Journalism Education Stuck in Same Oldthink Mode as Big Media

    by Mark Glaser
    April 9, 2007

    i-9e2ba35735f546a79720842b0b446b51-Ball State tower.jpg
    When I visited the campus of Ball State University recently, I was struck by the number of innovative programs the school had carried out, from a live interactive TV local broadcast to its converged newsroom. Ball State is also home to the well endowed Center for Media Design, which conducted one of the most comprehensive (and expensive) usage studies, the Middletown Media Studies, in which researchers literally watched and recorded their subjects’ media usage during all their waking hours. And the Ball State campus itself is aggressively wired with WiFi Internet access, and is filled with gleaming buildings and high-tech trappings.

    But the problem, particularly with Ball State’s journalism and communications study programs, is that the school’s philosophy remains mired in a legacy media mindset. You can learn about advertising or PR or newspapers or broadcast or magazines. And the goal of those programs is to get placed into positions as they have been defined for decades: the big PR agency, The New York Times, ABC News, Newsweek.

    I went to speak in front of a class of students learning about advertising sales. I was happy to hear some of them were working on a project related to ads on cell phones. I was horrified to hear that there was no class related to online advertising. None, nada, zip. That’s unbelievable, when you look at the growth of online advertising — up about 34% in 2006 alone — compared to the stagnation of legacy media’s ad business. How can students be prepared to go into media ad sales without knowing about the online realm? My only advice to students was to learn it on their own, check out the blogs and websites dedicated to the topic and soak up what they could.


    I don’t think for a minute that this is a problem only at Ball State. Almost every interaction I’ve had with journalism schools and their faculty reaffirms that these institutions have a long way to go before they can evolve from the oldthink mindset. There might be pockets of resistance or some innovative projects here and there, but overall the focus of students is to follow in the same footsteps as their professors: Start your career at a podunk daily newspaper and work your way up to the big metro papers, and end up in academia.

    Nowhere do students get the inkling that the metro paper might not exist by the time they get there — at least in its current ink-stained format. Nowhere do they learn the ins and outs of being a freelancer, even though they are living in a free agent nation, almost assured of being downsized out of a job at some point. Nowhere do they learn what it takes to moderate an online community, to do outreach into a community and work with citizen journalists and bloggers. The blog, in academia, is looked at by faculty as something to disdain, a lazy way out of doing real journalism; and by students, it is looked at as a leisure time activity, pointless and fun.

    From what I learned from Ball State’s administration, there are three groups of professors: those that understand the shift that is happening and are happy to figure it out; those that refuse to change their curriculum that has been set in stone for years; and those that are on the fence. The hope of administration is that the oldthink types can be moved along the path to retirement, while the middle group can be convinced to join the vanguard.


    Meanwhile, the students present an interesting conundrum. I figured that they would be chomping at the bit to work in new media, as they are the digital generation born with a laptop and cell phone in their hands. David Studinski, a Ball State senior who is editor of the student newspaper, explained to me over lunch why students were as slow to embrace change as their professors.

    “They use the technology all the time, they all have cell phones and they text message,” he said. “But they don’t take it seriously as a work thing. They think of blogging as gossip and MySpace is for fun with their friends. They don’t think they could work in that type of environment as a journalist.”

    So what is a university to do? It could start a program for students to learn networked journalism or online journalism. Or it could start to require all journalism students to learn the basics of multimedia production and storytelling, online moderation of communities, and the skill of writing for the web and on blogs. Newspaper students would learn about making — and being on camera for — online video reports. Magazine students would learn the basics of doing an audio podcast. Broadcast students would learn how to write for the web. And advertising students would learn about behavioral and interstitial advertising online.

