Joining forces to pull top-notch journalism into the digital age

Eric Newton

Eric Newton

By Eric Newton

This op-ed column appeared on the front of the Currents section of the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday Oct. 7.

The digital age is changing almost everything about journalism - who a journalist is, what a story is, which media should provide news when and where people want it, and how we engage with communities.

The only thing that isn't changing is the why of journalism. We still need good, honest, independent reporting - the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth - to run our communities and our lives.

Among the things blown up by the digital age were local newspaper monopolies. As advertising collapsed, newsrooms shrank. In some cities, the newspapers provide only a fourth of the local news they once did.

Journalism schools are stepping up. They're producing community news. They're experimenting with new techniques and technologies. But they won't be able to serve their communities well unless their professionals and professors work better together.

In the United States, nearly 500 journalism and communications colleges, schools, departments, or programs enroll more than 200,000 students. Like much of academia, journalism schools have been slow to include the digital age - social- and mobile-media innovations, but also digital law, ethics, and history - into all of their classes.

Leading schools (of all sizes) have embraced the "teaching-hospital" model. Students learn by doing actual journalism, just as medical students heal people, or law students file real briefs. This helps the schools stay current. Students at Philadelphia universities, including Temple and Drexel, are providing local news. To do their best, however, "teaching hospitals" need to have more professionals on hand - and they need to find new ways to not only inform but also engage communities.

Who will track the progress of digital-journalism experiments? For that matter, who will tell us much more than we do now about this profoundly new age of communication? For the first time in history, we carry a mass-media device in our pockets. It's a library, a telephone company, a broadcast studio, a printing press, and much more - with the smartphone, we've got the whole world (of media) in our hands. What does that mean?

The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project is doing excellent research, but more is needed. To really understand this new age, we need our greatest scholars and greatest journalists to work together on research. Not just once in a while, but all the time. They'll need to get out of their respective silos to do it.

That's a good idea, says Jerry Ceppos, former Knight-Ridder company news executive and currently dean at the University of Louisiana Mansfield School of Mass Communication:

"For starters, I would gently say that professionals could improve the accessibility of some writing and even graphics without reducing the gravitas of articles. After all, that's what professional journalists do. In addition, research areas suggested by professionals might help the journalism industries - again, without reducing the quality of content."

From the scholarly side, Jean Folkerts agrees. The professor and former dean of the school of journalism and mass communications at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, sees them as a combination of academic expertise and journalistic experience. "By doing the research together, they inform each other and learn from each other. Such collaboration ends the vicious cycle of academics believing that journalists jump to conclusions without adequate data, and of journalists thinking academics have no regard for journalistic work."

So what are we waiting for? Let's unite the tribes. We need everyone's help to bring high-quality journalism into the digital age, to perfect new ways to keep independent news and information flowing. We are desperate for a better understanding of the "science" of how news informs and engages communities.

Happily, there's support for all this in the new standards adopted this summer by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. One new standard says students must be able "to understand the digital world." Another says digital skills should be "in keeping with professional expectation." A big change allows more crossover classes, so journalists can learn the kinds of business, software, and design skills needed to launch the news organizations of tomorrow.

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Read more in the Philadelphia Inquirer

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