As J-schools go…

I’m fascinated to see journalism schools mirroring the strategic debate going on in the journalism business — as well they should.

Columbia’s J-school seems to be establishing itself as the classicist, the sanctuary whose ivied castle walls guard journalism as journalism has been done. I suspect that’s an unfair summary but here’s the evidence: We see its dean, Nick Lemann, issuing his papal bull in The New Yorker setting up a separation between professional and amateur and protecting the professional. Next we see Lemann favoring print over online with his decision this week to cut and to invest instead in a direct-mail campaign to try to sell subscriptions to the print Columbia Journalism Review.

I said I thought that was a mistake. If anyone should be trying to learn how to successfully and creatively take a print brand and product online, shouldn’t it be a journalism school? Journalism Prof. Leonard Witt quotes fellow journalism Prof. Phil Meyer saying the Poynter Institute’s acquisition of Romenesko was the smartest thing they could have done, bringing attention, traffic, and gratitude to the group. Wasn’t CJRDaily potentially Columbia’s Romenesko? Couldn’t it have been the base to bring together the growing interest in and content about media and journalism online? Couldn’t CJRDaily have been the academic rendition of HuffingtonPost’s Eat the Press? Another journalism prof. weighed in at The Times:

Jay Rosen, a blogger and journalism professor at New York University, said the move was a “strategic error” and that the review should drop its print version to reduce costs and go entirely online. “I’m sure their current subscribers want it in print, but you have to look at your potential subscribers,” he said. “Since the profession is going toward the Web, in the long run, that’s the smarter move.”

Now I suppose it is a defensible position to be journalism’s classicist, for some in the trade do believe their classical values and standards are being threatened. Personally, I see no such threat; I see opportunity to expand journalism and update the standards, and I see the public helping to enforce them. Even so, there are no doubt plenty of students who want classical journalism and there are places that will hire those students, considering Columbia’s standing in the pantheon of J-schools. Yet after Columbia went through some considerable tsuris to reinvent the journalism program, I wonder whether this is where they wanted to end up. I’m told that Columbia is going through a rebranding. I’m eager to to see how it positions itself not just among journalism schools but in the industry.

Now is so happens that the Columbia Journalism Review has a profile in the current issue of the new dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism (well, that’s what they called it when I was there; now they’re calling it a school of journalism and integrated marketing communications). John Lavine took an iron grip on the school to remake it and “blow up” the curriculum. See their radically rebranded home page. It appears that Lavine plans to turn it into the institution that will force journalism and media to reexamine their responsiveness to the audience.

I’m not sure what the combination of journalism and advertising in one school does to meet this end, other than to confuse students and the world (which was certainly the case when I went there). Lavine has to try to explain that away:

At the edges, the integrated marketing faculty will be selling things, and that is anathema, and should be, to the journalist. At the edges, the journalist will say things that are enormously unpopular and that’s anathema to the marketer. But in the center the journalist must, when trying to build or deepen an audience, know how to market. And, in the center, the marketer who’s helping the journalist must know more about messages and storytelling to help market the media.

What I believe is right about that is that journalism must learn to listen to the public it serves and that journalists must understand the business so they can support their journalism. And though we hate to admit it, the truth is that journalism has been marketing for years: What is a lede, a headline, a front page, and a cover but a means to market news? Lavine has been helping the business try to learn these lessons with Medill’s Readership Institute and its Media Management Center (with whom I worked on the hyperlocal citizens’ media project GoSkokie). He preaches that journalism needs “revolution, not evolution.” Amen to that.

So there we see two radically different views of how to prepare journalists for the future of their business.

I will hasten to add that I don’t know a thing about the rest of the landscape of J-schools. I don’t even start working at one — at CUNY’s new Graduate School of Journalism — until later this month. But I see examples of different views here and there, some representing just individuals. Berkeley‘s J-school has been web-wise for sometime and has also produced good journalism and a new forum for it with PBS’ Frontline. The aforementioned Leonard Witt has been a leader in public journalism for years. The University of Maryland’s J-school provided a home for Jan Schafer and J-lab, which tries to support and award innovative news projects. Then, of course, there’s my goomba Jay Rosen’s, which tries to find new ways to support journalism. And I put my personal stake in the ground here, arguing that we need to find the ways to make journalism more collaborative and less dependent upon media and that we must redefine the roles of journalists.

So as much as I don’t understand where Columbia’s Lemann is coming from and where he’s going, I’ll say he certainly reflects one school of thought in the journalism biz. It’s just not my school.

: Here‘s Business Week’s Bruce Nussbaum on the Columbia move.

And here’s David Hirschman in Editor & Publisher, which itself cut back its print life to push online.

: LATER: Here‘s John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News & Record:

I appreciate CJR boss, Nicholas Lemann’s predicament and decision. We, and most newspapers, face the same issues. They are monumental, requiring gutsy vision and the ability to make tough choices. But I can’t imagine responding favorably to a subscription solicitation for a monthly publication as it is designed today. And I doubt many of my colleagues would either.

I wonder about the role one of the leading journalism schools could play in helping us ink-on-paper wretches better understand and grow into the future (and the present, for that matter). This ain’t it.