Why J-School Naysayers are Totally Wrong, and Actively Inhibiting Media Innovation
Four days ago, I received this now-viral mass email from Steve Coll, the Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. As a 2012 alumnus of the J-School, I read the email as a positive move — announcing cuts to the bloated class size, offering more financial aid to students and reallocating its resources to support a more digital curriculum.
The email also praised the groundbreaking research and data training coming from the school’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, led by former Guardian digital savior Emily Bell, as well as the research efforts of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a newly-formed, prestigious partnership between CUJ and Stanford’s Engineering School intended to chart the computational future of journalism (or, if you don’t prefer the “J” word, media in the public interest). The cuts to the class size, in my opinion, were sorely needed, and, if anything, reflect a positive sign: that the school is finally in a place to become more selective, as it has traditionally been in the boom years of the newspaper age. As Coll rightly points out, the cuts harken back to the industry’s more financially stable past:
Returning to our historical size overall requires adjustment and patience, and we are already on our way to making the school more accessible and better resourced for every student.
My thinking after reading this line was “Fantastic, it’s about time!” and “I don’t know this Coll guy, but he seems way more on top of the digital ecosystem than the last dean” (FYI, that’s former dean Nick Lemman who I’m referring to, who was ousted in late 2012 presumably because of his overly-traditional views of the industry).
But, of course, the snarky cadre of pessimistic, navel-gazing media bloggers (ahem, I’m looking straight at you, Romenesko) and bitter mainstream media reporters sought to craft an entirely different narrative — one that fit their own dystopian fallacy of logic that the death of print, ipso facto, means the death of journalism (wrong!), even going so far as to mock the idea of journalism education itself. “Columbia Will Shrink Journalism School as Media Woes Mount” read the alarmist headline of Bloomberg’s story on the announcement. The New York Times similarly cast the event as a reflection of some larger national trend among J-Schools that signals the end of journalism education as we know it. Nowhere were the more optimistic terms such as “reform” or “digital progress” mentioned.
Sure, you don’t need to attend journalism school to succeed in the field. And yes, newsroom jobs have been flagging in great numbers for years now. We all know that. But such complaints perpetually vocalized overlook the ever more obvious reality of the digital age: You don’t have to work in a traditional newsroom as a reporter or editor to be a professional journalist. You don’t even have to write prose necessarily, either. For me, J-School was well worth the time and money, as it opened my eyes to the wealth of digital possibilities in Big Data that lie before us. Mentors like Susan McGregor, whose Data Visualization course inspired my interest in data science, and Ava Seave, who led a fascinating course on future media business models, fundamentally changed the way I thought about the craft. In a positive way, too –one that’s needed now among young journalists more than ever.
The negativity and gloom-and-doom rhetoric espoused by folks like Romenesko and company do nothing but hurt journalism further by scaring away bright, young, media-interested students from pursuing news innovation as a lifelong aspiration. Are tweets like this really the message we want to send?
After all, it’s our generations — Gen. X, Gen. Y and millenials — whose duty it will be (and, in many cases, already is) to sustain journalism as a public service without the traditional financial backing of advertisers. One thing is certain: It won’t be Romenesko’s crowd coding and building the future of the news.