Eric Newton is a man of metaphors.
A vocal and longtime advocate for improvements in journalism education and embrace of the digital age, Newton has used his position with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to champion a teaching hospital model for J-Schools. Like an academic medical center that trains people how to be doctors while caring for patients and researching new treatments, he argues, an academic journalism program should teach students, report on its community and develop cutting-edge technologies and storytelling approaches. He urges J-Schools to turn out students with the skills to navigate our current media ecology and the creativity to imagine what news media could become next.
And now, he’s taking his ideas to Arizona State University to become innovation chief at its Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. As he does, he’s focused on a powerful metaphor gleaned from MIT Media Lab head Joi Ito: in media innovation, we need compasses, not roadmaps.
The idea is simple. Roadmaps are slow and costly plans, hard won over time and hewn to detail. Compasses are updated and reactive indicators of whether you’re headed in the right direction. According to Ito, “In a world of massive complexity, speed, and diversity, the cost of mapping and planning details often exceeds the cost of just doing something — and the maps are often wrong.”
When Newton looks at media work and training students to be ready for it, he sees a chance to free people of their maps and put compasses in their hands. A map cannot predict that Periscope will debut during your semester, and you need to account for incorporating it into your class. But a compass will tell you that as new technologies emerge, you need to point students toward audience-centered uses, as well as legal and ethical concerns.
“In the digital age, it’s easier to just do things than to plan and scope them out,” Newton said. “Iteration can be just as powerful as and sometimes more powerful than preparation.”
Power in Practice
If you want to see the power of shifting mindsets in journalism education, look toward the Cronkite School and you’ll see why it’s attractive to Newton. In the last decade of teaching within and observing the often fraught and bedraggled world of media instruction, I’ve seen no single program as ascendant as ASU (though plenty of other players are doing impressive things).
Its leader, founding dean Chris Callahan, has spent the last 10 years amassing stunning resources, leading talent and novel programs in service of students. When he came to Cronkite, it was a program within another ASU college. He helmed its transition to an independent college of its own. He’s increased his full-time faculty from 20 to 45 while staff numbers have grown from 15 to 40.
With this growth, Cronkite has taken its in-person student numbers from 2,000 when Callahan arrived to 1,400 today — achieving an instructor-to-student ratio well suited to the demands of ideal hands-on instruction. They’ve also built an impressive array of online teaching, with 400 students enrolled there.
Callahan has brought to ASU:
- News21, a national initiative initially funded by Knight and the Carnegie Corporation to bring together students in professionally supervised depth reporting projects.
- Cronkite News Service, a division of Arizona PBS for which students produce daily news products.
- Reynolds Center for Business Journalism, a one-stop shop for training and resources on covering money.
- Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, focused on forging startup mindsets and developing new media products.
None of that happens by mistake. It’s the result of a culture and mindset that Newton says attracted him to the innovation chief job. “Part of the attraction is that despite their size, they’re nimble,” Newton said. “They’re moving, and they show no signs of stopping. They’re culturally alive with innovation.”
Riding a wave of progress
When Newton and I first came onto each other’s radar, it was around a shared concern about journalism education and a lack of progress. It’s safe to say neither of us would have said J-Schools were alive with innovation. Four years later, we dovetail on a something of a cautious optimism about how far programs have come and where they’re headed.
Part of that is a ceasefire surrounding the question of whether schools need to change. When Newton started advocating, he had to arm himself to convince people that forward movement was necessary. He sees far less need for that ammunition today.
“I was ready to debate everyone 5 years ago about whether or not things should change,” Newton said. “But in recent years, I’ve found some real success in working with people who do not see any argument — the people who believe the digital age is a new age of human communication and that things are changing and the challenge is to see that the role of journalism can continue in new forms. We can become new again.”
From more open minds have sprung more nimble approaches to structure and teaching, as well as some upstart smaller programs that test fresh ideas. Curricula and syllabi seem like roadmap kinds of affairs — hammered out and fairly permanent — but anecdotally it feels like we’re seeing more compass-guided evolutions.
“Sometimes there are little things that schools do that can make a big difference,” he says. “You can still get a curriculum committee to approve a course without locking yourself into any particular method or software, and that gives you a more flexible approach.”
For examples of this in action across the country, it’s worth checking out the video archive of the Green Shoots conference hosted by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, marking the second edition of Newton’s Searchlights and Sunglasses digital experiment.
It not lost on Newton — or me — that money is very much a part of this rejuvenation, from outside sources, yes, but more from healthy resources within our own schools, colleges and universities. If we’re searching for a metaphor, it’s the fertilizer stimulating the next phase of growth in journalism education.
As a component of outside funding, Knight has been a massive plower of this field, and Newton expects that to continue after he’s moved to ASU. Over 25 years and more than $220 million in grant-making to benefit journalism in higher education, Knight has benefited major players like ASU. But it’s also targeted small and midsize programs and assisted with micro-grant efforts like the Challenge Fund and the EducationShift site you’re reading right now. (See Newton’s analysis of its education giving for more detail.)
Newton employs another analogy to illustrate where funders ought to be headed to achieve the greatest change. If charity means giving a person a fish and philanthropy means teaching a person to fish, he hopes journalism funders see themselves now in the business of venture philanthropy: enable people to invent new ways to fish.
He has that venture attitude about the new work he’ll encounter at Cronkite. “Culture and leadership are the drivers of innovation. So when there’s an organization like ASU with the right leadership, the right people and the right culture, it’s easier to see how increased effort on the side of innovation can work.”
Kathleen Bartzen Culver (@kbculver) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and researching at the intersection of ethics and digital media practices. Culver also serves as associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and education curator for PBS MediaShift.
This post was updated June 4, 2015, to clarify the amount of Knight Foundation grants to journalism programs and the need for internal funding.