Disrupting journalism education, too

Journalism education should be even more disrupted and disruptive than journalism, the industry. Lately, inspired by discussions I’ve had with a school working on a new program, I’ve been trying to organize thoughts about changing what we teach and how we teach it — some are relevant to what I do at CUNY, some aren’t. When I use the first-person plural here, I’m referring to journalism education broadly, not one school. Since Howard Finberg of Poynter and Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation have been sharing their thoughts, I thought I’d share mine. To be clear: This thinking doesn’t go far enough. It’s in process. That’s why I’m sharing it: to get you to push me.

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I start by separating curriculum into three boxes:

* Study — Some of this is obvious: media law and ethics, media theory, and so on. I’d like to see more emphasis on studying media history, especially in its periods of transition, since we’re going through a doozie now. And I think we should find our part in what Sir Tim Berners-Lee has established in the field of web science, radically broadening our definition of journalism and media to envelop and encourage new thinking about our role in society.

* Practice — More of the obvious: The core courses at any J-school are reporting and writing courses, practical courses. That won’t change. When I got my journalism degree at Northwestern, I also got incredible value from working at the Burlington, Iowa Hawk-Eye as part of the school’s teaching newspaper program. The required internship we offer at CUNY is a terribly important part of our program.

In a shrinking industry, there are only so many internships available — and there aren’t enough in new and disruptive news enterprises. So I think journalism schools need to work harder to create practicums of their own. It’s also evident that the communities around journalism schools could use more journalism. And so we need to see more journalism schools both creating and partnering with new kinds of news ventures to not only teach but make more journalism. Newton talks about this as a teaching hospital model and Knight is funding such an effort at Mercer University. Missouri has long published a paper for its town. Arizona State has the local public TV station in its school. CUNY and NYU worked with The New York Times to start and then run hyperlocal blogs. Montclair State has invited WNYC, NJTV, and others onto its campus.

I think we can be far more aggressive — being careful not to compete with the marketplace but instead to supplement it, to help startups, to cover towns and topics that would not be covered.

* Tools — This is where I’ll concentrate most of my current thinking, on finding new, more efficient, more scalable, and more flexible ways to teach the tools of journalism and technology. I’ll separate this again into three buckets: teaching, tutoring, and certification.

I’m coming to believe that classroom time is too limiting in the teaching of tools. At CUNY, we’ve seen over the years that students come in with widening gulfs in both their prior experience and their future ambitions in tools and technologies. My colleagues at CUNY, led by Sandeep Junnarkar, have implemented many new modules and courses to teach such topics as data journalism (gathering, analysis, visualization) and familiarity with programming.

Note well that I have argued since coming to CUNY that we should not and cannot turn out coders. I also do not subscribe to the belief that journalism’s salvation lies in hunting down that elusive unicorn, the coder-journalism, the hack-squared. I do believe that journalists must become conversant in technologies, sufficient to enable them to (a) know what’s possible, (b) specify what they want, and (c) work with the experts who can create that.

Schools try to express their goals in terms of outcomes for students. I chart tools against a set of outcomes rising from:
* Familiarity — Knowing what a tool can do so you can be inspired to use it when appropriate to meet a journalistic or community goal.
* Speccing — The ability to write a specification that will enable a coder to deliver what you need.
* Adaptation — The ability to take work that a developer has done and adapt it for a particular need (for example, modifying a WordPress template or a Google map).
* Making — The ability to make something from scratch using a tool — for example, a video using FinalCut or a slideshow using various tools.
* Expertise — Certification as an expert able even to teach the tool.

That sounds fairly neat, and in some cases it will be: You want to learn how to make videos and so you need to learn a list of skills with, say, FinalCut. You want to be the chief blogger at a paper, so you need to learn how to adapt blog templates and embed most anything.

But it quickly gets complicated on a few axes. A few days ago, I had a good, long conversation with the developer and entrepreneur in my family, son Jake, about technology and entrepreneurs. He cautioned against going too deep into tools; in the little-knowledge/dangerous-thing school, one can end up making things with the wrong tool or making them badly because that’s what one knows. He emphasized the need to think creatively about new possibilities and opportunities. So that yields another ladder:
* Ideation — Finding new opportunities and solving problems in new ways; being able to research the demand and competition; being able to express the value and goals. That is pretty much what we do from a business perspective with our entrepreneurial journalism students at CUNY.
* Prototyping — We have learned that this is the vital next step after thinking through an idea for a product or business. Some of our students do this in class; some start after class. This is a critical step for being able to express an idea and for thinking through all the tough questions that need answers. We are teaching tools for this in our full-time entrepreneurial journalism program. Jake also emphasizes the value of paper and pencil.
* Project management — One needs to know enough about technology to start making management decisions: hiring the right people with the right skills for working on the right platforms to create the right products at the right scale and managing where to start and how to reach critical milestones.
* Business skills and judgment — This, too, is what we emphasize in entrepreneurial journalism.
* Building — Get it made.

So someone with a killer idea in, say, data as journalism or creating platforms for communities or reinventing TV news requires different outcomes and thus different training in different tools, often emphasizing strategic possibilities over nitty-gritty detail.

Of course, this all becomes more complex thanks to how quickly tools are invented and change and how often new inspiration arrives (who’d-a-thunk that Twitter would have such an important role in news?).

Arrggghhh. What’s a school to do? I’m coming to ask whether tools are best taught through prescribing and agreeing to students’ desired outcomes, then having them learn those lessons through online tools that a school curates or creates and recommends. You want to make interview videos? Then you need to learn a list of skills related to (a) equipment, (b) editing and production software, and (c) interviewing techniques. The school can recommend tools to do that. Or you can find your own.

So what value does the school add? In some cases, it need add none. But in many cases, I think it can add two layers of value: tutoring and certification.

Start with tutoring: I envision a school using faculty and certified student experts to staff a genius bar (after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from Apple’s attorneys, I’d change the name to Brain Bar and make hay out of that on social media). If you’re stuck with a simple, five-minute question, you have someone to ask (in person or online). You are also part of a community of fellow students who may rescue you. If you’d like to spend an hour getting a faculty member to judge your work and push your ambition, you can make an appointment. I wonder whether this will be a better use of both faculty resources and students’ time than the classroom.

Then comes certification: In media, I’d like students to demonstrate their competence (and talent) through the creation of work for their portfolios rather than testing.

Yes, there will still be classes in writing, editing, and reporting — boot camp with beats ramping up to specialization and expertise — and yes, as I said above, there should still be classes and seminars in law, ethics, theory, and judgment. I’m not trying to blow everything up, not yet. I’m trying to find more ways to teach more and make it fit students’ outcomes better. If we make the teaching of tools and use practical experience better, I wonder whether we’ll be able to devote more resources to more study.

What I’m also trying to do is imagine scaling journalism education so that much, or most, of it could be taught to some — no, to many more — people online, including not just undergrad and graduate students but also professionals who obviously need to learn new skills as their industry convulses around them. I want to have the means to bring training in journalism, media skills, and business to the entrepreneurs and hyperlocal, hyperinterest journalists — and technologists — I continue to hope will populate a growing news ecosystem. I hope that helping people make stuff and make it better in public will encourage more of them to share more in public. I want to expand journalism’s role and possibilities. What you see here is me constantly wondering how.

What are your thoughts?