Educating Journalists

I’ve often thought that a master’s degree in Journalism is the ticket to leadership in a business in the throes of change.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve been looking forward to the book just launched this week: Educating Journalists: A New Plea for the University TraditionNick Lemann who just left the deanship after a decade at Columbia Journalism School took the lead on the exploration of what a Masters in Journalism stands for in the digital age.  It was a project supported by Carnegie Corporation and one of the last grants I made when I ran the Carnegie Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education for the foundation—before I became a dean myself.

It’s a slim book, but detailed in the history of the profession and it’s “up and down role” within the university community.  It is rich in detail – much of it provided by other former deans:  UNC’s dean Jean Folkerts, an historian of media and John Maxwell Hamilton, also an historian and the founding dean of LSU’s journalism program and later provost at LSU. The two partnered with Lemann for this 21st Century report.

What surprised me were some of the small details in the report.  Like the fact that the industry never supported the idea of post undergraduate journalism degrees much.  Who wanted to pay reporters more? It seems publishers wanted good writers they could mold rather than post graduate, university-educated leaders who would expect higher pay and more influence.   In this era, there is no sure thing that those with master degrees in journalism will make it to the top any quicker now than before.  But it’s also clear they need to know how to invent the future.

I was also surprised to find the tension between scholars of journalism and professionals is a perennial problem within the academy.  Scholars publish in peer-reviewed journals that are not read by industry leaders.  Journalism professionals teach at the great communication institutions but practice the craft and work in the media rather than write for journals. I thought that tension was rather new.  It will be interesting to watch as new players join journalism schools: coders and data specialists, design engineers and digital scholars.

I found real optimism in the report despite the fact age-old issues haven’t changed that much.  Partly because it has a global perspective and it is clear that journalism study is bigger now than ever before and that the U.S. is, as the report says, a “first mover in the field.”  Change here causes big ripples worldwide.

The report doesn’t outline exactly what a graduate degree must include to honestly prepare and educate a student for the profession.  It talks about the need for digital skills but emphasizes much more the ability of a graduate to analyze and put information into context.

As the report puts it:  “One of the truly intellectually distinctive aspects of journalism is its aim to produce work that combines analysis and narrative; some works of journalism related realms. Journalists should be aware of how much justified suspicion narrative draws in other fields and should try to avoid the pitfalls that gave rise to the suspicion.  They should also learn the basics of rigorously getting at the truth of a complicated situation.”

It is a report that leaves me optimistic.  For the profession.  For the academy.  For the importance of the university at this time of digital transformation.  For the tension between scholars and practitioners who are needed more now than ever to help navigate change we don’t understand and, who I believe, can together help to sort it out.  For a new generation of news gathers who want to tell the stories of their time and to understand their society.

It’s a report that is worth reading.  You can read more about it here: http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/news/878

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