Should Journalism Schools Rethink Magazines? (Or Even Journalism Itself?)

Last week, Susan Currie Sivek wrote about how magazine programs within journalism schools are increasingly giving up on traditional magazines—or as she less cynically puts it, how they are teaching beyond the magazine. It’s the right direction for J schools to take. But does it go far enough?

Though I love magazines, I’m not sure any journalism school should have a magazine program. For that matter, I’m not even sure any university should have a journalism school.

(By way of disclosure, I should say here that while I’ve been practicing trade journalism for 25 years, I didn’t go to journalism school, or even take a journalism course. Though I’ve hired many journalism majors over the years, I’ve probably hired just as many from other disciplines. Judging by how they all did, I can’t say that the scholastically trained journalists had any advantage over the others.)

The problem with magazine programs isn’t so much that magazine publishing is an increasingly bad business (though it is). The problem, rather, is that the distinctions between types of journalism and between types of publishing are breaking down. It used to be, for instance, that the wall between magazine publishing and book publishing was too high for most people to leap over. With easy options like Kindle Singles and E-books, though, that’s no longer true. Likewise, the differences between trade and consumer magazines, or between trade journalism and newspaper journalism, have steadily dwindled. Dividing journalism up into separate fenced-in pastures no longer makes sense. The field is wide open and you can roam wherever you want.

In Sivek’s article, Medill’s Rachel Davis Mersey repositions the role of journalism education in brilliantly simple terms:

“I object to the idea that all new products have to be digital products. I’m pushing my students to not be content-first, not platform-first, but audience-first,” Mersey said. “My classes are designed around selecting an audience and researching it, using mostly secondary sources, and some primary research techniques.”

What’s interesting about this approach is that it doesn’t apply simply to journalism, but to any communications endeavor. It’s certainly no accident that Mersey uses a marketing concept, that of personas, as part of her approach to understanding audience.

When everyone is easily able to become a publisher and, arguably, a journalist, does it make sense still to treat journalism as a distinct profession, with its own professional schools? As an intellectual venture, the study of journalism makes sense. But perhaps—and I say this tentatively—it should be incorporated into higher education as a whole, not isolated in a rarefied institution. If financial literacy should be a goal for all university students, so should media literacy. (And Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive should probably be a required text).

In reflecting on the uproar over the potential for conflicts of interest involving Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch, blogger and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis recently concluded that  “we need to question—not reject, but reconsider—every assumption: what journalism is, who does it, how they add value, how they build and maintain trust, their business models. I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism.”

Not surprisingly, his questioning led at least one reader to wonder whether Jarvis’s own school of journalism has “any real mission or identity.” Jarvis rightly replied that questioning is what both journalists and teachers are all about. Though it’s more difficult for institutions than for individuals, journalism schools will have to go through his exercise of reconsidering everything they do. In the end, they may abandon not just their magazine programs, but the very concept of professional journalism.

4 thoughts on “Should Journalism Schools Rethink Magazines? (Or Even Journalism Itself?)

  1. Good rethink piece. Couple of quick observations:

    1) Personas are a vital tool for information architects. I wish more editors had background in information architecture.

    2) A occupation may be identified as a profession if it:
    • has a code of ethics,
    • licenses its practitioners,
    • has skills based on a body of knowledge that can be referred to,
    • requires a degree, testing, and continuing education,
    • has individual decision-making autonomy for its members, and
    • has an association that can regulate the occupational behavior of its professional members.

    I believe the only true professionals are lawyers, doctors and nurses, and CPAs. Let me know if there are others.

    Journalism is not a profession, but it does have one significant trait of one (among others): a code of ethics. This is not to be sneezed (achoo; I’ve got allergies). It is what separates us from so many bloggers, social media “experts,” and other business communicators.

    Moreover, the journalist’s code of ethics imposes upon us a particular behavior that codes of other communicators might not, e.g. fairness, balance, and one might add non-advocacy.

    Bottom line: It DOES make sense to differentiate between journalists and other communicators.

    Your turn.

  2. With apologies to the Bard:

    I can call ethics from the vasty deep.

    Why, so can I, or so can any man;
    But will they come when you do call for them?

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