How to Make J-School Matter (Again): In This Excerpt from Her Forthcoming E-Book, Amy Webb Outlines a New Blueprint for the Future of Journalism Education

By Webb, Amy | Nieman Reports, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

How to Make J-School Matter (Again): In This Excerpt from Her Forthcoming E-Book, Amy Webb Outlines a New Blueprint for the Future of Journalism Education


Webb, Amy, Nieman Reports


IN THE FALL OF 2000, I SAT IN the large seminar room at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism listening to a lecture about whether journalists should be allowed to use digital cameras. It was meant to be a difficult, complicated discussion about ethics. The problem was, I'd just moved to New York City from Tokyo, and in my pocket was one of the first mass-market camera phones. To me, it seemed more useful to talk about the ethics of accepting photos from readers, since we'd all be using similar phones within five years.

I raised that point as I held out my phone and took a photo of the whole class. The technology had not yet made its way into the U.S., but I argued that within just a few years, my classmates would see a dramatic change in their mostly analog mobile phones. Consumers would be able to take photos, e-mail them to friends on the spot or even post them to the Internet, without ever having to use a PC.

But I was immediately, and somewhat embarrassingly, dismissed. "Why on earth would anyone print a low-quality photo in the newspaper or show it on TV? That won't happen," my professor snapped back, returning the conversation to the ethics of digital cameras.

Of course, the rest isn't history; it's the present. In classrooms across the country, students are being taught about a media ecosystem that's already been eclipsed by new platforms, devices, and business models. Some of them might be wondering, as I did, whether they've made a mistake in attending journalism school at all.

I am deeply concerned about the future of journalism education in America. Journalism isn't a licensed profession in the United States, and so anyone--journalism degree or not--can call herself a reporter. It can be argued that universities exist solely for scholarship and to teach, and that they do not play a role in the day-to-day practice of modern news media. I disagree with both assertions. Universities must propel the profession forward and become the connective tissue between what's come before and what's still to come. Journalism's problems are journalism education's problems, too.

There have been many efforts to rethink journalism education, including at my alma mater. Stephens College president Dianne Lynch, Baruch College media law professor Geanne Rosenberg, the American Press Institute, and, of course, the ongoing Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education are all working on various aspects of this issue. Indeed, all of these worthwhile endeavors have crystallized the need for reform. Now, we must advance the foundation they created and radically evolve journalism education for a digital environment that is in constant flux, where the means of transmission are being built and are controlled outside the core profession and where anyone can produce content that looks like--but isn't necessarily--vetted, reported news.

Some schools welcome the disruptive change. They're offering classes in virtual reality and wearable technology. Some are betting on code, mandating courses in data science, even if syllabi don't integrate well within the rest of the curriculum. Still others are slowly transitioning away from traditional concentrations like newspaper, magazine, broadcast, and PR to entrepreneurial journalism and data journalism.

If we can all agree that journalism education is still necessary, that its purpose serves the future of our society, then I believe we must figure out a way to make the degree matter more.

As part of my Nieman Visiting Fellowship at Harvard, I spent the past several months developing a new blueprint for journalism education. To do this, I solicited respondents through the Online News Association's educators network, via influential thought leaders in journalism and academia, and through various social media channels. I surveyed faculty and administrative staff working in academia and professionals working in all areas of journalism (publishers, editors, reporters, broadcasters, designers, product managers, and developers as well as people in sales and finance). …

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