McGuire on Media

There is not a "cushy" job in the academy awaiting every journalist

This is going to strike some people as a mighty odd entry. Yet, that’s one thing I’ve learned about a blog in the few short months I’ve been writing—the perk is you can write about whatever you want to write about.

I have been fascinated recently at the number of working journalists, especially editors, who seem to think their next move is a cushy job in the academy and the Dean’s job would be a real nice place to start, thank you.

Any teaching job at a major university is far more demanding than newsroom myths have made them out to be. If you are going to do right by students, spend any decent amount of time thinking about research, writing or even blog writing, considerable time and effort must be invested. And, as more and more frustrated journalists desperately look for a way out, the number of teaching positions at significant universities is not matching the supply of eager journalists. If you are ready to move, and have a shot at a serious teaching job, grab it.  If you get a chance at a chair like I have, get on your knees and crawl.

This blog entry is particularly prompted by all the newspaper and TV people I see vying for the several current open dean’s jobs. I get the painful feeling those who get such jobs are heading for an ugly and dramatic surprise that will surpass the biggest of the Halloween frights. I fear many of them view themselves as accomplished “big shots” who have succeeded in running “real world enterprises” and this “deaning” thing is only a natural next step.

They think anybody of the stature of a top editor or news director could fall out of bed on a bad day and run a journalism program or school. After watching Dean Chris Callahan here at The Cronkite School at Arizona State and considering the situations several other deans face, I have come to the realization that those folks are blissfully heading for a cliff–a cliff with a nasty drop.

Let’s understand that I am writing this from a perspective that would be similar to a reformed drinker. I freely admit I once thought that wandering from a top editing job into a dean’s position was a pretty natural step. I’d “earned” a dean’s job! After some 18 months in academia I am ashamed I once thought that way.

First off, you know all those problems you have in the industry? You know the ones: declining readership, declining revenue, staff cuts, the incredible pace of change, the high cost of competing in a digital world, the confusion digital creates for the mission. Remember those? They don’t go away in a university journalism school, they just get murkier and more immediate. If you are cutting staffs at your newspaper where do you think all these bright eyed, fire-breathing, enthusiastic journalists are going to go? Any dean that isn’t worrying about that got into some of their students’ best stash. This breathless pace of change you’ve been complaining about is not something you’re going to escape in a J-school. For every big hit you take on the chin in the business, the dean’s taking one to the solar plexus.

I don’t want this to be a negative diatribe though, because the intangible, psychic rewards of academia are huge, They simply are not easy to garner. So, let’s talk about five things you’re going to need if you think you want to successfully run a J-school. Remember, this is from the perspective of a long-time editor who has done two visiting professor gigs and now occupies an endowed chair at what I think is the hottest J-school on the planet.

1. You’ve got to genuinely like, respect and advocate for young journalists.

This may seem blatantly obvious, but trust me, it is not inherent. Sure, you probably like your own kids, but do you like the smart guy in the third row who thinks that because newspapers and television sell advertising they are automatically in the bag for advertisers?  Can you like the kid who wants to be Tony Kornheiser or Michael Wilbon and anchor Pardon the Interruption a week from Thursday while he conveniently forgets the fact that both guys were reporters for 25 or  30 years? On the other hand, do you exult and feel like the golden chariot just arrived when a student  truly understands an ethical dilemma?  That’s what this journalism education thing is all about, and those are legitimate questions you need to address.

2. You’ve got to be a leader, not a manager.

I know, you think you are a leader. Again, not so fast, editor-breath. All editors and news directors and publishers want to tell themselves they were great leaders during their careers, but reflect for a minute on the power you had to fire, to order people to be in this exact spot right now and your power to eliminate dissent. If those were key tools in your toolkit get ready for a big-league shock.  Dealing with tenured faculty  takes a lot of those tools away from you.  Understand me here, in every academic situation I’ve been in, I have found faculty far more reasonable , responsible and interested in students than The Great Myth would have you believe. But, they do have tenure. They, like your reporters, are trained skeptics and they cry out for great leadership like any human being does. Let there be no mistake, faculty will try to crush an irrational bully like a car windshield on a Florida Mayfly. And, the windshield wins some of the time.

3. You’ve got to know how to manage bureaucracies.

You only thought dealing with circulation, advertising and production were difficult to deal with. Universities are complex organisms.  Like most bureaucracies most of the people who administrate stuff would like everything to be exactly the same.  Journalism isn’t the same as anything, but that draping yourself in the First Amendment jive that has worked so well over the years is not going to impress a registrar who requires X number of credits before a student can be admitted to your school. The coded language of a university is far different from the coded language of newsrooms.  In my first academic year I heard more terms that left me clueless than I could have imagined. 

4. Delivering the basics does not mean getting a newspaper to the front door.

Chris Callahan is eloquent and funny as hell about his basic mission; “Offer classes and get kids into them.” Seems simple.  It’s not, and neither is the delivery of a curriculum that works, a curriculum that genuinely prepares students intellectually and vocationally.  All those things are hard and they are distinct from skills learned in newsrooms. Again, there is an entirely different language involved in academic counseling, professional career guidance and matching the right professors with the right courses.

5.”Go out and find your own stinkin’ money!”

I saved the best for last. Editors and news directors have elevated begging for resources to a high art form. And, griping and complaining about the lack of resources has become pretty artful too.  Not only does a dean need to be clever and imaginative in procuring resources from the university president, but he has to be prepared to be told to raise his own money.  I am convinced most editors simply have no concept of how much fundraising is a part of the modern dean’s job and I KNOW they have no idea how hard it is. Being “nice” does not come naturally to most editors and news directors. Deans have to be nice, even to people they don’t like because hundreds of thousands of dollars hang in the balance. I often give Callahan a hard time about things he does to raise money, but he knows that much of my jesting comes with built-in admiration and a huge “better-you- than-me” sense of relief. 

Being a dean is a noble calling. While I have turned down some opportunities to discuss dean positions, I’m no idiot so I’d never say never. I’d  like to think my experiences of the last 18 months have opened my eyes, softened my prejudices and made me a lot more realistic about what a dean’s job actually entails. My single goal with this blog entry is to share those lessons with folks considering the leap into academic leadership. Perhaps those working news people actively pursuing or lusting for such positions will keep this blog entry close by and ruminate carefully before they head for that cliff.