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Journalism Still Dodges the Big Questions: A View From Australia
By Michael Bromley

In December John Henningham, the first person to be appointed to a professorship in journalism in Australia, left the University of Queensland where he had taught for 25 years because the department was being merged into a larger school with communication. At about the same time, Clem Lloyd, foundation professor of the graduate school of journalism at the University of Wollongong since 1989, before recently becoming research professor at the University of Canberra, died unexpectedly. These two otherwise unconnected occurrences had considerable symbolic significance, signalling a kind of passing of an old guard in Australian journalism education.

The orthodox journalism educator — male, middle-aged, hard news oriented, print-trained, dedicated, feisty, hands-on, traditional and largely out of place in the academy — has not suddenly disappeared. The overwhelming majority of journalism faculty in Australia adhere to the values inherent in the profile, even if they do not always fit the profile itself. A sense of leaderlessness is perhaps evident, however. We shall see when the Journalism Education Association (JEA) holds its annual conference in Hong Kong in December.

Meanwhile, both journalism and journalism education - the former more rapidly and more completely than the latter - are becoming more female, "softer," younger, more service-oriented, visual, hybrid and focused on outputs rather than either inputs or professional method. Universities, which are subject to government edicts to throw open their doors to more and more students but simultaneously to reduce their financial dependence on the state, are keen to exploit the opportunity. This is clearly raising the stakes.

Queensland University of Technology re-aligned journalism with media and cultural studies, film and television and a range of performing and visual arts fields into a new Creative Industries Faculty in mid-2001. Its watchwords are interdisciplinarity, innovation and "content." Currently, Griffith University in the same city (Brisbane) is hiving journalism off from its film school and merging it with humanities. The dismay among the journalism faculty is palpable. "The worst has happened. We're trying to figure out ways of ensuring that journalism survives," one confided.

Set against a background of a political preoccupation with knowledge-based economies founded in information and communication technology infrastructures, knowledge consumption services and creative retailing — multimedia, digital broadcasting, 3D, computer games, web design, virtual tourism, arts and entertainment — news and journalism appear indistinct and confined to the margins.

One suggestion on the table for defying the tide of hybridization and marginalization is the institution of the formal accreditation of journalism programs through the JEA. Sally Begbie, the head of postgraduate journalism at Charles Sturt University, seems to want to go further and establish "a national registration and accreditation scheme" for all Australian journalists.

Both journalism and journalism education are becoming more female, "softer," younger, more service-oriented, visual, and hybrid.

At the same time, of course, mainstream media, editors and working journalists tend to face at least two ways at once. They repeat the common complaint that journalism graduates ought to know more about soundbites and spelling than semiotics; but in almost the same breath they talk of the need for recruits who can work across journalism, marketing, promotion, etc. as versatile "information architects." They also want people who show managerial potential.

While much of this debate is to be welcomed, it causes huge problems for journalism education. The curriculum has already grown exponentially and there are constant demands to add more. The room for manoeuvre is limited. For the most part, Australian J-schools offer northern European-style three-year technical degrees. As more and more students are recruited from non-traditional backgrounds, their expectations are increasing set to "learn and leave." The financial incentives for teaching undergraduates are diminishing. So, much slicing and dicing goes on. For example, which items can be classified as "generic skills" (news and feature writing, journalism research) and taken out of the journalism syllabus to be taught en masse to anyone with an interest in the creative industries? Or: how much do we leave it up to students to choose their programs rather than imposing a prescriptive view of the preparation for journalism?

All this is by way of illustrating how common journalism education experiences are across Australia and the US. We also share the failure to respond to them systematically. The challenges are certainly systemic — globalization, commercialization and digitization. These are not story topics to be researched on the job: they are too complex, too contested and too embedded in journalism's production routine. Besides, in the contemporary newsroom there are time and resource constraints on undertaking this kind of detailed background inquiry. Journalists need prior critical analytical training (via academics) to understand, interpret and interrogate these concepts, and to challenge the corporate media executives who use and abuse them for their own self-interests.

We might start with the function of a great J-school. It is not to produce journalists, but to produce great journalists — journalism's "future leaders" (to cite Bollinger). These should not be an Ivy League élitist cadre, but a distributed leadership open to all who are critical, analytical, inquisitive, subversive, defiant, ironic, creative, iconoclastic, independent, individual, communitarian, out-of-the-box and of-the-people. Journalists can draw intelligently on models provided by other practices, such as acting, music, fine art and design, in which creativity and industry, independence and employment, self-expression and direction, objectivity and subjectivity are successfully paired and negotiated in ways which suggest win-win rather than a zero sum game. This implies an epistemology, a pedagogy, methodologies and theoretical positions — all kinds of systemic stuff.

Very little of this advanced learning has anything to do with the media: they are forms of business, or (quasi) state enterprise, with their own rationales. The decline in newspaper sales, the ubiquity of format music radio and the fad for reality television should tell us, first and foremost, that journalism ought to look for alternative outlets. In 2000 42 percent of US households subscribed to a newspaper: 57 percent to Internet access. The Irish Times sells 116,000 copies a day: it registers 17.8 million page hits a month to its web site. The BBC, overwhelmingly an entertainment broadcaster, claimed 120.6 million hits a month last year (60 percent of all its hits) for its online news service.


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