Part 2: Content vs. journalism – the education debate

How long will colleges continue to offer journalism as a major?

I ask this question as someone with two journalism degrees, who just finished writing a journalism textbook and who as the word in his URL. But as bullish as I am on the future of journalism, I’m skeptical that traditional college journalism programs can keep pace with the requirements of the digital age. And I know I’m not the only one.

So why not make journalism a specialty of an overall communications major? This would make room for more courses on content and community management, which are the skills in demand by digital news publishers and all sorts of companies today. Shouldn’t colleges be expanding the options for their graduates instead of limiting them?

Journalism has a long, important history in this country. But content may be a more promising business model in the digital age. So if that’s where the jobs are and will be, colleges would be smart to start moving their curriculum in that direction.

Students are still drawn to journalism. In fact, I hear that admissions to J-schools are at all-time highs. It’s a profession rather than a job, so it sounds more noble and distinguished. But as Clay Shirky wrote in Here Comes Everybody, now that everyone can easily publish (no more gatekeepers), journalism is no longer a scarce profession, so what are students preparing for?

A profession exists to solve a hard problem, one that requires soome sort of specialization. Drive a race car requires special training–race car drivers are professionals. Driving an ordinary car, though, doesn’t require the driver to belong to a particular profession, because it’s easy enough that most adults can do it with a modicum of training.

Ah, but journalists are race car drivers, you argue. They attend meetings, dig through public records to check people, develop sources and write better than amateur, or “ordinary,” content producers. But denying that good journalism can come from people without formal training is blissful ignorance and, frankly, dangerous to your business. Shirky again:

There was a kind of narcissistic bias in the profession; only threats they tended to take seriously were from other professional media outlets. This bias had them defending against the wrong thing when the amateurs began producing material on their own.

Colleges should still play a role, of course. But they have to acknowledge how quickly the landscape is changing and be able to add new courses at the drop of a hat, without layers of committee approval. (The University of Washington did this over the summer with a course on Twitter, for example.) They need more faculty to jump in and participate in digital publishing and social media. Building a career in analog publishing and pleading ignorance about the new world is no excuse. Figure it out. That’s how everyone else learned to blog, shoot video and use social media.

I know many college journalism professors “sprinting” to try to change their programs, but brick walls are everywhere. Unfortunately, there are more who don’t get it, including some college newspapers who still don’t have a web site!

We still need dogged investigative reporters, great copy editors and visual journalists. But limiting the education to traditional tracks of journalism is doing students a great disservice. As Patrick Thornton wrote:

Do not under any pretext attend journalism school — undergrad or graduate — with the mission of working for a large metro or some other established, old-media publication. While you may be able to get a job at one of those, don’t count on it. Not for a second.

This applies to radio, TV, magazines and books, too. Journalism is still an important skill, but it’s really a subset of content and community management, which is something every company needs right now. How else to explain a report like the one Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote about managing an online community that is selling well at $300 a pop?

So keep journalism instruction, but demote it. Build a layer on top of your communication program that teaches students digital publishing, social media, and the art of community management. It would be much easier to start a career with that kind of experience and knowledge than journalism alone.

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