Bridging the Gap
Professional journalists and journalism educators should join forces to strengthen both of their domains.
By John Maxwell Hamilton & Ralph Izard
John Maxwell Hamilton is dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Ralph Izard is director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.
The newspaper editor telephoned Êhe director of his journalism school, the one he attended 25 years before and remembered with such fondness. He had decided he should step down as vice president of the school's alumni advisory board.
"I don't identify with the school anymore," he explained. "You're hiring all those Ph.Ds. Hell, an editor like me wouldn't even qualify for a job on the faculty. Let's face it. You're not really a J-school anymore. You're mass communications. All I really care about is journalism. Sorry, but I don't think I can be of much help."
To those who know their journalism history, this estrangement is not entirely new. It goes back to just after the Civil War, when the nation's first journalism program was being tested at Virginia's Washington College (now Washington & Lee). One professor lamented "the torrent of ridicule being poured on us by some of the papers in the country."
But some things are different these days. Professionals and academics alike are dealing with rapid changes in communications, both technologically and entrepreneurially. Both are desperately trying to cope with the fact that new forms of information delivery are being invented even as they boast of yesterday's accomplishments. Complaints are flying on both sides.
This is a pity. More than ever, we need each other to develop effective approaches to the journalism of the future. Some tension is both natural and even healthy. But if we don't work together to use that tension constructively, we'll both suffer in the long run. And, ultimately, the losers will be the public, who will find the quality of journalism diminished.
Not long ago, one of us told a group of broadcasters how our curriculum was being improved by giving students a framework for bringing the best practices to a rapidly changing news industry. After hearing this spiel, a radio station owner piped up, "I don't care about that. All I care about is whether your graduates can use a tape recorder."
Few would take such a narrow view of journalism education. But the remark hints at the perspectives that have perennially divided journalists and journalism professors.
The former, with largely middle-class tastes and deep skepticism of elites, are suspicious of ivory-tower professors. Frontline news supervisors in particular are anxious about whether recent graduates have mastered basic skills needed on the job.
Typically, professors have what some would consider a theoretical frame of mind. They must be interested in why journalistic norms and practices exist. Many think about developing critical thinking skills and tackling overarching questions.
In the Information Age, university media programs can branch into many more areas beyond, for instance, the traditional newspaper. The trend toward renaming "journalism" schools "mass communication" reflects this fact.
This is not necessarily bad. In the past, J-schools were viewed inside and perhaps even outside the academy as glorified vocational programs. They deliberately existed largely on the margin of university life. Now – for their own good and for the good of the communication industries they serve – they can move toward the center where they can be leaders of what author Peter Drucker calls the post-industrial society.
This should be welcomed by the news and information industries. But it isn't because those in the industries are equally distracted.
There are many reasons for these distractions. More than ever, news executives believe they are forced to view new technology as a way of reducing operating costs and providing more glitz in presentation. Too many show less enthusiasm for using technology to improve the quality of news content.
çhe public is not as dependent as it once was on daily journalism; people can log on to their computers to chat with colleagues or to get up-to-date information. Business executives get specialized news reports by fax or computer.
This is not to say there are no positive signs of constructive collaboration between journalism education programs and journalists. Look at the number of schools endowed by – and named after – local media families. Both of our schools fall into that category, and the results have been crucial to the quality of our programs.
The Committee on Alliances, an arm of the national journalism and mass communication educational organizations, has worked for several years to stimulate cooperation between professionals and professors. A recent survey showed many excellent examples of local cooperation, clearly the place to begin.
The Media Studies Center in New York and other endeavors funded and guided by the Freedom Forum have brought both sides together. The American Press Institute and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies welcome journalism educators to their programs. Other philanthropic organizations built on media money, notably the Knight Foundation and Scripps Howard Foundation, have invested heavily in journalism education.
But other signs are bad.
LSU's Media Leaders Forum this year asked news executives if they felt their ties with journalism educators were stronger, weaker or never relevant to begin with. "Stronger" finished a weak third. The same attitude surfaced when U.S. News & World Report sought input from media professionals for a recent survey on journalism graduate programs. So few bothered to respond that the editors could not report a scientifically valid poll result.
