No more J school

Is ‘Journalism’ losing its clout in U.S. higher education?

By Steve Outing

The University of Colorado’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication ceased to exist (it was “discontinued”) on June 30, 2011. Journalism education at CU lives on, for now as a “program” housed in the CU Graduate School. At some point, CU will have a Journalism “department” inside a still-being-planned new College of Media, Communication, & Information. (CU’s Board of Regents will vote on a completed plan to create the new College next month.)

To plenty of journalists in and outside of academia (including me), the proposed name of CU’s new College is troubling. As you’ll note, “Journalism” is not part of its proposed name; Journalism is to be relegated to a department within the area of “Media, Communication, & Information.” (It’s possible, of course, that the Regents won’t just rubber-stamp the new-College proposal; they could always force “Journalism” into the name.)

Why is this a problem? (Hint: First and Fourth)

Are you familiar with the term, “The Fourth Estate”? In the USA (and the UK), the news media are often referred to as the “fourth branch of government.” While not a formal institutional system like the American executive, legislative, and judicial branches, of course, journalism holds great societal responsibility. The originator of the Fourth Estate term, English politician Edmund Burke, is cited by historian Thomas Carlyle in an 1841 book:

“Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

This stands today in the USA, as well. And let’s not forget the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which specifically grants freedom of “the press” (what today we mostly call the “news media,” comprised on the species we cal “journalists”).

In other words: Journalism is pretty damn important to maintaining a functioning democracy! Even if it is going through a painful and messy transformation to adapt to the digital age, I’ll suggest that “Journalism” is an important word to hold onto; higher-education administrators might add “Media” into an academic entity’s name, but Journalism can’t be replaced by Media.

The CU-Boulder situation has me wondering: Is it a sign that Journalism is waning in importance at American universities and colleges? Are some higher-education administrators mistaking Journalism’s disruption period for a decline in the importance of Journalism, and making decisions that defy the significance of Journalism? Do they need to be reminded of the First Amendment and the role of news media as the Fourth Estate? (Let’s see, which other academic disciplines are mentioned specifically in the U.S. Constitution?)

Take a look at the interactive map below to see the current situation. The markers represent universities and colleges with journalism-education programs accredited by ACEJMC, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism & Mass Communication. (Non-accredited journalism programs are not included.) Those institutions that include “Journalism” at the highest bureaucratic levels — in the name of a College or a School — are red; those where “Journalism” is in the name of a department within a larger academic unit are yellow; and those where journalism courses are taught within an academic unit that does not include the word “Journalism” are purple.

A visual hierarchy of Journalism education in America
This map is interactive. Click and hold to move around; click on any colored marker for details of a university or college. (Research by Steve Outing; produced with Google Fusion Tables.)

Considering the importance of Journalism to safeguarding our democracy, I would prefer to see more red markers on the map. I would like to see very few or no purple markers, in deference to the significant “Fourth Estate” role that Journalism plays in the USA.

The CU-Boulder situation took away a red marker. In fact, if you zoom out the map and spot CU’s yellow marker (indicating a Department of Journalism; which is coming, but not officially created yet), you’ll notice a huge area all around Colorado with no universities that have colleges or schools that include the word “Journalism” — for many hundreds of miles. A Colorado student wishing to go to a School of Journalism not far from home would have to look at Phoenix (Arizona State), Missoula (University of Montana), or Lawrence (University of Kansas), the closest “J-Schools.”
(Article continues below charts…)

At the University of West Virginia, its Reed School of Journalism is getting a new name as of July 1: the Reed College of Media. While this name change reflects better what the institution covers, I have a problem with “Journalism” being left out. Wouldn’t the “Reed College of Journalism & Media” be a better choice without demeaning Journalism?

Is the name of a college or school that important, if there’s a Journalism “Department”? … In some cases, perhaps not. Syracuse University in New York, for example, has the Newhouse School of Public Communications; within its impressive I.M. Pei-designed building, students can get Journalism degrees from either the “Print and Online” or “Broadcast and Digital Journalism” Departments. The Newhouse School tossed away the word “Journalism” in 1971 when the School of Journalism merged with the Television and Radio Department. “Public Communications,” at least, is a broad term, easily encompassing “Journalism.”

In contrast, consider the University of Washington in Seattle. Within its College of Arts & Sciences is the Department of Communication; within that department, Journalism courses are taught. UW is the largest public university in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle is a town with a great journalism history, and its location makes it an important news center not only for the Northwest region, but Seattle journalism plays a key role in covering Pacific Rim economics, trade, and politics, and industry giants Microsoft and Boeing.

So how is it that “U-dub,” a university with 43,000 enrolled students and nearly 6,000 faculty and instructors, relegates journalism to one part of a Communication Department? So much for the importance of the “Fourth Estate.”

