Dan Gilmor: A New Model for Journalism Education


Dan Gilmor sets out his vision for robust journalism education that is grounded in core multi-disciplinary skills  – writing, computer coding, statistics, data and business – to prepare students for “the realities of the twenty-first century.”

Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. The article, adapted from Gillmor’s book Mediactive, appears in the latest issue of Journalism Practice.

Accepting an award from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School for Journalism & Mass Communication in 2008, former PBS NewsHour host Robert MacNeil called journalism education probably “the best general education that an American citizen can get” today. Perhaps he was playing to his audience, at least to some extent. Many other kinds of undergraduate degree programs could lay claim to a similar value—a strong liberal arts degree, no matter what the field of focus, has great merit.

Still, there’s no doubt that a journalism degree, done right, is an excellent foundation for a student’s future in any field, not just media. And even if MacNeil overstated the case, his words should inspire journalism educators to ponder their role in a world where these programs’ traditional reason for being is increasingly murky.

Our raison d’être is open to question largely because the employment pipeline of the past, a progression leading from school to jobs in media and related industries, is (at best) in jeopardy. We’re still turning out young graduates who go off to work in entry-level media jobs, particularly in broadcasting—but where is their career path from there? It’s not clear in an era when traditional journalism jobs are disappearing at a rapid rate, even if non-traditional ones are growing.

Traditional media have adapted fitfully to the collision of technology and media. Journalism schools as a group may have been even slower to react to the huge shifts in the craft and its business practices. Only recently have they embraced digital technologies in their work with students who plan to enter traditional media. Too few are helping students understand that they may well have to invent their own jobs, much less helping them do so.

Yet journalism education could and should have a long and even prosperous future—if educators make some fundamental shifts, recognizing the realities of the twenty-first century.

No one has asked me to run a journalism school. That is no doubt wise. If I did find myself in that position, however, I would ask teaching colleagues to think about some fairly major shifts in the way we did our jobs. Since my background is in practice for the most part, not research, I will focus first on undergraduate journalism education. Then I’ll make some suggestions about how we might approach graduate-level research, a vital part of many of our institutions and also, one hopes, open to some digital-era tweaks.

Undergraduate Program

We would start with some basic principles of honourable, high-quality journalism—such as thoroughness, accuracy, curiosity, independence, and transparency—and embed them at the core of everything else. If our students didn’t understand and appreciate those principles, nothing else we did would matter very much.

We would emphasize undergraduate journalism degrees as great liberal arts programs. This would start in the admissions phase, where we would suggest to prospective students (and their parents who are likely to be paying the bills) that a journalism degree is a nearly ideal foundation for many kinds of careers, one of which is journalism. For example, journalism majors who go on to law school bring with them the ability to write clearly, a valued skill in legal circles. However, journalism would remain the focus of our program, as the best way to create the kinds of skills that have that wider application.

With few exceptions, journalists and other professionals work in teams of people who have dissimilar skills and knowledge. It is never too early to foster cross-disciplinary teamwork. So we would encourage, and in some cases require, cross-disciplinary learning and doing. We would foster partnerships around the university, working with business, engineering/computer science, film, political science, law, design and other programs. The goals would be both to develop our own projects and to be an essential community-wide resource for the future of local media; more on the latter below.

Journalists of the future will—not might—work with computer programmers. It is not necessary for journalists to become programmers, though I strongly believe everyone should take at least a short course in JavaScript. But it is vital for journalists to know how to communicate with programmers. (We’d also encourage computer science undergraduates to become journalism graduate students, so they can help create tomorrow’s media.) Moreover, understanding basic principles of computer code provides a window into a way of thinking that everyone needs to grasp in the modern world. Famed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who helped invent the first commercial Web browser, has said “Software is eating the world”, a reference to the reality that computer code increasingly is part of everything we touch and the services we use. Journalists need to know what that means.

Along those lines, we desperately need journalists who understand basic statistics, especially as it applies to survey research, and fundamental scientific methodology. A modern journalism school can help supply them, and we’ve never needed them more. Put bluntly, journalists are terrible at math, and it shows in embarrassing ways. For example, media coverage of risk is grossly skewed toward things that are, statistically, exceedingly rare in our society—terrorism is a prime example—while coverage of much more risky things is rare or ho-hum. We mislead our audiences, and do society a disservice.

One of the absurdities of the past half-century in media organizations has been journalists’ ignorance—often encouraged by their bosses—of how their businesses operated. The “church–state” separation had well-meaning foundations, but it was paternalistic and, as we’ve now seen, counterproductive. Journalism schools should require all students to understand business concepts, especially those relating to media. This is not just to cure the longstanding ignorance of business issues in the craft, but also to recognize that today’s students will be among the people who develop tomorrow’s journalism business models. A program I ran would help students learn about for-profit and not-for-profit business models, and would help teach them about advertising, marketing, social networking, and search engine optimization, among many other elements.

