Journalism’s Valhalla?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has invited Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie to follow-up on one of the recommendations their “Reconstruction of American Journalism” report put forward: that universities, which have long provided institutional support for independent knowledge creation and research, get more involved in producing and sustaining journalism.

In the lead essay in the Chronicle Review, the weekly newspaper’s ideas and opinion section, Schudson and Downie expand on how this might be done, citing innovative experiments and partnerships at Columbia, Northeastern, and a host of other institutions. While hopeful, they are not blind to potential challenges to these initiatives.

Most of them are very new, many of them experiments with foundation seed money, and few are well institutionalized in a college’s curriculum. There is a need for communication and cross-fertilization. There will be a need for assessment. And there are tough questions not yet answered: Can university-based journalism efforts take advantage of university-centered research without becoming promotional tools for a particular institution? Can they link the news organizations they serve to distinctive university resources? That is, can students pick up the scent of what’s going on in computer science or social work or art history or other fields at the university in ways that might help them report stories in the communities they cover?

Similar notes can be found in the twenty or so responses the Chronicle solicited from distinguished members of the academy—many who teach, practice, or have practiced journalism—like Sanford Ungar and Jill Lepore.

Ungar, the Polk-award-winning president of Goucher College, writes:

[T]he fact is that, with a few exceptions, the American news media are in a steep decline, and the academic world, rather than feeling superior and somehow victorious, should be sharing the pain. It is time to worry.

Lepore, the New Yorker contributor and Harvard professor, deplores the mile-wide/inch-deep knowledge of many of her students, a deficit she attributes to their meager exposure to genuine reporting. But for those who hope that university employees will one day provide the journalism that the market is shedding, Lepore has a catalog of cautions: conflicts around academic freedom and press freedom, tenure processes that don’t favor reporting, tightened university budgets which suggest little room for new projects, and the many existing job responsibilities of an academic that would distract from journalism. In closing she writes that the “university, I fear, is not journalism’s Valhalla.”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.