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A J-School Manifesto
by Mitchell Stephens

Author's note: Since I published the following manifesto in the Columbia Journalism Review two years ago, the revolution it recognized in journalism education has not only continued but accelerated. Incendiary new ideas have been added to the mix: a "portfolio" approach at NYU, global initiatives at USC and NYU, a partnership between a journalism school and a professional news organization at Berkeley. More of the ideas discussed in the piece have been finding their way into the curriculum: At NYU, for example, we have begun challenging small groups of students to experiment with methods of expanding the focus and stylistic range of journalism. Here and there across the country more courses and programs that require students to study in depth the subjects upon which they report have also begun to appear. Reading lists— in "skills" as well as "seminar" courses—are lengthening. The walls between print, broadcast and digital courses are, with some difficulty, being scaled.

And, in these two years, more journalism programs have begun to liberate themselves from the shackles of "the basics" and that tired, half-century-old, Reporting I-Reporting II-Feature Writing model of journalism education. Others have at least begun to debate whether they should risk making such an attempt.

This had been, for the most part, a sleepy, hidebound discipline. It no longer is.

Tom Goldstein, the former dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, certainly is alert to these changes and conversant with the thinking behind them. But in assuming leadership of the most visible of journalism programs, he also assumed leadership of what is in some ways among the most conservative. (To be sure, Columbia's commitment to coverage of New York's poorest neighborhoods has been exemplary, and innovative offerings can usually be found somewhere in its crowded course listings. Nevertheless, the school's emphasis has long been on traditional, imitation-newsroom, tight-deadline reporting and writing.) During Goldstein's five-year reign, stirrings of the revolution were, quietly, beginning to be felt at Columbia. But change there came slowly.

Now President Lee C. Bollinger, in suspending the search for Goldstein's successor and announcing that merely teaching "the craft of journalism" is "clearly insufficient," has raised the possibility that change there might speed up. Bollinger has, at least, ensured that the debate on the future direction of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism will be very public and rather loud. One hopes that he also succeeds in making it very interesting and that Columbia's unmatched resources and the considerable talents of its faculty are brought to the process of thinking out new, more thoughtful, more searching models of journalism education.

I made much in my manifesto of the analogy to other professionally oriented graduate programs— in law, in drama. Our challenge—at what is undoubtedly the most interesting moment in the history of journalism education— is not just to build a better journalism curriculum but to create schools and programs that can be compared with the best schools and programs in other disciplines. Only then will journalism education fully shoulder its responsibility to help create more thoughtful, more searching journalism.

— Mitchell Stephens, Sep. 6, 2002

A specter, as we like to say in manifestos, is beginning to haunt journalism education. It is the realization that some of the discipline's most cherished practices will have to change.

Academics have long whispered that journalism programs are too professional: just trade school. Journalists have long grumbled that some of them are too academic— filled with useless "theory."'

However, a new, more interesting call for change is beginning to be heard. It became audible at New York University a few years ago and almost tore our department apart. Other top programs are producing their own versions of this critique and falling into their own debates. This is my version. I won't presume to speak for faculty elsewhere or even for my comrades in the party of change at NYU. But I also won't pretend that all the ideas here are original to me or to NYU. There is something in the air.

At issue is not whether journalism programs should teach professional skills or wax theoretical. Obviously, they should do a lot of the former and some of the latter. The question is how. My argument is that journalism programs have placed too much emphasis upon teaching "the basics" and not enough on advancing journalism.

Journalism education needs a heart transplant.

The basics: don't forget who, what, when, where and, if you can get it, why. Reporters should not accept gifts from sources. The attribution goes after the first sentence of the quote. A suspect must not be convicted in a news story. "Completely destroyed" is redundant. That extra phone call is always necessary. Such dicta have long been at the heart of an education in journalism. Attacks on them send, I know, shivers down spines.

And in a world where corporate pressures on "content providers" seem to be increasing and understanding of language and civic affairs decreasing, the argument for emphasizing the basics does have much to recommend it. Students should be sent out prepared to recognize, uncover and communicate news— accurately and fairly. Journalism programs do serve a function by repeatedly insisting on the tried and true. But it is, in the end, a limited function.

