Reconceptualizing the Influence of the News Industry on Journalism Graduate Education
Thorson, Esther, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator
In 1993, I left what is arguably one of the most theoretically oriented journalism and mass communication programs (Wisconsin-Madison) for what was arguably one of the most practically oriented journalism programs (Missouri-Columbia). Both places were very good at what they did and not very good at what they didn't do. My task at Missouri was to figure out how to develop the research effort and link it to the tremendous applied enterprise that existed there. What we developed at Missouri during the next eight or nine years was a "book-ended culture. " The number of active doctoral faculty was tripled; the doctoral curriculum was streamlined and made more rigorous. Doctoral students and faculty ramped up their research productivity many-fold. The quality of the master's theses, both in terms of theory development and methods sophistication, was increased, with master's students beginning to present their work at national meetings, and sometimes to publish it. In the applied master's "projects" where students spent three-quarters of their capstone semester producing professional products like news photo documentaries, investigative news analyses, beat books on topics like crime or education, and the like, the quarter-time "research component" was ratcheted up to a respectable small piece of quality research. Research and applied faculty came to at first grudging and then even enthusiastic respect for one anothers' contributions to the educational endeavors of the school.
But research and practice education book-ended each other. Practice and research training were separate, insulated and isolated, even though they sat next to each other in the curriculum. We expected the master's students to take theory and research and integrate what they learned into their learning of the trade. We expected doctoral students to become theorists and skilled methodologists and tell us how their work might be applied to the "real world" of journalism. We theorists believed research could be applied and even within the often narrow confines of our own research programs had sometimes carried out some "application." But as Skinner, Gasher, and Compton articulated in their essay on "putting theory to practice," we "put too much onus on students themselves to bridge the gap between theory and practice."
This brings me to the topic of how the "news industry culture" affects graduate education. For master's students (and probably undergraduates as well), the assumption by the industry is that journalism education will provide them "welltrained" students who can be hired into the various news niches, and without a lot of further investment grind out whatever news products are needed. No one will have to teach them inverted pyramid writing style. They'll be able to report on cops and courts, or education or city politics. They'll know how to produce a news story, report or anchor local news, or in some cases have enough background to do specialized reporting. A favorite argument in the trade journal literature is whether journalism students are best for these jobs, or if just any uncommonly bright student is best trained in-house to do these tasks. Columbia University, in a widely reported story about the meaning of high-quality applied journalism education, has seen lots of arguments about what it can "add" to working with high-caliber professionals to create a more "academically acceptable" educational system.
The news industry seldom turns to academia for "think tank" activities. Few news media professionals are aware of, much less read, research that scrutinizes them. When "research" is needed by the industry, it turns not to academics, but to professional research supplier companies. (One exception is the Media Management Center at Northwestern.) The news industry does not often share its own data, be it financial information or information about its users or whatever, with academics. Of course, in fields like business, medicine, nursing, law, and economics, the relationship between industry and academia is far more collaborative. …