JOURNALISM SCHOOLS ARE ON LIFE SUPPORT

illustration of a surgeon using a pencil as a scalpel.

Should j-schools run like med schools?

At the beginning at the 2012 school year, the answer seemed to be Hell Yes. A half-dozen major foundations – with names like Knight, McCormick, and Scripps – wrote An Open Letter to America’s University Presidents that was much publicized at the time.

It began like this…

We represent foundations making grants in journalism education and innovation. In this new digital age, we believe the “teaching hospital” model offers great potential. 

The 468-word letter was a general plea for “supporting the reform of journalism and mass communication education.” But it also proposed some specifics. For example…

At its root, this model requires top professionals in residence at universities.

Why? Because at teaching hospitals, doctors and nurses work shoulder-to-shoulder with med students. But j-schools hire reporters to teach mostly by lecturing, not doing.

We’re now in the middle of five school years since that open letter and vague threat. (Notice how it leads with grant money. Later, the letter bluntly notes: “Journalism funders agree that academia must be leading instead of resisting the reform effort.”)

So has anyone listened? Not really, says the man who signed the letter first.

“I do not think that most of journalism education is keeping up.”

That’s Eric Newton, who was a Knight Foundation senior adviser in 2012. Last week, I asked him for a five-year critique of the letter’s plea.

“Several dozen schools are doing increasingly interesting things, maybe 10 percent of the total,” he calculated. “That said, the number of colleges, schools, departments and one-person programs seems to total somewhere near 450. So even if 45 great schools are approaching escape velocity, that’s still just 10 percent.”

Since 2015, Newton has been “innovation chief” at Arizona State University’s j-school. Obviously, he puts ASU in that 10 percent. Others are “Southern California, Berkeley, Oregon, Northwestern, Texas, Missouri, North Carolina, Florida, Penn State, West Virginia, Morgan State, American, Maryland, Syracuse, Columbia, The New School and CUNY. There are, in fact, too many to put them all down here.”

But what about the rest? Newton is skeptical…

I worry that we may be entering an extended period of journalism education being downgraded, with programs closing or merging with other schools on campus. That seems unfortunate, since today’s journalism students are the ones who will carry journalism values into the news products of tomorrow – and, one hopes, be able to help the public better distinguish news from opinion, ads, and outright fakery.

I think Newton is naive: 10 percent is a generous estimate of j-schools that don’t suck.

This might be the only time I can claim to know more than Newton, who’s not a journalism god but certainly qualifies as a demigod. For more than a decade, he oversaw $300 million in grants at the vaunted Knight Foundation. Before that, he was on a Pulitzer-winning team and even served as a Pulitzer judge.

I haven’t done, and will never do, any of those things.

Yet precisely because I ply my.trade in the side streets and back alleys of journalism, I know more and see more than Newton does. For two decades, I’ve advised a student newspaper at a large but mediocre state school, and I annually attend 2-3 college media conventions that draw newspaper and magazine staffs from small schools Newton didn’t list in his 10 percent.

Simple math (even for journalists) dictates fewer students graduate from Newton’s “leading schools” than from the other 90 percent. Yet those lesser schools are ill-equipped to be cutting-edge. In fact, if they tried harder, students would suffer more.

If these j-schools tried to run like medical schools, the mortality rate will be catastrophic. Let me prove the point by flipping the question…

What if medical schools ran like journalism schools?

For this diagnosis, I’ve recruited Rachael Joyner. She was editor of the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University, which I’ve advised since 1998. After graduating, Joyner became a night cops reporter for the Sun Sentinel, a Top 50 newspaper. Disillusioned with journalism, she went back to FAU and earned her nursing degree in 2012. She now works in a cardiac ICU, and this semester, she’s teaching nursing students in a “clinical course.” Basically, she oversees eight students working in the hospital.

When I asked Joyner what would happen if her nursing program ran like her journalism program, she replied flatly…

“I think you would probably kill somebody.”

Let us count the ways…

“In my communication classes, I didn’t learn anything that helped me become a journalist,” Joyner says. Even her practicum – by definition, the most practical course – was “a ridiculous class everyone wanted to skip. The professor didn’t teach anything that helped me do my job better once I was a cops reporter at the Sun Sentinel.”