A narrow focus on the basics leaves these programs, in manifesto language, enchained— unable to make more original contributions to journalism. We need a more advanced, more adventurous approach. Journalism education needs a heart transplant.

No discipline handles the juggling act between academic and professional concerns entirely smoothly, but many other professionally oriented programs do handle it differently. Journalism students tend to learn how to report by working—over and over again—on the easiest kinds of stories. That's not how it's done, for example, in law school.

"The cases students read," explains Anthony Townsend Kronman, dean of the Yale Law School, "are meant to introduce them to the fundamental principles of the subject, but the cases that are selected for study are cases that present the most excruciatingly difficult questions. It doesn't help to give them easy cases. They get pushed out to the frontier in every class they take."

Journalism is often taught, in introductory skills courses, as if many of the questions it raises had a right or wrong answer. However, law students, from the very beginning "are taught to think of the opinions they are reading not as closed," says Kronman, "but only as the latest official utterance, subject to interpretation by lawyers and law students. Law students are invited, in other words, into active, argumentative dialogue with the judges who write these opinions, including justices of the Supreme Court."

In journalism programs students work primarily with the simplest, most formulaic forms of writing— forms most of their professors havenıt used for years and, if truth be told, have no great desire to use again. At the Yale School of Drama, to choose another example from that university, students spend almost a third of their time on a rather complex and difficult variety of theater: Shakespeare. "We donıt believe our students will go on to spend a third of their professional lives doing Shakespeare," explains Dean Stan Wojewodski, "but we believe it is very important that students engage on that level of imagination and challenge."

The model of journalism that still dominates our core courses is one that was practiced most enthusiastically at newspapers—mainstream American newspapers—mostly during one specific historical period: about two thirds of the way into the twentieth century when journalism won some glorious victories and most of today's journalism school administrators were young enough to be inspired by such victories). Other kinds of journalism—practiced, say, in France or England, or at alternative publications, or at other times in American history—are generally mentioned, if they are mentioned, as mere curiosities. Architecture schools, art schools, drama schools, on the other hand, not only explore a tradition that is much broader—culturally, geographically, and historically—but they encourage experimentation with new methods, new forms. "We see ourselves," Wojewodski says, "as devoted to extending the boundaries of theater and moving the markers forward."

Such comparisons between disciplines obviously have their limitations. And I certainly donıt mean to imply that no one else in the university drills students using basic exercises. (Acting students, of course, don't only do Shakespeare; law students have plenty to memorize and master.) It is the extent to which masters- and undergraduate-level journalism education has chosen to hide its head in this one version of "the basics" that strikes me as unusual, unnecessary, and wrong.

For journalism itself is hardly a closed, self-satisfied, static field. To do journalism today is inevitably to be involved in an ongoing, "active, argumentative dialogue" on the profession's purposes and performance. How is journalism to respond to widespread internal and external dissatisfaction with some of its current practices? How is journalism to take advantage of technological change? Boundaries are shifting. Whole forms of journalism are being created. Whole forms of journalism could die. Journalists today are often out on the frontier.

Yet journalism programs, ever the guardians of what was, have seemed content to hang back within established settlements. Yes, we all have added a couple of classes in digital journalism. Yes, we all have seminars or lectures in which the issues facing journalism are mulled over. Yes, there is some good, even great teaching going on. But our core courses often proceed as if there were one correct way of doing journalism, as if our mission would be complete if our students only knew the difference between robbery and burglary and could get the lead right.

In journalism programs students work primarily with the simplest, most formulaic forms of writing— forms most of their professors haven't used for years and, if truth be told, have no great desire to use again.

It is easier to teach what we know—or think we know—than to teach what still needs to be figured out. It is hard to work the unconventional, the experimental into a textbook or onto a blackboard. And if we encourage students to escape formulas, we fear that we will no longer be able to hold them, or the profession, to standards. But journalism education must accept the risk. It must—manifestos mustn't mince words—change.

