Here's the nightmare: One day all journalism students disappear, replaced by bland creatures ready to step into any job requiring writing or speaking -- but not trained to ask probing questions and unable to find, analyze and organize information of vital interest to the public.
They are Generic Communicators.
It's a trend already appearing on some campuses, where journalism skills are undervalued and where a preoccupation with academic degrees takes precedence over professional experience as a qualification for teaching. Such schools require a heavier load of mass communication theory courses in the belief that journalism is a dying profession and that training communicators, rather than journalists, should be the goal.
These are among the key findings in a Freedom Forum-sponsored report, "Winds of Change: Whither Journalism Education?" by journalist-turned-journalism educator Betty Medsger. Her study included three surveys conducted by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.
The Medsger study documents the trend toward an emphasis on communication studies despite the fact that programs with a clear focus on journalism appear to do the best job of preparing students to be journalists.
"I'd like for us to lose the old 'journalism-ain't-real-learnin'' syndrome,", says Hampden H. Smith III, professor and head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Virginia's Washington and Lee University.
When "communicators" take over a journalism program and "start sabotaging journalism education as we know it, they are, aided and abetted by ill-informed hysteria that there aren't going to be any newspapers," says Gene Roberts, managing editor of The New York Times and a journalism professor on leave from the University of Maryland. Roberts says there isn't a good census of journalism jobs, but he believes the profession is expanding through jobs in specialty publications and on-line news services.
Journalism education is also being jeopardized by the removal of expertise from the classroom, according to Medsger's study. "We found that 17 percent of the journalism educators had no experience as journalists," she says, "and that figure rises with younger educators. ... Among those 44 and younger, 23 percent had no journalism experience.
The decrease in professional-experience levels of journalism educators has been accompanied by an increase in the number of journalism teachers with advanced degrees. The Medsger study found that 42% of journalism educators with more than 10 years' experience had doctoral degrees. That figure doubled -- to 84% -- for those with 10 or fewer years of experience.
For "Winds of Change," Medsger also studied six years of reports from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), made up of journalism educators and journalism professionals who examine schools seeking acereditation or reaccreditation. Her conclusion: The evaluators "seldom assess the expertise of faculty, and they ignore the quality of student writing" -- a subject of great importance to potential employers.
Aggravating the worrisome trends in journalism education are the journalists who disparage the skills needed in newsroom jobs and figure they can be picked up on the job. These are often the same journalists who grumble about journalism graduates unable to "hit the ground running."
Al Johnson, executive editor of the 53,000-circulation Columbus (Ga. Ledger-Enquirer, takes the opposite view. "Newspapers spend too much time teaching skills," he says, adding that basic competence should be developed in classrooms, internships and student media.
The trend toward generic communication may be a reason for declining skill levels among recent graduates, Johnson says. "I don't know why colleges and universities even think that's the way to go."
Journalism's de-emphasis on campus
The findings of the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut will give Al Johnson little comfort. In their surveys of about 1,000 "new journalists" (those working in print or broadcast journalism from one to 11 years), 500 journalism educators, and 500 newsroom recruiters and supervisors, the pollsters learned that:
 22% of journalism educators said their programs had been merged with other campus units within the past 10 years.
 35% said their programs have placed more emphasis on mass communication theory courses over the past 10 years.
 37% of new journalists who studied journalism said their major was not focused on preparing students to become journalists.
Roper also found that newsroom recruiters and supervisors believe that the movement to merge journalism education into general communication studies is the opposite of what should be happening.
A communications professor at an eastern university returned one questionnaire "unsullied," explaining: "Because of the bonehead policies of upper administration at this institution, we do not currently have a full-time faculty member who teaches journalism courses We have been forced to limp along utilizing only adjunct faculty to teach journalism courses because, we are told, there is no future in journalism. Therefore, we have no one to fill out your questionnaire."
The movement toward a curriculum that produces generalist communicators, not journalists, has been championed and decried at the annual convention of journalism educators. At the 1995 convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Lana R. Rakow, director of the School of Communication at the University of North Dakota, said, "We do not want to single out any particular field. Students will all be communicators."
