How Journalism Education Can, and Should, Blow Up the System

    by Eric Newton
    May 23, 2012
    Knight's Eric Newton says it's time for journalism education to completely revamp. And to do that, it needs leadership. Image courtesy of Sidewalk Flying of Flickr.

    The following is the text from a speech given by Eric Newton, the senior adviser to the president at the Knight Foundation, earlier this month at a national conference of journalism educators at Middle Tennessee State University. The text has been edited for length. You can read the entire version here.

    In 2005, two of America’s largest foundations created the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education.

    If the system really is blocking you, I will suggest some ways today to blow it up. But if the system is not the problem, I'm counting on you to help each other share road maps for reform."

    This was before Facebook got big. Before Twitter, Instagram, Groupon or Pinterest. Before the iPhone or the iPad. Before the largest collapse in American newsroom history, with vanishing local journalism jobs totaling more than 15,000.


    You might think we launched a project on the future of journalism education because we saw all that coming. We didn’t.

    The deans and news leaders who met at the start of Carnegie-Knight knew only that society had crossed over a threshold.

    We had entered the digital age, and it was a time of plenty and of paradox. More readers, less advertising revenue. More writing, less journalism. More information, less meaning. More opportunity, less predictability.


    One point was clear. All institutions, including academia, suddenly were out of date. That created more questions than we had answers. Could universities embrace continuous change? Might journalism and mass communication education have a new role to play in the future of news?

    Seven years later, I can tell you the answer is yes. Universities can help lead the way through the era of “creative destruction.” But only if they are willing to destroy and recreate themselves.

    Carnegie-Knight demonstrated that change is possible. Before the initiative, we surveyed industry leaders. They did not think much of journalism education. After the initiative, we surveyed again. They had changed their minds. Schools were improving. The Carnegie-Knight schools were especially good, they thought.

    If it did nothing else, the initiative demonstrated the true value of journalism schools, much of it likely already there but not focused or understood.

    Catalysts for Innovation

    Change at the participating schools went far beyond what the foundations funded. Digital-first curriculum, deep subject knowledge, explosions of collaboration and innovation, student journalism on the front page of The Washington Post, graduates going straight into major media roles.

    We did not buy those changes. Twenty million dollars seems a substantial sum. But there were a dozen schools involved over many years. In reality our grants were but a fraction of a percentage point of the budgets of these schools. The grants were a catalyst. What we bought was hope. The schools did the rest.

    The initiative revealed four transformational trends in journalism and mass communication education. I’ll get to those in a moment. You’ll see that the best schools already are living these trends.


    But some educators do not accept them. They say budgets, presidents, provosts, faculty, students, the rules — “the system” — all block sweeping change.

    So that leaves me with two choices. Either the system really does block change, or all of that is just an excuse.

    If the system really is blocking you, I will suggest some ways today to blow it up. But if the system is not the problem, I’m counting on you to help each other share road maps for reform.

    We know the challenge: The digital age is the most profound development since movable metal type brought the age of mass communication. It is changing everything — who a journalist is, what a story is, which media should be used for which news, and how we engage with communities, the people formerly known as the audience.

    What Universities Should Do

    Radical change requires radical reform. The digital age is turning journalism and communication upside down and inside out. It should be doing the same to journalism and communication education. You tell me: Is it? Has your program turned upside down and inside out?

    In my opinion it should, if you want to ride the four transformational trends demonstrated by Carnegie-Knight schools, and all top tier schools. To be relevant in the future, here’s what universities should do:

    1. Expand their role as community content providers. University hospitals save lives. University law clinics take cases to the Supreme Court. University news labs can reveal truths that help us right wrongs. Based on the teaching hospital model, they can provide the news people need to run their communities and their lives.

    2. Innovate. No longer must you be the caboose on the train of American media. You can be an engine of change. You can create both new uses of software and new software itself. Anyone can create the future of news and information. Anyone includes us.

    3. Teach open, collaborative methods. No longer must students be lone wolf reporters or cogs in a company wheel. In small, integrated teams of designers, entrepreneurs, programmers and journalists, students learned to rapidly prototype news projects and ideas.