That’s because most j-school professors haven’t worked in professional media for years, decades, or ever. One old-pro-turned-prof taught FAU’s only “multimedia journalism” class for nearly a decade. She demanded her students learn Blogspot, even though WordPress was already the industry standard. When some of her students gently protested, she replied, “They’re basically the same.”

Can you imagine a med school professor teaching students to slice open patients instead of using endoscopic surgery – because the techniques are “basically the same”? There’d be lawsuits and de-certifications all over the place.

Yet how many j-school professors teach dated technology because that’s all they know, and all they want to know?

Joyner had to learn the details of her craft at the student newspaper, an extra-curricular activity. But when she started nursing school on the same campus, “I didn’t have to find anything outside class to become a nurse.”

Of course, j-schools tout internships as their “clinical course.” Except we all know that’s not true. When Joyner was one of several interns at both the Stuart News and Sun Sentinel…

We showed up, we had a meeting, and they assigned us an editor who was supposed to be helping us. But it was like, “Here’s a story, go do it.”

That’s because there’s no such thing (yet) as a “teaching newspaper.” Editors aren’t trained as educators, and interns go where the newsroom needs copy, not where they’ll learn the most.

Joyner’s nursing internship was radically different than her newspaper internship.

“They want everyone to get all the experiences, so they plan it out,” she says. “We rotated to all these different clinical areas – maternity, community health, ER, peds [pediatric], ICU, hospice.”

Actually, Joyner noticed the difference in her very first class. It was called Acute Care 1, and it had a lab that was way more practical than any journalism class she’d taken…

On the first day, they taught us how to make a bed. You’d think it would be so simple, but it was how to make a bed with a person already in it. There’s a trick to it. And there’s how to properly wash your hands. That first semester was a lot of basics. It was stuff you really needed to know. 

Even as she learned the basics in class, she was also learning them in the hospital.

“From the very first semester, we were in the hospital,” she says. “My first two clinical days I spent following a preceptor, learning what she did. It was like being paired up with a reporter in a newsroom.”

Except that never happens. Can you imagine a daily newspaper letting a student shadow a reporter for two days? And insisting the reporter explain everything they’re doing?

Something else that never happens in j-school classes: students learning from each other.

“We’d have lab every week, and we’d act out different scenarios,” Joyner recalls. It could be brutal…

We did our unit on hospice, and one of us had to pretend to be the dying person, and one had to be a family member, and the others had to be the nurses. Even though we were acting, you’d still get a little worked up. One girl started to tear up.

J-schools – even the 10 percent Eric Newton admires – have zero classes on how to sensitively treat your sources. In fact, that’s one reason I created a grant-funded program called the Death Race, which brings journalists into a funeral home for a mock service, where they interview family members of the person faking his death, then write an obit on deadline.

(Whoever writes best one, as judged by the deceased, receives a trophy: An engraved funeral urn filled with the ashes of their local newspaper.)

I’ve won multiple grants to host Death Races – but only from the Society of Professional Journalists, because SPJ realizes reporters need to learn tact and compassion while still getting the story quickly and accurately.

Every time I’ve approached communication professors about simply touting the Death Race to their students or even offering extra credit, I’ve been told, “It’s not part of our curriculum.” Which would be fine, if something else was.

Joyner and her fellow nursing students didn’t just “act out different scenarios.” They also stuck needles in each other. They practiced finding veins for IVs. (“It really hurts!”)

They also had some innovative guest instructors. One brought a bag full of nasal canulas – those tubes that deliver oxygen right up your nose, instead of wearing an oxgyen mask.

Recalls Joyner…

He made us wear it the whole time during his talk. It’s surprising how uncomfortable it is. Half the students took it off – and we put it on 80 percent of patients who come in.

How many college journalists – hell, pro journalists – know what it’s like to get interviewed by a harried reporter? I do. From Buzzfeed to The New York Times, it kind of sucks. It’s as shocking as having someone stick a needle in your arm.

Through the censorious efforts of FAU, many of the students I’ve advised have been interviewed by local print and broadcast news media. They’ve learned as much from talking to reporters as from being reporters. Yet that was by accident, not part of a class.

Finally, about those nursing instructors. Joyner says…

Most of them still work shifts as nurses or nurse practitioners – 80 or 85 percent were actively participating in the field, and the others were doing research.

