My open letter to journalism funders: Change your plan of attack

By Katy Culver, assistant professor
After a group of six prominent foundations that fund journalism innovation published an open letter to university presidents this month, many people asked for my reaction and a surprising number of them characterized it as a “shot across the bow” of academia.

The funders’ semantic gunfire is apparently a warning shot to those of us in university journalism programs that we had better wake up and innovate or face loss of funding.

My reaction to the “shot across the bow”? It looks a whole lot to me like the bureaucratic torpedoes we’ve been firing at our own hulls for years. Once again, we’re mired in intractable structural discussions – like some grand naval exercise – rather than squarely focusing on nimble efforts to achieve small wins and eventual victory in moving education and journalism forward.

The open letter was a reasonable call to action, not a blast to the face. The funders would like journalism programs to make more use of professionals in teaching and to tenure them. They also would like to see these programs use a “teaching hospital” model, where clinicians are tenured alongside traditional academics, so medical students learn the techniques of patient care from the former while the latter advances the discipline through cutting-edge research.

The letter didn’t say anything that hadn’t been brought up in any number of faculty meetings in the hundreds of journalism programs across the country. None of us sits here and thinks of ways not to innovate. Many people support the funders’ goal of incorporating professionals into curricula, and some would support the “teaching hospital” approach. (I would point out that anyone wanting to witness testy hierarchical battles over tenure and promotion criteria, as well as stubborn refusals to update curricula, should roam the halls of academic medicine for a day or two).

The piece was a distilled version of an earlier call from Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the Knight Foundation. Newton’s address to a journalism educators’ conference was a longer and, in my mind, far more problematic approach that appeared to pit professionals against academics. It also cast “top-tier schools” in relief against “the middle of the bell curve,” with the former clearly ahead in innovation.

He called on schools to destroy and recreate themselves. “Radical change requires radical reform,” he wrote in the prepared text for the speech. “The digital age is turning journalism and communication upside down and inside out. It should be doing the same to journalism and communication education.”

But in calling for this creative destruction, Newton uses an infographic to propose a new degree structure for graduate education. Let me say that again. In asking programs to catch up and then move ahead of a stunning age of digital developments, he would like us to stop to create a professional journalism doctorate, get it accepted among our academic peers and beyond that, create a joint degree between that and a traditional PhD.

I’m sure he doesn’t know it, but Newton just aligned himself with the exact reason so many of his mediocre “middle” schools remain where they are. By endorsing massive, wholesale, programmatic change rather than individual, creative, course-based advances, reformers subvert the very innovation they claim to support.

I do a fair amount of training of other journalism educators, and so many of their programs are impaled on the twin spikes of “when …” and “once …,” as in “Once we adopt the new curriculum, we will have mobile reporting in our intermediate course” or “When we get approval for the new online course, we’ll have programming somewhere.”

To paraphrase Newton, once we get a professional PhD, we’ll get more new ideas flowing through journalism schools.

I am sorry, sir, but we simply do not have the time.

We cannot wait for structural change in doctoral programs to meet the urgent needs of our students and the communities they will seek to represent. Instead, we have to take whatever freedom we have in our existing structures and change today. Right now.

I give the same advice to all teachers I teach, regardless of whether they come from the academy or the newsroom. Pick one thing. Pick just one new idea, unfamiliar technology, emerging trend. Just one. And take that into your classroom in the upcoming semester. Don’t wait for your new curriculum. Don’t get trapped by the “dinosaurs” you tell me stomp through your faculty meetings and delay change. Don’t care about the dean’s approval.

Leave all that behind and move one thing – just one thing – forward right now.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my teaching career. I have worked here in the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My colleagues did blow up their old siloed, medium-based curriculum and did it back in 1999 (before any other program I’ve been able to find). They left in its wake an approach that seeks to enable experimentation and innovation.