    Freelance writer Greg Lindsay gave an amazing virtual commencement speech to 2005 j-school graduates on mediabistro, noting the same problem with academia. His main point:

    You thought you were buying [with your tuition] a set of skills, credentials, and quality time with the placement office. And you did. But your professors also sold you a mindset, a worldview, an ideology — one in which newspapers are God’s work, bloggers are pagans, and your career trajectory is a long, steep, but ultimately meritocratic climb to a heavenly desk at The New York Times or ’60 Minutes.’ Accepting any of this as gospel truth will almost certainly cause permanent damage to your budding careers…

    Is there a way to fix this? Maybe, if your professors are willing to admit that they’re evangelizing as well as teaching, and that where they see a decline and fall going on in the media landscape, you might just find opportunities helping tear it down. But who wants to say that?

    Who, indeed? What’s your experience in academia? Are administrations ready to shift their teaching along with the times? Are students still focused on legacy media and what will it take to change their mindset? Share your thoughts in the comments below. I would love to be proven wrong with examples of widespread change.

    UPDATE: A couple people in academia have explained how they are integrating new technologies into their classes. In the comments, Derina Holtzhausen, associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at the University of Southern Florida, explains how her school has created a full multimedia journalism track at the graduate level, and has introduced “technology bootcamps” for PR classes. Here’s her main point:

    We still require many of the courses that are traditionally offered at schools of mass communications. Finding the balance is a challenge. We all want to make sure our students are comfortable with new technology and on the cutting edge of their practice. At the same time we are not teaching in technical colleges but universities committed to providing students with a broad liberal arts education.

    The fact is that people in practice are also trying to figure it out. We in academe should be committed to do the same by keeping our departments organic and open to restructuring and change.

    Most definitely. I also received an email from Patrick Phillips, who runs the excellent I Want Media site and teaches a digital journalism class at New York University. Here’s how Phillips makes new media come alive in his class:

    Journalism students walk out of this class with a strong knowledge of online terminology and common web practices, along with hands-on experience as bloggers. Class guest speakers this semester include indie bloggers (Peter Rojas of Engadget) and traditional media bloggers (Ana Marie Cox of Time.com), who are filling in students on the pros and cons of blogging and the challenges ‘old’ media face from new blog competitors. We debate whether Amanda Congdon and Josh Wolf are real journalists, and whether or not the distinction even matters anymore. (Perez Hilton, they’re fully aware, is an NYU alum.)

    Students on Day 1 came in saying they keep hearing that newspapers are dying (which I don’t believe; I think they’re in transition — a big difference), and they want to know more about the online world, which we aim to address. Within the past year or so, several traditional media outlets have launched blogs on their websites, and are now actually hiring bloggers.

    Obviously, NYU has the advantage of being in a media mecca where it can bring in such high-profile speakers, but most other college campuses also have local bloggers or podcasters they could tap as knowledgeable sources and speakers. Maybe this is a model that could be replicated at other schools.

    UPDATE 2: I’ve also received word via email from a couple people from my alma mater, the University of Missouri, who say they’ve implemented a pretty widespread rethinking of curriculum. Margaret Duffy, chair of the School of Journalism’s Strategic Communication program, told me this:

    At the Missouri School of Journalism we are aggressively changing curriculum content and delivery (it seems on almost a daily basis) and doing extensive research in the media landscape. Our Strategic Communication curriculum (formerly advertising) is entirely converged and offers both regular courses and short courses in how fragmented media fundamentally alters consumer behavior. The Missouri news curriculum is converged and experimenting with social networks, citizen journalism, blogs, podcasts, and alternate delivery methods. We also do extensive research in understanding how and why consumers make media choices.

    Also, an associate professor at Missouri, Charles Davis, noted how the students had advanced beyond his comprehension. “We are in the midst of doing all of those groovy things you talk about,” he said via email. “Hell, even an old dog like me is watching as his students do all sorts of convergy things that I can’t even understand. But it’s cool because we are arming them with the platforms they need to embrace the future, while continuing to teach them the one thing that
    has remained constant: how to report the news.”

