles to validate its place, and find sources of revenue that will keep it sustainable going forward, journalism school faces pressure both from the industry and from the more established academic disciplines. Reese writes of journalism education’s two-front battle:
Its lesser status and wealth compared to other professional programs make it potentially more dependent on outside help, while its relative immaturity make it suspect by older disciplines. Thus the academic case for journalism must be clearly thought out to help guide and withstand these crosscutting pressures.
Journalism education must serve the needs of the industry it hopes to provide with journalists, while at the same time maintaining curricula and standards to guarantee its future within the university. Winning over prospective students is an added pressure, especially as the industry, and university liberal arts degree programs, provides little in the way of guarantees in the job market.
In a March 1, 2013 post on the Maclean’s website, titled “Is a journalism degree worth doing?”, Jane Switzer, a graduate of the Ryerson University’s Master of Journalism program, voiced her disappointment in the department’s curriculum. She argues against the liberal arts focus as part of a journalism degree, writing that, “It’s a shame that some aspiring journalists think j-school is the arbiter of their professional worth, and that the journalism degree is the only route to employment. It shouldn’t be.” The argument that Switzer makes against university journalism degree-granting programs is partly based on a cost-benefit analysis. According to a 2011 survey, which Switzer cites, journalists in Ontario have seen a steady decline in pay between the years of 2009 and 2011. The survey found that those who had finished j-school in 2007 were averaging $45,000. Two years later in 2011, those who had finished in 2009 were making just $41,151. Over that same period, the survey found that median wages for university graduates barely changed from $49,169 to $49,151. For Switzer, and for many hoping to break into the Canadian news industry, the time spent in the classroom takes away from time in newsrooms. Switzer says the redeeming value of journalism school for her was the connections that it allowed her to make with news outlets and established journalists. It is this desire on the part of the journalism students to get out of the classroom and start establishing themselves in the industry that intensifies the already contentious relationship between journalism education and journalism in practice. This is a phenomenon experienced by any program that offers professional training, be it business, law, medical, or journalism.
In his article, “Defining the Nature of Graduate Education,” Soloski writes about the difficult position that journalism departments find themselves in, writing: “From within the academy, professional programs are often considered second-class citizens because they are thought to teach nothing but technical skills and their professors are thought to be practitioners and not scholars. From outside the academy, the professions criticize these programs for not keeping up with their needs.” This need to validate itself within the academy and industry has a direct effect on curriculum development and faculty selection.
In terms of department hiring processes, Reese makes the correlation that many university journalism degree programs draw between professional experience and classroom authority problematic. He rightly points out that, “Professional experience in journalism, for example, need not qualify one as an academic any more than being a successful teacher means that one is ready to assume a top editorial position.” Faculty hiring is one of the ways in which journalism programs can maintain connections to the journalism industry. By hiring practicing journalists, editors, and publishers to teach at journalism schools, the departments can maintain relationships with news outlets and increase the number of job and internship opportunities for students. However, as Reese argues, industry experience in no way guarantees command of a university classroom. Also, it should come as no surprise that the criteria for hiring within journalism programs isolates them from other university disciplines, disciplines that equate professorial positions with years of publishing in peer-reviewed journals and books, as well as participation in funded research. It is difficult for universities to adequately access a journalist’s qualifications as a teacher, leaving journalism programs with the alternative of hiring professors who studied journalism as graduate students, but who don‘t have experience working as journalists. The former option helps programs stay connected to journalism as practice, while the latter helps toward validating the programs within the university. Camp writes that universities in Canada, for the most part, have “opted for a mix of qualifications when hiring journalism professors.” He argues that while this approach may remedy the immediate problem of strategically staffing journalism faculty to appease the journalist industry, it also may isolate journalism programs from the rest of the university, as journalism instructors will occupy a different category then their colleagues in other academic disciplines.
Curricula development in journalism schools mirrors the tensions experienced in faculty hiring. In the following section, I will lay out some of the directions that journalism schools in Canada and the U.S are taking in attempts to meet current industry demands, as well as to fulfill university expectations. This conversation will be broken into two more manageable debates currently taking place in journalism schools. The first looks at the ‘teaching hospital’ approach to journalism education, which advocates strong ties between journalism schools and the journalism industry. One alternative to that model, is an entrepreneurial model of journalism education. I will outline the arguments for and against these two models. In the second discussion, I will explore the current versions of the trade school versus knowledge profession debates. These two disparate views of journalism education are informed by previous schools of thought, but – in terms of trade school approach – they represent attempts to provide alternatives to traditional journalism education that reflect the changes in communications technology. As for the knowledge profession approach, many programs want their curriculum to include reflections on, and critiques of, journalism’s role in society.
