Saving Journalism From the Journalists

Until reformers actually do something, they can be judged only by the language they use as they boast of their good intentions. So here’s a taste of the “manifesto” unfurled last week by the journalism programs of five distinguished universities: “Journalism schools are committed to the idea that societies function best when their citizens have access to information that has been gathered and presented by well-trained, well-educated, honest, trustworthy, curious, intelligent people who have devoted their lives to their profession.”

By former Boy Scouts apparently. The five bastions of learning propose to create this elite in order to rescue a profession in crisis. It’s a task they think the journalism schools of old have not been up to. “Journalism schools too often have been thought of as trade schools rather than modern professional schools,” declares the manifesto. “As the importance of journalism grows and its task of explaining the world to the public becomes more complex and demanding, journalism schools ought to move firmly into the professional-school realm.”

And so it was that in New York on May 26 the $6 million Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education was announced. “It’s a paradox,” mused Orville Schell, dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California-Berkeley. “None of us went to journalism schools. But that was then. This is now.” The time has come for educators to save journalism from journalists.

A report commissioned from McKinsey & Company by the Carnegie Corporation got to the point. Citing a recent Pew Research Center poll, it said that both TV news and newspapers “have suffered damaging blows to the credibility of their reports” and that “this unimpressive view of journalism is reflected in the academic world, where schools of journalism have never achieved the stature long enjoyed by schools that prepare students for medicine, law, architecture, business and other careers.”

Under the old academic model–at least as it seems to be understood by the new–journalism students slink around campus as academically suspect as the football team. Doctors must attend medical school and lawyers law school–but journalism is simply the means by which a society informs itself, and to behave as a journalist is to become one. Academics squirm at a line so easy to cross. That’s why Carnegie, to quote McKinsey again, invited the heads of the journalism programs of “five leading research universities to consider the role of the academy in a national effort to revitalize journalism education and strengthen the capacity of the profession to fulfill its obligations to our citizenry and our democracy.”

Besides Berkeley, these schools are the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Southern California, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, the graduate school of journalism of Columbia University, and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The Carnegie Corporation has pledged $2.4 million over the next two years to get its initiative off the ground, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation another $1.7 million. The rest of the money has been promised by the universities themselves.

More schools will sign on in the years ahead, predicted Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, “until we have a coterie of schools dedicated to our vibrant new vision.” Schell was delighted that competing journalism programs would “come together to put our shoulders to a common wheel.” Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center, said the idea was that henceforth journalism “should be girded on a rigorous foundation of scholarship and research.”

This kind of giddy language makes me uneasy. And the idea that journalism’s many troubles can be laid to lessons not learned in college is preposterous. So we’ll see.

“This is not just another set of grants,” said Gregorian in his prepared remarks. “It is a vision for what journalism schools can become when they are clearly part of a university president’s priorities.” The initiative stresses “curriculum enrichment”–exposing journalism students to the university beyond the J-school, bringing professors from other disciplines in to teach, and designing new courses. But curriculum enrichment is nothing new. When Loren Ghiglione, dean of Medill, said a few words, he mentioned some imaginative courses his students have been taking advantage of for years.

Another intriguing aspect of the initiative is a “task force on journalism” to be based at the Shorenstein Center. The Carnegie-Knight Task Force, consisting of five educators, “will take public stands and issue public statements pertaining to the rights and responsibilities of media companies, journalists, educators, government and American citizens. It will stand in opposition to institutional, structural, and commercial threats to the integrity of the profession.” Not much history has been written by task forces, but maybe this one will be different.

And then there’s the News for the 21st Century: Incubators of New Ideas. Here the initiative gets down to brass tacks. As Schell said, “The ability of the media to reinvent themselves is quite limited”–especially today, when they’re caught in a “vortex of panic and no one knows where to turn.” The idea is to collect top graduate students on campus fo r a summer to experiment with new journalistic forms, looking for ones that work. “It struck us that the university is a perfect place to do this,” Schell said. “We’ll take our best graduates and pay them to work with the best people and see where this industry should go.”