    I think that’s the balancing act for journalism schools: continuing to teach the basics of good reporting while also considering future directions of media platforms, interactivity, and audience collaboration.

    Tagged: education journalism skills new media

    13 responses to “Journalism Education Stuck in Same Oldthink Mode as Big Media”

    1. Tommy Weir says:

      Its broadly the case as you outline it. These issues have come up in our college as well.

      Any course development always faces two hurdles:

      First, staff inertia. I have these notes finally honed and I dont want to think about it anymore. I can do it in my sleep. Even the lecturers who are focussing on change and keeping things current will hear this inner moan. Its one thing to have an eye on change and another to actually go and trash those first year notes and start again.

      Second, the cycle of the programmatic review. In our case thats a five-year cycle where course content is overhauled and re-made.

      – Five years ago, blogs were around, but they werent what they are now.

      – Within that, frequently staff with an eye on change face resistance from other staff members. They would regard all shifts from previously held positions as dubious.

      But in the case of Media arts, and engaging with new technologies and approaches, theres other factors at play as well. The best way to engage the students in this area is to model it and use it as part of the teaching experience. And theres a lot of change involved in that.

      – Lecturers and Talent, never an easy issue. They may have what they want to express clear in their minds, but how they express it is another issue. The open nature of blogging or use of social networks means their work is viewable by a wider audience. This presents a real challenge, the challenge of excellence.

      – Uncertainty about copyright. Lecturers play fast and free with other peoples material in the privacy of the classroom and they also want to protect their own.

      – The existing relationship, top-down, between teacher and student has no place here. A social network is more like a cluster of interested participants.

      – Unions and existing work practices. All you have to do is say that phrase and people start to walk away. Lecturers have unions too… Both management and unions tend to shy away from sites of confrontation instead of working through what needs doing.

    2. Lorena says:

      Change takes time: A digital divide does exist. Fortunately some work is being done at least outside of Journalism school to incorporate multimedia into learning and instruction.

      Richard E. Mayer at the University of Santa Barbara has written extensively about how to use multimedia for learning. Pushing the field of educational psychology to understand that people learn better, when they see words and pictures.

      Marc Prensky also comes to mind his motto long stamped into my mind, “Engage me or enrage me.” Helping to bridge the gap between how students learn and how we teach them. He makes a case for why we are losing the attention of students by not utilizing what they now best; texting, online communities, mp3’s, and video gaming.

      Their are many gaps in bridging the digital divide mainly along the line of class. For example the media literacy afforded to k-12 students in one school may not necessarily be the same at another.

      We can only teach what we know. That is a given, so the training, the model, the demand for integration of media and technology will likely come from the students. They will have to organize and create their own directed studies/independent study courses when those classes are not available to them at the university. Then the university departments will be playing catch up and turning to this media community as experts.

    3. Derina Holtzhausen says:

      In many respects you are correct about your assumptions on mass communications education. In academe we are always trying to play catch-up.

      However, here at the University of South Florida our journalism and telecommunications tracks at undergraduate level have been working together now for a number of years and created a multimedia journalism class that is co-taught between the School of Mass Communications and the Tampa Tribune. Students produce real products that are published and broadcast on television and the internet.

      At the graduate level we have started a full multimedia journalism track that not only focuses on the technicalities of multimedia journalism but also investigates the issue of online communities.

      Our undergraduate advertising sequence has revamped itself to include online advertising and in our undergraduate public relations sequence students use blogs, MySpace and Face Book for writing and campaigns classes.

      At the graduate level we have converged public relations and advertising into a strategic communication management track. Public relations faculty have just received grants to buy cameras and editing equipment. These will be used for “technology bootcamps” for all students who do not have access to these technologies through the multimedia journalism courses but are interested in citizen journalism, and using new technologies in the practice of strategic communication. These technologies will be a requirement in future campaigns classes.

