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.

* * *

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?

  • Brian W. Crumley

    I’ve always wondered how one could disrupt schools. The best thing I can think of so far is to place course materials and structure online for anyone to follow. Then for certification, create tests or have demonstrations that the student knows the material and has acquired the skills. Teachers could then become freelance tutors. If a student is having trouble with a class or subject they pay for the teachers/tutors time. Teachers get paid directly and schools make money by charging for the tests and demonstrations. The schools job would be to create the course material and administer the tests.

  • Robert Courtemanche

    As a high school journalism teacher of 17 years, I’ve seen a lot of change. But there are some basic tools that will serve all journalists regardless of the technology.

    Here they are in no particular order: interviewing, photo editing, video editing, media law, spelling & grammar, fact checking, quote/soundbite choosing, design (all kinds of graphics), HTML, social.

    Software will change. Tools will change. Telling good stories and informing the public doesn’t change. Photography, video and social are becoming more important, but writing is still important too.

    • Marion Garmel

      Bravo to Robert Courtemanche. What is missing in all of this discussion is what journalism is really about. Finding the story and getting it told. Who is teaching that?

  • Jay Lofstead

    Teaching tools is a dangerous thing, unless you are very careful. I’d consider an approach similar to a class I had as an undergraduate. The last remnant of the information science program Georgia Tech had in their computer science curriculum in the early 90s was an introduction to the research resources of the library. Each week we had to use a different type of resource (patent, book, journal, magazine, etc.) to find examples of information about the chosen topic.

    Teaching tools should use the same approach where you force familiarity with a wide variety of tools through direct use, including potentially outdated technologies, as a way to emphasize the variety of tools available and that they change a lot over time and with different audiences.

  • Joe

    The disruption in journalism education is well underway, but it is happening unevenly based on the synergies of faculty teams, the limitations or freedoms imposed on them by administration, and the current needs of publishers within the catchment employment base of the institution. You espouse a universal shift and a rather
    narrow focus that would impart skills that few publishers can earn revenue from today. As well, assuming that journalism education must change according to the ability new tools give journalists, rather than how readers want information delivered, invites solutions in search of problems. We as journalism teachers must impart the actual skills publishers require to keep them selling newspapers today, while also giving them the tools they’ll need tomorrow.

  • Christopher Krug

    I’m observing a dual mission problem that affects staffing that affects implementing a disruptive curriculum. Serving two masters. The undergraduate mission is to train pros vs. the graduate mission (at my place) is to train “scholars.” The newly hired scholars struggle (don’t need) to stay abreast with the undergrads’ needs because of their hoops for tenure and train more scholars. To me, the challenge is not disrupting the curriculum (though crucial to me as an adjunct), it’s disrupting the tradition of programs trying to produce scholars and how faculty try to hire researchers to train future scholars. With budgets tightening, it seems programs have to pick one mission or the other.

  • Software and tools change frequently. Universities need to teach students *how to learn a new tool quickly*, and not with a faculty “tutor” at your elbow since you’re not going to have those around for the rest of your career. Faculty should create an environment for learning new tools quickly, help students identify concrete objectives to pursue with the tools, develop critical thinking skills to assess what’s produced with the tools, and make connections between student experience and deeper theoretical underpinnings to facilitate knowledge construction.

  • Jeff, the only thing I’d add is that each of these sections — and the entire process overall — have to be framed as within a networked world. I find that’s even more important that what we specifically teach, because the network changes everything. There is no stage, and yet the stage is what contemporary journalism education is based upon. This is especially true in the area of ethics, for networked journalists are responsible for much more than their journalism. I think the general idea that journalists will work for organizations is borked, and that it’s much more likely we’ll be on our own or loosely affiliated. That’s the world that needs our attention today.

  • Jeff – strikes me you’re talking about in the final third of this is essentially teaching journalists the principles of product management [much more relevant than project management]. In which case




    provide good source material..and are much more important than masterclasses in hacking WordPress templates.


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  • davidandrewjohnson

    you need to define what journalism is before you can teach what it is. it doesn’t mean the same thing anymore. most people are very slow to realize that it has changed that much, but it has. there is absolutely no original, exclusive, or convenience value in 95% of what newspapers offer as a service proposition. the remaining 5% is what we need to focus on to understand what journalism is and what it can become. you’re just making a blogger here. not that being a blogger is insignificant, but that’s the education you’ve lined up. a degree in blogging arts and sciences.

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  • Excellent ideas. I would suggest a few more:

    A critical area of study that journalism students should be exposed to is library science. The exponential output of data online means that they’ll need a strong understanding of sorting, indexing, and querying to be effective at investigating and organizing what they discover.

    Another important sphere for journalists is search engine optimization; they can produce all of the outstanding reports they want, but if they’re not properly tagged and indexed no one will ever see them.

    Still another emerging technology that will likely shape the future landscape is the work being done on “Algorithmic Journalism.” The recent article in Wired by Steven Levy is a must-read:

    Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?

    If you can get past the sensationalist headline, the real implication is that algorithms will help take some of the grunt work out of poring over large quantities of data and remove some of the blinders human beings tend to have – freeing future journalists to cover more stories more efficiently and accurately. I’m giddy at the idea of journalists harnessing algorithms to speed up the work they do and enable them to devote more time to thinking critically.

    The idea of Practicums is excellent; and the need for hyperlocal news has never been greater. Each J-school should operate its own local news outlet and simulaneously provide benefit to students by offering them a space to learn the craft, and benefit to communities by covering all of the local events that are being neglected by traditional media.

    As you’re all likely aware, higher education tends to move at a “glacial” pace. It may be that the future of journalism lies outside of the traditional model and somewhere closer to the Khan Academy, Stanford Online Courses or even the business school that Seth Godin set up.

    The real leverage point in making this happen is the human resources departments of news media outlets: if they can be persuaded to accept a credential from a different type of school (in addition to a traditionally-accredited 4-year school) – that will accelerate the change industry-wide (which will then seep into the traditional 4-year schools).

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  • Dane S. Claussen

    I wonder why a potentially important initiative was funded by Knight at Mercer. Macon is a nice town and all (I’ve been there several times), but who even knew that Mercer had a journalism program? The communication program doesn’t even have its own department, according to the AEJMC directory, instead being jointly directed by the Communication Department and Theatre Arts Department. Drama, anyone?

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  • The offing of this era will soon change, with other digital models, eventually users become confused, must choose which

  • Susan Smith

    I’m going to go straight to the subject of economics. When we are all trained, how much are we going to be paid? It’s already generally known that our minimum wage hasn’t kept up since the 70’s, and that more is asked of employees than ever before; yet, pay doesn’t reflect that – just look at our economy. I’m a journalism graduate working on my multimedia graduate degree along with many others. So you crank us out and turn us loose? And then what? Can the multimedia world hold us all?

    • Susan Smith

      And, I might add, more than ever is being asked of employees and/or interns without more pay or benefits from the employers. This causes me concern for I love what I do; however, must I be trained to the maximum only to be possibly devalued due to capitalism with regard the employer not wanting to give more due to the amount of labor he/she has at their disposal?

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