The Experiment

How journalism schools are adjusting to the digital age

May 11, 2015

David Remnick, the longtime editor of The New Yorker, recently recounted a meeting during the early days of online publishing when the veteran sports essayist Roger Angell said he would always “want to be able to describe, in English, how the hand fits over the baseball to throw a screwball.” It’s a worthy commitment, Remnick explained during an appearance at Columbia’s journalism school in February, but one that shouldn’t stunt useful innovation on digital platforms.

That is an interesting dilemma for a wordsmith like Angell and a powerhouse like The New Yorker. But perhaps Remnick hadn’t considered that students in the audience at Columbia (me, for one), or just as easily at any journalism program, might be thinking, “How could I ever eloquently put into words the way you throw a screwball?”

Amid uncertainty and anxiety in news media, J-schools are devoting an increasing portion of their curricula to developing digital versatility, or at least familiarity. Some of these class offerings are still in a beta stage, but they’re certainly a popular selling point. Indeed, with jobs scarce and tuitions soaring, clamor for modernized instruction grows from an urgency to convert a pre-professional degree into a paycheck. The challenge for journalism programs has always been balancing lofty intellectual and civic ambitions—which students ought to learn—with what the industry will ask of them. A digital upending has disturbed that balance, and the role of nurturing writing craftsmanship at J-schools risks being sold short.

“Our role isn’t to be a vocational school; to be slavishly responsive to everything the industry wants,” said Sam Freedman, a longtime Columbia J-school professor and New York Times contributor. “But there’s a technological revolution and a new way readers want to consume journalism that we need to be responsive to, while hanging on to the most important of our traditions.”

Most agree that writing is among those traditions, that it is part of journalism’s backbone. With so many shifting vertebrae, however, could quality prose become an afterthought? “I think there’s a danger of that,” said Edward Wasserman, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. “On the other hand, you have a very strong kind of cultural bulwark at journalism schools that, if anything, has impeded the transition to digital techniques.”

For decades, that sort of inertia was a familiar knock against journalism curricula. It can also be a virtue, a sort of structural stabilizer in academia that suppresses rash reactions to what’s trendy. But as hiring opportunities at legacy print outlets have withered, J-schools have been surprisingly accepting of some profound adjustments. In 2013, for example, Columbia overhauled its Master of Science program with unanimous support from the faculty.

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“Although there’s been good discussion about how to refine it, these questions don’t generally involve whether it’s necessary to adapt in some smart, not-transitory way to the digital era,” said Steve Coll, the dean at Columbia. “They’re really more about how do you execute the 10-month curriculum the best way, given that you’re adapting to the digital era. There’s nobody standing in front of the train and saying, ‘No, we must go back.’”

That sort of unanimity was endorsed in “Above and Beyond: Looking at the Future of Journalism Education,” a detailed report released in February by the Knight Foundation. Among its conclusions was that J-schools have been sluggish and shortsighted. “Today, currency—the capacity to identify and master emerging market trends and media technologies and to integrate them quickly into journalistic work—is as critical to credible journalism education as command of Associated Press style and the inverted pyramid used to be,” according to the report.

One prominent dissenter amid the digital revolution has been John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s Magazine. For a Columbia lecture series last year, MacArthur invoked a theme he’s championed since the early 1990s. “What disturbed me . . . as a publisher and a writer was the ugly commodification of writing itself—the renaming of prose and poetry as something called ‘content,’ ” he explained, reading from a publisher’s letter he wrote for Harper’s in 2013. “Suddenly, my colleagues and competitors were reducing well-wrought sentences and stories to the level of screws and bolts.”

MacArthur was unsettled by the expectation in the Knight Foundation report that journalism grad students be trained specifically for digital newsrooms. “In my perfect journalism school,” MacArthur said in an interview, “I wouldn’t give the new digital reality a second thought.” Yet, he did question whether that approach is professionally viable.

“As a practical matter,” he reflected, “how can I argue against instructing people in computer techniques that might get them hired when those are the only kind of jobs that are presenting themselves? I don’t know what to say.”

Columbia, usc, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern are among a minority of one-year masters’ programs. Wasserman noted the challenge of an ambitious range of study, even at programs such as Berkeley’s that last two years.

“Teaching people to write well is very hard, and teaching people to use new technologies is not anywhere near as hard,” he said. “So there certainly is a danger to succumbing to the lure of new technologies and moving off from something that’s a lot more difficult to teach toward something that’s glitzier and more engaging, but easier.”

With all of the wonderful toys and technologies that we want to give to students, writing mastery remains the gift that keeps on giving.

At the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, which only became an independent arm of Arizona State University in 2005, digital “isn’t an aside or an afterthought. We’re training students for a digital world,” said Senior Associate Dean Marianne Barrett said. There are still mandatory reporting, writing, and grammar courses at Cronkite; there has also been a multimedia requisite for undergraduates for almost a decade. “I don’t sense any anxiety in the need to be versatile,” Barrett said. “It’s just what we do.”

Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, the University of Southern California Annenberg School ditched its two-year Master of Arts program for a nine-month Master of Science model. A press release for the change, headlined “New building. New program. New era,” was saturated with popular new media lingo: “digitally converged newsroom,” “tear down the silos,” “360-degree assignment desk,” and so on.

But not everyone is on board. “Like a lot of other schools across the country, we’re experimenting,” explained Sandy Tolan, a print and radio professor at USC who taught previously at Berkeley. “The digital age brings a whole new set of requirements for students to learn, but the concern, especially in a shortened program like ours, is how do you retain the values of journalism based on deep reporting, storytelling, and old-fashioned shoe-leather work?”

