Universities and Community Information Needs

When I mentioned I was participating in a blog carnival, perhaps unsurprisingly, my husband asked me if this involved the Caribbean/South America and boobs. No, though frankly I wouldn’t mind escaping from winter to a booze-soaked paradise ;). But I digress from a topic that is quite near and dear to my heart as a journalism professor, and the first one assigned in the Carnival of Journalism set up by journalism innovator and Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow David Cohn: How do we increase the role of higher education as a hub of journalistic activity and increase digital and media literacy in the academy, as recommended by the Knight Foundation?

First of all, let me say that I think this recommendation is nothing short of critical. As the metropolitan/local news ecosystem continues to experience layoffs and economic strife that decreases the quality and quantity of the available journalism, journalism schools have to step up and be innovators and news providers. Lacking the same commercial imperatives that newsrooms face, we need to be bold even if  our unexperienced charges can’t fully replicate the work of a long-time professional. It’s good for society and it’s good for our students, who can benefit from every ounce of real-world experience they can get.

Here’s how I think we need to make this ACTUALLY happen, beyond the lip service and pontificating the academy is all too fond of:

  • Journalism schools are increasingly likely to bring on aging former editors who worked for major national or local publications and can lend their glossy imprimatur of prestige to the school’s faculty. This is all well and good, and many make excellent professors – this is not any kind of attack on qualified and dedicated individuals, really, so don’t get in an offended huff, people.  But I think we need to also consider making riskier hires of younger and digital-savvy folks with big ideas and the energy to carry them out. Asking people who have made their entire careers off of a dying industry to now re-create an utterly new one at the twilight of their professional life is a tall order at best. You can also often hire a lot of younger people for the salary you pay the bigwig. Just sayin.
  • Support, cherish and reward student innovators who are making efforts to do things like modernize school newspaper’s websites, create entrepreneurial news ventures and the like. They will experience many obstacles in their path and they need our mentorship. Students, like members of any organization, respond to what leaders reward and what they punish, so we need to be conscious and deliberate about the messages we send to them. Yes, sometimes those that try new things will fail. That’s okay. Flexibility and fearlessness and good-old-fashioned effort will take them far. Please believe me that right now many face discouragement, fear and catastrophizing instead of support.
  • I think all students, regardless of major, should take a digital literacy course that empowers them to not only become more critical and wise consumers of media that will demand and support the best journalism, but also be savvy media creators comfortable with new tools.
  • It takes a village, to use a tired cliche. Universities need to foster an environment that supports the free and open flow of information and the foundational efforts of young journalists who MUST learn by doing, not just by snoozing through a lecture. Administrators, other professors, public officials, and the like need to be responsive to interview and information requests from student journalists and be willing to work constructively with them to improve the accuracy and quality of their work. Being aggressively pompous, belittling and/or denying them access will NOT help them grow as journalists nor serve the larger public good. We journalism professors work very, very, very hard helping our students improve, but we need others too – making up for a deficient primary and secondary education system (not to mention freshman English composition classes at our own universities staffed by overworked graduate students that so may borderline-illiterate students seem to pass) that leaves many students grappling with basic sentence structure is not something we can do all on our own.
  • Instead of having students turn papers in on dead trees to be seen only by you, increasingly find ways to integrate class work with actual online news production. It’s so easy and cheap to do. Got a neighborhood that never appears in your daily paper unless a crime is committed there? Send in some students, set up a blog and a Twitter account, and get them going. I’m biased as an alum, but the Missouri School of Journalism has been doing this FOR YEARS. It can be done. Even if the results aren’t perfect, they are often better than nothing and I nearly guarantee a better learning experience and buy-in.
  • Encourage innovative research into new media instead of yet another safe and predictable study on framing or agenda setting that does little to advance existing knowledge, instead just providing that nice tenure-padding on a vita. Research begets good teaching because it helps professors stay on the cutting edge of their field. I’ve been at conferences where professors who think that maybe the more interesting research path is not in print media are called “furry digital mammals” who are delusional and don’t understand the lasting primacy of print. Really. Not helpful. I’ve also seen really good research (not talking about my own here) denied inexplicably while yet another framing study rolls forward (I have nothing against framing, it’s just that we’ve kind of been there, done that.)
  • Finally, faculty need to USE new media. You can’t teach it credibly unless you DO IT. Students know when you are just blowing hot air. So try it. Get on Twitter, blog, what have you. Embrace new things. There’s a great community of committed journalism educators for you to join. It will be worth it.


