McGuire on Media

Journalism education and AEJMC have to step up to show students how they can survive

At 11:43 Tuesday morning I walked out of an energizing, challenging and crucial encounter with the students of my Business and Future of Journalism class.

The inevitable question I face every semester finally came up. Debating the answer to that question pleasantly hijacked the 75-minute class. THE question was a few weeks late this year, but I always know it’s coming.

It goes something like this: “You’ve convinced us that mainstream media is in dire trouble, and other professors tell us how bad things are out in the workplace, how can you remain so positive about OUR future as journalists?”

As I always do I used the plaintive question as a class summary. I talked about the Schumpeterian moment that destroys as much as it creates.  I cautioned if students expect to go into the world in which I worked they are going to be profoundly disappointed.  To quote Ken Doctor, in his book Newsonomics  “the old news world is gone, get over it!”

I also told the students that, while corporate journalism is under assault, journalism itself is thriving. I drew several circles. One signaled the  TV universe and another illustrated the newspaper universe. Then I drew smaller circles inside each of those to demonstrate that both employment universes have gotten a lot smaller. I encircled those shrunken circles with a giant circle to illustrate the ever-growing  news universe I am convinced will offer these students new rewarding jobs if they are properly equipped with new media skills.

I waxed about the importance of entrepreneurialism, innovation and invention.  I exhorted the students to combine those skills with journalistic skills to create an exciting news world we can’t see right now.  

One particularly impassioned traditionalist was not excited by my vision. She made the valid point that she wanted with all her heart to be a traditional newspaper person who did responsible, important reporting. She said she’d do it for peanuts if she had do. 

“God love you,” I shouted. I am convinced there will be a place for the highly competitive determined reporter who loves the traditional craft, but it’s going to be a much harder slog. I argue that traditional journalism values can be maintained and students will find a bright, lucrative future if they fully invest in being a part of inventing new journalism models. I admitted that does require a leap of faith many traditionalists find tough to swallow.

I left the class exhilarated.  I didn’t convince everybody but I felt I had opened some eyes and at least slightly increased student optimism about the future.

At 11:48 Tuesday morning I sat down at my computer still buzzing from my engaging dialogue.  You could have violently swung a wet towel at my head and I wouldn’t have been more shocked than I was by what I read in my emails.

Someone had sent me this link to the AEJMC election site with the vice-presidential candidate platforms for the upcoming election. I carefully read the statements from the people who want to lead AEJMC. I urge you to do the same but I warn you the shock could be damaging to your emotional health.  It was to mine.

The statements run in the neighborhood of 1000 words.  All educators and all journalists who believe there is great change afoot should read them carefully, but I am going to provide a cheat sheet.

The statements are phenomenally inward focused and process oriented.  Business experts will tell you whenever an organization cannot look outward  and beyond itself, decay has settled in deep. More surprising  though are the words I don’t think you will find. 

You may be more eagle-eyed than I am, but I am quite sure you will not find words like  “innovation,” “entrepreneurship,” “partnership” or “future” used in any permutation.

Shockingly, there are two other words I predict you will be unable to find: “students” and “news.” You know: the customer and the product!

I had just battled my rear end off to convince students there is an exciting, positive future awaiting them in the real world and suddenly I was reading the words of educators who want to lead AEJMC, offering prose that would have been jarring and out of date in 1985.

I write a lot about how the newspaper and television news industry need to innovate and radicalize. Stunningly, if these candidate statements are any guide, journalism education makes the news industry look like a bastion of forward thought. Accuse me of being a romantic if you must, but I think educators should be leading, not looking in the rear-view mirror.

It may be obliviousness or it may be denial, but educators need to get over whatever grief they feel about the loss of yesterday. Journalism education needs to quickly grasp the fact  that light at the end of the tunnel is a train. Unless we switch tracks quickly the collision is going to be destructive to journalism schools and to the future of journalism education.