Recent entries posted on or linked to the Poynter Institute website and AEJMC listservs on the long-running but heated debate on the value, proper structure, and best practices in journalism education have addressed some major issues: the status of professionals in journalism education, the gap between educators and journalists, the value of research, the importance of a doctorate in getting and keeping academic jobs. Some of the discussion conflates very different, albeit often intersecting, problems.
These arguments are becoming increasingly strident, with these different questions treated as if they are the same, partly because of crises over scarcity of resources—both economic and social. No one denies the sunami of technological changes facing journalism, as well as major upheaval in attitudes about news. Huge numbers of people assume (wrongly) that they don’t need news or don’t need professional journalists to produce it for them; they can use the same technologies to gather and disseminate their own news. News organizations are closing down, or squeak by with fewer people. Therefore, many more journalists—some highly experienced and award-winning, some with a few years of low- or mid-level experience—are seeking academic jobs.
Professionals regularly go straight from newsrooms both to academia, as they certainly deserve to. This includes deanships, arguably a more difficult transition, given the need for skills and talents not necessarily developed or tested in newsrooms. At my own university, professional journalists–from the full professors and “professors of the practice,” to the lecturers, who enjoy five year, renewable contracts — run the show. Indeed, lecturers are paid significantly more than assistant and associate professors, face no publish-or-perish, up-or-out crisis, so need not spend money, weekends and vacations, on research.
As historians of status conflict have shown, prestige and respect are finite resources in a zero-sum game: the gains of one group subtract from the prestige of others. As a result, battles over prestige and honor become most fraught precisely when those at the top begin to sense that they are losing ground. Precisely because professional journalists face this loss of credibility and authority, they are lashing out at journalism educators for not doing more to help what professionals call “the industry.” Yes, it’s also true that some universities anxious about their status require the Ph.D. These days, the economic crisis facing higher education probably goes further than this university-level dictate about Ph.D.s to explain why people don’t get jobs. New faculty positions cannot be created at will, and especially in a dismal economy (especially when jobs prospects look grim). AEJMC consistently tries to help departments make the argument to provosts about the value of professionals.
It’s worth adding that many Ph.D.-holding journalism researchers started out as journalists. This is ignored in complaints such as that of the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton about “the slow rate of change in journalism education, including how exceptional professionals (without advanced degrees) are being treated. You have not heard the last of this. Universities are likely to lose private-sector funding if it doesn’t stop.” He is correct that degrees are not more important than competence. But the Ph.D. should not be regarded as “disabling,” as if people who spend five or six years to earn a Ph.D. and launch a research trajectory suddenly forget everything they learned while in the newsroom, and become, as professionals suggest, uniformly unable to teach professional courses, serve as deans, apply accreditation standards–only able to write “unreadable articles for journals no one quotes, achieving nothing.”
Journalism education, including AEJMC, must do much more. As in every university domain, journalism faculty members teach what is most needed, but do research on a far broader spectrum; and we cannot dictate individuals’ research agendas. Collectively, however, journalism educators—not only in teaching, and service, but also in research—can and should do much more to help journalists figure out how best to carry their important role in these new and changing contexts. (In my experience, moreover, print-oriented professionals on faculties have been the most resistant to change, the most adamant about journalism’s unchanging values). Carrie Brown-Smith, one of the newer faculty members to respond to Howard Finberg’s recent essay, correctly noted that researchers can use blogs and social media to translate published research into versions more accessible and more relevant for working journalists.
So what is AEJMC doing to collaborate with professionals, in and out of the organization, toward our shared goals of promoting high quality journalism and encouraging support of journalism? True: we retain an admittedly old-fashioned name; in this sense, we have not met Mr. Newton’s call for “radical reform.” But divisions have changed names. “Online” has been added to the newspaper division. More to the point, we have programs to help faculty get back into the newsrooms to see what they know and do and as a way to see first-hand what makes their research more relevant; and to bring professionals to campus. One AEJMC task force is sponsoring workshops for minority journalists to help them understand what is necessary (or not) to move into academia, and thus to help insure that those moving into both part- and full-time teaching represent diversity. Another task force is specifically addressing the needs of Latino/a journalists. The AEJMC website features “Research You Can Use.” Our Council of Affiliates can always share these summaries of research relevant to news organizations with members. Indeed, this year the Council funded three research projects specifically helpful to professional journalism. They will be presented at our summer conference, and posted on our website.
Indeed, I invite you to attend the AEJMC conference in Chicago, marking our 100th anniversary, to see what we are doing. Richard Gingras, the head of Google News, will be the keynote speaker. You’ll learn about research, programs, and services that can help you.
President, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 2011-2012