McGuire on Media

Can we innovate in journalism education without using the Colorado model of blowing things up?

The most popular journalism education parlor game these days is figuring out what has actually happened at the University of Colorado. You can read that the CU J-School is “toast” or you can listen to the dean of the journalism school who says the journalistic craft has botched this story badly.

Dean Paul Voakes told the Denver News that stories about the demise of the school were “somewhere in the range of premature to inaccurate.”

One of the most important journalism lessons I ever learned came in 1971 at the Dowagiac Daily News in Michigan. I wrote a lead story about a city rabble rouser who wanted to remove the entire city council. The next day he protested he had never said the things I quoted. I went to my boss and said “I have those things right here in my notes, he said them. ” The editor, Fran Reidelberger then said  words that have had a profound effect on my career. “Of course he said it. You know he said it. I know he said it and he knows he said it. He just didn’t realize he said it in 72-point type.”

I think that’s what happened at CU.  The top folks at CU just didn’t imagine the fallout from their decision.  I do not have any inside information but my simple mind tells me that any time you use the word “discontinuance,” the subject of that verb does not have a bright future. Voakes can downplay what’s happening all he wants but I not-so-boldly predict that at the end of the committee process mandated by the chancellor there will not be anything most of us would recognize as a journalism department.

Voakes keeps calling the word “discontinuance” a legally required term. I have dealt with such terms before in my career. When Cowles Media wanted to sell the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and its other holdings, it never once said it wanted to “sell” the paper. Instead the company said it “wanted to pursue strategic alternatives.” That was a “legally required” euphemism that meant “we want to sell but only if the price is right and then only if the highest bidder is not Attila the Hun or the modern day equivalent.” Legally required terms always have meaning.

My colorful friend, Dr. Michael Bugeja of Iowa State, has done a wonderful piece explaining what is probably going on at CU. I find Michael delightful, but I sometimes find myself disagreeing with him. Michael often wants more status quo than I do. I think this piece nails it in many ways.  That piece is a must read to appreciate this issue and it centers some important issues. I especially like his point that the poor job market is a bad excuse to eliminate journalism education.

I do wish Michael would have called for more change because the overriding issue that is most interesting to me is does innovation require blowing something up, as Colorado is apparently contemplating, or can you innovate every single day by developing a forward thinking attitude with an openness to genuine change? Leadership and followership are always crucial to answering that question, but I think there is substantial evidence change can occur from within.

I spent my first career trying to innovate in the newspaper business. I won some skirmishes, but arguably lost the war. My second career finds me in the midst of dramatic innovation at Arizona State’s Cronkite School. The strange thing is that those efforts in the late 90’s produced far more tumult than the innovative changes led by Cronkite School Dean Chris Callahan. Certainly Callahan’s deftness plays a huge role, but stark reality plays a role too. Only an ostrich or a self-absorbed dweeb could resist innovation and change in the light of the dramatic realities facing journalism these days.

That’s why at the Cronkite School innovative efforts to establish an entrepreneurial course and clinic, moves to make a business and future class required, countless clinic experiences , an interdisciplinary approach to border coverage and an effort to put more online and social media professors and researchers on the ground than just about any other school, are seamless, natural efforts to better equip students for a rapidly changing journalistic reality.

Another issue Bugeja briefly alludes too is accreditation. Bugeja uses the word “restrictive” which prompted me to call my good friend Peter Bhatia , the editor at the Portland Oregonian.  Peter is also president of the Accrediting Council on Education and Mass Communications. (ACEJMC).

I came away from that conversation convinced that as long as Bhatia is involved the accrediting council will not be a block to innovative efforts to change journalism curriculum and approaches. In fact, he seems genuinely excited about the innovation he sees at schools like LSU, Northwestern and Arizona State.

Time will tell whether the ruckus at the University of Colorado is about dysfunction or innovation. I think it is clear countless journalism programs are effectively adapting to changing realities without blowing the place up. Then again sometimes a grand explosion can be a good idea!