We have to inspire our students to achieve work that is very good, not just very solid. (And this goes for undergraduate as well as graduate students: If college students can read Nabokov in a literature class and Nietzsche in a philosophy class, they can and should be stretched and challenged in a journalism class.) We have to find more ways to get the ferment of this astounding time in journalism into our courses. We have to give our students the privilege of participating in the struggle to determine what journalism could and should be.

NYU has begun to take some steps towards rethinking its journalism curriculum. It hasn't been easy, but we're still at it (with the discussions growing less and less heated). Other journalism programs are too. The most direct attack on the hegemony of the basics has been launched at Stanford, which has gone so far as to skip basic coursework in reporting and editing in its masters program in journalism. (New students are now expected to arrive with some background in the field.) "It's not that we donıt appreciate the importance of basic skills," says Ted Glasser, who directs the journalism program there. "Itıs just that we want our program to do more ­ and weıre going to focus on the ‘more.'"

Here is a quick, preliminary sketch of how journalism education might (while still introducing students to reporting and writing) do more:

  • Mix theory and practice. It is not enough for students to sit in a seminar and discuss critiques of journalism; they have to be given opportunities to respond to those critiques in their work. We have begun experimenting with this at NYU in a series of undergraduate honors courses-­ where students can, as they recently did in a course taught by Pamela Newkirk, study the problems of press coverage of an area like Harlem and then be challenged to do a better job themselves.

  • Let students explore. No major newspaper in the country restricts itself to the inverted pyramid, and news, as we've noticed, is now also being communicated by media other than newspapers. We know, therefore, that we have to open up our introductory courses to serious alternative approaches. Why can't students be asked to experiment with a variety of other writing—or video or digital—styles: not just features but essays, first-person narratives, opinion pieces, cinema-vérité reportage, fast-cut images, and multimedia and interactive forms? Why can't students read about these various styles, examine the best examples of them, try them, and then debate their merits? Couldn't the importance of proper attribution and the difference between "which" and "that" still be imparted along the way?

  • Honor a broader tradition. At NYU we now require all graduate students to take a readings course in great journalism. And it is significant how little of that great journalism ­ by Richard Harding Davis, Ben Hecht, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Thompson, John Hersey, A. J. Liebling, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, et al ­ employs the formulas insisted upon in Reporting 101. This course—specifically designed to inspire students to stretch their styles and raise their sights—functions as a kind of anti-basics. It also serves to claim this remarkably searching and well-crafted nonfiction writing for journalism ­ something journalism programs have been oddly reluctant to do.

  • Look deeper. The image of the go-anywhere, write-on-anything reporter retains a certain attraction. But certainly there is room for an alternative model: one in which students study a subject deeply — in a single course or a whole program­- while they are reporting on it. We have added three such programs on the master's level at NYU ­ in science and environmental reporting, cultural reporting and criticism, and business and economics reporting. And we are not alone in setting out in this direction.

  • Encourage experimentation. Berkeleyıs Graduate School of Journalism currently has, says Dean Orville Schell, "a very active digital documentary program." When I note that there is currently no such thing as a digital documentary—a documentary produced for the Web—he responds, "That's right. We're trying to invent it. Not having come from the world of journalism education," Schell explains, "I sometimes find my ignorance has served me well. You don't even know youıre stepping over the line. What makes sense to me is to be out there on the raggedy raggedy, trying things."

    Not every journalism program, not every journalism professor will be up to such challenges. We may need some new journalism programs; we will need some new journalism professors.

    Nor is it clear that all news organizations are waiting for journalists who are inclined to question and experiment. After he announced somewhere that his goal was to "produce thoughtful journalists," Columbia's dean, Tom Goldstein, reports that he received a letter from someone at a major news organization stating, "The last thing we need is thoughtful journalists." Oh.

    But, as my colleague Susie Linfield has pointed out, drama students trained in Shakespeare can also figure out, if they have to, how to act in soap operas. Let's aim high. Maybe graduates of more adventurous journalism programs will eventually help create more adventurous news organizations. We have nothing to lose but our irrelevance.

    This piece first appeared in Columbia Journalism Review (Sep./Oct. 2000).

    Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism and mass communication at New York University, is the author most recently of the rise of the image the fall of the word. He is also the author of a reporting textbook, Writing and Reporting the News.

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