Bridging the Gap: Professional Journalists and Journalism Educators Should Join Forces to Strengthen Both of Their Domains

Article excerpt

Professional journalists and journalism educators should join forces to strengthen both of their domains.

THE NEWSPAPER EDITOR TELEphoned the director of his journalism school, the one he attended 25 years before and remembered with such fondness. He had decided he should step down as vice president of the school's alumni advisory board.

"I don't identify with the school anymore," he explained. "You're hiring all those Ph.Ds. Hell, an editor like me wouldn't even qualify for a job on the faculty. Let's face it. You're not really a J-school anymore. You're mass communications. All I really care about is journalism. Sorry, but I don't think I can be of much help."

To those who know their journalism history, this estrangement is not entirely new. It goes back to just after the Civil War, when the nation's first journalism program was being tested at Virginia's Washington College (now Washington & Lee). One professor lamented "the torrent of ridicule being poured on us by some of the papers in the country."

But some things are different these days. Professionals and academics alike are dealing with rapid changes in communications, both technologically and entrepreneurially. Both are desperately trying to cope with the fact that new forms of information delivery are being invented even as they boast of yesterday's accomplishments. Complaints are flying on both sides.

This is a pity. More than ever, we need each other to develop effective approaches to the journalism of the future. Some tension is both natural and even healthy. But if we don't work together to use that tension constructively, we'll both suffer in the long run. And, ultimately, the losers will be the public, who will find the quality of journalism diminished.

Not long ago, one of us told a group of broadcasters how our curriculum was being improved by giving students a framework for bringing the best practices to a rapidly changing news industry. After hearing this spiel, a radio station owner piped up, "I don't care about that. All I care about is whether your graduates can use a tape recorder."

Few would take such a narrow view of journalism education. But the remark hints at the perspectives that have perennially divided journalists and journalism professors. deliberately existed largely on the margin of university life. Now--for their own good and for the good of the communication industries they serve--they can move toward the center where they can be leaders of what author Peter Drucker calls the post-industrial society.

This should be welcomed by the news and information industries. But it isn't because those in the industries are equally distracted.

There are many reasons for these distractions. More than ever, news executives believe they are forced to view new technology as a way of reducing operating costs and providing more glitz in presentation. Too many show less enthusiasm for using technology to improve the quality of news content.

The public is not as dependent as it once was on daily journalism; people can log on to their computers to chat with colleagues or to get up-to-date information. Business executives get specialized news reports by fax or computer.

This is not to say there are no positive signs of constructive collaboration between journalism education programs and journalists. Look at the number of schools endowed by--and named after--local media families. Both of our schools fall into that category, and the results have been crucial to the quality of our programs.


The former, with largely middle-class tastes and deep skepticism of elites, are suspicious of ivory-tower professors. Frontline news supervisors in particular are anxious about whether recent graduates have mastered basic skills needed on the job.

Typically, professors have what some would consider a theoretical frame of mind. …