By Jerry Ceppos
For more than 30 years, I’ve tried to bridge the chasm between the journalism professions and the academy.
I think I chose the wrong challenge. As Howard Finberg of the Poynter Institute told the European Journalism Centre this month, “…while there’s always been a disconnect between the media industry and academic community, the fault lines, I believe, have widened.”
Howard surveyed almost 2,000 professionals and professors, asking them “how vital a journalism degree is in understanding the value of journalism.” He reported that 95 percent of academics said it was ”very to extremely important.” Only 56 percent of professionals agreed.
What Howard didn’t say is that this is the worst possible time for the widening because we need each other more than ever.
Despite that, I’m also hearing from the wonderful people at journalism-related foundations that they are unhappy with the academy.
Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation spoke recently about that subject, especially about the need to “restore top news professionals to the most respected ranks of academia.”
Eric said the subject even had come up at a meeting of journalism-education funders:
“We were not at all happy with the slow rate of change in journalism education, including how exceptional professionals (without advanced degrees) are being treated. You have not heard the last of this. Universities are likely to lose private-sector funding if it doesn’t stop. A degree is not more important than competence.”
Indeed, another philanthropist friend mentioned the same concern to me two weeks ago.
I’m worried. So, here are ways that professionals and academics might close the gap at this critical moment:
There’s plenty to dislike about the way universities operate. But watch for those broad statements—for example, about universities being unwilling to hire professionals. Our next journalism deans’ meeting is going to look more like an ASNE convention than an AAUP conclave.
In the last few days, the University of Florida hired long-time Sarasota Herald-Tribune publisher Diane McFarlin as the dean of the College of Journalism and Communications.
Last winter, Hampton University hired Brett Pulley of Bloomberg News, Forbes and The New York Times as dean of the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.
And that’s not even counting such former professionals as Ed Wasserman, named days ago as the new dean at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Ed worked in newsrooms for decades before becoming the Knight Chair in journalism ethics at Washington and Lee.
Or Lucy Dalglish, the new dean at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Lucy, too, took an interesting path after years at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, working as a media lawyer and then as executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. (Lucy has a law degree.)
I also haven’t included folks who have been deans or directors for a bit longer: Glenn Frankel at the University of Texas, Peggy Kuhr at the University of Montana, Pam Luecke at Washington and Lee, Geneva Overholser at USC, Dorothy Bland at Florida A&M, Lorraine Branham at Syracuse and me.
All are long-time professionals. None of the people I’ve named except Wasserman has a doctorate; some, including me, don’t even have a master’s degree.
I’ll concede that, ironically, it sometimes is easier to be hired as a dean rather than a professor. But many schools offer professional tracks, professional-in-residence jobs and other positions that don’t require advanced degrees.
Now, some advice for academics:
- Demand accessible writing in scholarly publications. After all, our discipline is journalism.
Decide for yourself the accessibility of this sentence from a recent journal in our field:
“As a result, while homogeneous discussion networks and ideologically consonant media exposure offer more possibilities for biased sampling of others’ opinions, talking politics with heterogeneous discussants as well as turning to dissimilar news sources provide a more accurate sample from which to estimate the general opinion climate.”
“The Research Report” in Columbia Journalism Review writes about interesting research, gives it context and explains it in plain English. Couldn’t we all do that in the first place?
One of my favorite activities is the Manship School’s pizza lunch on most Wednesdays, when graduate students and sometimes faculty members report on their research. Interestingly, they usually report in accessible, conversational language. I particularly enjoyed one recent discussion, when the last question on the slide asked, “What useful information have we learned from this discussion?” Could we think about writing that way?
For that matter, who says that the rare graphic in our journals should be understood only by a statistics Ph.D.?
- Base tenure firmly on the quality of articles published rather than quantity. Even in the most numerical of pursuits in other fields—say, batting averages or wine ratings—quality determines the numbers. In some outposts of the academy, the numbers seemingly determine everything.
- Does anyone read the scholarship in our fields? Promotion-and-tenure committees should measure impact, through citation analysis or other reliable methods.
- Ask graduate students and faculty members to focus more on practical research. The journalism professions certainly need it today. But it’s tough for research to produce impact when I never see our field’s journals on the shelves of professionals. Maybe that’s because so many have high subscription prices. Academics should take the lead in making research available on ethical open-source sites that professionals could dig into at their leisure. Imagine, too, how open-source sites could speed up publication time and produce reader comments. Some of us at LSU have been figuring out how we can carve out the New Orleans Times-Picayune experiment as our research topic for the next few years. That would be applied research by the school in the best position to do it. If we succeed, newspaper publishers would clamor for our results—I hope.
- Differentiate your journalism school from the one in the next state over. Too many schools try to do everything well, which means they do nothing well. (At the Manship School at LSU, we specialize in teaching and research at the intersection of media and public affairs.)
- Finally, for both groups, would it be so bad to ask each other for help? Might professionals actually ask academics for solutions to their many problems? Might they even open up their very closed newsrooms for research? Might academics invite themselves into newsrooms without a formal program like ASNE’s old professor-in-the-newsroom exchange?
The chasm between some professionals and some academics is growing because perceptions about journalism education, and some realities about it, are almost as old as our conventions in awarding degrees. Those conventions grew out of work at the University of Paris almost 800 years ago. Professionals and academics would do themselves and students a favor by updating the perceptions and the realities.
Jerry Ceppos is dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU. Earlier, he was dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. In another life, he was executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News and vice president for news of Knight Ridder.