Journalists are extremely insecure. If you were in a profession that might be a shadow of its former self in a matter of years, you would be, too.
But the volley between Badger Herald columnist Kevin Bargnes, School of Journalism and Mass Communication Director Greg Downey and countless other J-school grads showed, to a degree, how poorly we deal with that insecurity. Instead of discussing the overriding issues of keeping journalism relevant, we nitpicked an intro course as if it would lead to graduates without jobs, skills or a lasting interest in the profession.
I agree with Downey — we need to have a conversation. I just think we need to think a little more radically.
Consider the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates proposals. Chancellor Biddy Martin has touted the program as an academic Swiss knife — tackling issues of bottlenecks, professor drop-offs, advising and financial aid with one tuition-based tool. And she invited everyone on campus to give ideas for how they could use it.
The response was overwhelming. The second round of proposals for funding saw 114 submissions — which included everything from standard department hires, to a new digital studies curriculum to a anime-addled “Cool Japan” studies program.
But it’s not an all-purpose tool. When the editorial board met with Martin last year to discuss the MIU process, she was a bit mum on the criteria but made one thing clear: they would not be doling out funds simply to fix bottlenecked courses. Those proposals that used their faculty in innovative and transformative ways would get the first priority.
UW has $10 million dollars to spend on faculty and services for the next two years. The first round expended $3.8 million. The second round could potentially spend all the funds given the immense amount of need for different faculty hires.
Enter proposal No. 41: journalism.
The School of Journalism and Mass Communication is asking for 10 percent of remaining MIU funds ($600,000) to do a few things: increase the major by 30 percent, add a 100-level course, expand the course Mass Media and Minorities to an enrollment of 125 students and add a career adviser (the lack of which is, frankly, embarrassing).
So it’s a very simple proposal — we need funds for faculty and TAs to open up these classes, bring in more people and add multimedia courses.
Solid request for a major with such a high demand — usually 300 people apply to the school each semester and 105 get in.
But the Student Oversight Board that met last weekend wasn’t that impressed. It gave it a rating of 2 — good proposal, but not the highest priority.
L&S gave it a similar mark — out of 18 proposals, journalism was ranked by Dean Gary Sandefur as tenth in terms of the college’s total priorities.
Director Greg Downey made it clear in through e-mail correspondence that without these funds, they cannot innovate or expand — the department will remain stagnant in a time where a mutating industry necessitates different strategies to stay ahead of the curve.
Downey is right: The J-school needs these professors and TAs. The problem is that the amount of money requested doesn’t result in a grand vision for a new educational method; it results in a way to keep the department relevant and sustainable. The same goes for econ, poli sci and most of the departments ranked above the J-school by Sandefur. The difference is those departments don’t, and likely won’t for some time, require a complete restructuring of how they approach their discipline. You don’t need a sea change structure or approach to give students a proper preparation in political science.
The same cannot be said of journalism. One survey course, three reporting/strat comm. classes and three theory classes aren’t going to produce a revolutionary new conception of how to deliver a message to a mass audience. It’s going to only force journalism graduates to limp alongside a crippled media until it either is replaced by a radically different communication model or give up on the profession altogether. They can write and film fine stories, but they won’t be saving the profession because of what they learned.
Given that MIU is supposed to spur innovation, it’s the perfect excuse for the journalism program here to explore altering the school’s approach — in addition to teaching students how to produce easily digestible information, we should teach them how to ensure there’s an adequate delivery system for that information. We can spend funds to keep our professional program relevant for today’s media landscape, but why not spend money for undergraduate research on journalistic sustainability?
Let’s have them research the success and failure of Internet revenue streams for online news sites, what information different users get about news through social media, what mobility a story funded from a non-profit source has and if it spurs more funding for independent investigations. Let’s figure out how we can communicate in our global society, and then explore how to keep the lines themselves open. After all, if this is the crisis of the industry, why not force those heading into it to offer pieces of the solution?
In fact, this could be an interdisciplinary venture between multiple departments — political science, computer science, business, history, comm arts, library and information sciences and life sciences communication can all participate in a joint venture for pragmatic research in order to take the rein in an unwieldy media landscape. And given Martin’s emphasis to see undergraduate research, it might get a bit more of a push in the MIU queue.
There’s no need for a radical transformation of the department itself — while we could certainly improve the coursework and equipment used to integrate mixed media into mass communication, the J-school classes give a far better training to prospective advertisers, PR managers and journalists than most schools in the country. Therefore, the current proposal should suffice to that end.
But we should be bolder. It’s a lack of direction and decision-making that’s put journalism in its current position. Why not try and rectify that at an academic level?
Jason Smathers ([email protected]) is a first-year graduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.