Even at Eric Newton’s 10 percent of “leading schools,” I doubt 10 percent of the professors are actively participating in the field.

Now that she’d seen both sides, I asked Joyner if she believed a “teaching hospital model” could work for journalism programs. “No,” she said, “because they don’t even know where to start.”

Maybe they should start here: Stop looking at teaching hospitals and start looking at political science programs.

Aristotle should be the model.

He’s considered the “father of political science.” Yet his goal wasn’t to breed future generations of political scientists. It was to educate the public. (“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” – which sounds a lot like reporting.)

Today’s poli sci majors use their degree as a passport to many professions. One of the nation’s top-ranked political science programs happens to be at Columbia, also home to one of the the best journalism programs.

Here’s how Columbia’s website answers its own question, “Why do people major in political science?”…

First, the discipline lies at the core of a liberal education, since it deals with classic issues in Western and, indeed, global thought, such as justice, rights, and the relationship between the state and the individual. Second, political science provides opportunities to learn both about the United States and about the world beyond the United States. Third, it helps students understand some of the most significant policy issues that affect everyone. Fourth, like other social science disciplines, political science teaches methods of analysis that are useful in personal and professional life.

You could say the same about the discipline of journalism. Maybe we should.

Newspapers aren’t going away, but they’re not coming back, either. While Eric Newton’s “leading schools” are motivated to mimic teaching hospitals, they’re too poor to duplicate their success.

The most profitable j-school can’t hire enough “top professionals in residence” to have the same impact in its field as med schools have in their field. It’s simple economics: Doctors and nurses are in high demand and highly compensated. Editors and reporters, not so much.

If hospitals were closing and downsizing at the same rate as daily newspapers, med schools couldn’t afford the “teaching hospital model,” either. If their enrollment plummeted because their job market cratered, they’d lack the cash for all those “clinical courses.”

Newton alludes to this when he decries j-schools for not sharing their job placement numbers…

If the ACEJMC (the accrediting body) ever posts useful metrics, we would then see the graduate employment rate of all accredited schools, which number more than 110, far more than the several dozen top schools. The schools that are not keeping up – not doing quality journalism education and at the same time fostering innovation – are likely to show much lower employment numbers.

To date individual ACEJMC schools have had to turn in only retention and graduation rates, which are not as meaningful as employment rates as a third-party validation of whether students are prepared to enter the field. 

For obvious reasons, no j-school is eager to divulge these stats — which is so un-journalistic. But these schools are in lifeboat mode. Desperate to survive. Willing to eat the weak and steal their life jackets.

If j-schools are to endure, they need to expand. Forget teaching hospital. Embrace news literacy.

Sure, that’s an un-sexy name for a so-far-failed concept. But that’s because news literacy is being taught with the verve and urgency of National Dental Hygiene Month.

Actually, that’s not fair – to National Dental Hygiene Month. The website for the American Dental Hygienists’ Association has an Alexa ranking that makes it the 123,483th biggest website in the nation.

The Center for News Literacy ranks 435,217. How bad is that? Journoterrorist ranks 308,018.

J-schools will either train citizens as well as journalists, or as Newton says, we’ll see “programs closing or merging with other schools on campus.”

I live near Miami, where Florida International University has merged its j-school with…the college of architecture. Last year, FIU told The Miami Herald this merger “provides unique opportunities for trans-disciplinary research, creative activities, and entrepreneurship.”

Bullshit. I know FIU journalism students who have yet to see anything unique, creative, or entrepreneurial. It’s just the latest, and not the last, cost-cutting move cloaked in “synergy.”

So those are the options for the 90 percent of j-schools not among Newton’s best: Try a poli sci model, or be architecture’s bitch. Train ever-smaller classes of traditional journalists, or train everyyone to do journalism everywhere.

I realize this offends ink-in-the-veins reporters, who view any innovation as surrender. Three years ago, I proposed changing the name of the Society of Professional Journalists to the Society for Professional Journalism. The logic was the same: The only way to reverse our still-declining membership is to appeal to more people by showing them the value of ethical journalism in a free society.

Most SPJers loathed the idea. One replied to a poll on the topic: “Continued dedication to the goals of the society in turbulent media times is what’s needed.”

Yup. Stay the course. Because that’s worked so well so far for so many.