The “practice” side of journalism education has traditionally had one major goal: to feed new journalists into the news business. The other, broader mission has been to help students become superb critical thinkers and communicators — skills that have wide application in any number of fields.
As the traditional journalism business continues to implode, journalism educators need to be thinking a lot more about the second category, but also in broader ways about the first. If we recognize journalism in places where we never used to acknowledge its existence, journalism programs will discover niches that could fuel new programs and attract new students.
Here’s one: In 2009, I suggested that some advocacy organizations were creating “almost-journalism” — doing deep and valuable reporting on issues that mattered, such as civil liberties, human rights and more. They could do even better, I said, if they applied basic journalistic principles — because they’d be even more credible.
A senior person at a major NGO contacted me shortly after the piece ran. We had several long conversations about how the organization’s researchers and media creators could adopt these principles. We even discussed making me a part-time “journalism coach” there, but budget cuts scotched that idea.
Others in the journalism world have recognized the advocates-as-journalists trend; an influential Columbia University report, co-authored by my colleague Len Downie, cited Human Rights Watch as an organization that involves citizens in the journalism process. And several weeks ago, I published an update about the advocates, at Slate magazine. Five years on, I said, it’s time to remove the “almost” from the “almost-journalism” meme. They aren’t all doing journalism, to be sure. But isn’t it time to recognize journalism wherever it’s done, by whoever does it?
And as we do that, journalism educators should recognize the potential for creating programs for those folks. As I said in 2009, educators “can help the almost-journalists — the ones who want the help — understand and apply” the principles and practices that lead to credible and honorable media creation.
Why should educators do this? It’s not just about revenues, though I suppose some in the field will envision this as a new market to tap. While there’s nothing wrong with that, the even better reason is to add quality to the broader journalistic ecosystem.
An Opportunity for Scholarship, Too
I’m not the only one to have noticed what’s happening in this arena. Several scholars have focused on it, as I learned after the Slate piece appeared. Their work suggests fertile ground for the academy on the research side, not just among practitioners.
At the University of Washington in Seattle, for example, Matthew Powers has been researching the phenomenon. In a new paper published in the International Journal of Communication he looks at how NGOs have been shaping their publicity strategies, and notes, among other things, that a number of NGOs have “hired reporters, photographers, videographers, and online specialists to help produce news content, either in collaboration with news outlets or for their organization’s own website.” As a result, he adds, “NGO publicity has more opportunities than ever before to reach relevant stakeholders, either by shaping media coverage or by directly targeting niche audiences.”
And at the INSEAD business school in Paris, Mark Hunter has also been on the case. In 2010 he and a colleague, Luk Van Wassenhove, published a paper titled, “Disruptive News Technologies: Stakeholder Media and the Future of Watchdog Journalism Business Models,” in which they wrote that “the future of watchdog journalism is directly linked to stakeholder media, which will furnish a growing share of the public and the revenues necessary for investigative reporting.”
What Should We Teach?
If journalism schools take on this mission, they won’t need to alter the curriculum much if at all, though I can easily imagine some differences from “regular” course requirements. For example, I suspect that there’s an opportunity to create graduate programs aimed specifically at NGO-style media, with instruction that includes best practices in public relations as well as journalism and media techniques. This would recognize advocacy organizations’ need to get what they tell us to a wider audience, and help them figure out how. Then again, any sensible journalism program should be helping students understand marketing fundamentals in an emerging media ecosystem — where the key to what we used to call “distribution” is letting the potential audience, niche or mass, know how to find their work.
Schools that take on this additional mission will need, above all, to embrace the idea that journalism with a world view is just as legitimate as so-called “objective” journalism. I put the word in quotes because I don’t believe it’s possible to be truly objective; if you add transparency to the traditional principles of journalism, you have something even better.
One of the more compelling critiques of NGO/advocacy journalism has been that it can lack key qualities of what we all can agree are journalistic principles. Since we’d better get used to the idea that this kind of media is only going to grow, let’s welcome it — and help the people doing it create even more trustworthy reports. In a diversifying media ecosystem, J-schools need to diversify, too.
Dan Gillmor teaches digital media literacy at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He also writes a weekly column for the Guardian US, and is working on a new book, tentatively entitled Permission Taken, about increasingly centralized control of technology and communication, and what we can do to get control back to end users.