The “teaching hospital” approach to journalism education
Lemann (2009) introduced the term, “teaching hospital,” as an approach by which journalism schools would be in a position to “provide essential services to their communities while they are educating their students.” Lemann argues that because of the Internet “doesn’t support the kind of journalism that covers production costs,” university journalism programs are in a position to provide the kind of reportage that isn’t financially viable with the emergence of online journalism as the primary medium by which many news readers get their content. With their close proximity to experts and innovators in other academic disciplines, Lemann writes that journalism programs can produce more sophisticated coverage than their professional counterparts. As well as providing communities with another news source, the “teaching hospital” approach, as a part of the lineage of practical-minded journalism programs, gets students on-the-job experience instead of time in the classroom. Lemann does talk about the importance of instruction in “news literacy” courses, explaining that such courses serve to “educate civilians about how journalism works,” but, he writes, original new production in journalism in the department should be the priority. According to its detractors, the “teaching hospital” approach lacks critical awareness, which doesn’t adequately account for the scale and pace of change within the journalism industry. It also assumes too much in its assertions about the correlations between journalism and other professions – including medicine and law.
In their 2013 publication, Mensing and Ryfe, write that the metaphor of the “teaching hospital,” makes it harder for students to “think differently” about journalism. They write:
Rather than creating conditions for students to help re-think journalistic practices, the teaching hospital model reinforces the conviction that content delivery is the primary purpose of journalism.
Instead of thinking about journalism in new ways and engaging in critical explorations of journalistic practice, the “teaching hospital” model is all about producing quality content. Lemann’s description of the purpose of “news literacy” provides of useful site of tension between advocates and critics of the “teaching hospital” model. Lemann assumes a fixity in journalism, stating that such courses will help to encourage people to read the news everyday, while the counterargument is that journalism schools should provide spaces in which students can critically examine news production and consumption. In this way, the “hospital approach’ implies that journalism just needs to be practiced more rigorously, rather than approaching journalism as a field, profession, and practice that has been witness to its fundamental values being called into question.
Broadening the definition of what it means to be a journalist
Mensing and Ryfe argue for an entrepreneurial model that urges flexibility in the wake of major changes that continue to occur in journalism practice. They lay out a entrepreneurial curriculum for journalism education that differs from the “teaching hospital” model, in that it would include considerations of what journalism means to society, and taking into account a diverse range of journalistic practices. They argue that this would include, at the pedagogical level, “giving students a way of thinking about the purpose of information in society, with concrete examples, would help them figure out for themselves what journalism means and what it is for.” The authors say the biggest challenge to implementing an entrepreneurial approach is orientating journalism education so the primary foci become ‘community and individual,’ instead of the journalism industry. The result, according to Mensing and Ryfe, is that the first consideration by the journalism programs would be how to better serve the communities in which they are situated. The barrier to such an orientation lies in the fact that meeting the needs of audiences and building long-lasting relationships with communities, “is exceedingly difficult to do in an academic setting with students who come and go, semesters that begin and end and faculty who are neither paid nor rewarded for community service.”
In a similar vein, there has been turn in recent years to a critical-service learning approach in journalism education. This model of journalism education, even more so than the entrepreneurial approach, promotes a critical self- reflexivity and heightened sense of responsibility to audiences. Clark describes the approach:
As students in critical service-learning experiences are encouraged to be open to discovering the limitations of their own perspectives so that they might truly engage dialogically with their community partners, critical service learning holds great potential in relation to a journalism education program that is oriented toward supporting pluralist approaches to journalism and challenging notions of journalistic autonomy, impartiality, and objectivity.
