July 03, 2012

COMJIG to the rescue

The debate on the AEJMC listserv seems to center around some core themes: journalism education (i.e., how we should train the teachers); how our research in the academy may (or may not) apply to the professional ranks; and (this is a subset of both) the old chestnut of “what’s the good of research if you can’t do anythin’ wit’ it.” Yeah, well, howse ’bout thinking about this then (and it’s a paraphrase from Isaac Asimov since I can’t find the original – and it must be true because I read it on Facebook next to a pic of Isaac): There is a persistent strain of anti-intellectualism that runs through American political and cultural life and makes us foolishly believe that our ignorance is all that we need. Need proof? Then look to The Federalist Papers (Letter 9) when Hamilton writes that Montesquieu was wrong about the ideal size for a republic. Basically, Montesquieu thought a true republic needed to be small but Hamilton said it could work with big. Yeah, big would do just fine since we were big then and got a whole lot bigger as tempus fugited. Hamilton, by writing that Montesquieu’s beliefs were “the novel refinements of an erroneous theory,” made his camp with the practicalists (if that is a word) and not with the academic theorists. So anti-intellectualism has deep roots at the core of our political philosophy and is often reflected in the journalism of our time. Hang with me just a little longer because I have a point and I’m not just being pedantic. Honest.

Let’s stick with Montesquieu for a minute or two. He also wrote that a republic needs to cultivate virtue. OK, now, if we ain’t gonna learn virtue in schools (remember that anti-intellectualism thang?), then where can we learn it? Why in the real world, of course, educated in the streets. But how do we learn about things going on across town, or in the next neighborhood, or in the next state? Those of us who worked in paragraph factories for a number of years believe that a news organization is the perfect medium to school the hoi and the polloi. In our column inches and public service broadcasts we’d point out saints and sinners and try to dispassionately and objectively teach by example. In a way that hubristic outlook is a reflection and a snippet of the Lippmann-Dewey debate on the social responsibility theory of the press vs. the libertarian theory of the press. What hath Gutenberg wrought?

And to stick with Lippmann for a moment, Madison may have first built Lippmann’s argument when he wrote (Federalist 63) that practical history shows us that people can be swayed and propaganda can work wonders. So maybe virtue is hard to teach. But what do theorists think? Well, Hume also looked at history and wrote, in his problem of induction, something along the lines that the future is not obligated to mimic the past, which could mean that just because propaganda seems to work wonders every now and then it won’t always hold the populace in its sway. In short, Lippmann could be wrong. If he is, then we need an education. Hey, teacher, don’t leave those kids alone! Now enter Jefferson and his famous quote about preferring newspapers without a government rather than government without newspapers. But what he said in the next breath, and which isn’t as heavily publicized (got them ol’ anti-intellectualism blues again, ma), is that he also wants people to be educated.

So enter the academy, stage right and left, but not The Thinkery (see Aristophanes about that) – and I admit there may be an uncomfortable amount of exegesis here. The French philosophes would have us believe that even though we’re born free we are in the chains of old ways of thinking. Not only that, but the prevailing biz models of the 19th and 20th centuries have a hard time making money off the bells and whistles of the 21st century media platforms. Warren Buffett is the latest savior du jour; after all, if he can’t make money off news websites then no one can, or so the thinking today goes. And that also brings me back to the so-called “real world” (what, we teach in the clouds? – there’s a pun there, sorry, if you got the Aristophanes ref) of journalism. The ol’ thesis sentence (remember those?) of this graf was to introduce the symbiotic relationship between journalism as practiced in newsrooms and journalism as taught in colleges. If it’s not clear then the fault is mine. Don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s OK. But, umm, could you please re-read? It’s important. Go ahead, I’ll wait. (hmmm, “…If I had my way, I'd shuffle off to Buffalo/Sit by the lake, and watch the world go by …”). Done? OK, let’s forge ahead then, shall we?

Those of us in AEJMC’s Community Journalism Interest Group believe that COMJIG and the small news organizations we represent can be of service here. That theme has come up a couple o’times in this discussion by COMJIG folks I respect and I’m not going to repeat it here because what I really want to talk about is the sea change in news delivery and, by extension, in schools. Right now it’s being framed in academic circles as a disruption to education. Indeed, the disruption isn’t confined to just communication departments as colleges get more social. As one post (I’m not using any names because I didn’t get anyone’s permission to use their names, even though the listserv is more or less public) noted: “ Educators, many of whom are disconnected from the field, are protected by tenure and layers and layers of bureaucracy. The first obviates the need for change, the second discourages those who try to affect it.”

Oh my! So what to do? As with Kant we can awaken from our dogmatic slumbers and ask ourselves three things: What can I know? What ought I to do? and what can I hope?

What can I know? In a June 25 piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo wrote that the time for college administrators to kick the tires of change is past. It’s time to buy. Going along with that is a commitment to make college more affordable: “In 2003, only two colleges charged more than $40,000 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board; by 2009, 224 were above that mark. The total amount of outstanding student loan debt is now more than $1 trillion.”

