Closing j-schools makes no sense

Mary McGuireTeaching Journalism editor Mary McGuire makes the case for higher education in journalism.

Too many journalists think too narrowly about the value of journalism programs.

These days some have taken to arguing that journalism schools should be closed because traditional newsrooms are shrinking and reporters are being laid off. The latest column to make that case appeared in The Huffington Post earlier this summer.  

The news industry is not the only industry being reshaped by new economic forces and technological change. Many people with other professional degrees in such things as business, engineering, and computer science have also lost their jobs in this recession.  But no one seems to argue that we start closing university programs in business, engineering or computer science. As the economy recovers, as businesses and industries reinvent themselves for the future markets, well-educated people with new ideas will be needed in a wide variety of industries facing tough times today.

So, too, in journalism. There is, after all, plenty of evidence that people around the world still have a healthy appetite for news, even if they are finding new ways and new media to satisfy their cravings.

Educating  young people to help reinvent journalism is only one reason j-schools and j-degrees are still worthwhile.

No one expects all the students who take undergraduate degrees in history or economics to get jobs as historians or economists. No one expects almost any of the students who take philosophy to earn a living as philosophers.  People who take undergraduate degrees learn more than just their subjects. They learn useful skills as researchers, writers, and critical thinkers that can be used in many ways at many jobs.  The same is true for students who take journalism degrees, many of whom don’t want or expect to become traditional journalists.  Instead, they are interested in the media, the way other students are interested in history, economics or philosophy, and they want to develop some practical skills that might be useful to them in any job that requires them to communicate in more than one medium.

Young people are told they need to learn to be adaptable and multiskilled because they can’t expect to do one thing for the rest of their lives, but instead will be reinventing themselves throughout their careers.  So, if they can learn the same research, writing and critical thinking skills that most degrees offer and combine it with some practical communication skills in a variety of media, how can that be a mistake?

And, just as students who study history, economics and philosophy, go on to get graduate degrees in other fields such as business, public administration, and international affairs, so do journalism students.

The mistake many j-school critics make is to assume that journalism programs are one-dimensional trade schools that offer little more than practical courses teaching skills that are fast becoming obsolete.

They are wrong.

Most journalism programs require students to take courses in other disciplines, so that they get more than just practical journalism courses, but courses in such things as political science, history and economics too, giving them the broad liberal arts education many critics advocate.  Many students, in fact, complete double majors in journalism and another discipline.      

In addition, journalism programs introduce students to some of the new multimedia skills  that even working journalists wish they had time to learn somewhere other than on the job, on deadline.  These are essential as news consumers get their news online rather than the old fashioned way.

As well, most journalism programs offer courses about the important role of the media in a democracy, the role of other public institutions, media law and ethics that will help young journalists become the thoughtful, responsible journalists everyone seems to want, rather than just people who know how to operate the latest video camera or editing software.  

There are many more reasons to study journalism.  Blogger Alexandra Rampy, a former journalism grad and journalist turned social marketer, came up with 40 reasons on her blog in June and her readers jumped in with more. Some of her better reasons:

Journalism teaches you to be a writer, and a good one. In just about any profession, you will be a writer at some point. Journalism teaches you how to write. And when you know how to write, people will value this talent and gift no matter what your title, job or industry.


Journalism teaches you how to ask questions, including the tough ones… This will come in handy because in life, sometimes, it’s easy not to ask the tough ones or to think someone else will do it. But, as a j-schooler, you will learn how to take the initiative and be confident in your curiosity.

Another blogger and journalism educator, Mindy McAdams, takes on the skeptics in a post on her blog Teaching Online Journalism.  She says it has always been the case that some students who choose journalism change their minds about becoming journalists but decide the degree is worth completing anyway. Others, she says, see the degree as a steppingstone to things other than journalism.

“We can’t force the students to change to a more suitable major, or to choose one in the first place. The same kind of thing certainly goes on in other majors, from physics to fine arts. No one is guaranteed a job or a career in the field they chose for university studies. That is true also at the post-graduate level.”

What’s more important, she says, is that journalism programs remain vigilant about teaching the fundamentals of journalism, whether the students intend to become journalists or not. Those fundamentals, she says, now include newer multimedia tools.

Alfred Hermida, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia, agrees. In a response to a NowPublic blog post called “Are Journalism Schools Dying?”  Hermida writes:

“If anything, there is a greater need for journalism schools than ever before. Journalism is going through a period of tremendous upheaval and change due to the advent of the digital technologies that power sites like NowPublic.  The challenge for journalism educators is to prepare students for the newsrooms of tomorrow.”

Mary McGuire is an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University and teaches broadcast and online journalism. She has won two teaching awards and served, for a time, as the president of the Canadian Association of Journalism Educators. As a journalist, Mary worked for 11 years at CBC Radio News as a reporter, editor and documentary producer.