As the media industry faces unprecedented changes, journalism schools are re-thinking their programs. Mary McGuire explains why some critics say it's time for bold changes though there's no clear agreement on what those changes should be.

By Mary McGuire

The future of journalism education is as uncertain as the future of journalism.

Journalism educators everywhere are struggling to adapt their programs to prepare their students to work in a changing industry with an uncertain future, as well as protect what is valuable about a journalism education beyond the skills training.

As they do, they face students, journalists and critics who say they are not going far enough or fast enough to change what they teach and how they teach it.

In recent days one critic, Howard Finberg, drew a lot of attention for his ideas first shared in a keynote speech at the European Journalism Centre’s 20th anniversary celebration, then re-worked and published on the Poynter website under the headline Journalism education cannot teach its way to the future

Finberg, who is the Director of Partnerships and Alliances for the Poynter Institute, said in his speech that the media industry did not respond well to the disruptive technologies created by others and, as a result, lost the economic foundation on which journalism depended.

Now, he said, journalism education faces the same kind of critical moment. It’s not keeping up with industry changes and it’s being disrupted by the same technological changes that disrupted the media industry.

"Technology will create a student-focused culture, in much the same way technology has created a more customer-focused media industry. In much the same way that news became available whenever a reader/viewer/user wanted it via online and mobile devices, so will education. Students can go to school [or go back to school] online without having to really go anywhere."

He argued there’s growing interest in e-learning technologies and distance education courses and there's new research that challenges the view that e-learning is not as effective or engaging as traditional classroom learning. At the same time, he said, a growing number of people want to learn journalism skills for their own benefit, not to land jobs in newsrooms.

He proposed a possible solution — what he called the unbundling of a journalism education from a journalism degree.

"Maybe a journalism degree isn’t the endgame. If we unbundle the degree from the education, how do employers know whether their new hires have the skills needed to do the job? I contend there are other ways to measure the skills competency."

He recommended, for example, that students could take online journalism training courses and participate in journalism activities and earn “digital badges” to indicate they had learned a certain set of skills or competencies.

"The badge movement is based on the idea that people should have a way to gather useful, verifiable evidence of everything they have learned, not just that they sat through a class at a college. … I believe the digital badge movement needs to be nurtured and promoted. More important and immediate, journalism training organizations should come together and embrace this new way of rewarding participation in quality education, regardless of how and where it is received."


Finberg’s suggestions drew critics, too. In the comments section, Robert Quigley, a former journalist now teaching journalism at the University of Texas described his first attempt at teaching an online course with 94 students.

"It has taken every ounce of my understanding of teaching, of journalism and of technology to put it together and to maintain it, and it has taken countless hours. With the media revolution, the business disruption came about because people did it for free, which pulled the rug out from those of us who got paid to find and deliver news. Who would want to do the work of this class for free? Who could?"

Most online courses he has seen or participated in, he said, have been boring with little or no interaction with the instructors and he wanted to avoid that with his.

"Even with all I put into my course to connect with the students, including live chats, online forums, Twitter chats, etc., I often wish I had all of my students in a classroom so we could have more in-depth discussions. Online forums are great, but nothing beats a good classroom discussion."

Finberg’s column prompted other j-educators to weigh in, too. Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, shared some of his latest thinking, on his blog, about the need to rework journalism programs.  

A journalism education, he said,  must include more than just skills training. Courses in media law, ethics, theory and history are still essential, as well as a lot of practical instruction in reporting and writing. He agreed the some of the new tools and technologies could be taught differently, perhaps online, or with a tutoring rather than teaching approach. But it is essential that students get opportunities to practice their skills, he said, and j-schools may have to do more to provide those opportunities themselves in the future.

"I think journalism schools need to work harder to create practicums of their own. It’s also evident that the communities around journalism schools could use more journalism. And so we need to see more journalism schools both creating and partnering with new kinds of news ventures to not only teach but make more journalism…. I think we can be far more aggressive — being careful not to compete with the marketplace but instead to supplement it, to help startups, to cover towns and topics that would not be covered."

Earlier this year Matt Waite, a journalism instructor, reflected on on his blog about all the calls for journalism schools to do more.

"The number of things Journalism is asking its journalism schools to teach could fill three degrees plus a couple of minors. Business, law, economics, entrepreneurship, computer science, data science, and also all the journalism fundamentals. We have no idea what The Future is, other than that it’s wildly different from the past, so we’re tossing everything into What Journalism Schools Should Be Teaching and the list is starting to look a little silly."

What’s next for J-schools? It would be a tough question for anyone to answer on an exam.