Education in the future of journalism

So John Nichols seems to believe that a free-market model for journalism doesn’t exist and that the government must bail out the news industry with subsidies.

I’ll give him this, he does make a pretty compelling argument, even if it is one I find rather circular and exclusionary. He said, and rightly so, information can’t be stopped. However, he claims that if journalism isn’t subsidized, and it can’t make money on its own, then journalists won’t be able to continue their craft and thus the news won’t be distributed. But, uh, information can’t be stopped, right?

In theory, this is where citizen journalism would come in. So, maybe the way to save journalism is for professionals to partner with citizens. At least, Charlie Beckett thinks so.

These issues have been discussed to no real avail for quite some time and I doubt a solution will be expounded in the next 200 words or so on this blog. But, here’s my two cents. Journalism needs to shift focus. This has pretty much been the discussion all semester on this blog, so for today I’ll focus on journalism schools and their curriculum.

In 2009, journalism professors worldwide met and held a conference on the issues with journalism education. Some thought that the problems were that students weren’t learning the right set of skills.

But, even among those who thought this, they couldn’t agree on what the right set of skills was. The majority it seemed agreed – and I think they’re right – that electronic media and new forms of communication should take precedence in the curriculum.

But there were dinosaurs who thought there wasn’t enough focus on research conducted solely in print sources like books. That makes about as much sense as saying the resolution of laser printers can’t match that of lead type.

Sure students need to know some of the old methods of research, but the idea of excluding Google is laughable – as is conducting interviews through social media (this is one case where the old method works better).

As the national editor of the Los Angeles Times told his reporters who kept getting scooped by The Washington Post on Watergate stories because they were trying to interview only by phone, “Get off your asses, and knock on doors.”

But, I think the real problem is the disconnect between academic and professional preparedness.

Journalism is largely a professional craft. Academic education isn’t a requisite for entry into the trade. But experience is and this experience is often gained through internships. Which is largely where problems arise. Students often have to sacrifice a lot to take on these internships.

Either the internships are unpaid, forcing the strapped-for-cash student to split focus between the internship and some sort of job to make ends meet, or the student has to pay tuition to receive academic credit for an unpaid internship – but then often academic financing will help cover the rest of the cost of living.

Another option is that parents of journalism students might help them out while they do pro-bono work, but this tends to mean only middle and upper-class students enter the trade because they’re the only ones fortunate enough to have parents who can do this. And then there’s no variety in journalists.

All the while, schools seem to be pushing for internships out of a students normal comfort area – say in Montana for a student from Florida. This is a valid notion since exposure to a broad array of experiences expands journalists’ frame of reference, but this probably isn’t feasible due to the aforementioned reasons.

There’s gotta be a change in how students get the experience they need to get jobs, because a degree alone won’t do it and the sacrifice isn’t worth it to many to then get a lowly salary in their first “real job.” So they defect to other professions.

There’s gotta be a way to get students the experience they need to be prepared to enter the field of journalism without making them choose between success in their academic and professional careers.

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