McGuire: J Educators Need to Help News Industry

Thursday, Nov. 30, 2006


Cynical journalism educators who mock the beleaguered news industry should instead help media leaders seek innovative solutions that will ensure quality journalism for future generations, says Tim J. McGuire, the former Minneapolis Star-Tribune editor. McGuire, who now holds the Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, delivered the following speech at a welcoming reception held in his honor Nov. 29 on the ASU campus: Let’s take a little trip through some headlines from the last three months on the press industry’s almost biblical Web site, Romenesko, on Newspapers will no longer be a mass media in a few years Execs expect to see more outsourcing of journalism jobs Gannett’s Arizona Republic lays off 31 staffers PiPress wants to freeze pension benefits, cites shortfall MediaNews proposes to cut some Merc News wages by 30% Philly Inquirer editors told to prepare for 150 more layoffs Blade suspends dental and vision benefits for union members And that doesn’t even include the incredibly lame press release put out by RTNDA defending the use of advertorial news tapes by about 50 television stations. The news about the media is way beyond bleak. I don’t claim any dramatic discovery here, nor do I contend I am unveiling any great academic theory. I AM arguing that we in the academy cannot view those stories as cause for casual bemusement. We are not disconnected observers. As journalism faculty we must see ourselves as keen participants in this unfolding drama besieging media. The daily battles that beset our long-time comrades in news beset us too. We’ve got to come to grips with the fact that journalism’s failures are our failures. Layoffs and the erosion of benefits in the news industry matter to us. There are a host of trends in the media we don’t like and that we decry, but we cannot step back and keep our hands clean. We must not wander off to class and wax eloquently about the good old days. We cannot pontificate or abdicate. Our most cherished product, our students and their futures, depends on journalism faculty all over this country enlisting in the battle for the future of the journalistic soul. Journalism and corporate media, and thus journalism education, are at a critical crossroads. If they are in trouble we are in trouble. Decisions are being made in corporate offices and newsrooms across this country right now that will determine the future of journalism in the public interest for the next 50 years. That future includes our students. That means we must equip those students to be a part of a vastly changing landscape. It also demands that we challenge those students to be an integral part of the decision-making process that will dictate whether a commitment to journalism values and long-term survival will win out over short-term, bottom-line profit choices. There is much irony involved in my occupying the Frank Russell chair. About six or seven years ago, before I retired as editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, I sat with John Oppedahl in the lobby bar at the Scottsdale Marriott near Old Town. This chair was a just gleam in John’s eye, and he was excited about the prospects. I remember him expressing his conviction that it was vitally important that journalists and students of journalism genuinely understand that the media business needed to turn a profit. He wanted students to appreciate that profit was good and quality journalism did not have to suffer. I agreed with John that day. I still agree with him. That is how I set out to teach the business of journalism class in August. I quickly discovered some realities that forced me to reassess how I teach that course. Those discoveries have led me to some new conclusions about the academy’s responsibility in the current media tumult. In the six years since those drinks in Old Town Scottsdale the stunning changes in the media business have forced the mission to morph to some degree. Suddenly if you do not know the meaning of the terms, “wisdom of crowds,” “reputation engines,” “social computing,” “gaming,” “Second Life” and “avatars,” you risk being irrelevant if you want to think about the future of news. Journalism’s business future depends on how quickly we can adapt, adjust and think creatively and innovatively. Journalists and academics need to appreciate that all the good ideas are NOT taken. A genuine attitude of search and journey is required to find new ways to do business in a society built on convenience, personal interaction and incredible technical savvy. As John and I discussed that afternoon long ago, business matters, but the choices we make about the short term and long term matter even more. We must educate students and journalistic decision-makers that change and innovation are a necessity, but so are values. Ethics, a dedication to the public sphere, civic responsibility and allegiance to communities— demographic, psychographic and geographic— are essential to educating the next generation of journalists. I have become convinced that as faculty we must teach those values, and we must teach that conscience and responsibility to the common good can allow media leadership to make a major contribution to society. To accomplish those lofty goals I believe we must do these three things: Teach hope and display hope. Cynicism and skepticism about the industry get us nowhere. Our students still believe in the good journalism can do for society. We must praise and bolster those convictions. Our attitude really does mold their attitudes. We need to keep our shoulders straight and our language positive. Advocate for the industry, don’t mock it. It is our job as academics to shine a critical eye on the profession, but that doesn’t mean we belittle and bemoan. Our critical eye must come with a helping hand. We need to be energetic in advocating for solutions and for better journalism. When we believe journalistic decision-makers are selling out, we need to call them on it, but we must always criticize with love of the craft and the business as our base-line motive. We must help solve problems. I am thrilled to work for a dean like Chris Callahan and a university president like Michael Crow, who have invested big money in a groundbreaking Media Innovation Lab, who have started an online media collaboration with The Arizona Republic and who are contemplating another groundbreaking lab for entrepreneurial solutions. That same sense of problem-solving must permeate the courses each faculty member teaches and every public comment we make. A commitment to teaching journalism’s core values, a commitment to teaching that business decisions must be focused on the long-term and based on the common good, a commitment to teach hope, advocacy and problem-solving could make America’s journalism faculty effective partners in turning journalistic failures into journalistic successes. Tim J. McGuire is the Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is the former editor and senior vice president of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.