I’ve been lucky to operate in that free environment for a dozen years and have never been held up in tailoring my courses in whatever way I see fit. I’ve road tested radical collaborative digital environments, big-dream entrepreneurial assignments and every variation of social media engagement I could imagine being productive. I’ve succeeded, failed and faced more than a few question marks.

And most of the time time I’ve done it alone in a wilderness of self-training and self-doubt. Imagine if I were also in a school that had a restrictive curriculum and little faculty support. I’d be lost.

This is where the funders’ open letter fails. They like the teaching hospital model. But they’ve missed a critical component of that approach: continuing medical education. CME takes doctors in communities and doctors in teaching hospitals and moves them forward. Without it, those teaching doctors would be using the same techniques they learned in medical school years before. Just like a journalism professor who teaches text exclusively because he doesn’t know audio, video or programming, these doctors would be slicing abdomens open to remove an appendix that could now come out laparoscopically. They wouldn’t know any better without CME and support from colleagues.

If Newton and fellow funders want broad-based, systemic improvement and innovation in journalism schools, they need to create and fund a system of continuing journalism education. Many CME courses are funded – often controversially – by industry, Big Pharma and device manufacturers who want doctors to know and use the latest treatments. No such funding model will underwrite journalism training in the latest techniques and tools in reporting and producing news vital to this democracy.

Journalism foundations need to pay for it and use their influence with news organizations to leverage industry funding. I don’t mean major grants to individual schools. I recognize the appeal of those, planting a $2 million seed and watching something like News21 bloom.

But the number of schools and students served by those big projects is small compared to the staffing and enrollment at programs flung across the country. We have no shortage of educators who want to bring evolution or even revolution to the material in their courses and the ways they deliver it. But so many of them lack the support to do it.

So I’ll see the “shot across the bow” and raise it with my own clarion call to funders:

  1. seed a fund for training grants for individual educators (require a matching grant from the home institution if you like)
  2. create a network of organizations that already do journalism-focused training and stimulate them to offer courses for educators
  3. establish a fellowship program to put professionals in residence in journalism programs for a semester or year and educators in newsrooms
  4. identify a dozen innovative journalism schools in regions across the country and pay them to host training for other educators to reduce the fiscal burden of travel
  5. build a partnership program that sends an educator to training with a journalist from the surrounding community
  6. launch and staff a nationwide online collaborative enterprise for educators to share ideas and materials

I am not talking about rote technology training – “click this button to do that thing.” Instead, I envision the kinds of opportunities that stimulate teachers to experiment in class, to dream up new assignments that hurtle students toward inventive thinking. They will need hands-on-keyboard instruction, certainly. But they’ll also need inspiration and lasting resources, including the guts of assignments, grading rubrics, troubleshooting guides and conversation space.

We already have some effective efforts at the Poynter Institute, the Knight Digital Media Center and others (disclosure: I have conducted workshops for Poynter, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and individual universities). These are a start.

But educators and professionals alike desperately need dollars to get them to the continuing education they need. Schools face the exact reality newsrooms are staring down. Change will no longer come and go. Change will be constant. They need support to keep up and then become the incubators for new ideas.

If philanthropists want to bring change to journalism schools, abandon the quagmire of structural debates. Get down in the guerrilla warfare of providing individual educators the resources and instruction they need to teach students the current state of the art and to inspire them to develop whatever is coming next.

1 thought on “My open letter to journalism funders: Change your plan of attack

  1. Katy, thank you for capturing what I think and feel as a journalism educator — and one of many former professionals. Academia is not traditionally known for nimbleness or adaptability, both of which are essential in this new media landscape and essential to the education of tomorrow’s journalists. Your open letter, I think, reminds us as educators to continue to stay light on our feet and keep up the guerrilla innovation. We do need more resources for cost-efficient, relevant training. I would welcome more professionals in the ranks of academic journalism; professionals bring the game right to the classroom. But we can’t wait. We need to model for our students what they’ll need in the 21st century digital newsroom, and that is to publish what you know you know and update as you go.
    Sue Ellen Christian
    Western Michigan University

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