One strong voice against the drift toward the generic is Robert H. Giles, editor and publisher of The Detroit News and president of the accrediting council. It "undercuts the true value of journalism," Giles says, because journalism courses have to teach writing in a different way from public relations and advertising -- the language of persuasion versus the gathering, analyzing and writing of factual information. Schools aren't giving enough attention to this distinction."
A related concern is that the more time students spend taking mass communication theory courses, the less time they have for a broader education in arts and sciences -- the underpinning of their ability to find a wide range of stories, ask good questions and analyze responses.
"Students coming into newspapers and broadcasting have to know so much about the world -- economics, basic sciences, environmental science, political science, law and ethics, the heart of all social and political issues," Giles says. "They should be getting these from mainstream departments on campus, learning from the real scholars. ... If students don't know as much about these subjects as the people who are putting their spin on the issues, we're not going to be able to do our jobs efficiently."
Roberts of The New York Times sees no problem with the disappearance of some journalism programs so long as an adequate core of solid ones endures. "The country needs probably 30 or 40 or 50 -- some reasonable number of journalism schools that are really good at what they do," he says. "They should emphasize writing but also emphasize enough of a history of journalism that people emerge with some sense of where we've been and how we developed as newspapers -- and that is missing even more than writing."
In the schools that still emphasize journalism, faculty members wrestle with whether and how to teach students simultaneously, in the same courses, to be print, broadcast and online journalists. Yet new journalists seem to think there's no reason for faculty to fret over the issue of multimedia instruction. Nearly all of the new journalists surveyed -- 95% -- said they believe they would be able to adapt their skills to any other form of journalism.
At the same time, 86% of the journalists said it was very important" that journalism educators teach students how to use computers as communication and research tools.
That's part of James K. Gentry's plan in reshaping the journalism program at the University of Nevada-Reno. Every class has an Internet component to help prepare students for a variety of jobs, says Gentry, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism. "Graduates change fields, sometimes year to year. If we prepare them only for traditional newspaper jobs, we are ignoring their future," he maintains.
Taking a broad approach also means creating "alliances with other units on campus," Gentry says. One result is a recently established environmental journalism component on the Reno campus. "The university has several strong environmental programs. Schools ought to look where their strengths are and play off the competitive advantage."
Ph.D. vs. professional experience
While the arguments go on about what and how to teach, there is an equally contentious discussion over who should teach.
In the Roper Center's research for the Medsger report, 57% of new journalists who studied journalism in college said their best journalism teachers had extensive professional journalistic experience but no Ph.D.s; 31% said their best journalism teachers had extensive professional experience as well as Ph.D.s.
"The comments of recent graduates made a very strong affirmation that the most influential people they studied under were the experienced practitioners," says Giles of The Detroit News. "If the trends continue, we will see fewer and fewer experienced people on faculties, diminishing the qualities and vigor of journalism education. "
Even among schools that maintain a commitment to teach journalism as a distinct emphasis, there is disagreement over the importance of doctoral degrees.
Ralph Izard, director and professor of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, acknowledges that in some schools "a Ph.D. is required no matter how much experience the person has, or the person without a Ph.D. is hired on a second-class citizenship status. However, a good many excellent programs have learned to balance strong academic backgrounds and strong professional backgrounds."
Two of the Scripps School faculty members with extensive professional experience, 20 to 30 years each, have only bachelor's degrees. Both are tenured, full professors. A third faculty member who has strong professional experience and a bachelor's degree is studying for a master's in biological sciences, with a goal of someday developing an environmental journalism course.
"We've never gotten pressure from the university when hiring that a Ph.D. was necessary," Izard says, but in seeking to promote someone without a doctorate to full professor, "we need to make a special case. So far we've never been turned down."
A Ph.D. isn't required for faculty at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications, "but we like it," says Albert Tims, director of graduate and undergraduate studies. According to records submitted by the university at the time of its last accreditation review, 95% of its tenured and tenure-track faculty have doctorates. Minnesota is "a major research institution," Tims says, and our graduate program is important to us in generating journalism educators. Lots of deans around the country are from Minnesota."
While a Ph.D. is not a guarantee of good instructional quality, there is a feeling that if the journalism school hired a lot of faculty without it, "our standing among our university peers would be greatly diminished," he adds. "We're looking for people with academic standing and professional experience to work with graduate students at the Ph.D. level as well as teach undergraduates."
