While it might seem counter-intuitive that more students than ever want to study journalism, given the problems in the news business, I think it’s understandable. The reality, based on their own experience growing up and despite what some traditional practitioners think, is that it’s an incredibly exciting time in the field, with technology creating new opportunities that we could only have dreamed of even a few years ago. But before those of us who love the profession celebrate too much, we should also remember that it’s probably not the only area experiencing a boom, given the huge cohort of students moving into colleges right now.
The New York Times Education Life section Sunday provided a real service by exploring how schools are approaching teaching journalism at a time when the field is “undergoing a sweeping transformation.” Some of what I read encouraged me. But I fear that in many cases we’re still missing the point.
What should journalism schools be teaching?
First, I need to acknowledge that I am a journalism school graduate, with a master’s from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The most valuable part of that program, in the days of the typewriter, was the summer boot camp. So I was delighted to hear that Columbia now requires a Web boot camp. Both are a way of establishing a common language and understanding before getting to the real work. The danger if schools don’t take this approach is that they’ll spend too much time on things the students either already know or should know, and think they’re providing a journalism education. So when I read about Arizona State teaching students in writing class how “to upload their articles onto the Web” or in the online reporting class how to “subscribe to syndicated news feeds,” I thought, “Give me a break.” Both are so easy and in any event the techniques may change over time, what’s the big deal? That’s not anything to boast about.
When I hired journalists at the Rocky Mountain News, one of the questions I always asked was whether they had ever worked for a “good editor.” If they had, I asked them to tell me about the experience. If they couldn’t answer yes, I worried about them, because they had missed a critical experience in the development of a journalist. And that’s working for somebody who demands a level of rigor and effort that establishes a benchmark, a standard to which one always aspires.
To me, that’s the fundamental role of a journalism school, to put that editor’s voice into the minds of its students. That’s what is going to separate the students from the universe of citizen journalists in this new era. And I say that with no disrespect to what blogger Glenn Reynolds called “An Army of Davids.” I believe he’s right about the benefits of technology empowering the individual. But it doesn’t mean that journalism doesn’t remain something to be valued. If anything, it may be even more valuable going forward. But that’s only going to be the case if we remember what journalism is. And that’s where the schools come in.
It was highly competitive to get an internship at the Rocky, yet too often students came in never having had a professor be really tough or honest with them about the quality of their work. The first obligation of any journalism school is rigor. The second is to instill the value of critical thinking. One of the difficult parts of being a journalist, for some, is that you have to think independently, which means you’ll inevitably have to keep a certain distance from those you cover. This can mean that you’re not accepted or liked, two things many, if not most, people crave. Too often journalists give in to that desire; too often they’re willing to accept what they hear uncritically. They need to be exposed to and taught critical thinking.
So, if we accept that rigor and critical (or independent) thinking are the basis for any program, there are two other values that need to be instilled and encouraged, what Tim Gallagher, my friend and former editor of the Ventura County Star, described as “skepticism (not cynicism) and curiosity.”
We can’t prepare young journalists today for the technology they’ll be using. It changes too fast. It’s just a given that they need to be playful and skilled with technology. But there are many ways to learn that. There are few places for them to be exposed to people who will push their thinking, demand a level of work that they didn’t know they had in them.
We know that good journalism is very hard work. But what the students see on television can make it look easy. It’s a false picture. The journalism schools, by exposing the students to great journalists and by working side-by-side with the students on stories, need to build that foundation of understanding on which they’ll be able to build their careers. The bottom line is that they need to help their students learn to become storytellers. It’s easy to teach people to become recorders of events or repeaters, transferring a message from one source to another. It’s difficult to teach people how to become storytellers. And, yes, of course I mean “all-platform” storytellers.