Filed under Journalism Education, Uncategorized

16 responses to “Universities and Community Information Needs

  1. Smart blog! Check out what we’re doing at Stanford in Digital Media Entrepreneurship: dme.stanford.edu and our news site, Peninsula Press, run in partnership with San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Citizen: peninsulapress.com – one of many home grown digital ventures. For an overview and videos: journalism.stanford.edu

  2. changingnewsroom

    Thanks Ann, will do. Sounds fantastic.

  3. Pingback: “I’ve…seen really good research (not talking about my own here) denied inexplicably while yet another framing study rolls forward (I have nothing against framing, it’s just that we’ve kind of been there, done that.)” | Josh Braun&#

  4. ‘Furry digital mammals’ – that’s hilarious!

    I would LOVE to see younger, more tech-savvy professors throughout The University of Memphis but especially in the communication and journalism departments. Students face a lot of unkind restraints from professors who scoff in the face of new media just because the sound of typing on keyboards throws them off their game during a lecture. Guess what? It’s 2011. By now, laptops should be allowed in every university classroom. Laptops are very helpful for those of us who take a lot of notes.

    Here’s a tip for professors who dislike tech in the classroom-
    *The students who begin clicking-and-clacking away as soon as a new powerpoint slide appears are, actually, paying attention and don’t deserve to be restricted to paper and sore hands. 😦
    *Students who do NOT begin typing when new material is shown are probably Facebooking and are distracting the rest of us. Bust them out and let the rest of us focus on our laptops. Please and thank you. 🙂

  5. changingnewsroom

    Thanks Shefali, for commenting. I think student points of view definitely should be heard in this whole debate on how to move forward.

    In fairness, it does start to wear on profs when so many students do just screw around on Facebook or ESPN during lecture, even in smaller classes where we can easily see that they are doing this, so I sort of understand how sometimes laptops in class can be frustrating and some folks finally say to heck with it, which is definitely unfair to some students but it’s hard not to react when you see it happen a lot. . BUT, I think we definitely need to use these tools as often as possible both in and out of class, and the only way to be truly Web savvy is to really “live” in that environment all the time.

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  11. Gemma

    Extremely well written and insightful post! You’ve articulated all my thoughts on the subject. As a journalism grad student, I’m bothered that my program offers more theory classes debating the impending death of the print newspaper than digital media or media literacy course where we can learn how to use new technologies and what we can do to keep journalism fresh and alive! Who cares whether or not paper dies? We will always need news, news gatherers, and respectable and responsible journalists whether the news be delivered via an online news service or beamed into our brains ; )

  12. changingnewsroom

    Thanks Gemma!

  13. Well, I think that in college today there is a lot of emphasis on the research, or theory, or background related to journalism in general. That’s a good start, but when you are planning to become an actual journalist, you have to see things critically (theory and research) and then creatively (web 2.0 social networking). Popularity flourishes as part of the new craze in publishing stories, thoughts, and actions via the internet. I see professors everyday who have accomplished careers in PR and journalism and their credit is resting on some old fashioned ideals. If students in journalism degree programs graduate without having done any new digital media activity they are basically doomed. From what I can gather, employers want to know if you can do more than write a press release or draw up a media packet. They want to know if you can take over their facebook, twitter, and blog sites. They want to see you being able to use free, especially FREE, new methods to reach their audience. I’d actually love to see more professors taking on the challenge of using new media technologies…but what I am noticing is more huff and scuff about anything that is not directly related to traditional academia…I am speaking from graduate school though.

    • …ok, adding to my recent reply with SUGGESTIONS :).

      What I am doing personally is starting up my own PR business called Fourteen Hearts….
      As part of my business I will offer PR seminars for people to learn what new trending topics are occurring now.

      I think you could also use the PR programs in journalism to create campaigns that use social media in the community to build events or add interest. (You could also integrate this into advertising).

      Schools really could have meetings with their students to gauge what they feel they need before graduating in order to feel prepared. Often, or rather all the time, programs are made based on what educators believe we need rather than ever asking us what we would like to see in the classroom. Sometimes students have great ideas…because we are the reason media is changing in the first place! Aha!! 🙂

    • “when you are planning to become an actual journalist, you have to see things critically (theory and research) and then creatively (web 2.0 social networking).”


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