    4. Connect to the whole university. This can mean team-teaching a science journalism class with actual scientists. Or creating centers with engineers or entrepreneurs. Or diving so deeply into topic expertise our colleagues at Harvard call it, as they did for Carnegie-Knight, “knowledge journalism.”

    University presidents had to pay for some of this themselves to be part of Carnegie-Knight. Sure enough, their view of journalism and communication changed. They saw the value of the school not just to the university but also to the community.

    Beneath these trends are challenges and opportunities. Let’s face the most important one head-on. Top professionals are just as important to the task at hand as top scholars. You simply can’t run a teaching hospital without doctors. But you can run one without researchers. Please understand: The best do both. Still, the doctors are required.

    Curriculum reform needs to be more than dissolving print and broadcast silos. It should redefine journalism, an intellectual activity in its own right: Call it the art of critical inquiry and real-time high-impact exposition and analysis. If you teach it as a skill, it becomes nothing more than a skill. Teach journalism as the most exciting profession of this century, and it becomes that.

    After having been part of more than $100 million in grants to universities, I would like to offer an observation: Top scholars, top journalists and top schools welcome change. Mediocre schools do not. At the top, great minds think alike. The problems come from the middle of the bell curve.

    Many have called for journalism and communication school reform. A diverse, bipartisan, independent Knight Commission called for “fresh thinking and aggressive action” to deal with the digital age. The FCC’s Information Needs of Communities declared a crisis in local accountability journalism and called for universities to step up. A report by the New America Foundation detailed university content efforts and called for more.

    The Symphony of Slowness

    With all due respect, journalism and communication education plays at least second chair, and sometimes first chair, in the symphony of slowness. What I mean is the reaction time to new things. Consider this: On one side of campus, engineers are inventing the Internet, browsers and search engines. But the news industry is slow to respond; then public radio slower still; foundations even slower; government slower yet again; then comes the journalism and communication schools, on the other side of campus from the engineers; and finally, public television.

    Who suffers from the symphony of slowness? Students and society.

    You can tell students are hurt by looking at a finding, I believe it was two years ago, of the annual graduate survey. A huge number of the nation’s journalism and communication school grads, something approaching half, did not think there had been any major changes in media in the previous five years. In fact, there were record bankruptcies, hearings in Congress, huge new media companies starting in people’s garages. Social and mobile media. Yet a significant number of students don’t understand what is happening. Who is teaching these people?

    You can also tell society is being hurt. Foundations are stepping up their investment in news and information projects because of the local news drought. They do it because news and information is a core social need, as crucial to healthy communities as safe streets, good schools and clean air. They do it, as our host John Seigenthaler says, because journalism is needed for democracy.

    A Wish List

    Put simply, this is a do-over moment for journalism education. My wish list for what should be done is intended to provoke you. My hope is that it inspires your thoughts and, as Jack Knight once said, rouses you to pursue your true interests.

    So here we go:

    First, I hope you’ll get active in this year’s reform effort by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. I applaud it. I hope you will support it, particularly the new flexibility in curriculum that allows students to learn a lot more business and technology.

    That said, I wish students should be able to take half of their credit hours within their major. It’s an important major. You need to teach more core journalism classes than ever. Journalism, the nonfiction profession, should be learned by all communication students. This is more important than ever because the new technology allows everyone to act as journalists.

    ACEJMC needs a standard covering technology and innovation: All students must understand why the everyday technology they know so well is part of a profoundly new digital age of communication. Is the school constantly remaking itself? What has it created? What experiments is it trying? What technology is it using? Every journalism school should show its cards: It should openly list on the web both its technical expertise, the number of technologists it has and the technology it uses, everything down to the software languages.

    Here’s a quick story about that: When I came to the Knight Foundation in 2001, we had an internal rule that only accredited schools could be considered for grants. That rule lasted about a week. A school called. I asked: Are you accredited? Yes. Do you have a website? No. But it’s seven years after the world wide web. You must have had an accreditation visit. Yes. No one cared that you didn’t even have a website? No. Do you know it only takes a few minutes to create a website? It does? At that moment, I thought there should be a new rule: If the most profound change in communications in half a millennium comes along, and you appear unaware of that, you can’t apply for a grant.