In a related move, we would embed entrepreneurship into our program. We should not expect all or even many students to start their own companies, but we should help them understand and appreciate the startup culture—because even traditional businesses are having to adopt entrepreneurial practices internally. Arizona State University, where I work, is among several schools working on this, and the early experiments are gratifying. At City University of New York (CUNY), Jeff Jarvis has been collecting (and creating) some best practices concerning how to bring the startup culture into the curriculum; CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism is the most advanced, and best-funded, of these efforts. When I say “entrepreneurship” I do not only mean the Silicon Valley style of business development, where the objective is usually hyper-growth in a hyper-scalable way. I also mean what technology investors deride as “lifestyle businesses,” the kind of enterprise that can support a few people, or a few dozen, in a sustainable way. A few years ago I thought that we would save journalism with 50 new big companies. That was absurd, I now realize. Today I hope we can save journalism with 500,000 small enterprises and a few big ones. We’ll need people with entrepreneurial spirit for all of them.

Part of the journalism environment, at big and small companies alike, is data. We may wish otherwise, and we should be deeply worried about Big Data’s privacy implications, but we have no choice but to teach students about how data are generated, collected, massaged, and otherwise used to make decisions in a modern media organization.

Journalism schools should not be outposts inside university islands, separated from their communities, especially when traditional media organizations are fading and failing. Our students do actual journalism, their work should be widely available in the community, particularly when it fills in gaps left by the shrinking traditional media. At Arizona State, the Cronkite News Service provides all kinds of coverage of topics the local news organizations rarely cover, making our students’ work available to those organizations. We practice the “teaching hospital” model —a hands-on approach—and recommend it for any school with the appropriate facilities.

We would partner with local media organizations where possible, and compete with them where necessary. Simultaneously, we would advise and train citizen journalists to understand and apply sound principles and best practices. They are going to be an essential part of the local journalism ecosystem and, like Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism, we should reach out to show them how we can help.

Journalism skills are core to media literacy, and media literacy would be part of our mission. We would work to persuade the university that every student on the campus should learn media literacy principles and skills before graduating, preferably during freshman year. At State University of New York’s Stony Brook campus, the journalism school has been given a special mandate of exactly this kind. (I teach two online media literacy courses at Arizona State, and led a massive open online course (MOOC) on the topic; the MOOC attracted thousands of people from around the world.)

We would create a program of the same kind for people in the community, starting with teachers. Our goal would be to help schools across our geographical area bring media literacy to every level of education—not just college, but also elementary, middle, and high school. We would offer workshops, conferences, and online training. Beyond the education community, we would offer this to concerned parents who feel overwhelmed by the media deluge themselves, to help turn them into better media consumers and to give them ways to help their children.

Those are some of the initiatives I would encourage in modern undergraduate journalism education. They raise an obvious question: If we add this or that to our program, what should we drop? In some cases, such as data skills, the answer might be to offer elective courses. Others, such as entrepreneurship, might be better embedded in core courses. But I won’t pretend this is a trivial issue; the one limited quantity is time.

Graduate Programs

In the United States, graduate journalism programs break down into two major areas. The first, normally undertaken at the Master’s level, is practice. The other, typically in PhD programs, is research. We need both, but we probably need research more.

Arizona State University offers a Master’s degree program aimed at training people to become journalists operating at a high level. A few are mid-career journalists, but most are arriving either directly from undergraduate schools or from other areas of the workforce. They get deep training in skills and in developing a core expertise. Other graduate programs of this sort are fairly common, but some are carving out more narrow, but much-needed, areas such as entrepreneurship and social media.

Journalism schools should also offer combined Master’s degrees with other university programs. An advanced degree in, say, journalism and medicine would give the student the background to become a medical journalist or communications specialists within the medical field. There are any number of topics where this approach might work well.

And it’s important, as noted at the top, that journalism graduates have to look beyond journalism for the widest opportunities—and we can help. For example, non-governmental organizations and advocacy organizations are increasingly hiring journalists for their communications needs. A journalism school could offer a one-year Master’s degree, giving people who plan to go in that direction the specific skills they need for this growing area. This is a significant potential market.

The other vital area for graduate schools, of course, is research. I’m not arguing only for research into industry-specific areas. Pure research has led to vital breakthroughs in many fields (though rarely if ever in journalism, as far as I can tell), and we shouldn’t abandon it. In our imagined school, we would encourage a research agenda with deep connections to key media issues of today. More than ever, we need solid data and rigorous analysis. Happily, unprecedented amounts of data are pouring out of the media field today. (I would also insist that faculty members translate their research into language that average people can understand, in addition to the dense, even impenetrable, prose that can only be understood, if at all, by readers of academic journals.)

The proposals above suggest a considerably broader mission for journalism schools and programs than the one they’ve had in the past—and big opportunities. The need for this kind of training has never been greater. We’re not the only ones who can do it, but we may be among the best equipped.


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