Hi everyone —

So the spirit of optimism is catching on all over the place! I realize many students are filled with a certain amount of anxiety about the state of the Journalism profession, an anxiety fed by many who see only problems, not possibilities with the state of journalism. But, there is hope, the training you receive at UMass still counts. Check out this piece by Penn State’s Dean:

Penn State Dean: Journalism School Degree More Valuable Than Ever
By Chris Lavin (More articles by this author)
General Manager, San Diego Union-Tribune
Thirty-two years ago, I walked into the newsroom of The Geneva (N.Y.) Times and asked for a job.

I couldn’t type. I could barely write. I had no photography or design skills. I had never taken a journalism class. But small newspapers always needed cheap help, and they were willing to train even a high school senior with more chutzpah than sense.

Today, with newspapers and television news operations retooling for a multimedia future, the entry routes to this profession clearly won’t be that easy. Amid layoffs and buyouts at my current newspaper, I have hired one journalist in the last two years: A bright, young, social anthropology major who had multimedia training that trumped his fleeting familiarity with the traditions of print journalism.

Just as editors in shrinking newsrooms across the land have scrambled to find these new talents, deans of journalism schools big and small have had to scramble, too, and take a hard look at their faculties and the kinds of courses now making up a journalism degree. It is easy to ask if the journalism program still fits with the industry it served for generations. It is another thing to answer that with any certainty. Look closely, however, and you’ll find signs of hope.

One sign of hope is the annual Hearst Collegiate Journalism Competition — often called the Pulitzers of college journalism — which included a multimedia category for the first time this year. The entries poured in from schools all over the nation and, interestingly, some of the best work to my eye did not come from the usual suspects: Northwestern, Indiana, Missouri or Penn State. Take a look at this entry from the University of Miami.

Gaby Bruna’s entry was among the most thoughtful work I had seen in five years as a Hearst print judge. Similarly, Tim Hussin’s work from the University of Florida, “Kids with Guns,” used mixed photography, narrative storytelling, news and video in ways that Web editors all over America would lust after.

Are the skills we need in our new hires today still those that have been the focus of traditional journalism programs for years? In the edited Q&A below, Doug Anderson, dean of Penn State University’s College of Communications, who also serves as chairman of the Hearst competition’s steering committee, says he agrees there are challenges for J-schools these days. Counter-intuitively, however, he paints a picture in which the fast-changing landscape in journalism brings an added premium to the J-school degree.

Chris Lavin: How do you answer a parent who asks, given the layoffs and consolidations in the news business, whether it makes sense for a student to major in journalism these days?

Doug Anderson: The news business is changing, and that change has certainly been painful for the industry. But journalism will not disappear. Consumers have more options for news now than they ever have. And changes in the industry ultimately create opportunity. Students recognize that, and they continue to opt for journalism as a career choice.

Doug Anderson
Doug Anderson

Indeed, our College of Communications is the largest nationally accredited program. This fall, we enroll 3,654 undergraduates and 79 master’s and doctoral students. Of our 3,654 undergraduates, some 1,647 are freshmen and sophomores with the remaining 2,007 enrolled as advanced sophomores or juniors or seniors in one of our five majors. Our largest major is journalism, with 717 upper-division students.

We had nearly 2,500 applications last year for this fall’s freshman class. To say that interest in mass communication remains strong would be an understatement.

When high school students and their parents attend our various information or orientation sessions, I am frequently asked about the job market. Candidly I tell them what it is like, and I remind them also that it could be something far different four years down the road.

Have the recent struggles in the media landscape changed the way a journalism school dean looks at the faculty, curriculum and mission of your program?

Anderson: Yes, I think we all look at faculty composition and our curriculum differently. But the mission of a journalism program remains the same: to educate and prepare students for citizenship in a society in which communication and information are major commodities that constitute the heart of the democratic process. But in a time of profound change in the structure, content and dissemination patterns of media, the fundamental skills of investigation, analysis and communications through written and visual media remain.

The changes are in tactics, not in goals.

How do you make room for new multimedia training within the curriculum? What do you give up?

Anderson: I often liken our curriculum to the bowl I have on my office conference table. It’s filled with Snickers — and, when it is filled to the brim, I can’t jam any more candy into the bowl. Same with our curriculum. As an accredited program, students must take more than two-thirds of their credit hours outside of the program, with most of those courses rooted deeply in the traditional liberal arts and sciences. And we wouldn’t dream of eliminating any of our basic technique courses to make room for a wholesale group of exclusively “new media” courses that, day-by-day, simply are chasing the latest and glitziest software.

We’ve created a capstone course in convergence journalism, to be sure, but we also have “adjusted” many of our technique courses. We now supplement several of them with two-week “inserts” that introduce convergence to students, as well as to longtime faculty members. Partnerships with professionals have helped bring convergence into the classroom, and the recent addition of Curt Chandler, former editor for online innovation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has been the linchpin.

He is responsible for many of the “inserts” in other faculty members’ classes. Two-week “inserts” in our print reporting classes, for example, focus on video, audio and still photography. And inserts in our television reporting class, for instance, focus on the production of online portfolios that
might appeal to potential employers in broadcast and on the Web.

Given the rapid consolidation of traditional media — newspapers, for example, executing video, audio and mobile distribution, and television stations moving more toward the Web — do you feel pressure to collapse traditionally separate training disciplines within the school?

Anderson: Recent industry changes might suggest, at first glance, a wholesale collapsing of traditional areas of emphasis in print, broadcast, visual and online. Our role as educators, though, is not the knee-jerk response but careful assessment of the basic skills and values we need to provide students. How are those best provided in the new-media context? Many programs, including ours, are finding a solid middle ground: providing in-depth training in the basics across all the platforms and then using advanced courses to help students integrate their skills across those platforms.

Journalism faculties often point to years of experience in the industry for credibility. With the drastic changes in journalism today, can the same faculty members keep up with the real conditions in such an environment?

Anderson: In a word, yes. Their years in the industry are invaluable in teaching the bedrock fundamentals. But faculty members must, and I am convinced that our faculty members do, continue to develop their expertise. They do that through keeping in touch with their industry contacts and through taking advantage of training opportunities at workshops and with newsroom partners.

Increasingly, the division between traditional “production” skills — design, photography, videography, copy editing, writing — are merging with the traditional reporting and writing skills. Can these disciplines remain as separate as many are in journalism schools now?

Anderson: Probably not. But these skills have been merging for years in journalism school curricula. We also need to recognize that such “merging” of production and traditional newsgathering will be increasingly seamless to a generation of students that have long integrated technology as an essential part of their lives.

In a more practical matter, do the strains in the industry threaten funding sources that many journalism programs have counted on for decades?

Anderson: It’s clearly getting tougher out there. Most of the foundations that historically have supported journalism education continue to do so, although most of them will not have as much money available to distribute in the months ahead. Direct financial support from the news industry has largely dried up, and it also has slowed considerably within most of our other revenue streams. These things always have been cyclical; we’re hoping for a good bounce back, sooner rather than later.

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