The move in journalism toward questioning the tenets around which the practice has organized itself up until now, is a radical shift reflecting the questions being posed by groups including, news consumers, media critics, cultural studies theorists, and journalism studies scholars. Clark looks to the work of Deuze (2005), who offers a corrective to the “industry/university impasse,” by considering the connections between journalism and journalism education. Deuze’s focus is the ideology of professional journalists, which he defines as the “collection of values, strategies, and professional codes characterizing professional journalism and shared by most of its members.” Evident in Clark’s approach – and in her turn to Deuze – is a focus on community and citizenry. She advocates that journalism students be encouraged to be self-reflexive and to be critical when considering news outlets as economic structures. She calls on journalism educators to “empower students to embrace a self-concept as a globally sensitive journalist who seeks truth, accuracy, and comprehension, but one who is also a member of that global community rather than merely a neutral observer of it.” So, what courses can best aid aspiring journalists to reach the lofty goals put forward by scholars, including Clarke and Deuze? A possible path to critical, community-orientated reportage is the journalism as knowledge profession model, which shares in common with the entrepreneurial and critical service approaches an emphasis on critical thinking and flexibility.
Journalism as a “knowledge profession”
As has been stated, with the proliferation of online news content, professional journalists and the educational institutions are facing increasing pressure to validate their existence as an ever-increasing population of citizen journalists and bloggers is producing content. One way to promote journalism as a profession is to emphasize the distinctions between content creators and journalists. While advocating for the importance of educational focus on social media and mobile delivery of news, Donsbach (2013) argues that the surge of content that has accompanied changes in communication technology, makes professional journalism even more vital. He writes:
All citizen journalists’ activities, bloggers, activists, or social media fans forwarding links to news sites cannot replace the two core functions that professional journalism brings to society; that is 1) sorting out the relevant parts of reality, checking assertions about these, and relating them to other parts of reality in the present and past; and 2) building a commonly accepted platform for social discourse credited with trust by society.
While I have emphasized the tension between education and industry in the previous models and debates in this article, Donsbach argument is partly a response to the emphasis placed on new technologies in journalism education. He advocates for an interdisciplinary education as a way to foster critical thinking and subject expertise. He writes that this model could include an integrative dual major at the undergraduate level; an undergraduate journalism degree followed by graduate work in a substantive field; an undergraduate degree in a disciplinary field followed by graduate work in journalism; graduate training in both journalism and a substantive field; or mid-career subject-area training for practicing journalists. He believes that a journalism education that facilitates conversations about journalism under the umbrella of other subjects (for example, politics or statistics) will prepare students to be more informed and effective journalists. As the industry attempts to keep up with current communication technologies, scholars, including Donsbach, have argued that it is the processes behind quality journalistic practice and not instruction in “how to use the latest technology of communication,” should be the focus of journalism degree-granting programs. Reese sees particular benefits in journalism programs joining forces with other communication disciplines, which he believes will provide “greater concentration of political strength and authority on university campuses”
The opinion that aspiring journalists benefit from an education in fields other than journalism is widely shared – even within the industry. As Camp notes, “There are still accomplished journalists who question the value of studying journalism in university, partly because they think that any aspiring journalist would be better off studying something—in fact, anything—else.” The financial constraints on those who wish to pursue a post-secondary education still apply though, and whether you are placing journalism education firmly within a skills-based tradition or allowing it to cross-pollinate with other disciplines, lack of jobs – and therefore the lack of a revenue stream once school is done – makes any kind of university journalism training a hard sell. Journalism schools in Canada and the U.S. are feeling the effects of the above-stated tensions. In his April 17, 2013 blog post on Poynter.org, Tom Rosentiel writes that in recent years U.S. universities have decided to do away with standalone journalism programs all together. The reason, he argues, is that “the trade school model of teaching journalism, which has never fit comfortably in research universities, falters when the jobs supporting it are shrinking.” He urges journalism programs to focus on learning streams that facilitate online interaction and specialize in technology and data processing. As has been noted above, an emphasis on technology also has its pitfalls – the most blaring being the speedy rate of obsolescence for communication technologies, so that what journalism students learn now, could be out-of-date by they time they enter the job market.
The journalism school curriculum once was deemed acceptable within most Canadian and U.S. journalism departments is now being challenged by an ever-changing industry. At the same time, for the reasons listed by scholars including Camp, that trade school approach continues to be a source of tension in the relationship between journalism programs and other university disciplines. The concluding discussion will discuss some the newest approaches – some practical and others driven by a desire to form relationships with the larger university community – that have emerged in journalism education.
