Journalism Drowning

Why did Vartan Gregorian round up millions of dollars to help educate journalists? "When you're in the middle of the ocean, you start swimming," explained the president of the Carnegie Corporation. "Either that, or you drown."

Gregorian's harsh assessment of the current state of American journalism led him and his foundation, along with the leaders of John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and five universities, to commit more than six million dollars -- with millions more to follow -- to a nascent effort to improve the quality of journalism education in America.

Speaking last week at press conference announcing the multi-year, multi-million dollar effort, Knight Foundation president Hodding Carter III agreed with Gregorian, saying "We're in the midst of a revolution with no end in sight," and adding "Things aren't changing -- they're cascading!"

The leaders of five of the nation's most prominent journalism programs echoed those remarks. Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley was particularly outspoken, decrying "the parlous state of our media," which he said "lies close to the heart of the question over whether our system of governance will succeed." But a chorus comprised of Loren Ghiglione, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Geoffrey Cowan, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University lent amens to Schell's analysis, while Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University asked via videotape, "What can we do that news organizations can't themselves do?"

One answer may be simply this: educate journalists! After all, according to Knight president Carter, "the Great Dirty Secret" of the journalism profession is that "The industry pays for nothing when it comes to training. Instead these companies depend entirely on the kindness of strangers."

The goal of the ambitious program unveiled last week is in fact to revitalize journalism education -- and eventually journalism itself. By creating joint national investigative reporting projects, integrating journalism programs more deeply into their respective universities and providing a mechanism of influence for what Gregorian called "a coterie of journalism schools," the hope is that they will be able to play a larger role in the ongoing media reform debate raging in this country.

That American journalism is in deep crisis was not even questioned by the white middle-aged men who run our leading journalism programs. This in itself is exceptional since, as Carter noted, "J schools for most part are chickens." Why? "Because they need dollars," he explained. "Standing together will be better for them."

"That's why we're circling the wagons," agreed Schell. "The object of this exercise is to be courageous and to try to use this opportunity. Frankly, we don't see enough of that. This is a time not only to try and make journalism schools as relevant as possible to the evolving profession, but also to have universities begin to weigh in on the debate about what happens in the media."

Although journalism schools are doing their best, Gregorian said, "their best is not good enough in this complex day and age."

Here's another professional secret: most journalists didn't attend journalism schools, and many question their value entirely. So why bother even to have them? Schell, who (like this reporter) never attended a journalism program, thinks such institutions are more vital now than they were in the past.

"Things have changed substantially since we came up the journalistic food chain," he said. "As news cycles have gotten faster and more bottom-line driven, there has been less inclination and capacity in media outlets to train, mentor and guide upcoming generations."

"Virtually everything in journalism is, at the moment, insufficient and in a state of flux," Hodding Carter added. "Basic principles do not change, but the environment in which they must be applied is changing radically. So should the education of those who must work within that environment."

"We're at time when at least a handful of educated, cultured journalists are needed," said Carnegie's Vartan. "I believe there are two professions that are the most crucial for democracy, and are needed to make it safe: teaching and journalism."

Besides, as Vartan concluded, journalism schools are here to stay -- there are more than four hundred of them in the US now. "So we may as well take them seriously. This is just the first salvo!"

So there you have it, Columbia J-School Young'uns: You better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone, for the Times...and Newsweek...and CBS News....and the rest of their ilk -- they are a -- changing.

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