Why Journalism Education Faces a Worrisome Future

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Photo: cityyear in Flickr (CC License)

If you want to study journalism, you have more choices today, at lower cost, and of higher quality than ever. Sometimes you will get that at a university and sometimes not. That represents a challenge for universities.

In a lecture at a journalism conference in Puebla, Mexico, I described a personal experience taking a course in data visualization from one of the world leaders in the field, Alberto Cairo, author of  "The Functional Art."

The six-week course had readings and video tutorials of the highest quality. The homework assignments required at least 10 to 15 hours of work a week.

Engaged Professor

Cairo was intimately involved with the course participants, offering criticism of their work and suggestions for improvement. What was remarkable about this course was that there were 2,000 students enrolled from more than 100 countries, it took place completely online and it was free.

I took the course while working in China. It was offered by the Knight Center for Digital Journalism in the Americas, based at the University of Texas.

This kind of course represents a major challenge for universities, because their monopoly on expertise and certification is eroding. Just as occurred in the news business, competitors are emerging who are offering attractive alternatives.

Student Preferences

The customer is now in charge. Students are demanding that courses be available to them whenever, wherever and on whatever platform they choose, and in formats that they prefer.

Many universities make it difficult for someone to sign up to take one specific course without enrolling in a degree program. I ran into this a decade ago when I wanted to take courses in Spanish literature at a Baltimore University. I had the language skill but not the prerequisite courses and could not clear other bureaucratic obstacles.

I was a willing customer with money to pay and was turned away.

Innovate or Be Left Behind

Howard Finberg, who launched the Poynter Institute's online training arm, NewsU.org, noted in a recent essay:

"…the future of journalism education [at universities] is at a critical point for two reasons.
1. Time is running out. Disruption, driven by economics and technology, is coming to the university system much more quickly than most administrators realize.
2. Journalism education will undergo fundamental shifts in how journalism is taught and who teaches it. Those who don’t innovate in the classroom will be left behind — just like those who chose not to innovate in the newsroom."

Journalism training is not in danger, in his opinion, but the value of a journalism degree certainly is. Echoing him is a renowned digital journalism entrepreneur, Ramon Alberto Garza, who addressed the journalism conference in Puebla mentioned earlier. Garza said universities are training students to work within an "obsolete industrial model" while ignoring advances in digital journalism. Garza's remark produced audible gasps in the auditorium, according to Esther Vargas.

It is not just the MOOCs of organizations like CourseraUdacity and EdX that are offering alternatives. The BBC's online College of Journalism offers free access to hundreds of video tutorials used to train its own correspondents. Its foundation also offers free onsite training to journalists and citizens in emerging democracies where freedom of expression is under attack.

Flexibility for Professionals

Some universities have embraced the trend toward more online courses. As Adam Glenn noted in his summary of journalism education trends, the University of Missouri, the University of Florida and American University, among others, are offering degree programs completely online.

The University of Guadalajara in Mexico offers a master's degree program in digital journalism that is completely online. (I helped design it when I was director of the program there.)

Online programs offer flexibility for working professionals. David DeFranza, who is studying for a master's in Technology and Communications in an online degree program at the University of North Carolina, described in MediaShift how he benefits from the interactivity with classmates from other fields.

The non-profit International Center for Journalists, whom I have worked for, is one of many media development organization offering free training online. ICFJ's IJNet platform hastraining and tutorials online in seven languages. President Joyce Barnathan in a recent speech encouraged journalism schools to embrace the new trends affecting journalism and lead the revolution rather than being consumed by it:

"Schools that can adapt and embrace change -- and at the same time serve as standard bearers for best practices -- are the ones likely to be thought leaders, attracting the best students -- and educating the best future journalists."

Grade not Important

As for me, the student rather than professor in the data visualization course of Alberto Cairo, I received no grade. During the course, I used his excellent video tutorials to learn Adobe Illustrator.

I spent probably 30 hours on my final project, an article with graphics describing the low level of user loyalty on major news sites and its implications for business models. (The graphics, without the accompanying explanation, are packed clumsily into one graphic here.)

I put a lot into the course and got a lot out of it. Of the 2,000 people in the course, many were beginners and non-journalists. A few were highly accomplished in the field already. We learned a lot from each other.

Who cares about grades? You would be hard put to find a journalism program that offered a course of this caliber.


James Breiner

Consultant James Breiner is currently working to develop a new digital media product for a business news publisher. He is former director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in China, and founding director of the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. He has spent three decades in the newspaper business, including as publisher, editor, and investigative team leader. He is a member of the Volunteer Group, the GIJN board.

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