Here It Is: A User's Manual for J-Schools
You'll need it if you want to help us strengthen journalism.
By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.
The way we prepare young journalists for their work and their lives will be refined substantially by the turn of the millennium. If we do the job well, the better schools in our field will not be strangers to you.
Professionally focused rather than lured off course by gauzy and semi-hysterical views of the future, they will sort themselves out to play distinctive roles. They will be stronger than ever. (Almost all the best ones have gotten better in recent decades.)
The other schools now in the field, taking a riskier course, will look for a new mission, believing that journalism is disappearing into a mushy sea of communications. They expect an academic convergence (perhaps harmonic) in communications. Some of them will be eaten as munchies by stronger tribes on campus. Others will disappear into the behavioral and social sciences, accepted there but invisible to professionals in the field.
These are only my conclusions, arising from recent national gatherings of professors and journalists.
Two signs of the future from these meetings: Members of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication noisily buried a committee report that snidely attacked professional courses in the curriculum. John Seigenthaler, a longtime supporter of journalism education who now heads the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Nashville, proposed a new alliance of 15 to 30 of the better accredited schools that take their professional roles seriously.
Since I have been paid for 14 years to keep up with these things, I offer the following:
A Short User's Manual
For Journalism Schools
If you work in daily newspaper journalism, more than 80 percent of your hires come from these schools. This has been true for many years, and it is not changing much. It's foolish not to do more to help these schools do their jobs.
If you work in a related field in print journalism (magazines, newsletters) or in public relations, the percentage of journalism graduates is lower but rising. Your fields have contributed advice to these schools but, with some notable exceptions, you leave it to newspapers and their foundations to provide serious interest and support.
If you are in broadcast news, tell your boss she needs to get smarter and more professional in filling news jobs, hiring and training interns, and helping her journalists to grow professionally through mid-career programs. Actually, she may need to be told what a good journalism school is and does.
Now what to look for on campus.
•Don't get mired in arguments about "the green eyeshades versus the chi squares." Leave that old saw where it belongs, back in the 1950s.
•Recognize that the main purpose of a journalism school is to provide a good university education.
•Fuss about the spelling somewhere else. You were heard. Most accredited journalism schools are aware of shortcomings at the primary and secondary school levels and work to do something about them. Their students do write much better, and more properly, than others on their campuses.
•Don't get confused by the names of these schools. All the best ones – ALL of them – have "journalism" in their names. Look for that. But some of the best also have "mass communications" (with or without that last "s") in the name. That doesn't necessarily mean they are less professionally oriented than the others; it does usually mean they send many graduates into communications fields that are not print or broadcast journalism. Instead of "J-schools," they might be called "JMC schools."
The ones that are autonomous on their campuses are usually very good. Almost all of the best JMC schools that are professionally oriented are free-standing schools on their campuses and have become stronger in recent decades, though some now bleed from recent budget cuts at universities that have been through very tough times.
(My own school at Maryland does not add the "MC," because it prefers to emphasize its grounding and its core in journalism; but it could be described as a JMC school because of the breadth of its curriculum. More than half of our required journalism courses are liberal arts courses, and we insist that three-fourths of the undergraduate work be outside our college. Our prescription for undergraduates is probably the broadest liberal arts education on our campus.)
•If it is called a "communications" school or department, look further. There may or may not be something of high professional quality in journalism under that umbrella. Often this name on the door signals that the school has slipped into a gray area professionally, or into the Sargasso Sea. (Yes, there are exceptions.)
•If it is near you and describes itself as a "media studies department" (its name or its primary self-description), you should find out how good it is academically, just out of curiosity. But it does not prepare people for professional work, no matter what it says.
You want to know whether this department's work has any relevance at all to professional practice through its research and teaching: in other words, whether its existence will ever make any difference except for giving university students an alternative to other studies, perhaps a weak alternative. (The same question applies, in general, wherever you see the word "communications" attached to a course, a teacher or a school.)
Incidentally, "media studies" – one approach to observing what journalism and journalists do and why – can be complementary to other ways of studying and teaching about journalism; e.g., what is done in most good reporting classes, along with the teaching of how to do it. Media studies is a necessary staple of all good journalism schools, though never the main fare in those departments and schools. Students, don't leave campus without it.
•Check on whether the school or department is accredited. Only one of every five is accredited. This means something, including small classes and a commitment to a broad liberal arts undergraduate education, among other measures of quality. l
Next month, in Part II of the User's Manual: Tenure and Other Important Puzzlements. ###