The Chronicle Review

Journalism Schools Can Push Coverage Beyond Breaking News

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle Review

November 15, 2009

In the minds of most journalists, the work we do is indispensable, and has always been indispensable, to the successful operation of a democratic society.

A democracy requires an informed public, which journalism generates, and because we monitor the performance of government, we ensure that it honestly and capably serves the people. Journalism schools often have rhetoric to that effect emblazoned on their walls—certainly ours does. We're here to train the future bearers of our democratic function and to do what we can to nudge the current bearers to do a better job.

At this moment, given the precarious financial state of the news media, our core conviction about the role of our profession feels a bit shaky—more on that in a moment. But schools and departments of journalism are generally thriving. The contradiction is especially noticeable because the education sector is just about the only part of journalism whose business model is still in excellent health. How can we be so evidently countercyclical? And what can we do to help change the situation for news organizations, so that journalism schools and the profession might thrive together?

In hindsight, it seems clear that just about all living journalists grew up taking the solidity of the social and economic arrangements underlying our work too much for granted. Yes, until 10 or 15 years ago, it seemed as if practically everybody was in the ambit of the mainstream media, but that didn't mean there was a loyal mass audience for news about public affairs. Newspapers were vast bundles of information—sports scores, classified ads, movie schedules, comic strips, supermarket discount coupons—no one part of which had to stand on its own economically. Television and radio news were the sole sources for a summary of the great events of the day, on the day they occurred.

But today the Internet, by doing a wonderful thing—making every component part of the news separately and instantly available to anyone with a broadband connection—has relentlessly picked apart the economic logic of news organizations. It turns out that original reporting on public affairs, unbundled from other information and untethered from high-priced retail advertising, has trouble paying for itself. So, by inexorable economic logic, fewer people are being paid to do it.

Yes, the nation's founders wrote the First Amendment, and the citizens of the early republic passed it. But with respect to the press, that represented an extension of the guarantee of free speech to printed matter, not the creation of a sanctioned professional category. Information-seeking reporters took decades to arrive on the American scene. First there had to be cities, and fast, powerful printing presses, and ways of making enough money in the newspaper business to pay for newsrooms. The big-city newsrooms of the late 20th century were a workable support system for the social function of reportorial journalism, but even then it was anomalous for such an important democratic task to be entrusted almost entirely to private businesses. Anyway, the point soon became moot because the economics of the arrangement stopped working.

Why haven't journalism schools suffered the same fate as newspapers? In general, universities—which, like newspapers, only more so, are great bundles of unrelated activities having to do with the production and dissemination of knowledge—have thus far been immune to the process of disaggregation that has devastated news organizations. The idea that belonging to the middle class absolutely requires first getting a bachelor's degree from a residential college, a concept that would have been considered crazy a century ago, is now deeply ingrained in American culture.

Journalism programs in universities mainly serve undergraduates, so the programs live under the protective umbrella of that assumption. Graduate journalism programs mainly attract people who have fallen in love with the profession, so those programs are protected from strict cost-benefit calculations. Many young people seem to be excited by the turmoil in journalism and see it as an opportunity to get in on something new, rather than as a threat. And journalism schools have a powerful argument for themselves today because they can teach the skills that the profession demands—in working in digital media, and in reporting on complicated subjects—far better than newsrooms can.

A generation ago, the essential skill for journalists, writing a breaking news story, was fairly intuitive, and many graduates of journalism schools could expect careers that entailed long, slow rises through large news organizations, with training embedded in every step. Today many of our new graduates find themselves working at understaffed Web sites—either freestanding operations or parts of traditional news organizations—where they have to be comfortable with Web publishing from Day 1 and have to handle quite advanced and specialized editorial content, without much advice from anybody. Education is important in this environment because the workplace isn't set up to provide it.

Because of their location in universities, journalism schools have access to large populations of young people, and many are making efforts to teach "news literacy" courses to nonjournalism students. Such courses aim to educate civilians about how journalism works, but also, and more important, to instill the habit of reading the news every day. The idea is that a daily report from a reputable news organization is to citizenship what the proper diet is to health: a long-term, life-enriching practice for individuals, and, in the aggregate, an important element of a better-functioning society.

Those courses are a good thing. But journalism programs in universities can work toward the ideal of an informed, engaged citizenry in other, even more urgently important ways.

The main problem in journalism today lies on the supply side, not the demand side. It is true that the unfettered, ungoverned Internet can offer up all sorts of misinformation to readers. But it is also true that, unlike traditional news media, the Internet provides a means for instant correction and counterargument. (Our leading font of durable journalistic misinformation is talk radio and television, not the Internet.) Online encyclopedias, auctioneers, and retailers have found pretty good ways of establishing trust across large communities of strangers; that is within journalism's reach, too. The Internet almost certainly has expanded the audience for genuine news more than it has expanded the audience for misleading news. The world's top news organizations have attracted enormous global readerships, far beyond what they have ever had before, and millions of secondary sites, from aggregators to one-person blogs, are heavy direct and indirect users of material produced by those organizations.

Because the barrier to entry is so low, the Internet is also a great medium for journalistic experimentation; we don't have to wait around for big, tradition-bound organizations to innovate. The real difficulty is that the Internet doesn't support the kind of journalism that covers production costs, because almost all Internet journalism is free to readers and bargain-priced, compared with print, for advertisers. Opinion journalism, of the kind invented by pamphleteers in the 1700s, thrives on the Internet. Original reporting does not. So even if every single person under 30 woke up every morning with a gnawing hunger for news, it's not at all clear that the hunger could be satisfied, especially if it's a hunger for local news.

Therefore journalism schools ought to explore, and are already exploring, the possibility of becoming significant producers of original news reporting to make up for the loss of the reporting that economically devastated news organizations can no longer afford. Journalism schools and departments are practical-minded, often to a fault; they are oriented toward sending their students out to report under faculty members' direction. The advent of the Web has made publication and distribution of the fruits of students' reporting easy and inexpensive. Anyone in the world who has a good Internet connection can log on to the Columbia School of Journalism's Web site and find at least two dozen journalistic sites operated by our students and faculty members. The efforts include local-news sites about Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and upper Manhattan; subject-matter sites on charter schools, religion, and the economic crisis; and media-related sites for magazine, radio, broadcast, and digital journalism.

What journalism and the public most need right now is serious, continuing coverage of matters of public importance: city halls, school systems, statehouses. Journalism schools are not fully equipped to provide that now, but the logistical and financial difficulty of equipping them to do so would be far less than the difficulty of creating and sustaining new news organizations built from scratch. Like teaching hospitals, journalism schools can provide essential services to their communities while they are educating their students.

Journalism schools not only can replace the original reporting capability that news organizations have lost, but also can raise the level of sophistication in the practice of journalism. Why? Because so many of them are located in research universities that are our society's leading collections of top-level expertise across all realms of knowledge. Journalism schools should be deeply involved with the other parts of their universities, not just in order to spread the word about journalism, but also to learn, and then to teach, about the substance of the issues that their students report on.

Journalism is more interdisciplinary than most other fields of study in the university, and more oriented toward producing published work aimed at nonexperts. But it should—and, at this point, probably must—have a greater ambition than simply reporting facts without analysis or context. News organizations are finding that "breaking news" has become a commodity without much economic value. Journalism schools, because they are in universities, are an ideal place for journalism to find its way toward producing work that truly explains societies to their citizens.

Nicholas Lemann is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.