Overall, journalism educators -- including those with doctorates -- do not strongly support the Ph.D. as a criterion for hiring journalism educators, according to Medsger's findings.
Although 67% of journalism educators have Ph.D.s, just 37% of all journalism educators believe a doctorate -- whether in mass communication or another discipline -- should be a prerequisite to teach journalism. At the same time, "80% of educators strongly agreed -- and 14% mildly agreed -- that journalism faculty members should have extensive professional experience," she says.
Only 5% of all journalism educators, including just 9% of those with a Ph.D. in mass communication, said journalism educators should be rpquired to have doctorates in mass communication.
"This is a very warm issue with me," a search committee chair from a southern university said in a related survey Medsger conducted of programs that advertised for full-time faculty in 1994-95. "The speech people in our department are always pushing scholarly types. I'm pushing for professional involvement to count. I'm always telling them to look at the turnover rate of Ph.D.s versus journalists. The Ph.D.s with no experience are unhappy on the job. The journalists are happy on the job, and the students love them. We've been most successful with those, by far. "
Not everyone is so hard on the Ph.D., however. Philip Meyer, professor and Knight chair in Journalism at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina, observes:
"Other professional schools turn out graduates who are so ahead of the curve on technical advancement that mid-career professionals in their fields shudder to see them coming. They know that the kids have useful information that hadn't even been discovered when they were in school. J-schools should be the same way. We are in a couple of small areas ... but not in general. That's why we need Ph.D. -- to-create the new knowledge that the profession needs in order to cope with change. ... We ... have to change the culture that says there is enough knowledge already, and we don't need journalism teachers to discover as well as impart the truth."
Meyer's perspective is that of a former Washington correspondent and director of news and circulation research for Knight-Ridder Inc. Another sore point for many journalists is the undervaluing of in-depth journalistic research and writing in favor of traditional academic research and writing when universities decide whom to hire and promote. Only 27% of the schools that advertised for faculty members in 1994-95 said in-depth journalistic research and writing would be acceptable to meet hiring, tenure and promotion requirements for research and writing, Medsger reports.
Yet the feeling among many outside the university is that academic journalism research has little use in the real world.
"When I receive an issue of Journalism Quarterly, almost invariably there is at least one article that strikes me as so ridiculous that I feel compelled to hurl the journal across the room," says Jane E. Kirtley, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "I recall one article a few years ago that, as I remember it, attempted to draw a correlation between the number of misspelled words in a newspaper and the number of Pulitzers it had won. This, to me, is suggestive of how far academics will stretch into absurdity to come up with quantitative' studies. Journalism is not social science, and social science models don't work.
"This is not to say that valuable research cannot be performed in journalism schools. For example, an academic could easily have prepared the first comprehensive review of the incidence and impact of subpoenas on the news media. Instead, we did it at the Reporters Committee," Kirtley says.
Gentry from the University of Nevada-Reno offers a more positive view of scholarly research: "Some in academia are doing relevant research, but the professionals don't know about it. We (educators) do dismally communicating with each other internally. If we're doing badly internally, we're doing hellaciously communicating outside."
Beverly Kees is editor in residence at The Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center in Oakland, Calif. She is a former reporter and editor with Minneapolis, Knight-Ridder and McClatchy newspapers.
Need for clearer standards
One place where academics and journalists do communicate is on the ACEJMC, where representatives of both groups serve on the committees that review journalism programs. However, the accrediting process is itself being re-evaluated by some people.
"The big issue fat the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications] is whether to continue with accreditation," says Tims, who has attended a couple of accreditation sessions and is critical of how they are handled. "Some people weren't fully prepared, and some had personal agendas. ... Sometimes the comments are very parochial. Sometimes someone has a pet standard and keeps hammering at it."
It's hard to say what impact accreditation has on potential students or employers of graduates. Medsger found, however, that the accrediting process has enormous impact on schools, not all of it to the liking of journalists.
"In report after report, there is evidence that schools changed their hiring policies to stress hiring people with doctoral degrees after a previous accreditation review criticized them for having too few Ph.D.s on their faculty and for not doing enough scholarly research. That, in fact, seems to be the most powerful impact of accreditation in recent years: to increase the emphasis on the doctoral degree as the main hiring qualification and to inerease the quantity -- without regard for quality -- of scholarly research," she says.