Tolan’s colleagues suggested that he cut the length of his longform writing class from 15 to seven weeks, but he feared that doing so would leave students without enough time to identify subjects, report, write, and revise. Instead, he proposed reducing the workload and offering the course for fewer credits. He’s optimistic that the right balance can be struck between digital and traditional, but, among USC faculty, “the jury is still out.”

The USC announcement was heavy with promises of how the new, comprehensive model would be attractive to future employers. But if journalism schools, long known for a commitment to instructional orthodoxy, are yielding to pressure, where is it coming from? The Annenberg director, Michael Parks, explained to Inside Higher Ed that the change in his program was motivated by a survey of students who said they wanted “to get on with their careers.” Perhaps it is by necessity that customers of J-schools are shaping the product: National journalism school enrollment declined in 2013 for the third straight year, according to a survey by the University of Georgia’s Cox Center.

Columbia’s MS program eliminated the distinction of newspaper, magazine, digital, or broadcast concentrations in 2013, allowing students to register for the full gamut of courses. Students interviewed at Columbia were unified in commending that change. The school also split its signature RW1—an intensive 15-week reporting and writing requirement that had gone virtually unchanged since 1969—into separate, but still obligatory, reporting and writing courses. Freedman was among the first to teach a remodeled version of the reporting course—referred to at many J-schools as “boot camp”—that integrated data, photography, audio, and other multimedia. He stressed the importance of exposure to those skills under the umbrella of “reporting,” which he said is the underpinning of good journalism, not writing.

When Stephen Fried, another Columbia professor, entered magazine writing in the early 80s, there was already tension about growing demand for a shorter, more urgent narrative style. While those sorts of technical preferences will continue to evolve, Fried said the basics of longform writing have endured on digital platforms, and thus in classrooms. He has consulted for alternative weeklies and city and regional monthlies, all of which have seen a continued online market for traditional, full-length features.

If there’s a novel challenge facing new journalists, Fried explained, it’s the need for greater self-sufficiency: at publications with fewer editors and factcheckers, young writers can’t depend on handholding.

At Syracuse’s Newhouse School, Dean for Academic Affairs Amy Falkner said, “You’ve seen the ads for entry-levels reporting jobs. You have to be a master of everything. You have to do social media, especially, and other things like audio and photo.” The problem, perhaps, is that those ads may not be targeting recent J-school graduates. David Butler, the editor and executive vice president of Digital First Media (formerly called MediaNews, a telling change in itself), said its subsidiary the San Jose Mercury News normally does not hire reporters unless they have at least five years of professional experience. He suspected that writing training is not in jeopardy at graduate programs. “I also trust that they are teaching students to write headlines that attract SEO [search engine optimization], and that’s much different than how the headlines would read in print.”

Medill, too, aggressively promotes its technological inclusiveness. The program’s director, Jon Marshall, said he considers writing, reporting, and multimedia training to be equally essential. Outlining the reporting coursework at Medill, Marshall said, “After they’ve written their stories they also use social media to distribute and share those stories.”

What’s the skilled, academic aspect of social media usage that Medill can teach? “The technical skills, and there’s also the thinking part of it,” Marshall replied. When pressed, he explained that he was referring to the students posting their stories on Facebook and Twitter.

A required Audience and Engagement class was introduced at Columbia in 2013 to give students a sense of “who they’re doing journalism for,” as then-Dean of Academic Affairs Bill Grueskin told Inside Higher Ed. In its current form, Audience and Engagement covers topics like website building, social media tactics, and personal branding. Writing strategy is not a focus of the class, although it’s a deliberation that certainly depends on knowing who the work is for. It appears to be a universally held opinion among students that Audience and Engagement is a work in progress. Coll, the school’s dean, agrees, but he also says that rookie reporters shouldn’t be clueless entering a social media strategy meeting at their first job. More important to Coll, though, is predicting how those strategies will evolve.

“What you don’t want to do is teach a bunch of skills that will be obsolete in five years, because that’s a waste of everyone’s time and money,” he said. “This has got to be a lifetime of work, and you’ve got to catalyze a way of thinking and self-teaching that’s sustainable over a long period of time. Teaching people a set of tools that are hot at the moment is not responsive to that goal.”

There’s a classic 1993 New Republic essay by Michael Lewis, “J-School Ate My Brain,” that still gets circulated among graduate students. The piece relentlessly mocks journalism school coursework, particularly its insulated, perhaps self-indulgent emphasis on the nuances of writing. “The essential point here,” Lewis explains, after a demoralizing string of personal anecdotes from his time at Columbia, “is that the desperate futility of journalism instruction becomes clearer the closer one gets to the deed.”

Toward the end of Lewis’ 3,600-word, wholesale denunciation, he identifies shortcomings in Columbia’s career services department. In essence, he’s saying, a faux intellectual experience doesn’t translate to a paycheck. Twenty-two years later, the Career Services Center at Pulitzer Hall is robust. At an orientation event last fall for incoming graduate students, many of whom were fretting about the new media landscape, the center’s staff was emphatic when explaining what employers repeatedly say they want from applicants: You must be a competent writer.

“With all the wonderful toys and technologies that we want to give students,” said Wasserman, the Berkeley journalism dean, “writing mastery remains the gift that keeps on giving.” 

Danny Funt is a senior editor at The Week and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt