A good oops

Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, accidentally sent his class his self-evaluation intended for the university provost. No harm done, though. It’s an impressive document — it helps to hire New Yorker writers to pen memos — that sets out Lemman’s accomplishments and worldview. Here’s the bit, toward the end, that interested me:

I cannot be sure how long our school can continue to thrive if the profession it serves is not thriving. We have many advantages, including our financial resources, our location, our worldwide reputation, our strong relationships with employers, and the quality of our faculty and curriculum. We do not have the advantages almost all other journalism schools have: a large and not very job market-sensitive undergraduate student body and low tuition. In the short run, we are benefiting from journalism’s replacing older reporters with younger ones, but in the long run we must be as attentive to recruiting and to placement as possible, and we must teach our students to be journalists in ways that are as broadly applicable as possible geographically and across the different media.

I certainly agree that students must learn to apply journalism broadly — across all media, in other words.

But the larger question raised here is whether journalism schools should serve just professional journalists (that is, those who work, full-time, for journalistic institutions) — and, for that matter, whether schools can afford to do just that.

I haven’t blogged about this yet but I am coming to think that if, as I believe, N percent of journalistic effort will be undertaken by amateurs, then shouldn’t it be the mission of journalism schools to devote N percent of their education to helping those new practitioners do what they want to do better?

This is just my opinion — I’m by no means speaking for my school — and I haven’t thought through what this means. But I believe that like every other institution and industry in the Google Age, education will become more distributed, more open, less of a product and more of a process. More on that soon.

Lemann continues:

I don’t think I have been nearly effective enough in persuading either our own Journalism School community, or other journalism schools, or the wider world of the profession, that the professional education of a journalist should include intellectual content. The primary orientation of journalism schools, including ours, is toward conferring skills associated with entry-level practice; almost the entire discourse in journalism education is internal to journalism and concerned with professional norms and practices, rather than with how to understand the world we are supposed to cover.

This has been Lemann’s crusade: to bring professionalism — which I now read more as intellectualism — to the craft. I don’t disagree that this can be a worthy goal. What’s fascinating about Lemann’s memo is the glimpse it provides into his ambition: He wishes he could have transformed the Columbia program along these lines — changing the existing master of science program rather than adding a master of arts program — and that he could do likewise to America’s journalism schools.

It’s a proper question that I’ll oversimply, as is my blogger’s habit: How do we make reporters smarter about what they cover? Putting aside debates about which should dominate journalism education — skills or intellectual rigor — here, too, I wonder whether the coming distributed architecture of education will make a difference for journalism students and practicing journalists. What should specialized and continuing education look like in a period of more rapid change and broader opportunity? What should our ethic of education be? Should we expect that reporters covering, say, business learn the fundamentals of accounting and make it easy for them to do so?

These are the sorts of issues raised in Lemman’s memo and so I’m glad he sent the wrong file.

: Lemann and I had a distributed dialogue about some of this, which started with his New Yorker essay, about which I blogged; he and I then wrote about this at Comment is Free (links to both here).

  • Anna

    > “shouldn’t it be the mission of journalism schools to devote N percent of their education to helping [amateurs] do what they want to do better?”

    A low cost, distance-learning journalism class please. With assignments, with deadlines, with a community of fellow students taking it at the same time.

    (and a pony)

  • I agree with most of what Lemann says as I think you do too, Jeff. (Now there’s a first!). But what I think we have to be careful of is framing this problem as elite versus vocational.
    Yes, we will need much more citizen-friendly, networked journalism in places that do media education (and all schools should be j-schools to an extent).
    But we also need thought-leadership education for the editorial innovation, enterprise and strategic planning that will enable the grass-roots changes.
    Here at Polis we are lucky to have both: a high-powered intellectual research capacity at the London School of Economics plus a state-of-the-art vocational department at the London College of Communications.
    One answer is more interaction between us all.
    Charlie Beckett

  • Matt Storin

    Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, because at Notre Dame we have no journalism major, but only a minor or “concentration.” It’s a small program. Many courses are open to students outside the program. In my current media ethics class, at least half have no interest in a professional journalism career. (Two probably dream of careers in the NBA and NFL.) In my fall course, a modern history of journalism, two thirds said they had no intention of pursuing a journalism career. I would think there must be other schools where this is true. I think you are right, given the media landscape today, there is reason to believe that these “non-journalist” students may actually find practical benefit from these courses not only as consumers (the default rationale) but as practitioners.

