Saturday, March 28, 2009

theory vs skills for the new millenium

Take a trip in the way-back machine to visit the debate about journalism education a few decades ago. According to the progressives, j-schools that focused too much on skills, rather than theory, were nothing more than trade schools, grooming students for entry level jobs. Those who hammered on basic skills in the classroom were considered the dinosaurs.

Then came the so-called crisis in journalism (looking back, that seems ridiculous) close to ten years ago when many thinkers got together and revisited the debate. Most all agreed that the progressives were on the right track. Sure, technique is important, but it's the mission and purpose of journalism that needs to be front and center in the classroom. The purpose -- beyond knowing how to craft a lede in snappy prose and figuring out what belongs in that sacred real estate between the quotation marks -- should be to interrogate the profession itself, to paraphrase Mitchell Stephens, to question all that journalism could and should be.

But now it appears from this piece in New York Magazine -- cleverly titled "Columbia J-School's Existential Crisis" -- the debate has been upended. Those who cling to the fundamentals of journalism that can translate, ultimately, to most any platform are considered the dinosaurs. (Why is it that when j-profs focus on journalism itself, they are assumed to be pied pipers leading students off the cliff we used to know as newspapers?)

Those considered on the cutting edge are the profs who emphasize technique, who teach students how to blog and twitter and learn multi-media skills.

The article itself is just the jump-off point. Go to the comments, especially from the Columbia J-School students, to get a handle on the debate and see how it rages from those on the front lines.

My two cents? If you can't do the reporting, and learn why it matters, sound slides and tweets and 90 second videos probably don't matter much more than deliciously clever 30-word ledes. Getting the story comes first. How you deliver it, that's the gravy.

And p.s., you really don't need a class to learn how to blog. bk


Jeremy said...

The NY Mag article is not a very accurate account of what's going on in the J-school here: the lead itself is completely inaccurate (I'm part of that project that Columbia was supposedly shut out from.)

BK, you are spot on with this:

"(Why is it that when j-profs focus on journalism itself, they are assumed to be pied pipers leading students off the cliff we used to know as newspapers?)"

I have Ari Goldman this semester, and while he may have said "fuck new media" in regards to the school's early scheduling, he isn't shunning it. My class trip with him to Ireland was a clear example: we had cameras and microphones out everywhere we went.

Columbia has made it clear that all students, even those who want into the dying newspaper industry like me, have to have new media skills. At the same time, the new media students -- some who really don't want to be reporters -- are forced to get the basics drilled into their heads, too.

Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement at the school when it comes to integrating new media in the curriculum. But Columbia's "existential crisis" has long past.

barbara kelley said...

thanks, jeremy.
the point is not that new media is good or bad or 5.2 on the richter scale. the point is that it's secondary.
to paraphrase marshall mcLuhan: the medium isn't the message. the MESSAGE is the message.
journalism is about information, finding it, contextualizing it. that's what counts, whether you deliver it -- no matter the form -- via blackberry, internet, paper, television, radio or the back of a milk carton.
new media is, as one of the commenters (hmmmmm. is that a word?) to the original piece noted, a tool, rather than an end in itself. that's what i think, anyway. i could always be wrong.