      Now this all sounds wonderful. But you are correct in that we still require many of the courses that are traditionally offered at schools of mass communications. Finding the balance is a challenge. We all want to make sure our students are comfortable with new technology and on the cutting edge of their practice. At the same time we are not teaching in technical colleges but universities committed to providing students with a broad liberal arts education.

      The fact is that people in practice are also trying to figure it out. We in academe should be committed to do the same by keeping their departments organic and open to restructuring and change.

    4. I like your idea. Yes, journalism professors need to begin thinking differently. But we’re not all in the stone age. Some of us are teaching are students about convergence.

    5. oops — I mean “our” students.

    6. You are spot on. Journalism education needs to be reinvented, much as journalism itself needs to change to remain relevant in a digital age.

      I joined the faculty of the graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia last summer as part of its plans to overhaul its journalism curriculum.

      Rather than define journalism by its means of distribution, ie print or broadcast, the focus is on teaching students how to tell stories across media. In my course in multiplatform journalism, students learn how to report on stories using the appropriate medium for your audience.

      This involves making critical decisions, deciding whether a story best told using text, audio, video or using a tool such as a slideshow in Flash. Or perhaps a combination of these.

      The key here is to enable journalists to be able to conceive of stories across media. It means developing a multiple media mindset, rather than be locked into thinking in terms of one media, like print.

      Journalism educators should be preparing students for the newsrooms of the future, rather than for the newsrooms of yesterday.

    7. Kelly Hunt says:

      I loved this article! I’m a undergrad at the University of Tennessee, majoring in Journalism and Electronic Media with an emphasis in Magazine Journalism. And I need to say that UT is working pretty hard at educating media students about Web work. I’ve taken two Web-oriented classes so far and am completely taken by the idea of backpack journalism. It’s amazing. It’s weird because just a year ago, I was one of those people saying bloggers aren’t real journalists. Now I beg to be taught the skill. I feel a huge rush anytime I learn something new, because now I see how huge the shift is from traditional journalist to today’s journalist. And I have to admit, even through the amazing training I’ve received at UT, I know I am nowhere close to being prepared. But I am excited! I think this is one of the best times to be entering the field. Any school that isn’t on top of this, needs to get on the ball. Students NEED to learn this information or we will not make it as a journalist in today’s society. Help us out..please!

    8. Carrie H. says:

      I am also a student at the Univerisity of Tennessee majoring in Journalism and Electronic Media with a magazine concentration. I am a 5th year senior and I am amazed at how much the focus of my journalism classes has changed since my freshman year. I think it’s great that some schools are starting to recognize that the field is changing. I am nervous about entering the work field because I don’t feel my web skills are that impressive. I’m working on it though. I didn’t even take a class that dealt with any kind of web publishing until this semester (my last one). I can see how UT is working to make blogging and online media a bigger part of the communications curriculum. I would advise all younger students in the communications school to soak up as much of this information as possible. I don’t think you can ever know too much about the future of this field. When it comes down to it, those skills are the ones that set you apart from the rest.

    9. Grace Wade says:

      I’m a journalism student who loves print. I hate to admit the fact that I don’t want the news world to converge, but I don’t. I like having something in my hands to produce every day. But I know it is inevitable and I do appreciate the fact that the classes at my university are making adjustments to go with the times and forcing me to get interested in it.

    10. yolanda ortiz says:

      I am also a UT undergrad with a magazine emphasis. The web-oriented class I am in now has opened my eyes to a new realm of my field that I didn`t even know existed this time last year. I am not a big fan of reporting, so i became very interested in magazine layout and design. I too am fascinated with the idea of being able to hold something in my hands and know that I helped produce it.

      I attended a meeting last semester for some new site that our school was creating. I thought it sounded interesting so I decided to attend. Little did I know at that time there not only was a staff in the making for the site, but a class for it as well. Because of that I have had the opportunity to see some of my packages on our very own news website (tnjn.com) and I have really enjoyed working with it. A speaker from the Scripps network came to one journalism classes today. She is one of the coordinators for the HGTV website. It only reaffirms my interest in the area. She told us not to shut out the web and to be open to any new ideas that emerge in our field.