New takes on old approaches in journalism education
The current ‘innovations’ in journalism education – although reacting to contemporary changes in the journalism industry – in fact reflect new iterations of the approaches advocated by Bleyer and Williams in the early 1900s. For example, the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs has recently began to offer a journalism certificate program that allows students to freelance their way to a certificate, under the guidance of a mentor. The on-the-job approach is not new, but U of T’s new program moves journalism education farther from the university, which corresponds with the argument, voiced in popular and academic discourses on journalism education, that the best education comes through experience. With shrinking newsrooms though, the resources needed on the part of the industry to train student journalists may prove too much to bear for news outlets struggling to create original content and identity new revenue streams.
Camp promotes using the fundamental skills being taught (reporting, interviewing, editing) within journalism departments to form relationships with the other university disciplines. Journalism, which prides itself on its ability – not always realized – to translate the complexities of institutional decision-making and disciplinary jargon into understandable language could prove invaluable in a university setting. Disciplines that struggle to get their research findings and innovations out to a wider audiences could look to university journalism programs to make those goings-on appealing to those outside of the disciplines. This would go towards remedying a major rift in the relationship between academic institutions and the journalism programs that they are home to. The rift, identified by Camp, concerns orientation, as journalism professors and instructors are orientated to think of themselves as being in dialogue with the public, which is generally not the case in other academic disciplines. Camp argues that “universities with journalism departments would be wise to acknowledge this fundamental difference in orientation, if only because it helps explain the different values and apparent isolation of journalism programs within the university community.”
By focusing on the positives of the this orientation and using it to benefit other disciplines, universities will go a long way toward bridging the gap between journalism programs the wider university community. Based on the current academic literature on journalism education, and taking into consideration industry factors (consolidation of news agencies and outlets, the proliferation of online content, as well as the broadening definition of what activities constitute journalism), the best course of action would seem to increase the value of a journalism education by aligning more closely with other academic disciplines. Strengthening ties to other communications disciplines, including but not restricted to, public relations, communication studies, and media studies will prepare students enter a number of different fields. The danger is that it may dilute the lessen the pool of aspiring journalists, who will choose careers in entertainment, public relations or communication officers for large- and small-scale businesses, but it may also inform their reportage as they will have a more informed view of journalism’s role in society. Any viable relationship between journalism programs and other disciplines, be they in the arts, sciences, or business faculties must demand that journalism assert itself within universities. Writing in defense of graduate education in journalism, Soloski strongly states, “We should not have to apologize to our colleagues in other disciplines for offering professional training at the graduate level and we should not have to beg the profession’s forgiveness for teaching theory.”
Referring back to the Poynter Institute report mentioned at the beginning of this article, there appears to be gap in the value place on journalism degrees, with industry placing less value on such on journalism education then their journalism educator counterparts. Perhaps journalism education would do best not to keep in step with the journalism industry, but utilize the knowledge and expertise being produced within other communications disciplines to try and prepare students not for what journalism is today, but for what it might be in the future. Building and maintaining these kinds of interdisciplinary relationships is no longer a question of congeniality, but instead one of survival as the future of journalism programs is uncertain – particularly as enrollment drops and universities decide to abandon standalone journalism training.
In 1904, Pulitzer envisioned young journalists emerging from these university programs with the “class feeling” of true professionals.” While the scholars discussed in this article may differ in their opinions concerning journalism’s relationship to professionalism, they do all agree that university can serve as an environment in which to foster the kind of critical thinking skills and curiosity traditionally attributed to quality journalism. Whether these traits are best developed through a focus on new technologies, a turn to the humanities, intensified ties to other communications disciplines, or a more learn-on-the-job approach, will be up for debate for some time to come. This article’s discussions aimed to both emphasize and contextualize the current (and historical) precarity experienced by journalism programs in Canada and the U.S. If one hopes to take away any positives from the current discussions around the state of journalism education, they could include various movements towards innovation and critical thinking about the practice of journalism. As well, there seems to be a general understanding that journalism education can no longer wait to see what lies in store for journalism as an industry.
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 Michael Camp, “The J-School Debate: Is the Timing Finally Right for University Journalism Programs and the Rest of the University to Work Together?” 244.