Look to Campus for Journalism’s Renaissance

The news for college journalism has been pretty good recently, particularly for The Crimson White, the University of Alabama’s student newspaper.

Student journalists turned their attention toward the continuing practice of racial segregation within the university’s Greek system. The reporting was picked up nationally and internationally, and The CW continued to hammer away at the issue through numerous follow up reports. (Full disclosure: I worked at The Crimson White as an undergraduate journalism student at Alabama, Class of ’96).

That’s solid journalism.

After some contentious negotiations, the U.S. Senate is now considering a federal shield law that includes protections for student journalists. The importance of student journalism was also reflected in an article from The Atlantic earlier this year. Its overarching theme is that college journalists play an important role in covering the stories the professional media outlets ignore.

Every once in a while, the same old tired question comes up: what good is a degree in Journalism? Poynter published a column last year that includes the following section, which was copied verbatim and is contained inside the asterisk marks:

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When asked about how vital a journalism degree is in understanding the value of journalism, 95 percent of academics said it was “very to extremely important.”

Slightly more than half (56 percent) of professionals said “very to extremely important.”

This is a gap of almost 40 points.

When questioned about the value of a degree when it came to equipping students with the skills or abilities in news gathering, editing and presenting the news, the gap is just as wide:

  • 96 percent of academics said that a degree was “very to extremely important” to learning skills
  • 59 percent of professionals said “very to extremely important.”

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I’m an academic; two of my three degrees have “Journalism” emblazoned on them. So yes, I believe having a journalism degree is “very to extremely important” if someone wants to be a journalist. The 40+ percent of professionals who don’t appear to value such a degree are missing something fundamental. Sure, anybody can learn the mechanics of journalism on the job: how to interview, how to edit, how to become a better writer. One doesn’t need a degree to be able to do that.

Academic programs bring that training to the table — and more. They challenge students with rigorous discussions about the role journalism plays (or should play) in societies. We talk about the First Amendment — a lot. Students are confronted with scenarios designed to sharpen their ethical decision making skills, and the educational atmosphere allows them to choose a less-than-stellar option (i.e., make a mistake) without fear of being fired or sued. They can experiment with emerging forms of media, keeping the practices and platforms that seem to work well and ditching the ones that don’t. They are talking about the winners and the losers on both sides of the digital divide. They recognize the disparity in the coverage of ethnic minorities and the poor. There are group discussions about why there are so few women managers in the news industry. Students are crafting their professional philosophies in an environment that nurtures that type of thinking and development.

I also teach my journalism students to question what they’re told, to avoid cozy relationships with powerful interests, to resist being bullied, to eschew celebrity status, and to serve the public.

Good luck getting an opportunity to do and think about all of that as a rookie on the job.

And what professional news organization wouldn’t want to hire a new journalism grad who has most likely spent the previous few years learning how to write to professional standards, honing interview skills, critically analyzing the role of journalism in a democracy, and learning from stupid mistakes that they won’t make again as a member of your newsroom?

Many students choose to pursue a journalism degree because they want to study journalism, and that goes far beyond the simple mastery of mechanical processes. Campus journalism has a lot going for it right now, not the least of which is a general lack of commercial pressure. This, along with the numerous examples listed above, is why I think journalism’s renaissance won’t come from today’s professionals; it’ll come from today’s students.

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