      Before this semester I was feeling very discouraged. I am a junior this year and I finally have all those horrible gen eds out of the way and I am finally getting into classes that I feel are preparing me. I am very grateful that Dr. Stovall (our web professor) has taken on the task of educating and exposing us to this new media. While UT may not be the pioneer in educating students on new media, they have taken on the task and there is a lot to be said for that.

    11. Iris says:

      I think this is an incredibly relevant topics that is grossly underestimated by both the average journalism students and professors. I also attend the University of Tennessee and was directed to this site by one of my professors, Jim Stovall, as a final class assignments in a website editing and journalism, senior-level, class. This is the first class I have taken in my time here at the university, that I have felt truly prepared for entry to the “real world” by. I was unsure of my internet blogging skills, and how exactly the blogging world was important to me. I agree totally that there is no real prepping of students for the world to come. The “old media” type of education is still doing exactly what it is meant to do but for the most part the online world is still very foreign to most advertising, editing, and writting classes. This to me is terrifying since I will be soon entering the work force under prepared for an online- enveloped media world. Only through my knowledge gained in Dr. Stovall’s course am I just begining to realize the importance of the individual’s reporter’s blogging ability and the face that free lance blogging-type journalism is the real way of the future. I think there should be more focus on the new possibilities of work for the graduating journalism student and this should start from the begining of the cirriculum, not the last two semesters.

    12. Brittany says:

      Im also a journalism student at the University of Tennessee with a focus in media management. When reading this article I started to think back to my freshman and sophomore year and the useless classes that we were required to take and how much of a difference it would have made to my education if my basic journalism courses were more focused on the new forms of media. Im a senior graduating in May intending to go into advertising sales and I just realized that even in my senior level sales class we never really discussed advertising on the web. The bulk of the class was about underwriting for the schools radio station, but did not go into detail about any other advertising mediums. I feel that it is very important for all levels of education especially universities to include modern day media courses into the requirements. It isnt enough that we know the history of how media developed but what opportunities we have now and in the future. The web is very flexible and allows users to access any information with just a click and these are just two of the many reasons why all journalism students should be more educated about journalism on the web.

    13. Joseph says:

      I can say from much of my personal experience, a lot of the foot dragging can simply be apart of the university lifestyle. In such a huge institution/machine that I go to school in, even the smallest changes can take years to implement. From what I’ve observed, our faculty and staff aren’t so much afraid or unaware of the shift occurring in media, but there are two approaches they are taking to it.

      As you said, there are those who are embracing it, those who are on the fence, and those who the administration is waiting for to retire. Here you could really fine tune that to two angles for anyone who isn’t embracing it fully. They either don’t believe it’s happening and are in a sense, doomed from the start. Then there are those who are simply afraid of technology and/or change. Some of them have heard that newspapers are dying (not entirely true of course) and that a lot of jobs are going away. Others are simply terrified of computers and still do their grades entirely on paper and have their secretaries print out their email.

      I honestly believe that the fear of change can and will eventually easily be overcome given time and some positive results of that change which we are already starting to see everywhere. In terms of the techno-phobia, it has been my experience that there are simply some who are unable to overcome that fear. Not to say that everyone in that position is going to be stuck there and we’re just going to have to wait for them to go away, on the contrary, many of them are on the road to becoming more comfortable with the medium especially as tools have been evolving and developing that have made producing content such an easier exercise. But I think we have to be a little bit honest with ourselves and accept that there are still those who aren’t going to go with the change and will still be driving home the glory of tape-to-tape editing, or the magnificence of print-classified ads. I think though that, thankfully, these people are small enough in number that we’ll actually want them around, since there will still be a place for those skills for a few more years at least, and to help keep us all a little more grounded as this dotcom part 2 continues on.

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