Saturday, September 15, 2012

Journalism schools could re-invent the industry

Newton (Knight Foundation
(Versión en español aquí.)

University journalism programs are not changing fast enough to meet the needs of students entering an industry in which job opportunities lie in ventures that are entrepreneurial and multimedia, say experts writing a series of articles for Nieman Lab.

One of the commentators is Eric Newton, who says it is not enough to make changes every few years; schools need to embrace a culture of continuous change or rapidly become irrelevant.

Newton is senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation, which has invested millions to help journalists serve their communities better through innovative technology. Few universities, he argues, have done enough to keep current with these innovations.

Geneva Overholser, director of the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, says there is an urgent need for universities to improve their teaching of multimedia and digital skills.

Overholser (USC photo)
She also argues for more emphasis on entrepreneurship and teaching the business side of journalism. “Long gone are the days when we could do a story and toss it over the wall, letting other people worry about assembling an audience and paying for our work.”

Journalism professors and students need to embrace journalism as a “civic good”, Overholser says, and produce journalism that offers marginalized communities high-quality information not offered anywhere else.

Teaching hospital model

In tune with Overholser's call to serve communities, Len Downie, former editor of the Washington Post and current professor of journalism at Arizona State, urges more universities to adopt a “teaching hospital model” to do just that.

He cites programs at universities such as Maryland, Missouri and Arizona State which require students to work in a professional newsroom environment and produce media for their communities. However, Downie believes that these newsrooms can do more; they can innovate ways to revitalize a struggling industry. 

The Knight Foundation itself has endorsed this model and cited its potential for creating centers of applied research.

Centers of innovation and applied research

The voices in the Nieman Lab echo recommendations in a report by the New America Foundation, which says, 

Journalism education programs have an opportunity to become 'anchor institutions' in the emerging informational ecosystem . . .
Just as teaching hospitals don’t merely lecture medical students, but also treat patients and pursue research, journalism programs should not limit themselves to teaching journalists, but should produce copy and become laboratories of innovation as well.
These university-based media can fill information gaps left by the decline in coverage by traditional media, particularly local newspapers.

Although the Nieman series focuses on the situation in the U.S., the recommendations could be extended to universities in Spain and Latin America, where I have seen too few innovative institutions among the hundreds offering journalism programs. (The Federation of Journalism Associations of Spain devoted an entire issue to the topic this summer.) 

Leaders or victims?

Journalism schools need to put aside a system that trains professionals for jobs that are disappearing and instead prepare them for the new media and new job descriptions such as community manager, multimedia producer and coder-programmer. Universities need to play a more active role in rebuilding the news ecosystem.

The traditional university hasn't confronted a challenge this great since the invention of the printing press. The rhythm of change has accelerated and disruptive technologies have shaken the foundations and certitudes of the past. The question is how willing are the deans and professors of journalism to be leaders in the transformation of the profession rather than its victims.

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