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The Upcoming Journalism School Overhaul

Frederic Filloux

by Frederic Filloux

Three forces will contribute to a profound evolution in the way journalism is taught. The brutal consequences of the COVID crisis are just one of them. (This is part of an occasional series on journalism teaching).

The benefits of attending a journalism school have always been clear: the quality of teaching, the sense belonging to your class, and the moral support that goes with that sense of fraternity. Last but not least is the access to the job market made easier thanks to scores of internships and a powerful network of well-connected teachers and alumni. That combination was at the core of the current model and a justification to enroll in a journalism school, in the United States or in Europe.

Until now.

Today, three major forces threaten the edifice:

1/ The consequences of the pandemic (switch to online classes —see a previous Monday Note— and the brutal deterioration of the economics of news).

2/ The evolution of expectations for students who are now more interested in skills acquisition than a framed diploma.

3/ An evolving approach to journalism that is drifting from “educated witness” to activism coupled with tangible defiance towards the traditional media establishment (I will address this soon).

Well before the crisis hit, we saw a growing disconnect between the tuition costs in American journalism schools and the expected entry pay. I treated the subject here.

Just to remind you of the basics: the average cost of a year in a J-schools in America amounts to $54,000 while the average pay for a reporter in the United States is less than $45,000. (By comparison, an MBA graduate from a top tier university can expect $200,000+ in compensation).

That was before the pandemic hit. Now, with a massive loss in journalism headcount, entry salaries are likely to take a dive. Everywhere, internships are often unpaid, and I even witnessed a major public broadcasting system in Europe organizing a contest for aspiring journalists to win… an internship with zero pay. What kind of future is this? How can we reasonably ask a young adult to incur a huge student debt along with such bleak prospects?

For one, no major journalism school can anymore hope to charge fifty grand a year for online classes. Expect steep rebates. A 60~80 percent discount could be a good starting point. After all, tertiary education is a high margin business (more in a future Monday Note).

In addition, any J-School that will master the switch to online teaching can easily double the size of its yearly cohorts, at least for all lecture-based sessions. For specialized classes like writing classes, video editing, or data-journalism workshops that require smaller groups, the problem can be solved by adding adjunct instructors or creating teaching assistant positions. Business-wise, a severe drop in tuition costs could be partially offset by larger groups, a more flexible and adaptive teaching workforce, and a substantial reduction in structural costs.

Getting a Degree vs. lifelong learning of skills

Does it make sense to get a journalism degree anymore? Or would it be better for aspiring journalists to acquire skills on a need-to basis, beyond the core common knowledge base? I lean towards the latter based on multiple observations and chats with students as well as young journalists.

A personal anecdote to make my point. I entertain an ongoing friction with an art student I care about, who wants to be a documentary filmmaker and photographer. She has an incredible eye, a talent for constructing a good narrative. But, almost as a principle, she doesn’t care about any technical aspects of the trade: image quality, lighting, sound. I try to convince her that great artists and storytellers started by mastering all the techniques of the trade: in 1592, Caravaggio spent months making patterns and hues in painters’ studios in Rome before churning out still-life paintings and getting noticed. Contemporary photographers like Richard Avedon or James Nachtwey, filmmakers like Jonah Kessel, or the ones produced by MediaStorm were all great technicians prior to emerging as exceptional visual storytellers.

Years ago, I interviewed the great portraitist Platon, the man behind multiple magazine covers, in his New York studio. Holding his Hasselblad film camera, he told me: “You must master the technique to the point you will completely integrate it, forgetting about it like you don’t think about breathing. That’s crucial. Then, you are able to focus on the creative part, the story, the message you want to convey through your images…”

As I was lamenting to a fine-art photographer friend of mine who also teaches, he retorted: “You are wrong on this. Today’s generation has a completely different approach when it comes to acquiring technical knowledge: they will call for it on a need-to basis, in response to a specific project requirement. They will go on YouTube, which is also an unfathomable resource for skill-learning, to understand how to do a specific kind of shooting or mastering a particular editing technique. This is the way things are done now.” Like in The Matrix when Carie-Anne Moss performs a brain-download of the chopper’s manual before stealing it. Later, I got confirmation of this by talking to my own students who are in a permanent skills-acquisition mode.

