Journalism's Road to Becoming a Profession: There Are Key Roles for Educators to Play in This Transformation. (Journalism Education)

By Meyer, Philip | Nieman Reports, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Journalism's Road to Becoming a Profession: There Are Key Roles for Educators to Play in This Transformation. (Journalism Education)


Meyer, Philip, Nieman Reports


When journalism was a craft, could get along without journalism schools. But the craft model isn't working anymore. As long as journalism was in a steady-state condition, with neither the skills nor the environment in which they were applied changing very much, it worked fine as a craft. But just look around. We're being phased out!

The old economic model of advertiser-supported editorial products is falling apart and being replaced by forces that put advertising, spin and entertainment ahead of truth and public service. It's time to circle the wagons, redefine ourselves as a profession, and start protecting our values in an organized way.

The craft model ruled when President James B. Conant rejected the idea of using the Nieman bequest to start a Harvard journalism school. He decided that whatever knowledge base existed was insufficient to compose an undergraduate major or graduate degree. Now there is a knowledge base. And the disruptive effects of new communication technologies are forcing it to expand, whether we like it or not.

When the Nieman Foundation was established in 1938, journalists were basically finders and transporters of information. Now the balance of our effort has shifted away from that hunter-gatherer model and toward processing. It used to be enough to get information into people's hands. Now we have to worry more about getting it into their heads.

This paradigm shift is comparable to the effect of technology on the development of the food business. In 1947, production was more than twice as important as processing. Farmers contributed 2.2 times as much to the gross domestic product as food manufacturers. That ratio evened out just 20 years ago. By 2000, farming's contribution to the gross domestic product was less than three-fifths that of food manufacturing.

Processing is similarly moving to the forefront in journalism. We live in the age of the editor. It is no coincidence that the most successful newspaper, USA Today, is also the one most carefully formatted, designed and edited for maximum ease of information retrieval.

There was always a body of knowledge in journalism, of course. The newspaper industry recognized this when it began taking the majority of its new hires from journalism schools. Its elements include the history and values of the craft, media law, the skills of reporting, writing, editing and critical thinking and, with luck, enough about the economics of the media to convince young journalists that their paychecks do not come from the stork.

Transforming Journalism Into a Profession

A professional school teaches from first principles: not just how to write a lede, but the theory behind a particular way of writing one. Courses in the process and effects of mass communication and in the science of collecting, analyzing and drawing inferences from data are leading us toward the sort of esoteric knowledge base that defines professionalism. At the same time, the demand for pure craft courses is increasing as students realize that they might be asked to produce content for print, broadcast and the Internet all on the same assignment.

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