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Funders Warn J-Schools:Lag at Your Own Risk

By Susan Carey Dempsey on August 9, 2012No Comment

In a provocative open letter to America’s university presidents, six major funders have called for journalism schools to adopt the “teaching hospital” model of education, using professionals in residence as a powerful resource. The letter was sure to get the attention of the universities, by warning that schools that continue to lag behind “will find it difficult to raise money from foundations interested in the future of news.”

Eric Newton, Sr. Adviser, Knight Foundation

The funders also stressed the need “in this new digital age” for applied research that enables the invention of “viable forms of digital news that communities need to function in a democratic frame.” The letter was signed by the Knight Foundation, McCormick Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Scripps Howard Foundation, Brett Family Foundation and Wyncote Foundation. It read in part:

We believe journalism and communications schools must be willing to recreate themselves if they are to succeed in playing their vital roles as news creators and innovators. Some leading schools are doing this but most are not. Deans cite regional accreditation bodies and university administration for putting up roadblocks to thwart these changes. However, we think the problem may be more systemic than that.  We are calling on university presidents and provosts to join us in supporting the reform of journalism and mass communication education.

In an interview with onPhilanthropy, Knight Foundation Senior Adviser Eric Newton said the funders were taking a strong, public stand this year because the accreditation bodies were due to review and, they hoped, revise their standards. He drew a sharp distinction between the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), which has supported efforts to modernize standards, and agencies such as SACS (The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) and other regional accreditation organizations. Criticizing the latter group, Newton said:

They consider the terminal degree the primary consideration for hiring, promoting and giving tenure to faculty. We’ve encountered instances where a national level, extraordinary professional on faculty who has been our grantee, has been summarily dismissed from a university, because he or she did not have a masters or doctoral degree, no matter that this individual may have done much more than achieve equivalency in the real world. They actually operate at a higher level in many cases, as students of the field, as people dedicated to research, and to re-inventing the discipline, people who have published in peer-reviewed journals.

Newton said the funders applaud the work of ACEJMC and hope that they can get the other agencies to follow their lead. He indicated that the problem may reside in the journalism schools or universities themselves, however, noting that they can appeal to accreditation agencies to waive their rules (he calls them “vague” at best, “horribly written” at worst). Yet, he said, it seems that at least some schools agree with the credentialing requirements:

Each university can make the case for any individual and the agencies will accept that, so we are wondering…Do schools use this as an excuse to get rid of the professional journalists?

Beginning in 1990, Newtown explained, the Knight Foundation endowed chairs for professional journalists to be full professorships with tenure. A number of universities agreed with this approach and entered into competition for the grants; two dozen were awarded.

These grants enabled the schools to engage thoughtful leaders, who could bridge the gap between the profession and academia. Why would they summarily dismiss grantees that we have selected?

In addition to professional journalists on faculty, the funders recommend the development of tools to develop digital innovation as part of their “teaching hospital” approach.  Arizona State University has developed the “teaching hospital” form of journalism education to become one of that state’s leading news providers.  Speaking of some of the journalism schools that have instituted best practices, Newton singled out Columbia’s as well as the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.

The Missouri School of Journalism has followed the teaching hospital model for more than 100 years; it’s actually known as the Missouri Method. It’s learning by doing. It’s a legitimate part of teaching which has been successful. Just as with teaching hospitals, it’s a higher standard to aspire to.

The Knight Foundation points with pride to curriculum changes described in the “Carnegie Knight Initiative for the Future of Journalism Education,” a book published by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center in 2011. In the “teaching hospital” part of the initiative, News21, students get special topic classes that prepare them to cover news with the help of top news professionals. This method connects journalism schools with the rest of the university in order to encourage deep subject knowledge. It also involves the teaching of digital innovation and development of open collaborative work models.

The funders’ letter prodded lagging journalism schools to prepare their students for a far more digital world. According to Eric Newton,

We truly are entering a profoundly different age of communication. The widely taught theory and practice are out of date. Many professors currently in academia came on before the digital age and are contending with even more challenges. Some complain that they have to teach more digital methods at the expense of traditional journalism. We say they need to teach both, not less of one or the other. The major itself needs to grow, and re-integrate.

How to stay current is a big challenge. Believe it or not, the flow of information will go much faster in the next five to ten years. It’s critical for journalists to have a say in their own future. In this sea of information (which is rising) islands of meaning, islands of clarity become even more valuable.

Newton was asked about the loss of editorial input and interpretation, when consumers of information increasingly select their own content:

Can people do more on their own? Yes. Does society need professional reporters and editors? Yes. That’s the focal point of this new age. But people can also now self-diagnose medical conditions, handle certain legal matters on their own. All professionals need to find a way to co-exist with the changing technology that empowers individuals. That’s why it’s necessary to raise professional standards to do even better.

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