    The ACEJMC diversity standard doesn’t go far enough. It should consider all the social fault lines — gender, race, generation, geography, class and ideology. These fault lines are relatively equal in impact. But on campus, the gender gap is the biggest: Look at how many students are women, more than 60 percent. Look at how many deans are women. I don’t know the percentage, but I doubt it is more than 10.

    My final and biggest note on the ACEJMC accreditation reform comes under the category of assessment. It sounds odd to have to say it, but journalism and communication schools should communicate. Schools should design systems that allow open, real-time reporting. All the accreditation self-studies, all the metrics should be on a school’s website all the time. The percentage of graduates who get jobs in their field should be in big type at the top of the home page. If that number is zero, I’d sure like to know why.

    Several recommendations on my wish list have to do with the critical need for top professionals in the teaching hospital model. We need to do nothing less, at this time in news history, than restore top news professionals to the most respected ranks of academia. Our $50 million Knight Chair program, at more than 20 universities, proves this can be done. Many of these chairs are national leaders. They are chosen for their genius, not for their degrees. A degree is a surrogate measure of talent, and sometimes not a very good one.

    To some institutions, our professional chairs, all of whom have tenure, are unacceptable. I refer now to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the regional accreditation group with which I am most familiar. SACS is the right name for a group with a reputation for sacking the professionals within academia.

    Let’s look at the SACS standards for hiring faculty. A university should give “primary consideration to the highest earned degree in the discipline.” After that, “the institution also considers competence…” Also? That’s what it says. The degree is primary, competence is an also-ran.

    Unfortunately, more than a few deans, provosts and presidents are going along with this shakedown. I can think of only two reasons for that. One is passive aggressive: They actually want to ban or purge professionals, and this gives an excuse to do it. The other reason is worse: They have no fight left in them.

    As badly written as they are, the SACS rules do allow for a school to argue for “unusual” or “exceptional” people. But I never hear the stories of the great people who were saved because of a brave provost who put together a case and told SACS to take a hike.

    I hear the opposite, of faculty who have been unfairly demoted or fired. Sometimes, these folks are so exceptional Knight or another funder has given them a grant. Imagine our surprise when they are dismissed because even though they are extraordinarily competent, even though they are top professionals, they have been abandoned by their deans, provosts and presidents and sacked by a cookie-cutter rule.

    When will someone have the courage to say the emperor is not wearing any clothes? Earlier this week I met with the journalism funders group. We were not at all happy with the slow rate of change in journalism education, including how exceptional professionals are being treated. You have not heard the last of this. Universities are likely to lose private sector funding if it doesn’t stop. A degree is not more important than competence.

    Great professionals and great scholars should be equal. But they are not. I think you should address the structural inequities between them by establishing a new degree structure recognizing the need for top professionals.

    An Opportunity

    If we can unite the clans, there is a huge opportunity here for collaboration. For the first time, a serious number of schools are experimenting. Who will study these experiments? Who will address the social science of engagement and impact? How can we get scholars and professionals to work together?

    Now, to be fair, the door should swing both ways. Newsrooms should embrace the nation’s leading journalism scholars, twin them with top professionals in efforts to understand the digital world. Columbia University did that when it put editor Len Downie together with scholar Michael Schudson in their report on reconstructing journalism.

    At the top, as I’ve said, collaboration is easier. But then there is that middle of the curve. Sometimes, I think if I had a magic wand, I would suspend tenure in journalism and communication education for a generation. Revoke it for everyone, put the professionals and scholars on equal footing, on merit-based contracts. Or, at the very least, offer a massive number of early retirement programs.

    On the positive side, the early adopters among you are encouraging. You are trying new story forms, teaching everything from data visualization to web scraping and computational journalism, developing entrepreneurial journalism programs, developing new software, including games, and even opening a center for drone journalism. Some are experimenting with new tools as fast as they come out. Those schools will produce better students. Teaching hospitals use the latest tools.

    The changing schools are becoming comfortable with a kind of reverse mentoring, where smart students teach the professors about the cutting-edge digital issues and the teachers help students infuse our great values — the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth — into the new things they are creating.

