As the only person at my little journalism center teaching anything related to the Internet, life can get lonely and it's easy to feel isolated since my colleagues (who are wonderful people otherwise) have little exposure to most of what I'm trying to teach and there is nobody else on campus to ask for advice on what works and what doesn't in the context of a hands-on online journalism skills class. Plus there is no standard curriculum or agreement about how to teach online journalism anyway, because the field is still very new and technology changes so fast. For this reason, I found attending the First World Journalism Education Congress especially useful, if not therapeutic. (Although I'm sorry, somebody has got to help them do a better website next time...)
Despite the conference's 1990's-style web presence which did not bode well, I was able to network with some of the more respected and innovative teachers in the field of online journalism, like Guy Berger of South Africa (a former political prisoner, journalist, and more recently the force behind Highway Africa), Rosental Alves of UT Austin (a transplanted Brazilian and force behind the International Symposium of Online Journalism), Jonathan Hewett of London's City University, Pascal Guenee of l'Institut Pratique de Journalisme, Elen Hume, founder of the innovative New England Ethnic Newswire, and many others. We exchanged some really interesting ideas which will help me a lot in future semesters. Talking to them also helped me come to terms with the fact that experimentation and uncertainty are simply going to be a fact of life for any online journalism instructor who is trying to prepare students for the future of journalism instead of what journalism used to be back in our various heydays - or even last year.
In a small group session to discuss reforming the curriculum for the digital age, and later on his blog, Guy pointed out the main problem we face: "What many j-teachers don’t realise is that their current work amounts in effect to imparting media history."
The main thing that many journalism schools have problems dealing with is that technology has caused professionals to lose control over the means of media production. The public at large can now participate in journalism. People who are not professional journalists working full-time for news organizations will continue to produce media and commit acts of journalism in growing numbers no matter what "we" think of the quality or reliability of their work, and no matter whether "we" think that what "they" are doing is a "good thing" or not. Amateurs are competing with professionals for attention. That doesn't mean there won't be a role and a value for professionals. Recent surveys discussed at the World Editors Forum indicate that the public will probably continue to value many things about professional journalism (as long as we don't disintegrate into completely valuless pablum about pseudo-starlets, which is also possible). But no matter what, non-professional journalism is going to be a fact of life in the media ecosystem from now on and we'd better get used to it.
I've always been pretty open about the fact that I came to my teaching position with a history of strong skepticism about the utility of j-schools in the first place. I came away from the WJEC believing that journalism education actually can have a useful role to play, but we need to re-configure our mandate to be more consistent with today's realities.
First, I assume we agree that the ultimate point of journalism is to serve and inform the public discourse so that citizens can make informed decisions about how to live their lives, to spend their money, and to determine who can be trusted to represent their interests.
(If you think the purpose of journalism is to keep a government in power or maximize profit for shareholders, you won't agree with anything I have to say. Don't waste your time. Bye!)
If we agree with the above purpose of journalism, we should also assume that the goal of journalism education should be to help improve the skills, knowledge, and ethical standards of all people who are participating in the journalistic process and working to inform the public discourse. In fact, the conference issued a Declaration of Principles of Journalism Education, in which the preamble states:
"Journalism should serve the public in many important ways, but it can only do so if its practitioners have mastered an increasingly complex body of knowledge and specialized skills. Above all, to be a responsible journalist must involve an informed ethical commitment to the public. This commitment must include an understanding of and deep appreciation for the role that journalism plays in the formation, enhancement and perpetuation of an informed society."
What neither the declaration nor the conference fully acknowledged was the extent to which, in this day and age, "practitioners" of journalism are not only professional journalists but potentially all other members of the public.
The principles take a step in this direction with item number five: "Journalism educators have an important outreach mission to promote media literacy among the public generally and within their academic institutions specifically." But that does not go far enough in embracing public media literacy as what I believe should be an absolutely core mission. Without broadening our mandate to include all people who may potentially create media and commit journalism, we can continue to generate jobs for ourselves and (fingers crossed) an acceptable number of students. But I don't see how we will continue to serve the public interest very well. We will be neglecting an important opportunity to help strengthen and improve our democracies - rather than watch them be eroded away (or in some countries, denied us entirely) thanks to apathy, infotainment, propaganda, herd mentalities, and spin.
As Jay Rosen wrote back in 2005, journalism is no longer just a "profession;" it has also become a "practice" in which we all participate. Blog-father Dave Winer has argued that we should stop trying to teach journalism as a specialized trade at all, and instead teach it as a required course for everybody. "It's too late to be training new journalists in the classic mode," he wrote. "Instead, journalism should become a required course, one or two semesters for every graduate."
Dave and I differ about whether professional journalists have a future at all - I think they still do as long as they're willing to evolve and adapt - but I agree with him that basic journalism concepts, skills, and media literacy need to be a core competency for all educated citizens.
I would also argue that introducing these skills and concepts at the college level is way too late - given that many kids now are blogging from the middle of primary school onwards. Media literacy and basic concepts of journalism - along with the rights and responsibilities (like do no harm) that go along with media creation - really need to start being introduced in grade school. Journalism schools could play a major role in helping to shape a new media literacy curriculum - and in teaching primary and high school teachers about journalism and how to teach it themselves.
If J-schools were looking for a good raison d'etre, that seems like a real one to me. But it requires a lot of work - well outside everybody's present comfort zones.
Are we up for it? Do we have the cojones? Or are we really just in this for the tenure track, regular schedules and long summer holidays?