That makes me wonder about the way we teach journalism in the context of the current job market with its ever-evolving required skills.

Twenty years ago, you had a decent general background, you knew how to write and deal with sources and then you were in business for doing journalism. Now an aspiring news person is expected to master video, podcast production, understanding open-source investigations, or have some clue on how to deal with data, preferably with some notion of Python.

Here are some possible evolutions to consider:

• The future of journalism teaching, therefore, could look like some kind of à la carte continuous learning, with basic majors for ~20 percent of the courses, and ~80 percent specialized skills.

• The notion of defined semesters might also be reconsidered: instead a student could buy multi-year access to a vast catalog of skill sets that they will tap into, based on the needs of the moment (a new job, a new assignment in the newsroom, a change of journalistic beat, or the sudden desire to develop their own project, etc.)

• Even better, we could have multi-institution packages. For instance, instead of a joint degree requiring two full-price tuitions, a student would buy a three-year subscription for a European and an American institution to access a larger palette of curriculums.

This evolution will not go easily as many moving parts will be impacted.

The business model will have to be reinvented.

•Morphing the antiquated, expensive, and vastly profitable system of tuition into an agile subscription apparatus is a complex task:

•Even if universities will, someday, go back to in-person teaching, the propensity of students to pay large tuitions will be largely diminished due to the economic crisis. This is the ratchet effect of vastly reduced tuitions for the academic year 2020–2021, and more broadly of student debt that has become unbearable (and unpopular).

•A solution could be the generalization of a deferred-tuition system in which a student pays a little upfront (say 10~20%), while the balance is reimbursed based on their actual salary, on a three-year period, with a cap to avoid draining an excessive share of their income. A $50,000 tuition could be paid with a $20,000 down payment and three years at $10,000 assuming the student finds a job that can support that. Such a system does exist in California and New York but on a tiny scale. It entails shifting the risk from universities to financial institutions, which should not be a problem for Columbia, the University of California System, or for large European institutions.

Retooling the curriculums

• Another issue would be adjusting the supply-side (content and structure of the classes), to the demand (i.e. the competencies needed by students at a given moment). A complex fine-tuning would be required with a near real-time analysis of the market needs, anticipation of underlying trends of the profession, etc.

• Great attention should be given to the packaging of the classes. We can’t expect a twenty-something student used to the fast pace of YouTube tutorials to be captivated by a two-hour lecture delivered by a middle-aged man speaking in a monotone voice. What is needed is something between short Coursera formats and neatly produced MasterClass®-like sessions for rock-star lecturers like this one featuring Bob Woodward “teaching” investigating reporting. (There is actually demand for this kind of sleek production as Yanka Industries Inc., the mother company of MasterClass, is seeking to raise $100 million at a $800 million valuation).

• Maintaining a sense of camaraderie and community wouldn’t be easy for students working remotely on different time frames. On that, I would draw a parallel with operating a largely decentralized corporation. As explained in a previous Monday Note, the sense of belonging to a community could be achieved by periodic and purpose-driven gatherings of people, as well as a new kind of remote-working software designed to favor contact between students as in a physical classroom.

• The last issue on the list (for now), involves certification.

In 2020, few young journalists care about the framed Gothic-scripted version of their academic achievements. What matters is the employer’s perception of their true potential and skills. That’s why some certification is required. It could be a variation of “nano-degrees”, as long as the process is deemed reliable.

The model for teaching journalism described above will require talent and investment reallocations at a critical moment. But the current crisis also represents a unique opportunity for bold moves. And as nature abhors a vacuum, if these changes are not undertaken by the incumbents, you can bet that some startups will jump on it.

Later, we will look at possible financial models and the impact of activism-driven journalism. Stay tuned.

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