At least the founders of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative have a grip on journalism’s troubles. Hodding Carter, president of the Knight Foundation, said journalism is in the grip of “a malaise you can cut with a knife…an untenable situation…a print audience that’s steadily diminishing…absolute uncertainty how well we’ll adopt to new technology…an industry which is increasingly both consolidating and is driven by bottom-line forces, which allows them to pretend to poverty while ever increasing the bottom line.”

Maybe the answer to consolidation means putting together a new journalism that leaves the behemoths out. Bloggers will say that’s happening already, but there’s room for the academy at the worktable.

NAJP Whacked

Is there a better example of curriculum enrichment than the National Arts Journalism Program? The NAJP, whose stated mission is “to improve the quality of arts and cultural journalism, as well as its prestige in American newsrooms,” is based at Columbia University’s school of journalism, and its students have the whole university and the city beyond to study in. For instance, when Doug McLennan showed up as a fellow in 1996 he took courses in architecture, postmodernist musicology, and Chinese foreign relations, and saw the entire Metropolitan Opera season from the rafters.

The NAJP sponsors panels, issues reports, and in its 11-year history has welcomed some 135 fellows–journalists in midcareer who went back to school for nine months to think about nothing but the arts. They tend to remember the experience as transforming.

As of this summer, the National Arts Journalism Program is history. The Pew Foundation, which launched it in 1994, suffered reverses of its own and cut off funding a couple of years ago. The NAJP couldn’t make up the $1.6 million a year, though when they were asked 90 percent of the alumni reached into their own pockets. Today McLennan is an NAJP advisory board member and runs the Web site “The short version,” he told other alumni as he broke the bad news last month by e-mail, “is that the Columbia J-School, like most universities these days, while happy to host and enjoy the prestige of programs, is reluctant to spend money and resources on them.”

“Do the math,” replies Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia’s journalism school. “It costs about 60,000 bucks a year to bring a fellow here. If it’s ten fellows, you’re talking real money. Be me for a minute. I don’t have a lot of money sitting around. Would you say, ‘Nobody gets a scholarship anymore so we can keep NAJP going’? That’s the kind of choices we’re in.”

Almost none of the money the NAJP put its hands on as it struggled to survive came from big media. “We were more successful with the arts foundations,” McLennan says, “because they see some sort of crisis in arts journalism.” It’s the same crisis Pew was trying to do something about when it launched the NAJP, and it’s worse than ever. When newspapers slash coverage of the arts, corporate bosses see that as a hard-nosed allocation of resources. Arts institutions correctly see it as a calamitous loss of contact between themselves and the public.

The NAJP originally set up shop at four universities and was controlled from Medill, where Professor Abe Peck ran the program on behalf of Dean Michael Janeway. When Janeway joined Columbia’s faculty in 1997 he consolidated the NAJP there under himself. “We are currently out trying to find a new home for the program,” McLennan said in his e-mail. “A couple of institutions have indicated they’re willing to entertain conversations.”

Medill? “We’re not going to look at it,” says Peck (who’s on the NAJP advisory board). “We have another arts idea I cannot talk about yet. It could be a nice alliance.”

Berkeley? A tide of e-mail, some wrathful and some elegiac, has flowed among the NAJP’s champions since its fate became clear, including this lamentation from Orville Schell: “I know that there are many universities–Berkeley among them–that would be only too pleased to take this excellent program in. But, alas, it is always a question of resources. That this country is so awash with such extravagant wealth at the upper reaches of the sociological food chain, but that a program like this nonetheless languishes and perishes at the middle reaches, is a reality that seems absurdly bitter.”

What was Schell saying? I e-mailed him for clarification.

“Everything is in the funding,” he wrote back. “Alas no journalism school, no matter how enthusiastic about a project like NAJP, can take such a project on without it being self-sufficient.”

He was saying no.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan.