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What Journalism Schools Should Be Teaching

The New Media revolution has left J-schools grasping for relevancy, writes Steve Boriss, who helpfully offers his blueprint for a 21st-century curriculum. Lesson one: the customer is always right.

by
Steve Boriss

Bio

January 2, 2008 - 1:00 am

Should those seeking careers in news go to journalism school? Can today’s j-schools — with faculties that consist almost entirely of Old Media experts and practitioners, courses about conventional media tactics, and premises built upon now-failing models of objectivity and verification — prepare students for the new world of New Media? Of course not. Here’s a list of courses that j-schools should be teaching.

Introduction to Journalism: Back to the Future — Journalists mistakenly believe that news has been continuously evolving toward better forms when, in fact, we are in the midst of a century-old trend. In the early 1900′s an attempt was made to transform journalism from the rough-and-tumble craft it had always been to a science producing verified, objective, unbiased truths. This now-laughable proposition was sustainable only while technology, economics, and government regulation limited the number of challenging voices. This course will cover the last 600 years in search of business models to which we will return. It will focus on the days before the printing press when news was spread by word of mouth and, like today, everyone was a potential creator, editor, and distributor of news.

Remedial Studies: The Role of the Press in America — With the Internet now allowing everyone to exercise their freedoms of expression, a clear understanding of the Founding Fathers’ vision for the press is essential to success in news. This course will teach the correct interpretation of the First Amendment — that just as everyone has the right to speak their views (freedom of speech), everyone also has the right to publish their views (freedom of the press). This amendment did not grant elite status and special rights to a clique known as “the press,” which did not exist as we now know it at the time the amendment was drafted. The course will also analyze Thomas Jefferson’s wishes that newspapers serve as a “fence” to prevent government from encroaching on individuals’ lives. This will correct journalists’ common practice of “jumping the fence” by presenting government as benevolent and the people’s private sector as the greatest threat to our freedom, swapping the ideas of Jefferson for those of Marx.

Business for Journalists — Many journalists have become disoriented, losing track of where they fit into our economy. Some believe they are engaged in a public service, a branch of government, or an activist movement. This course will clarify that virtually every journalist works in the private sector for organizations that must maximize profits. This knowledge will be helpful in the workplace, as journalists may from time to time wish to avoid declaring independence from the demands of their employers, stockholders, business competitors, and acquiring corporations. The course will also highlight that their audiences consist of “customers who are always right,” and not “citizens who must be spoon-fed what journalists believe.” In a work-study portion of the course that teaches the humility required for providing customer service to average Americans, students will be required to clean the public toilets in a Wal-Mart.

Technology for Journalists — As technology advances, journalists will be both enabled and required to be self-sufficient. This class will teach journalists how to use a variety of independence-granting technologies such as search engines, content management systems, social computing, and video cameras. Would-be photojournalists who believe that ordinary breaking news requires extraordinary cinematographic excellence will be encouraged to apply to the film school.

Creative, Entertaining, and Very Short Writing — As everything now known as “media” converges to the Internet, journalists will soon be competing for audiences against former newspapers/TV news, prime-time programming, movies, video games, blogs, and even porn. Many now-common styles will not remain competitive, including the use of serious and faux-authoritative tones, the pretense of objectivity, and “inverted pyramid” articles that become increasingly trivial and boring the deeper one reads. This course will explore a variety of alternative and entertaining styles, including humorous, warm, crusading, inspirational, empathetic, and titillating. Students will also learn how to write catchy headlines and compelling text in 300 words or less, recognizing the mouse-trigger-happy character of news consumers.

The Argument Clinic — Journalists must stop using their mastheads as shields, and engage their audiences in civil debate to defend the accuracy of their facts and the validity of their opinions. This course will teach journalists how to differentiate left vs. right thinking, recognize their own biases, and treat critics as customers to be persuaded, not moral or intellectual idiots. Students will be re-educated to understand that “bias” is not a four-letter word, but a new way to attract audiences as news transitions to a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas.

Until such a curriculum exists, J-schools will be, as journalist Ted Koppel once said, “an absolute and total waste of time.” They will also be a place where old dogs teach obsolete tricks.

Steve Boriss blogs at The Future of News. He works for Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and teaches a class called “The Future of News.”

Steve Boriss teaches the class "The Future of News" at Washington University in St. Louis, blogs at at TheFutureofNews.com, and offers services through The Future of News, Inc. to help news organizations, corporations, and agencies succeed in the emerging news environment.
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