New Journalism School Courses for a New Journalism Reality

As the college school year gets going, journalism programs are asking a very pertinent question in the age of upended media models: What should journalism schools teach?

The answer from where I sit: Something different from what they’re teaching now.

In a piece this week, Geneva Overholser, director of USC’s j-school and long a critical thinker about journalism, lists some goals for her school. That led me to peruse the course selections at a few journalism schools, including the program at my alma mater, Rutgers.

Here’s the chief problem: all of the schools seem to treat journalism as a profession dominated by viable, stable institutions where someone gets a “job” as a reporter or editor, and does that job all day for years on end.

Which these days is like believing thunder comes from Zeus flinging bolts from the sky.

Yes, the schools offer worthwhile courses in basic writing and editing skills and the role of journalism in society. But I’m more concerned about what’s missing for journalism students looking to make their way in the new media world.

So here are some courses j-schools really should be offering:

Build Your Own Brand

In the good old days, the media outlet was the brand and the journalist melded into it. You, the reporter, didn’t have to be credible and recognizable — you borrowed that from The Detroit News or Fortune or ABC News or whoever you worked for. Which worked fine if you were moving from one full-time job to another over the years.

Well, fewer and fewer journalists are moving from one full-time job to another anymore. Journalism is increasingly about working for multiple entities on a contract or project basis, and being a journalism entrepreneur. The people who are best at this build a brand of their own. They become known for something.

Dan Pink has built a brand as a terrific writer about the changing nature of work and human behavior. Ben Clymer made a name for himself in the niche world of writing about fancy watches. Your brand can even just be that of a solid, careful writer who gets projects done on time with minimum fuss. The point is, you have to be something — you can’t rely on being part of something else. Students need to be taught how to do that.

Spiraling (Pre-requisite: Build Your Own Brand)

My friend David Duncan, who has built a brand as a writer about medicine and technology, is a master at this. He continually has multiple projects going on multiple platforms. He has done books, magazine pieces, blog posts, online columns, speeches, white papers, consulting, radio shows, TV gigs and teaching — and I’m probably missing a few.

They all connect or feed off of each other in some way, and he operates with the understanding that the spiral will often allow him to make a lot of money doing something he doesn’t particularly love — and that will help fund the writing of a book, which he’d care about passionately but which would earn him (if he were masochistic enough to look at it this way) about $2 an hour.

But here’s the brilliance of a good spiral: The book that makes him little money gives him the credibility and brand to get hired to, say, speak to a corporation or write a paper for a private group, which brings in a lot of dough.

A journalist just starting out needs to start creating a spiral, and know how to keep feeding it.

Twenty-first Century Transparency vs. Twentieth Century Ethics

I grew up on good journalism ethics. I believed in them, understood their importance, and followed them. Some continue to apply to any project for any entity — especially principles of fairness, accuracy, and trustworthiness.

But some aspects of journalism ethics, such as strictly avoiding conflicts of interest, made more sense for a full-time journalism job. A reporter for The Wall Street Journal could never even let a corporate PR person buy her a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, a journalist working a spiral might find herself giving a talk sponsored by a technology company one day, and doing a story for magazine about a technology trend the next.

The key to making that work — and keeping your brand clean — is transparency. Actually, it’s transparency PLUS the tested ethics of fairness, accuracy and trustworthiness. But these are new rules that are still being explored. Journalism schools and their students could do a lot to create a new understanding of ethics for the new media world.

Storytelling

Just a brief thought here: Many journalism programs seem to emphasize “reporting” — i.e., putting the facts together in a news report. And that’s useful in a lot of contexts.

But messages are much more powerful when they come wrapped in narrative stories. Malcolm Gladwell has made a mint on this concept. He tells stories to help us understand big ideas. Too few people do this well, and it’s incredibly valuable.

J-schools ought to invite a professor of fiction writing to cross the hall and teach narrative non-fiction.

Public Service Journalism

The news business is still suffering through an era of creative destruction. Many newspapers, especially, are getting destroyed, and some new version of civic journalism has to arise from this.

It looks to me like we are going to wind up with two types of journalists. One will be the professional, private-sector journalists. They will build their brands and their spirals, write about business and sports and globalization and Hollywood celebrities, and quite frankly make better money at it.

The other type will be public service journalists. And they, equally as frankly, will answer to a higher calling. They might work for city news organizations or political web sites or public radio or other outlets that are necessary for civic life but operate on shoe-string budgets. And they will make less money. Choosing to go this route is like choosing to be a teacher or soldier or social worker.

We need students to understand this kind of career so they can build it — or build institutions down the road that can support public service journalism. Journalism schools could do a lot to explore this idea.

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