Overholser to grads: The journalism you’re helping reinvent is just coming into its own

Photo Courtesy of Geneva Overholser

Photo Courtesy of Geneva Overholser

Ed. Note: As the academic year comes to a close, the job market will be flooded with new graduates. Many of those leaving J-school may feel trepidation over the heavy downsizing that has afflicted nearly every major media outlet in the country in recent years. But there are reasons to be encouraged. Last Friday, Geneva Overholser, director of the journalism school at USC Annenberg and a veteran journalist herself, shared many of those reasons with the graduating class in her commencement speech. The core of her message was optimistic: Journalism is an industry that is being reinvented for the better, and today’s graduates are going to help shape it. Overholser herself will be retiring as director of the school, but she offered much hope — and a few bits of wisdom — for one more batch of bright-eyed students ready to become professionals. Following is the complete transcript of her speech, as prepared for delivery. [Read more...]

Secrecy is trumping public interest in gun control coverage

Our impoverished national conversation on guns appears to have a new casualty: public information.

The latest victim is the Bangor Daily News in Bangor, Me., whose request for the names of concealed gun permit holders – a public record in Maine – unleashed a firestorm. The paper withdrew its request. [Read more...]

What's missing from the debate on "rebooting journalism schools"

“Rebooting journalism schools” has been a hot topic this spring and summer, culminating at the recent convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in Chicago.

A key figure in the discussion is the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton, who headed a group of foundation leaders calling on America’s university presidents to put “top professionals in residence” and to focus on applied research. Newton had previously challenged journalism schools to consider a new degree structure to “put professionals on par with scholars and give the highest credentials to people who are both.” This Newton post offers a good sampling of the discussion to date.

Another leading voice is the Poynter Institute’s Howard Finberg, whose speech in Europe in June helped launch the debate. Finberg followed with a good summation.

It’s a lively discussion. Lots of truths have been spoken, lots of silly things said, and many topics worthy of debate have been raised. Here are a few points I think need adding (or stressing more than they have been to date):

It’s about the PUBLIC. This is after all the POINT of journalism. These are the people for whom it all exists. Remembering this can help us focus on the most critical questions: How do we work most effectively with the folks who are now creating the journalism with us? How do we best engage citizens? At the heart of this debate, we must place their needs and wants -– indeed, the ways in which they are actively reinventing journalism even as we discourse about it. The current discussion seems to harbor the notion that the debate is primarily between the academy and the “industry” –- an idea that is sorely out of date.

There is no end-point. No matter how effectively we debate this, no matter how well we “solve” the questions confronting us, there’ll be no stasis. These conversations have been going on for a good while (here’s a summation of one from two years ago at AEJMC) and they’ll go on for a long time more. Change is our new reality, and it isn’t going away. As Google’s Richard Gingras said at AEJMC, “How can we create work cultures of constant innovation?” (His questions at the end of the speech are terrific thought-provokers.)

Indeed, Gingras had a great closer — especially for an audience that hasn’t exactly been marked over the years by revolutionary zeal: “The success of journalism’s future … can only be assured to the extent that each and every person in this room and beyond helps generate the excitement, the passion, and the creativity to make it so.”

Research must be tuned up to match the urgent need for informed change. Insults are always traded on this question between academics and practitioners, but the truth is the best stuff often comes from a union of the two. Giving pros a chance to be part of the academy produces all kinds of wonderful work. Last year we brought veteran editor Melanie Sill to Annenberg, steeped her in academic life for one semester, and she turned out a terrific “Case for Open Journalism Now: A New Framework for Informing Communities.” Same thing happened with David Westphal a couple of years earlier, who turned out richly helpful (OK, he’s my husband; it’s still true), reports on foundation funding and the role of government.

Similarly, Columbia put Len Downie and Michael Schudson together on “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” and followed that with a fine “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of digital journalism.”

Lots of good work is happening in the more traditional academic ways, as well. Here are two examples, thanks to Carrie Brown-Smith. AEJMC president Linda Steiner’s contribution to the debate correctly points us to AEJMC’s “Research you can use,” a project I was involved in many years ago when I first came over to the academy from the practice, but which has never quite caught on.

That’s in part because of the pace at which academics embrace (or don’t embrace) change. Carrie Brown-Smith of the University of Memphis comments wryly, following the Finberg posting, on the posturing and “hand-ringing by mostly well-established senior faculty.” She adds: “We just need to get off our duff and make an effort to use the unprecedented array of tools at our disposal to connect with professionals, such as blogs and social media.”

Still, it remains true that key questions cry out for thoughtful research while too many scholars toil endlessly over arcana. What might we do to encourage web media to fill more reporting gaps? How can we better understand how people use online information? Are we seeing any impact from our student’s greatly increased understanding of the “business” side of journalism? How might we assess empirically the decline of the quality of journalism and its impact –- if indeed we can establish with certainty that there is one?

We must redefine our “market.” We know that the quality of journalism depends on the quality of the demand for it. How might we play a greater role in media literacy? We know that the academy seems to be experiencing some of the disruption that has hit so many media institutions. What if we put these two facts together and started serving more and more of the public in smaller chunks of time (and money)?. Finberg cites a great example: UC Davis is experimenting with “digital badge” programs that can “measure core competences rather than the standard three-credit course.”

We can build on the far richer connection that now exists between the academy and journalism professionals. Oddly, the current debate has several references to an increase in the long-lamented distance between the academy and the practice. Finberg did a survey and found that 95 percent of academics thought a journalism degree was vital to “understanding the value of journalism,” while only 56 percent of professionals agreed. That sounds remarkably promising to me. Given the history of this relationship, I’d be amazed if more than a quarter of practitioners would have agreed with the academics on their positive assessment (of their own work, mind you) a decade ago. We are seeing evidence every day that media professionals want to work with journalism schools. In fact they are doing so in ever-increasing numbers of partnerships and collaborations. Good things can come of this.

We need to be the labs that experiment and test new techniques and share lessons about best practices. We at USC Annenberg are lucky enough to be one of three testbeds (along with CUNY and UNC) for Geanne Rosenberg’s terrific project on best legal practices. Like many other schools, we are creating new apps and new methods of journalism in our Annenberg Innovation Lab and our Mobile News Incubator. It’s not easy or neat. I got a call as I was writing this post about yet another intellectual property question we don’t seem to have given proper attention to. But that’s exactly the kind of challenge we ought to be confronting — and helping the practice deal with.

Diversity! My final point brings us back to the beginning. This is about the public. And the entire public is not old, white and male (I can say that, since I’m two of those). We can’t serve, be partners with, or even begin to understand a diverse population –- if we’re not one. And we mostly are not. A remarkable number of discussions on the future of journalism –- the FUTURE of journalism –- are conducted by groups that look like the Kiwanis club of Peoria in 1950. This won’t do. When we hire and put into place people who look like the future and are excited about its promise — that is when rebooting ceases to be a conversation and becomes reality. The biggest change we need in journalism schools is an ever-changing cast of characters.