We are pricing ourselves out of business, which means that a journalism education (not to be confused with journalism training) could become a dinosaur. As Selingo put it: “Other information industries, from journalism to music to book publishing, enjoyed similar periods of success right before epic change enveloped them. We now know how those industries have been transformed by technology, resulting in the decline of the middleman — newspapers, record stores, bookstores and publishers.”

What ought I to do? Be of good cheer, though, because there are solutions: Let’s talk about more online or innovative instruction (delivery) when appropriate, better advising and course selection, a new paradigm for requirements and what courses are taken in transfer, and shared services initiatives (e.g., 16 liberal arts colleges in the South joined together to offer online and hybrid courses to students on any campus in the group).

Howard Finberg of The Poynter Institute, in a June 4 speech at the European Journalism Centre's 20th anniversary shindig, said that the disruption of journalism education and the changes in the journalism profession is really the same thing. So a few fixes could help both camps. Now he didn’t mention COMJIG (nor did I think he meant to, but we forgive him), but there are entry points for COMJIG to serve as a test model or as a role model. First, though, to define (again) the problem: “Just as media companies needed to innovate, so must journalism education. Education is being disrupted by the same technology innovation that turned the media business upside down and inside out.”

Finberg urges folks to seek out new journalistic worlds and models and he points to Clayton Christensen’s book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” which asks people to define “what is your business?” and “who are your customers?” and “who are your non-customers?” Just as news companies are in the information business (not the truth biz, leave that to your deity of choice), colleges are in the education biz. So maybe colleges should be more innovative. Let’s talk about the Kahn Academy and the whole badges phenomena. (There’s a famous line from a movie –“Treasure of Sierra Madre”? – that I’m tryin’ REAL hard not to us here.)

The problem, though, is that Finberg says many colleges are rooted in “custodial education,” or prof-focused. But remember that line about who are your non-customers? Let’s listen to Finberg again: “However, technology, mostly the Internet, is changing how we learn. Technology is providing new forms of teaching and new ways of delivering an effective educational experience. Technology will create a student-focused culture, in much the same way technology has created a more customer-focused media industry.”

Obviously then the academy needs to find different, new, alternative new ways to teach the ethics and journalistic skills. Eric Newton of The Knight Foundation suggests:

• Innovation: Just to be competitive with the big monopolies in the metros COMJIG news organizations have had to look to the Internet to level the field whenever possible.

• Collaboration: Again, COMJIG members are forging new alliances all the time in places from Alabama to Texas, Kansas and Kentucky.

• Connection: Most beginning reporters start at community news organizations. Here is where COMJIG can forge alliances with academe. But Newton also suggests that communication departments can look more to team-teaching techniques. For example, if students want to cover city hall then design courses with the Poly Sci faculty and teach them together.

• Expansion: The example Newton used are university hospitals and university law clinics. So why not more university news labs to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? Again, COMJIG has several such alliances.

“We need to encourage more ways of teaching, using all of potential delivery means possible – lecture, video, online, self-study and guided learning,” Finberg wrote. “It is an opportunity and challenge for journalism training institutions to re-imagine the way they reach their audience, the way they teach their customers and the way they measure success.”

In a lot of places it’s already being done. Finberg wrote about a Department of Education report that said 53 percent of public school districts allowed high school students to enroll in distance learning courses, which meant that in the past academic year some 1.3 million students utilized distance-learning options, as compared to about 300,000 back in the misty olden days times of yore (all the waaaaaaay back to 2007). Folks, let me do the math for ya, that’s just five years ago and there is no reason to think the tide has crested. For example, Poynter’s NewsU has 218,000 registered users, and many of them aren’t even journalists (remember non-customers?).

And, as COMJIG organizations can attest, this could merge nicely into the “teaching hospital” example that Newton proposed.

What can I hope? On the education side of the equation there are other reforms that can be undertaken. Jerry Ceppos, the dean at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, suggested in a blog on the Poynter site that colleges and profs could:

• Write with a certain accessibility for scholarly publications

• Decide tenure based on the quality of writing, not the quantity

• Offer more practical research that would be used by the pros

What do faculty think of those ideas? A blogger responded (again, anonymity is carried to the extreme because I didn’t get permission to quote them – call me old school in that way) that junior faculty colleagues of hers look forward to a change in j-ed: “We don't need to create elaborate new mechanisms to get research to professionals. We just need to get off our duff and make an effort to use the unprecedented array of tools at our disposal to connect with professionals, such as blogs and social media. I think it's simply about being willing to take some time to do it, and also, to not just spout off but also be willing to meaningfully engage with people from the profession, and listen as well as lecture, especially given that the industry has changed a lot since we worked in it, even for those of us that are relatively not long removed. I also, ahem, think it would be helpful if more senior folks recognized these efforts as at least one valuable aspect of the tenure and promotion process.”

Amen to that.

Joe Marren is an associate professor and the chair of the Communication Department at Buffalo State College. He welcomes comments and thoughts at marrenjj@buffalostate.edu. But a caveat: He will be off the grid for much of July. Ironic, ain’t it?

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