Opinion: J-schools should innovate by prioritizing research and discovery instead of waiting for industry to dictate its needs

By Maija Saari

The more things change in the media landscape, the more things stay the same. The latest report out of The Poynter Institute on the state of journalism education finds, yet again, a big gap between faculty and professionals in their assessments of the value of journalism education.

By Maija Saari

The more things change in the media landscape, the more things stay the same. The latest report out of The Poynter Institute on the state of journalism education finds, yet again, a big gap between faculty and professionals in their assessments of the value of journalism education.

Released August 8, and primarily authored by Poynter’s News U creator Howard Finberg, the report finds practitioners are considerably less inclined to agree that a journalism degree is important for understanding the value of journalism (57 per cent) than educators (96 per cent). Degrees are seen as even less valuable as a means by which to develop the appropriate newsgathering skills for practice, according to practitioners. And neither practitioners nor educators thought that journalism education is doing all that it can to keep up with industry changes.

The report includes a good overview of some recent scholarly journalism education literature, mentions current experiments in curriculum design and provides some results from the survey of 1,800 American educators and journalists. For that “protein” alone, it’s a download I’d recommend as a valuable read to anyone who teaches in our many j-programs in this country.

Some of Finberg’s interpretations, however, need to be taken with a grain of salt.

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The gap between educators and practitioners should be no surprise. As has been true since Allan Fotheringham equated the teaching of journalism to the teaching of sex (as in, it cannot be done*), it is a truism in North America that those who teach journalism typically see more value in their enterprise than those who work in the field.

Finberg does tease out important themes (but ones that aren’t all that new) from a review of recent scholarship on the subject: 1) experimentation is necessary; 2) the core values of journalism remain important; and 3) there needs to be greater cooperation between industry and journalism schools.

All of this leads to an opening claim that programs need to innovate or die. Finberg claims that university education has become too expensive for students and administrators to endure irrelevant curricula for much longer. 

But rather than tackle a deeper analysis of which experiments are working or describing what innovation should look like in practice for current journalism faculty, Finberg opts instead to argue for innovation in how journalism is taught.

In particular, Finberg seems enthusiastic about the potential to deliver curriculum online, picking up on a trend in North America toward Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs).

There are many, particularly in America, who would prefer the “cost-effectiveness” of shifting mass post-secondary education to the web, and Finberg seems to be one of them. But critics of massive online education models note that there are many problems with MOOCs. Finberg’s report fails to put his prospective solution in the context of such concerns.

It’s also hard to see how a faculty becomes innovative through the action of outsourcing or uploading much of its training to others or otherwise effectively limiting its face time with the very students they need to reach.

In hunting around for solutions, Finberg overlooks the obvious.

Those who come to j-ed from practitioner points of view can forget that the central value to society of university faculty life is, fundamentally, the ability (and responsibility) to generate new knowledge.

Professors “innovate” — discover new ways of doing, knowing and being — for a living. Teaching students is an important sidebar to this life, but we all know you don’t need a PhD to teach.

It used to be the ticket required for anyone who wanted to “innovate” for a living.

I’m sure there are many exceptions. But it’s likely that the most efficient cases still rely upon some familiarity with research methods (experimental design) and the capacity to conduct a literature review (to effectively defend the outcome of one’s research as truly “innovative”). These are the “skills” of graduate-level study.

They are mighty useful to prospective innovators who want to pitch and finance their ideas to see if they work.

If j-schools need to become sites of innovation, why isn’t Finberg recommending that j-faculties work on developing experimental design processes that support this mission and work toward embedding those into senior-level curriculum?

Some, like Eric Newton (whom Finberg mentions), do see value in making these sorts of connections to the wider university. It is an efficient suggestion — experimental design for applied applications is old news in other circles. One will have to be open-minded; the methodologies for application research might not come from Communications Studies as much as Engineering. But there’s no point in reinventing the wheel.

Taking this sort of tack could bring new ways of approaching journalism into a faculty culture and help that community generate a curriculum oriented toward the ongoing innovation of practice.

Such a curriculum might empower future students to continue this cycle of discovery in industry, generating leaders who can navigate journalism as it moves through this era of disruption to find its way clear to calmer waters of stable practices once again.

Wouldn’t that also go a long way to ensuring our graduates are truly entrepreneurial as well?

Perhaps it goes back to the old gap. Teachers of journalism practice, particularly in universities, have a long and troubled history when it comes to identifying and solidifying their place in the world of knowledge production and scholarship. 

But I’d argue a lot of progress has been made on the practice side of the theory-practice gap.

But by assuming there is no research or discovery imperative inherent within journalism professional practice professorship, Finberg leaves us to assume journalism practice instructors are to wait passively for what industry says it needs next.  

And that’s not where the action is.

*For a brief history of j-ed in Canada, as well as Fotheringham’s 1988 Maclean’s magazine quote, see Marc Edge (2004) “Balancing Academic and Corporate Interests in Journalism Education,” Journalism and Mass Communications Educator. Edge maintains a draft of this article here.


Maija Saari is the Academic Chair for the School of Communications, Media and Design at Centennial College in Toronto.