    Where does all the money come from to make this happen? Probably not as much as you would think from the bigger national foundations. Our project showed the principles work — that what we are good at: demonstrating what’s possible. We can help you think globally if you are ready to act locally.

    For example, you’ll hear that the News21 program is continuing for the next 10 years, open to all schools. Why? Because the president and dean at Arizona State University figured out how to pay 80 percent of the cost. So now, for a stipend, you can send a top student to a world-class college journalism team, and they get to play in an all-star game that lasts all summer.

    ASU is a good example of the four transformational trends. They are providing digital news in new, engaging ways. They are innovating content and technology. They are learning to teach open, collaborative models and they’re connecting with the whole university. They have not abandoned quality journalism; they’ve enhanced it.

    ASU’s Chris Callahan can tell you how he does it, but I would suggest that thinking big is part of his secret. And knowing that your biggest funding source is right at home — the university president.

    Why not teach the 21st century literacies — news literacy, digital media fluency, civics literacy — to the entire campus? If you have the right budgeting system, getting more bodies brings more money. At Stony Brook, they are teaching news literacy to 10,000 students. At Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., they are teaching digital and media literacy to the entire community.

    Why not try harder at community foundations? For years we have run something called the Knight Community Information Challenge, where we’ve encouraged greater journalism and media grant-making by matching community foundations that funded local projects. Few universities got that money.

    Why not try harder to get innovation money? The Knight News Challenge tends to hear from the same schools. It looks for projects that combine news, innovation and community. We should have heard from all schools by now. Similarly the department of education money for tech experiments has not gone to journalism schools.

    Speaking of federal funds, why not try harder to get those? The federal government, in a once-in-a-generation move, just gave out billions to increase broadband penetration. Hundreds of millions of dollars of that were for content experiments. How much went to journalism and mass communication? Not much. Some to Michigan State, I think.

    Once the economy recovers, we’ll be ripe for new federal program ideas. How about Media Corps, where students would get full college scholarships if they stayed at their universities after graduation to provide community content and help their schools transform?

    Our government is doing this for the military — giving students free computer science degrees if they will serve the nation as cyber soldiers. Maybe deans should organize and propose the nation care for the communication of peace as it does for war.

    In this paradoxical digital age, my concerns are often mixed with a great deal of excitement. All things considered, we should rejoice. It is a privilege to be alive at this turning point. Certainly, the students are enthusiastic. They continue to come in record numbers, ready to teach as well as learn, set to go find the new jobs wherever they are created. Journalism and communication schools find themselves offering the great all-purpose degree of the 21st century. What more can be done with that?

    Bob Maynard used to say all things worth doing begin with someone who passionately believes in them even when others say they are not possible. He thought the Oakland Tribune could become what we called a “teaching newspaper,” and even without any money, it was. (By the way, we ran programs for Ph.D.s who had never been in newsrooms.)

    Al Neuharth believed you could make an engaging, high-tech museum of news, and now we have the Newseum. Alberto Ibargüen believed Knight Foundation could help lead journalism to a better future by diving into media innovation, and it has.

    This is about leadership. Even if you don’t want to blow up the systems as I’ve proposed, I believe that if you passionately want reform, it will happen. To get there you may have to first get past the most difficult barrier of all, the voice in your heads that says it just it can’t be done.

    My conclusion is that the positive transformational trends in journalism and mass communication education are happening often in spite of, rather than because of, the underlying structures.

    That’s because people like you have decided it’s going to happen, no matter what. So if you blow things up, great. If not, please use the next two days to come up with better ideas. The future depends on it.

    Thank you.

    Typewriter photo by Helen Black on Flickr.

    Eric Newton joined Knight Foundation in 2001. He is senior adviser to the president. In the journalism program at Knight he helped develop more than $300 million in grants. Previously, Newton was founding managing editor of the Newseum, leading the content team at the world’s first museum of news. He started at California newspapers. As city editor, assistant managing editor and managing editor of the Oakland Tribune under Bob and Nancy Maynard, he helped the paper win more than 150 awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. Follow him on Twitter @EricNewton1.

    Tagged: acejmc beyond j-school j-school journalism education journalism schoolos knight foundation teaching journalism

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