"In a few instances, faculty were criticized for being too accessible to students, for caring too much about their teaching and the amount of feedback they give students about their writing. That work, the reports said, prevents faculty from engaging in sufficient scholarly research."
In Medsger's analysis of the 105 ACEJMC visiting-committee reports submitted over the past six years, she also found that:
 78% did not comment on the quality of campus journalism.
 74% contained no comment about the quality of writing instruction.
 50% made no comment about ethics instruction -- whether it existed or, if it existed, the quality.
 26% urged journalism programs to accept only traditional scholarly research -- and not journalistic research and creative work -- for evaluation for tenure and promotion.
 4% urged journalism programs to accept either traditional scholarly research or journalistic research for evaluation for tenure and promotion.
 None commented on the quality of student writing.
Medsger also determined that accrediting evaluators promote one philosophy at one school and another philosophy at another school. Why isn't the council operating more effectively? Perhaps the greatest stumbling block is what Medsger calls a "culture of friendly fear among educators, particularly administrators and others involved in the acerediting process, that inhibits philosophical discussions of crucial issues in journalism education. "
Joan Konner, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, concurs. "The tendency is to be more generous and silent than we think we ought to be," Konner says, because at a later date "representatives of other institutions will sit in judgment on our institution. Because of this -- it's really a conflict of interest -- we don't have the philosophical discussions that need to happen in order to protect journalism from what's, happening to it in a lot of schools."
ACEJMC President Giles acknowledges that "the voices on the accrediting council need to be more individual and vigorous," and that the council "needs to shift the thinking on the true nature of accreditation."
Medsger's report could spark new interest in accrediting standards and other issues surrounding what direction journalism education should take as the 21st century draws near.
A first step might be a nationwide conversation among journalists and educators on the role and future of journalism in American society. Universities would be more likely to support strong journalism education programs if they were assured there will be a vigorous journalism profession awaiting their graduates.
It may also be time for a refresher course on the important job journalists perform in a democracy and.the intellectual skills necessary to handle it. As many editors and news directors will attest, Generic Communicator just won't do.
RELATED ARTICLE: Report findings
1. JOurnalism courses are giving way to generic communication courses, a trend opposed by news professionals and many journalism educators.
2. Colleges and universities are choosing doctoral degrees over journalism expericne when hiring journalism faculty.
3. Most faculty members, including those iwth Ph.D.s, don't believe doctoral degrees should be required to teach journalism.
4. At most schools, in-depth journalistic research and writing are less acceptable than traditional academic research and writing in hiring, tenure and promotion.
5. The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications could help by developing and adhering to clear standards in areas such as expertise of faculty and quality of student writing.
6. Educators sitting in judgment of each other in the accrediting process hesitage to criticize the philosophical approach of other schools, knowing their time for judgment will come.
7. Faculty members in some major programs are frustrated trying to teach simultaneously print, broadcast, on-line and multimedia journalism to prepare students for career changes. However, new journalists foresee no problems moving from one form to another.
8. Low salaries -- the lowest of any college-educated workers entering the work force -- are driving out young journalists.
9. For all the problems, new journalists enjoy journalism: 95% said they like their jobs; 73% like them a lot. However, 43% said they might leave journalism, pay being the primary reason.
10. Continuing-education programs have not caught on in journalism, although both educators and journalists favor them.
RELATED ARTICLE: About the report and author
In 1995 The Freedom Forum commissioned a yearlong study of journalism education.
The project director was Betty Medsger, professor emerita and former chair of the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University. A former reporter with The Washington Post, The (Philadelphia) Evening Bulletin and The (Johnstown, Pa.) Tribune-Democrat, she is also an investigative journalist who has worked in broadcasting, photo-journalism and books. She is a former representative of journalism education administrators to the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.
Her study included three surveys by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.
A 13-member advisory committee of journalism practitioners and journalism educators guided the project. Members were Jo-Ann Huff Albers of Western Ketucky University, Douglas A. Anderson of Arizona State University, Don Barlett of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mary Kay Blake of Gannett Co. Inc., Trevor Brown of Indiana University, Jerome M. Ceppos of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury NEws, Lisa Chung of the Asian AMerican Journalists Association, Mary Dedinsky of Northwestern University, Robert H. Giles of The Detroit News, Linda Wright Moore of the Philadelphia Daily News, Gene Roberts of The New York Times, Gene Roberts of The New York Times, Jacqueline Sharkey of the University of Arizona and Ray Suarez of National Public Radio.