Disturbingly, some formerly strong partnerships between the profession and the academy are being dismantled:
l The Newspaper Association of America, made up of working publishers, looked at its foundation in 1994 and wondered if it was worth keeping. After reevaluation, and partly for financial reasons, it decided to retain the foundation but focus it on what it perceived as urgent needs, such as programs to cultivate readers. No longer would it work, as it had since the early 1970s, as part of the Cooperative Committee on Newspaper Education with the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Other traditional links with J-schools would diminish, except when the foundation might commission an academic to look at, for example, readership issues.
l The Society of Professional Journalists, founded in 1909 by students on the campus of Depauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, has served as a significant link between the profession and students – but that may be changing. At national SPJ meetings, many professional members complain loudly about the presence of students and student programming at convention sessions. And the society's Mark of Excellence student competition, designed initially to encourage and reward outstanding student work, has been turned into a fundraising activity with the initiation of entry fees that, in some cases, discourage student participation.
l The Radio-Television News Directors Association has shown less interest in doing anything special for journalism educators. Not long ago, it decided to do away with the special reduced membership rate for journalism educators. David Bartlett, RTNDA president, explains that joint working groups at the national level simply haven't worked well. "We both kind of didn't show up," he says.
l Newspaper Research Journal, a publication of the AEJMC's Newspaper Division published at the Scripps School, is devoted to providing reports of practical research written in understandable language. Even though 20 of the journal's 76 manuscript reviewers are professionals (and most of the academics have professional backgrounds), the publication is virtually ignored by many executives who, at the same time, say they are desperate for meaningful research to guide development of their industry.
Anyone who doubts the magnitude of these concerns can read a Freedom Forum study released this summer. Conducted by Betty Medsger, former chair of the Department of Journalism at San Francisco State University, the report was based on a poll of 1,041 print and broadcast journalists, 446 journalism educators and 500 newsroom recruiters and supervisors.
She identified four trends in journalism education that were labeled as disturbing: emphasis on faculty members with academic rather than journalistic experience; elimination of journalism as a stand-alone major; increased emphasis on communication theory at the expense of basic reporting and writing skills; and a fear of an accreditation process that inhibits discussion of crucial issues in journalism education.
While it is easy to understand the frustration on both sides, frustration is not a reason for either to turn its back. On the contrary, it is a sign of the need to be mutually supportive at this crucial time when practitioners and professors need each other more than ever.
ýroader journalism – and mass communication – programs will have resources to help the profession learn more about how to travel new thoroughfares. They can turn out graduates who understand the new technology. They can provide special training for midcareer journalists who feel they are behind the technology curve.
Professors can think about content as well as packaging news and information in new ways, about which of the old practices should be maintained and which should be discarded. It's true that professionals can do these things, too, but it's a matter of available time and opportunity. Journalism faculty do not have the same daily pressures as practitioners, and in the classroom they are forced to develop analysis and explanation of those practices that professionals use almost by instinct.
In times like these it's too easy for practitioners, fighting for their lives, to worry more about the bottom line than the higher calling and old verities of news. The profession needs all the new ideas the academy can provide.
The importance of universities to economic and social development is well understood. And if journalism schools don't play a lead role on campus in media development and teaching the best journalistic practices, who will?
If journalists have much to gain, so too do educators stand to benefit from
a strong relationship. Technological change has opened exciting new intellectual channels to be studied, but communications resides comfortably – and securely – as a professional program. In fact, this arrangement arguably is as essential to journalism education's survival as having a strong base in the university. While mass communication programs must satisfy academic standards, they are all the stronger when they stress teaching that produces students well-prepared for the industry as well as research that makes a difference. Being relevant at a time when universities are under great financial stress is a virtue that can't be ignored.
This is a prime example of the significant contributions a caring industry can make to education. Unfortunately, the shift to analysis of information will be pushed too far by some educators seeking on-campus respectability. The shift could result in journalism education being diluted unless there is considerable outside and inside pressure to ensure that the integrity of core journalism skills and values is maintained.
This could be facilitated by professionals who join journalism faculties. But these new academics themselves have additional responsibilities. Among Medsger's recommendations is one that reduces the dichotomy between professionals and academics. She stresses that professionals who move into the classroom must broaden their perspectives by recognizing that "in their most enlightened forms, research and teaching nourish each other." Teaching is not simply a matter of telling war stories; rather, it involves linking professional background with broader perspectives and sharing the result in the classroom and through publication.
It's not likely that the tensions between the journalist and journalism educators will abate soon. Change is coming too fast; anxiety levels are too high. But both sides must be reconciled to the traditional uneasiness that has characterized the relationship historically. They must keep talking. This is the wrong time to slam the door and go our separate ways. ###