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Journalism Education Undergoes Academic Discipline Makeover

At the University of Mississippi, a team of student journalists recently concluded a series of in-depth stories on life in the Mississippi Delta. The package of stories has been given to the Mississippi Press Association, which will distribute them to newspapers throughout the state for publication at no cost. In the fall, the students will release an hourlong documentary about the Mississippi Delta that will be broadcast on public television.

Faculty at the University of Colorado’s journalism school are working with their colleagues in the business school to develop a joint certificate in media entrepreneurship. Michigan State University offers journalism degrees that specialize in certain subjects, including environmental studies.

Rosalynne Whitaker-Heck, dean of the Scripps-Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University, recently put her faculty through several days of extensive multimedia training, a strategy she calls “retooling her faculty.”  On one occasion she brought in a faculty member from the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., to train faculty and students in telling stories across multiple platforms. On another occasion, experts from the E.W. Scripps Network conducted faculty training sessions via Skype on subjects ranging from social media tools and ethics in the age of the Internet.

Like out-of-work journalists, the nation’s estimated 400 journalism schools and programs are working aggressively to reinvent themselves. They are rethinking their methods for hiring new faculty, providing free in-depth content to news organizations, partnering with foundations and corporations to develop strategies to save news outlets and teaming up with other academic divisions at their respective universities to offer dual programs.

“The changes in the industry have had a major impact on the way journalism schools have reformatted themselves,” says Dr. Joe Foote, dean of the Gaylord School of Journalism and Communications at Oklahoma University. His school is exploring partnerships with several colleges and departments, including engineering, marketing, theater and fine arts.

To be sure, unlike daily newspapers, magazines and commercial TV newscasts, journalism schools are not struggling with their numbers. Enrollment has inched upward every year since the mid-1990s. According to a study conducted by the Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, enrollment in journalism and mass communications programs in the fall of 2008 numbered nearly 201,500 students, compared with 149,200 in 1998.

But enrollment figures notwithstanding, chiefs of journalism programs say changing the way they do business is critical to their survival, particularly as the industry for which they are preparing students to work is going through some of the most dramatic changes in nearly a century.

“Right now in journalism schools, most of the attention is being paid to how journalism is reinventing itself,” says Dr. Carol J. Pardun, president of the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications. “The project at Ole Miss – those kinds of things are happening all over the country. It’s a very exciting time for students. They can become the experts and they often know more about the skill set (after graduation) than those that have been working in there for a very long time.”

Pardun, the director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, adds that each year a faculty member at her school takes a team of students to Munich, Germany. They are turned loose in the city and given two weeks to report and write stories for a multimedia project. Other examples of such ambitious student journalism projects abound. At the University of Alabama, a journalism professor takes a team of students to a different major European city each year to work on a multimedia magazine. A journalism professor at Florida A&M University took six students to South Africa to work on stories about the World Cup.

The Delta project at the University of Mississippi is overseen by Bill Rose, a former national correspondent for the Miami Herald, who is now a journalism professor. Participating students are enrolled in a two-semester course. To assist them in their reporting, they tap into the expertise of seasoned visiting journalists as well as experts on the campus in such areas as race relations and poverty.

“This (forward thinking) is what journalism schools are going to have to start doing,” says Dr. H. Will Norton, dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. “A minority of them are doing that, and I think that is having an impact.”

Although it might not be obvious from glancing at a course catalog, many journalism courses have been revamped extensively as well.

“Journalism schools know they need to change their curriculum. But change happens slowly at universities,” says Pardun. “On paper things might not look all that different but what is happening in the classroom is very different. I’m teaching an introduction to basic media writing class for freshman. As I’m working through the syllabus, I’m like, ‘Wow there’s a lot that has changed,’” she says, noting the inclusion of new technology courses.

Reinventing the curriculum has meant reinventing faculty with schools like Hampton offering in-house multimedia training to their faculty. Some journalism schools like the University of South Carolina offer training for a fee to other journalism faculty across the country.

“We are well aware that our profession is changing every second,” says Whitaker-Heck, “and it’s always a challenge given that we must best prepare students for jobs that probably don’t exist now. We make as many resources available to expose them to different possibilities and options.”


Hiring Trends

In the classroom, the continued emphasis on telling stories across multiple platforms forces journalism schools to take that experience into account when they hire new faculty.

“We have a whole generation of verbally talented faculty who specialized in teaching students how to write and report, and they’re not leaving any time soon,” says Foote. “So that leaves greater pressure to hire people who can move into another world and who are more agile at multimedia platforms – online, print and Web.”

Indeed, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Paul Jones, a clinical associate professor of journalism, uses a wide range of social networking tools and technologies like Skype to teach students how to conduct interviews. At journalism schools at New York University, the University of Wisconsin and the City University of New York, journalism instructors use a wide range of social networking tools to teach student journalists how to be better reporters and how to tap into a wider range of sources.

The strong trend toward multimedia coupled with the changing nature of the industry has sparked an increase in the hiring of faculty who do not come from traditional academic backgrounds. There are no hard numbers to support it, but anecdotal evidence suggests there’s been an increase in recent years.

Susanne Shaw, executive director of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, says she’s noticed an increase in this pattern in the last 10 or 15 years.

Dr. Jennifer Greer, an associate professor and chair of the journalism department at the University of Alabama, says her department recently hired someone with a strong background in multimedia in a non-tenure-track capacity. She says she’s had conversations with the dean about adding another faculty member with a similar background soon. Having this kind of flexibility in hiring, she says, works out well for both the prospective teachers and the university.  

“One of the beauties of hiring people as lecturers or instructors is that a lot of these people may not want their full-time job to be teaching,” she says. “They may want some flexibility. A lot of these people may want to step out of the industry for a couple of years.”

Norton says this flexibility has made it easier for him to hire a broad range of faculty, including women and minorities.

Adds Pardun, “In the well-regarded journalism schools, it is fairly common for half to two-thirds of the faculty to have Ph.D.s and be good researchers and the others would be professional faculty. What has changed is that in the past you could have a bachelor’s degree. Now you’re almost required to have a master’s degree because of some accreditation issues.”

But Pardun, who has worked in academia for nearly two decades, notices a difference in the profile of newly minted doctorate degree holders in communications.

“Nowadays it’s very common for people with Ph.D.s to have a lot of professional experience” as well as research experience, she says.

Ben Burns, director of the journalism program at Wayne State University in Detroit, has noticed that trend as well.

“At one time there used to be very few folks with academic credentials and lots of professional credentials,” says Burns, a former editor of several newspapers, including the Detroit News.

“There are lots of folks out there now with both. Our most recent hire has a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri and 20, 22 years professional experience.”

But in the end, says Foote, the continued relevance of journalism schools may also lie in the underlying motives of a new generation of students choosing journalism as a major. Many of these students increasingly see journalism as a liberal arts major that teaches them skills for an array of other professions.

“Now we find students who study (journalism) with the intention of going to law school, grad school or business school,” says Foote. “They are not vocational-minded at all but see the utility of a journalism degree. We are now seeing a first generation of students coming at this from the front end, not expecting to enter the profession. In the past, it was after they got out they decided they didn’t want to do (journalism). This has reinvigorated journalism education in a special way.”

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