This week my alma mater — the University of Missouri School of Journalism — will celebrate its 100th birthday with a big bash in Columbia, Mo. I plan to drive up to Columbia on Friday to join in on some of the festivities. It’s not every day the world’s oldest J-school turns 100. I plan to catch some of the free events, have a look at several of the exhibits, and sit in on a roundtable discussion on communication for a digital age. I’m particularly interested in hearing what the people who teach and practice journalism have to say about its future.
A centennial celebration seems like a fine time to get introspective on the state of the business, especially for a business that has been hit pretty hard by the changes in technology in recent years. Not a week passes, it seems, in which I don’t hear or read about some major daily laying off newsroom staff. (Rick Edmonds, who blogs at Poynter Online, calls newspapers “the Bennigan’s of the digital era.” Just like the now-defunct casual dining business, too many newspapers are “serving up formulaic stuff that was cheap but had nothing else much going for it.” At the Mizzou J School, the Columbia Missourian, a daily newspaper that has been published since the first day the school opened, has been running deficits for years and is now looking for a “partner” to help pay the bills.) Other traditional media are also having a tough time. From TV to radio to magazines, traditional news outlets are struggling in this digital age.
What does all this mean for Dear Old Alma Mater and other journalism schools around the world? The Missouri School of Journalism was prescient enough to begin a convergence journalism program a few years ago that trains students to become multimedia reporters for the digital age. Whereas I focused on writing and editing for newspapers during my early 1980s education, today’s convergence students are using video, audio, photography and — thank goodness — good old text to report the news and tell stories.
Is convergence journalism the answer? It certainly should help prepare students for the changing job market. But I doubt it’s a panacea. Times are still tough for journalists, whether classically trained or newly minted with a convergence background. But maybe it’s time for journalism schools to stop seeing themselves as these pristine molders and shapers of objective reporters and start looking at their mission as communications schools that prepare students for a variety of career paths — journalism, yes, but also public relations, corporate communications, marketing, non-fiction writing, and more.
Some schools already do that. But I think other schools — like the storied Missouri J-School — still cling to the myth that journalism should be pure, an objective form of reporting and telling the news, untainted by the ideas or forces of PR or marketing (although the J-School has been teaching advertising for years). That was a fine idea for idealistic students who came of age after Watergate and were inspired by the likes of Woodward and Bernstein (guilty). But I get a sense that today’s students are less idealistic, more pragmatic, and smart enough to know there’s no such thing as the holy grail of “objectivity” as taught in j-schools past.
I think my experience is telling. I only spent a few years practicing true journalism as taught by my J-school instructors. (And even then it wasn’t quite the pure strain they were teaching. That strain would have put me in a mid-market daily newspaper with an eye toward moving into one of the nation’s elite dailies in some big city. I ended up in a small-town daily in Missouri.) Nevertheless, my journalism education trained me well for a career in public relations, which has since morphed into part spokesperson-part marketing strategist role that still allows me to write and edit from time to time. Twenty-five years after getting my BJ (yes, that’s the actual degree; it stands for bachelor of journalism, not what you may think), the things that really stuck with me from my journalism education are:
- The ability to write coherently and edit well. OK, you may not be able to divine it from this rambling blog entry, but I’m pretty good at getting to the point when I have to. I’m a pretty good editor, too.
- The ability to tell a story. Stories work well to persuade, inform and entertain.
- An understanding of how the news media work. This has helped me immensely in the PR business. Knowing what journalists need and knowing how to get it to them in a timely fashion is critical in that business. But no matter what your field, it doesn’t hurt a thing to know how the media operate and shape, influence and inform public opinion. These days, it’s also important to know how the new media operate.
- The ability to think. Clear, concise writing requires clear thinking. Having to put words — thoughts, ideas — on paper over and over helped to make me a better thinker.
- A tremendous liberal arts education. Yes, my degree was a journalism degree, but the course requirements for that degree meant that 75 percent of my coursework came from the liberal arts and humanities. I tool English, history, math, science, anthropology, sociology, political science, a foreign language (French), film studies, library science — all those classes that make for a well-rounded liberal arts education. The belief then, as now, was that a journalist should know a little bit about a lot of stuff, and most importantly, know how to find information about the stuff he or she doesn’t know.
These are lessons that should help anyone on a career path in journalism or outside of it.
So, while I didn’t stick to the pristine path of journalism, I am grateful for the education I received from the world’s oldest journalism school, and probably one of its finest. Happy birthday, Missouri School of Journalism, and congratulations on surviving a tumultuous century. I hope you’re still around for the bicentennial in 2108.