  • SteveSgt

    My first thought is this: It’s probably easier to teach a expert in some other field to be a solid, front-lines journalist than it is to teach a journalist to be an expert in some other field.

    That said, it’s probably harder to go the step further and make that expert-turned-journalist into a good, if not great, cinematographer, lighting designer, sound engineer, scoring composer, audio or video editor, or any other technician of the production qualities that mass audiences expect in any large-advertiser-supported media.

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  • Brittany Mayne

    As an undergrad journalism major due to graduate in May, I agree in part with Mr. Lemman. It is scary for me to think that I will be joining a field where so much more is required of me than I have learned in j school. Sure, I know the skills that it takes to report, and I have been exposed to media ethics courses, but intellectually I do not feel like I yet can compare with most in the profession.

    But at the same time, an intellectual and critical view of the world cannot be taught in a college curriculum. There is just too much to learn. Real world experience is the most sensible way to learn most skills in the journalism, I’m guessing.

    Of course reporters of business shouldn’t be expected to be experts in business, because part of being a journalist is being able to take an issue and accurately analyze and portray a certain story, whether or not you went into the story an expert.

    The expertise comes through writing, researching, and interviewing about a certain topic, not the other way around.

  • Duncan

    A “Medill F” to Jeff Jarvis for misspelling Nick Lemann’s last name. It’s wonderful that in a post on the technical merits of journalism education he could commit such a freshman blunder. That’s the trouble with bloggers — they need editors!

  • Matt Neznanski

    For a long time, I’ve been struggling with the idea that journalism students should be trained in other disciplines as a way to better translate the world for readers.
    I think I’ve finally settled the debate for myself: there’s no need to translate. Just point people to the horse’s mouth. Sure, some are better than others. Cream rises to the top.
    “Expert journalists” lead to “celebrity journalists,” not actually leading their field of expertise and not doing often enough the legwork readers really benefit from.
    The best thing I learned in j-school (as an undergrad and grad student) was the big picture of meta-information and how to find and verify things fast.
    One prof whined about journalists becoming glorified librarians. So what? They are a vital part of managing vast stores of information. Journalists could be so lucky as to be trusted to sort out the moving waves of data bombarding people every day.

  • Rebecca Watts

    I am of the mind that it is not possible to write about the world without understanding the ways in which it works. Knowledge comes partly from experience, partly from excellent mentors willing to dismiss hurt feelings in exchange for honesty, and partly from an education and each works in conjunction with the other. The skills learned as a journalist in the classroom are honed only through practice and experience outside the classroom. An intellectual education provides thorough practice and the ability to determine what’s important in the world and what’s not. But more importantly, an intellectual education gives the ability to form individual ideas and opinions. You can’t expect to make something better or dismiss something else if you don’t know what was there before.

  • Rebecca Watts

    Wow, that came off wrong. I don’t think I’m “of the mind” of anything at this time in the morning. So, I’ll edit it to simply state, “It’s not possible…

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  • “What should specialized and continuing education look like in a period of more rapid change and broader opportunity?”

    I love this question. The first thing that comes to me is “modular.” You ought to be able to mix and match short courses to update your tech skills or refresh or improve a foundation skill, such as interviewing. You should not have to enroll in a master’s degree program (and take the GRE) — but you should be able to accumulate points toward a certificate or somesuch (if that matters to you).

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  • The only thing I need in this “new” world of journalism is a Batman costume – and a sense of self-worth – to go along with my semi-worthless degree in Communications.

    Take the advertisers out of the equation – and NOW you truly have something, to say the least!

    Journalism schools teach you how to “network” – but do they truly teach you how to write what you know …or make a difference in the world today …when it truly matters the most?

    “It’s not what you DO that defines you …it’s what lies underneath.”

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