The Future of Journalism

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"The Future of Journalism" has been the subject these many months of conferences and confabs from coast to coast. Some experts and pundits seem to be omnipresent. The problems under discussion are certainly acute. The prescriptions focus on a mix of entrepreneurial and nonprofit models. Contemplation has its place. But the real tests will be in what actually gets done as journalism under force majeure is reinvented. I have just been reading the spring 2010 master of science curriculum at the Columbia University School of Journalism. What comes through is that students at Columbia and other leading schools are being trained in a variety of skills and a range of formats at a level of sophistication that assures the field will be much more broadly defined in the years ahead than the traditional notions of news gathering. Ultimately, the aspirants--at least as much as the prognosticators--will determine how journalism evolves.

As a practical matter, instruction at the "J" school, as it is known, was so elemental in the 1960s that graduates--of which I am one--emerged as full-fledged hunt-and-peck typists. Students mainly did reporting exercises. Secretaries were taught to take shorthand and touch type. Reporters were not. I see no evidence that typing with ten fingers is a requirement these days either. But the breadth of what is being offered is amazing, about which more in a moment.

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Journalism education always has been regarded somewhat dubiously by most academics and many journalists. A stint at some small newspaper (or broadcast outlet) was thought to provide as much training as a young journalist would need. Communications research has found a place at some universities. But unlike business, law, or medicine, the academic standing of the craft of journalism has been shaped by the fact that anyone without the benefit of training or license can claim to be a news gatherer. That attitude, and some of the patronizing tone that accompanies it, is on display in the Chronicle of Higher Education's November 15 issue, which has a special section called "Academe and the Decline of the News Media." The role of the university is potentially significant in the transformation of news from a primarily market-driven enterprise to recognition of its essential role as a civic asset--like education itself. One excerpt in the symposium made the core point, in my opinion: "This is an opportunity to remake journalism curricula," wrote Dean Miller, director of the Center for News Literacy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, "with a heavy emphasis on mission and a patient willingness to adapt as platforms evolve."

That brings me back to the curriculum at Columbia. Here are just a handful of the courses on offer, and the distinguished (the appropriate appellation) professors who teach them. There is Sam Freedman, a best-selling author and contributing columnist to the New York Times on how to prepare a book proposal, which means doing the basic research to support the project. The best of these are very well done. As a publisher, I have just acquired a book that came out of the class. Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of the Nation and chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, directs a course that culminates in a fully developed publication called the New York Review of Magazines. Kimberly Kleman, editor-in-chief of Consumer Reports, teaches a course in consuming reporting. June Cross, an award-winning documentary producer whose work has appeared on PBS's Frontline, has students prepare a five-to-seven-minute trailer to pitch to producers. Walt Bogdanich, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner teaches investigative reporting, of which he is plainly a master. John Bennet, one of the New Yorker's most experienced manuscript editors, teaches writing for magazines. Alex Brumberg, of public radio's This American Life and the brilliant Planet Money, does radio documentaries. And in addition, there are all sorts of digital training courses and electives that carve out particular skills and interests.

According to Columbia's admissions office, there were 1,057 applicants for this year's master of science program; 412 students were accepted, 264 enrolled, with another 110 attending part-time. There were 47 students accepted into a separate master of arts curriculum, and 27 working toward a Ph.D. The total estimated cost of the master degree, including living expenses, is an astounding $72,182 for the year-long course; 78 percent of those applying for financial aid got it, averaging $7,738. The word around the school is that enrollment is now at the outer limits of what can be accommodated by faculty and facilities. Professors pitch their courses to students at what is known as the "dog and pony shop." Students then ballot for their preferences. Some classes require applications to the professor.

There is energy and enterprise in all this activity, which is what journalism in these parlous times needs most. Theory and scholarship are underpinnings for all sorts of disciplines--even, in some cases, for journalism. But the best lesson you can learn in journalism school these days is how much is going on in a field for which so many are prepared to offer epitaphs.