Medsger's report, "Winds of Change: Whither Journalism Education?" will be published later this summer. A summary of major findings was released in April during the Newspaper Association of America convention in New York City.
RELATED ARTICLE: Mediocre starting salaries take a toll
Pam Hentges of Minneapolis is a third-generation journalist. the granddaughter of a newspaper photographer and daughter of a former newspaper reporter, she graduated in 1991 from the University of Wisconsin with a journalism major, ready and eager for a newspaper career.
She spent eight months in part-time positions and an internship until she found a job as an editor/reporter for a St. Paul suburban weekly. She's not exactly sure where her salary ranked in comparison with the official poverty level, but "I was paid less than all my friends."
Two and a half years later, she and the newspaper's only photographer -- the last people hired for the six-member staff -- were laid off because of financial problems. Hentges is now public relations director for the Minnesota Arctic Blasts, a professional roller hockey team.
"Jobs in the [Twin Cities] metro area are scarce," says Hentges, who is getting married in November and doesn't want to leave the area. "I'm working in PR to make a little money, but I do want to be a reporter again. Reporting gets under your skin. If you like it, you really like it."
Hentges embodies two of the major points made in "Winds of Change: Whither Journalism Education?" She didn't earn much as a journalist, but she loved the work.
Report author Betty Medsger says low salaries probably "explain why the under-25 portion of the journalism work force is the fastest-shrinking portion." This decrease among young journalist was documented by Indiana University journalism professors David H. Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit in their book, "The American Journalist in the 1990s: U.S. News People at the End of an Era."
This year the new graduates' average starting salaries as journalists will be $20,154--the lowest of any college-educated workers entering the work force, according to an annual recruitment-trends survey by Michigan State University that is cited in Medsger's report.
In her research, Medsger found that 43% of journalists hired within the past 11 years said they might leave journalism, and low pay was the reason most often given. Even so, 73% of the new journalists said they like their jobs "a lot."
"This intense liking of the profession by new journalists is much higher than the level of positive satisfaction found among all journalists by Weaver and Wilhoit in 1992"--27% of whom liked their job "a lot." The implication is that the longer people stay in journalism, the less satisfied they are with it.
RELATED ARTICLE: Continuing education: available for the asking
One place where town and gown -- or newsroom and classroom -- could cooperate is continuing education. But Betty Medsger found in research for "Winds of Change: Whither Journalism Education?" that it doesn't happen much.
Only 27% of the educators surveyed for the report said their journalism programs conduct training sessions for professionals.
One possible explanation, Medsger says, is that the journalism programs conduct increasingly disconnected from the profession and their faculties are less qualified to teach those already in the profession.
Tom Reilly, chairman of the Department of Journalism at California State University, Northridge, has a different take: Nobody's asked. "A regular academic progrma doesn't necessarily do continuing education," he explains, so someone off campus would have to get it rolling. If professionals asked for a specific journalism short course, "we would definitely try to help them," he says.
Two-thirds of journalism educators and newsroom recruiters and supervisors surveyed for the Medsger report said they would like to collaborate to create professional development programs.
Eighty percent of new journalists said they would benefit from professional development courses -- in either advanced journalism skills or other areas of study that would increase their expertise in subjects they cover.
RELATED ARTICLE: Studying journalism
Most new journalists (those working as journalists for one to 11 years) studied journalism in college:
[43%] were undergraduate journalism majors and obtained no other degree.
[15%] minored or took a few undergraduate courses in journalism and received no graduate degree.
[6%] have master's degrees in journalism and no other journalism studies
[2%] earned undergraduate degrees in journalism, studied journalism at the master's level but did not get a master's degree.
[1%] have undergraduate and master's degrees in journalism.
[1%] received undergraduate degrees in journalism and a master's degree in another area of study.
[1%] minored or took a few undergraduate courses in journalism and earned a master's in journalism.
[27%] never studied journalism.
Source: May 1995 Freedom Forum/Roper poll for "Winds of Change: Whither Journalism Education?"…