Change, progress and the journalism curriculum

Mindy McAdams’ blog is a great place to keep up with current debates in journalism education.
A current thread there discusses the change process – is it top down and how do we cope with those who don’t want to shift ground?
I don’t have the answers close to hand, but thinking about it occupies a great deal of my day.
Here’s a piece I wrote recently for the Australian journalism magazine, The Walkely Magazine that begins to outline some thoughts on the matter.

Journalism education in the age of YouTube
The inexorable growth of D-I-Y media – citizen journalism, YouTube, Digg, social networking and blogging – is eroding the foundations of journalism. Old certainties about who journalists are and what they do are no longer clear. As the old media platforms – print, radio and television – embrace (or succumb to?) the Internet, the job descriptions and routines that once defined the professional reporter are increasingly irrelevant.

These issues still have some time to play out; perhaps we are about a quarter of the way into the digital revolution. A further generation of reporters and editors will experience and shape this change before things settle down to something like ‘normal’. From the academic sidelines it seems that the only certainty right now is that more change is coming.

There’s another reason why scholars of journalism are interested in discussions of digital news technologies: we are expected to teach the next generations of reporters the ‘craft’ of journalism and about the changing newsroom environment of today, tomorrow and the looming future.
What should we be doing in our classrooms and news laboratories? On one level the answer might seem simple enough: “Continue to teach the basics of journalism: the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ of a new story; the art of story-telling (albeit with new tools and techniques); some ethics; some media law and some social history of journalism.” Or, one could argue, this is no longer enough.

Today’s changes are probably as earth-shaking as those of the industrial revolution. Hotmail has replaced hot metal; outside of the print media, deadlines are no longer set by the clock; news is instantaneous and analysis can be found on millions of websites. The traditional gate-keeping function of the news media is no more. There are obvious issues of veracity; bias and plausibility, but quality control is no longer the preserve of seasoned editors. Anyone with a cell phone or laptop, a modem and a modicum of language skills can report and comment on events around the corner, or on the other side of the globe.

But the revolution in the news industry is about more than technology. Advertising still follows eyeballs and, as more readers and viewers migrate from traditional news outlets to the world-wide-web, the advertising dollar is deserting the old media in favour of the new. Within the next decade online advertising will replace radio and billboards in importance and the ‘rivers of gold’, once guaranteed by monopoly, will continue to evaporate. However, new media companies are still uncertain about the best business models to follow. There is as much anxiety, uncertainty, experimentation and argument around the political economy of the new media as there is around the applications of the technology itself.

For educators there is a temptation to see the technology as just another set of tools and skills – instead of teaching only print, teach across the various platforms. There’s also a serious tendency to adopt a ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach: “Audiences still want someone to tell them what the news of the day is; to order, select, edit and structure information according to the standard news values that have worked so well for a hundred years or more.”
But, in my view, a serious revolution requires revolutionary thinking. A revolution in science leads to a paradigm shift; I think we need to contemplate such a paradigm shift in the way we understand journalism education.

Journalism graduates today are not necessarily entering the same career that they once were. In five years time the news media landscape will have changed again. New journalism jobs will emerge in this climate as news organisations adapt and shift onto multimedia platforms.
Traditional audiences are declining and younger audiences are consuming news from sources well outside the scope of what older generations might consider to be journalism. It is wishful thinking to believe that they will one day ‘grow up’ and graduate to newspapers, radio and television. The digital revolution has already irrevocably altered their consumption habits and even how they learn. It is the news media and journalism educators who must adapt or die out. For education to be relevant and to help lead change into positive directions, the ‘digital natives’ need to be addressed and encouraged in different ways.

While a certain amount of skills-building and practical learning will always be an integral foundation for journalism education; scholars need to be thinking outside the box. I’m not going to pretend I have all, or even a few, of the answers, but I am willing to say that I’m thinking about it – hard.

The concept of convergence – the technological blending of traditional news media with computing and telephony – must be at the heart of the new journalism curriculum. This does not mean that we all kneel before the sacred cow of digital media; convergence must also be seen in the context of critical scholarship. Academics must continue to ask questions and conduct research into new media forms, platforms, cultures, consumption patterns and production methods.

This research into what convergence means, both inside and outside the newsroom, must inform teaching and learning too. A journalism curriculum for the 21st century will retain some elements of what we have today – good research and good writing are at the heart of good reporting. But should graduates be equipped to work cameras and recording devices; to be good at editing and constructing an audio or video story; to be using flash animation and writing a 30 word ‘story’ for a mobile phone alert?

Globally journalism educators are arguing these issues. On one side is the push to create the competent ‘backpack journalist’, someone who can file multimedia stories from the field quickly and with some flair. Opponents of this view argue that it will create a ‘Jack of all trades’ who is ‘master of none’. This is not a settled issue yet and it mirrors arguments taking place in newsrooms around the world. Should everyone in tomorrow’s newsroom be a handy exponent of backpack journalism, or do we need specialist skills and greater team-work to build good stories that are both interesting and entertaining to audiences?

What we cannot afford to lose in any reconfiguration of the curriculum is the intellectual honesty and curiosity that defines what good journalism is. In my view this is the hardest task facing educators. For many reasons critical thinking skills are not so highly valued in the education system today, but they remain central to the ‘craft’ of journalism and are at least as important as technical and writing skills. It is vital that we don’t jettison the development of a journalistic brain and sentiment (what George Orwell called the ‘emotional attitudes’ of an inquisitive reporter) in favour of producing technologically-competent news ‘robots’. Convergence without critical context is a sterile and technologically-determinist whirlpool that could wash journalism education right down the YouTube.

You can read my previous posts on this topic from here and here.

Blogged with the Flock Browser


One Response to Change, progress and the journalism curriculum

  1. […] Journalism, change and the curriculum […]

Leave a reply and try to be polite

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: