Journalism educators can sometimes feel under attack, as very rarely does any report about the state of journalism education provide glowing reviews of what we’re doing in the hallowed halls of academia. So at the risk of piling on, here’s one more suggestion: Teach your students more about the business of journalism.
In the Knight Foundation’s “Above & Beyond – Looking at the Future of Journalism Education,” Medill’s dean Bradley Hamm made a comment that struck me as only partly true.
In the report he said that during transitions in the business world, “you could have picked up the phone as a CEO and called business professors who you knew were experts and you would have brought them in to work with you. … When [the digital-first shift] hit our world … were you calling anybody in journalism education to help you? If you wanted to have thought leadership, in my opinion, you would have gone to the students.”
However, here’s where Hamm’s critique falls short, in my view. Calling on students to help manage the digital-first shift might have helped journalism organizations figure out which tech tools were capturing a segment of the audience, but that would have done little to create a new and sustaining business model for the profession. That’s because journalism education as a whole has failed graduates and the industry when it comes to helping students understand how journalism gets paid for.
So how do we foster all the skills journalists need and give them a crash course on the business? Just as it’s easy for industry critics to point out where news organizations have gone wrong, it’s relatively easy to prescribe fixes for journalism education (especially if you will not be held responsible for making those changes yourself), so here’s a look at what several schools are doing.
Create a required class
At the University of Maryland, learning about the business is a required core class. Called “The Business of News,” this one-credit course is mandatory for all seniors seeking a journalism degree. At Arizona State University (ASU), a class titled “Business and Future of Journalism” is also required of journalism students. The course syllabus includes a quote from Dan Gillmor, professor of practice at ASU:
“It boggles my mind that we would graduate people out of our journalism schools who don’t understand the market economy,” Gillmor says. “That to me is bizarre.”
Specifically, journalism educators graduate students who know little about the industries in which they hope to work. Hank Price is general manager for Hearst-owned WVTM-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, and my co-author for a book about the business of news. He worries about the lack of savvy many journalism grads seem to have when it comes to the financial foundation of journalism.
“During the old top-down days it was not important for journalists to understand how their business worked. Journalists were only accountable to their managers and to themselves,” Price said in an email. “Today’s journalist is involved in a two-way conversation. Things like product usage, subscription trends and even the bottom line are among the ways users express their satisfaction with the product. “
Price says hiring journalism grads who understand the critical role of audience in the media business equation is going to be an essential part of helping journalism thrive in the future.
That’s something Tim McGuire, who regularly teaches the ASU business of journalism course, can agree with. He says he’s now introducing students to concepts that help them understand the importance of the “customer experience.”
“News is now a commodity, so we think it’s crucial to have students thinking about the customer because they will be going into newsrooms fighting to survive,” said McGuire. He’s also focused on promoting entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity in the class. “Only the creative and innovative are going to survive.”
Adding options, not requirements
Of course, multiple schools offer courses and even tracks in entrepreneurial journalism, but these are rarely, if ever, required classes that every journalism major must take.
In fact, the realities of curriculum change mean that it can be very difficult to cram another course into a student’s degree program, so big-picture thinkers like Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute suggest that classes that focus on teaching about audience analytics may be a path to injecting an understanding of the business imperative news organizations face.
At the University of Mississippi, where I teach, we offer a specialization in media management. The two-course credential consists of a media sales class and a media management course, but only a small percentage of our students will take advantage of the opportunity. Still, our hope is that the specialization will make a difference in the job hunt for these students, and ASU’s McGuire has evidence that it might.
“I’ve had several students contend they got a job because they could answer questions about the business and future of journalism,” he said.
Tompkins says it’s also more likely than ever that journalism graduates will never work for a traditional news organization.
“Increasingly, the people I teach are freelancers, or as they call them in Canada, ‘casuals.’ These journalists are not full-time employees but independent contractors who have to learn how to run their careers as a business,” said Tompkins in an email. “Many of the big network magazine shows now only use freelancers, not staff photographers. Producers are often freelancers called in to coordinate live coverage in big breaking stories.”
All of this points to a need for more understanding of the news as a business.
The real barrier?
To Dean Hamm’s point, I do agree that there has been a lack of thought leadership in journalism education, specifically in the area of finding paths to financial sustainability for the profession. So, beyond the battles over how to do it, what’s keeping more schools from adding a healthy dose of instruction about the journalism business into the curriculum? It may be a misunderstanding of what the “wall” between the editorial and the business side of a news organization is supposed to do.
“What we have always referred to as the ‘wall’ was really a way of saying we were not willing to have our news product influenced by advertiser interests. That has not changed,” Price said. “I would argue that management continues to have a responsibility to protect their journalists from outside influence. That is a completely different issue than understanding how a business works.”
McGuire is even more blunt when asked what he would tell any journalism professor who feels the business of news has no business in the curriculum.
“Go teach sociology! If you’ve been near a newsroom in the last 25 years, you know that’s horse pucky,” he said. “It’s ridiculous, a very old-fashioned point of view; the issue is that we need to be independent, not that we don’t recognize the importance of understanding the business side.”
Deb Wenger is an associate professor and director of undergraduate journalism in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. Her new co-authored book, Managing Today’s News Media: Audience First, is now available from Sage.