ICFJ President Names Five Trends in Journalism Education

Aug 92013

On August 2, ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan, a member of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission's Sub-Working Group on Mass Media, spoke at a meeting of the working group in St. Petersburg. She discussed the ways journalism schools must keep up with the evolving news businesses. ICFJ administers a two-year exchange program between young U.S. and Russian journalists in partnership with the Moscow Union of Journalists. The program is an outgrowth of the commission's work.

As president of a non-profit that runs about 50 different journalism programs around the world, I lead an organization that is constantly refining what we teach, what tools we use, and even whom we teach— as more and more citizens and bloggers want to learn the principles of good journalism.

Five years ago, we wrote a strategic plan. When I open it now, it looks like a relic. Barely a mention of social media, citizen reporters, data journalism. We recently wrote a new plan that focuses on digital media innovation, mobile news services, data visualization, digital protection of journalists and subject matter expertise. Keeping up with change has become a way of life for us.

How does a journalism school stay nimble enough to teach the important lessons to the journalists of the future? Many j-school professors are here today. My goal is to start a conversation and I hope others will chime in. One thing is for sure: We need to encourage a state of constant reinvention. Faculty needs to regularly update the curriculum to make sure students are learning what’s needed in today’s digital newsrooms. We need a stream of useful research on the trends that matter. We need teachers who can embrace the new and yet impart the values that make our field a key pillar in civil society, including fair reporting and strong ethics.

Several key trends are reshaping journalism education in the US. Some may be unique to our country, but most are not. There are five important trends on my list.

First: Technological transformation. We are of course living in a period of massive dislocation, not just in journalism, but in all fields. The Internet is changing businesses across the board in powerful ways. Technology can enhance reporting with exciting tools that open new sources of information and newsgathering and communicate information more clearly and dynamically. It can expand access to information, particularly in parts of the world where it hasn’t been readily available. And it provides new ways to engage audiences, who are part of the news process now.

It’s not that journalists are slow to change. Journalists transformed Twitter into a key platform for news. Now, we turn to Twitter to get breaking news fastest. But there is no room for complacency in journalism schools. Schools require faculty that are open to adjusting the curriculum based on the needs of digital newsrooms. And the schools need to figure out just what those new demands are. Journalism schools not only can support the digital evolution of news, they can lead it.

The second key trend I see is the rise of data journalism. We are living in a world where information is being digitized at breakneck speed, where more data than ever are available online, where new data tools allow us to mine and visualize statistics as never before. What does this mean for the journalist of the future? Is a mere course in journalism research enough? Journalists with expertise in any given field have a better chance of succeeding. They have insights that others want to read. Some argue that these days it’s more valuable to be an expert and mediocre writer than a great writer with little expertise.

With this glut of statistics, how do journalism schools embed deeper research into the curriculum? I’m not talking about arcane studies. I’m talking about fluency with numbers, the ability to analyze data properly, and the know-how to visualize and even animate this data without distortions. Journalism schools can play a huge role in preparing a generation of data journalists who are equal to the sophisticated new sources of data that are emerging.

The third key trend: New business models. The old way news organizations used to make money – through a combination of general advertising and subscriptions – is going, going, almost gone in the United States. And that will happen everywhere in the world before long. What do these sweeping changes in the business model mean for journalists? Many graduates, we hope, will still land jobs. But increasingly, we’re seeing a proliferation of freelancers who are working for a string of news outlets. This is definitely the case for young journalists eager to be foreign correspondents.

But are journalism schools providing the knowhow to succeed in this new world? Are they teaching students how to establish a brand? How to market their wares? Do students understand the dynamics of starting a journalism business? We need that kind of practical learning in classrooms. Separation of church and state are important when it comes to story production. But journalists now need to understand the business of journalism, too.

My fourth major trend is an old standard that we cannot forget in changing times: Journalistic values. In a glut of information, where everyone seems to be a news producer, how do we find contextual, reliable, accurate information? More than ever, journalism schools need to emphasize professional standards of ethical behavior – that is, producing fair, accurate, well-rounded stories based on the needs of readers, not of advertisers or special interests.

With so much information coming at us—and less time to consume it—the people who turn to us for news need sources that are reliable and accurate. The need for this kind of information is growing rapidly and there is an opportunity here for journalism schools to play a key role in launching opportunity here for journalism schools to play a key role in launching media literacy programs—and quality writing—for all students. These programs would reach beyond the walls of the journalism school to all parts of the university. These days, we need smarter journalists, and we also need smarter consumers who can recognize the difference between reliable news and biased accounts.

Finally, the fifth key trend affecting our profession today: Online education. This is the 800-pound gorilla on college campuses that could transform learning in radical ways. Should journalism schools offer distance learning classes? Will they cannibalize traditional learning—or be a poor substitute?

With education costs soaring in the US, schools ignore e-learning at their own peril. Twenty years ago the print media failed to grasp the transformative nature of the Internet. Are we acting the same way now in defending traditional learning in the classroom? We need to ask the right questions: Can some aspects of journalism – mastery of certain digital tools, for example – be taught better outside of the classroom? Should journalism classes feature more blended learning – with classroom sessions supplemented by online work? Can the results of assignments completed outside class help teachers identify how to focus their time inside class?

It’s not easy to constantly reinvent yourself. But in our field, I believe, it’s a matter of survival. The process of becoming obsolete is accelerating. Schools that can adapt and embrace change—and at the same time serve as standard bearers for best practices—are the ones likely to be thought leaders, attracting the best students—and educating the best future journalists.