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Opinion: The same old song about journalism’s academic-professional disconnect

June 21st, 2012 Posted in Opinion

By Ted Pease

Jerry Ceppos, the new dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU and a former newspaper editor, writes somewhat grimly this week about “How Journalism Professionals and Educators Can Close the Chasm.”

His column took me back to my first journalism educators (AEJMC) convention—in 1984 at the University of Florida. As a brand-new assistant professor, newly migrated from the newsroom, that first encounter with journalism/mass communication education was an epiphany. I remember distinctly hearing a research panel presentation that included Guido Stempel and Max McCombs, two of the biggest names in journalism research. I had never heard of them. “Wow!” I thought. “This is great stuff. I wonder if anyone in the newsroom knows about this.”

Like Ceppos, who was at the San Jose Mercury News when I met him in 1990, I’ve also spent a career trying to bridge the gap between “the academy” and the newsroom. Newspaper Research Journal, which I edited with Ralph Izard at Ohio University in the late 1980s, was intended as a way to deobfuscate academic research for the industry we wanted to help. One of my first academic journal articles was for NRJ, documenting the ways journalism professors still worked with the profession, “Bridging the Gap: Journalism Educators’ Professional Activities” (1986, revisited in 1990). Then, as now, there is plenty of professionalism and professional orientation on our campuses.

It’s more than the old saw, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” That’s ridiculous. If ever there should be classroom-workplace partnerships, it’s in our field. Not only do we prepare young people to work in mass communication, but we study and teach about how mass communication works, how journalism influences society, how individuals use mass media to build community. As Stempel once told me after I’d gotten to know him, journalism educators and researchers can help their professional brethren find solutions to their problems, because professionals “are too busy fighting alligators to drain the swamp.”

Like Ceppos and many others on both sides of the academic-professional divide, my professional orientation has led to helping build bridges. Like painting that big bridge across San Francisco Bay, it’s a never-ending task.

In his column, Ceppos talks about prominent news executives like himself who have made the leap into the ranks of J/MC leadership. He is correct that such leadership from the real world on our campuses can be a huge asset. But there are many other ways to create more interactive and mutually beneficial relations.

We need much more traffic across the bridges linking the profession and the campus, but many of our programs—both ACEJMC-accredited and not—quietly and effectively do that in diverse ways. There’s both scholarship about the industry and professional work by academics, direct contact between professors and professionals, partnerships with professionals as advisers, collaborators, visiting faculty. We also should find more ways to exchange services: applied research that professionals can use, and support from our partner industries in the form of visiting faculty (short- or long-term), funding, paid internships for faculty and students, joint projects on areas of mutual interest, from marketing to new media content to audience research.

It is sobering to hear Ceppos quote Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation—another old friend who creates bridges between newsrooms and classrooms—as he fumes about the disconnect between journalism education and the media professions. (Newton and I worked together on a project for the Freedom Forum in the early 1990s that resulted in the report, “No Train, No Gain,” about the need for continuing professional development in newsrooms—an argument for partnering with J/MC programs.) I share his concern about how professionals are integrated into academic programs. This is one underutilized way to keep professionals’ skills current, and to connect our academic programs with the real world.

Our little program at Utah State was called the best professionally oriented journalism program in Utah more than a decade ago. One reason was a partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune, which, under the leadership of then-editor James Shelledy (now at LSU), loaned us one Tribune reporter or editor every year for five years to teach fulltime. That great example of newsroom-classroom collaboration is long gone, but we continue that robust professional orientation: Four of our last five faculty hires have been non-PhD professionals who bring their experience and expertise in real-world journalism, PR and new media to our classrooms. It’s no accident that our student journalists won more Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Awards this year than any other program in the state.

I am concerned to hear Newton threaten loss of private-sector support for journalism education unless things change. What private-sector support? Since the Tribune partnership of the 1990s, we’ve seen industry support pretty much dry up (except for good scholarship support). Because we choose not to be accredited, the Knight Foundation doesn’t support strong professional programs like ours. Maybe the private sector—and foundations like Knight and Hearst and others—should look more widely for J/MC programs where professionals and professionalism are valued, and not limit themselves to ACEJMC-accredited departments.

I sing in the same choir as Ceppos, Newton and others about the need for more collaboration and coordination between journalism/mass comm education and our professional partners—especially as the profession morphs and changes. But I don’t see much evidence that the troubled and beleaguered media professions that we serve with research and the occasional entry-level employee have much interest in supporting us. Why is that?

—Ted Pease is professor and head of the Department of Journalism & Communication at Utah State University.


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  1. 2 Responses to “Opinion: The same old song about journalism’s academic-professional disconnect”

  2. By Steve Ross on Jun 23, 2012

    As one who has happily bounced between academia and practice — and who has authored or edited 19 books and many pioneering academic studies — I believe there is an obvious barrier between professional practice and American campuses: Lack of a doctorate.

    At least twice a year (and four times this year) I have been recruited to apply for open teaching positions in the United States. Almost all offers are immediately pulled off the table when I mention that I do not have a PhD. My academic background was good enough for Columbia University (20 years there with a distinguished teaching and course-development record) and even Harvard. But today the deans — and university presidents — demand the doctorate.

    In addition to my publication record, I bring to the table experience in 85 countries, experience creating and running NGOs, and experience in public office. I helped create the world’s first courses in environmental reporting (1973), among the first courses in computer-based analytic journalism (1977) and among the first in new media (1993).

    Fortunately, my plate is full — I teach abroad several months each year, edit a magazine, continue my research and media consulting, and serve on several corporate boards — companies developing journalism-related technology. But I wonder about the talented professionals our campuses continue to ignore.

  3. By Mu Lin on Jun 27, 2012

    That’s why Eric Newton’s “teaching hospital” model of journalism education is getting traction and discussions lately. A journalism program needs faculty member who can do research well, faculty members who can teach well, and it’s all the more difficult nowadays to find people who can do good research, and teach the new digital journalism practices.

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