Moving out of the silos

An important and necessary trend in higher education, especially when it comes to journalism, is to get university and college Journalism entities out of their silos and interact more formerly with other disciplines. Today’s and tomorrow’s journalists can’t succeed with only journalism skills: They need to understand and gain expertise in other fields, such as information studies and social media; entrepreneurship; computer studies (including picking up some level of technical expertise); etc.

That’s the intent of CU-Boulder’s new College of Media, Communication, & Information. But the CU flaw, as I see it, is in degrading Journalism — and the importance of “The Fourth Estate” — by not including “Journalism” as one of those three words in the College’s name.

CU’s mistake is one that I sincerely hope other higher-education administrators do not repeat. For a better model, look to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications in Evanston, Illinois. Formerly the School of Journalism, Medill has adapted to communication realities in the digital age. When administrators added “Integrated Marketing Communications” to the School’s name in 2011, many journalists bemoaned and ridiculed the change and scratched their heads. But IMC is a reasonable phrase to sum up the rapidly changing fields that combine marketing, public relations, and advertising, and puts them in a digital-age context. But Medill kept “Journalism” as the first word in its full name, and now reflects the range of its academic offerings.

What to call it?

As the world changes, academic administrators will continue to change college, school, and department names to reflect the modern state of Journalism and Media. Peruse the list of current journalism-education entity names, as I did, and you’ll notice a few unusual ones:

  • Department of Journalism & Technical Communication (Colorado State University, which has long clung to that name)
  • School of Journalism and Telecommunications (University of Kentucky)
  • School of Media and Strategic Communications (Oklahoma State University)
  • Department of Contemporary Media and Journalism (University of South Dakota)
  • Department of Journalism and Media Arts (Baylor University)

‘Mass media’: Isn’t that history?

Sadly, many institutions of higher learning appear incapable of outwardly recognizing that Journalism and Media are passing through a monumental period of change, and, indeed, into a new era. The ones that disappoint me the most are those that retain “Mass Communication(s)” or “Mass Media” in the names of their units that include journalism education.

By my count, there are 35 entities with “Mass Communication(s)” in their names (colleges, schools, and departments) in the ACEJMC list. Of course, it’s also part of ACEJMC’s name.

Sure, we still have mass media, but the media world has changed profoundly, from news to advertising to public relations to marketing communications. Each of these formerly “one-way,” “mass” communication fields has been transformed by technology so that the flow also is two-way between communicator and audience member. The biggest communications companies today are Google and Facebook; each is a media company and a news provider, as well as technology and advertising companies. But their interactions with billions of customers are not “mass,” they’re personalized for each individual.

Merriam-Webster defines “Mass Communication” this way: “Communication directed to or reaching the mass of the people.” Oxford Dictionary: “The imparting or exchanging of information on a large scale to a wide range of people.” Does the study of Mass Communication sound like an up-to-date academic discipline, given those definitions? … Umm, no.

Can we finally dump “Mass Communication(s)” from journalism/communication-education entities’ titles? Please? “Communication(s)” will do; or “Public Communication(s)”; or “Media,” when an overall phrase is required.

Ditto for “Public Relations” and “New Media,” other anachronisms that are sticking around too long at some universities and colleges. Medill’s “Integrated Marketing Communication” works; so does “Strategic Communications,” as used by Oklahoma State University. Public Relations is but a (waning) part of those evolving fields.

As for “New Media,” that was an apt term in the 1990s when I began my online-news career. Even in part of the early 2000s it was acceptable. Today, how about if we make more use of “Digital Media,” which covers much of the media world today, and “Emerging Media” when we need a term for journalism and media innovation? (“Online media” or “online news”? Outdated now that more of the population interacts with media content and services on mobile devices. “Online” is another anachronistic term that had a broader meaning before the mobile revolution.)

A final plea for the Fourth Estate

Anyone who’s ever worked at a university understands that decisions are made slowly, and academic group-think often results in late and poor decisions. If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, “Journalism” may be removed from the names of more colleges and schools within U.S. universities’ journalism and communication discipline areas. Blame competing academic-discipline leaders for insisting that theirs is the more important field as disciplines are brought together; blame university top administrators for not being able to see through the smoke of such inter-disciplinary chatter, plus the state of disruption and confusion that is Journalism and Media, and thus being misled into naming decisions that damage Journalism in the long run.

Let’s hope that the “Fourth Estate” as it evolves and deals with technological and business-model disruptions doesn’t become the “Three-and-three-quarters Estate” in part because academic administrators forget about the special role of “the press” (i.e., journalism).

“What’s in a name?” you may be thinking. Well, Journalism is a powerful word; demoting it at or eliminating it from journalism-education entities weakens not just the profession, but the entire society that depends on Journalism as a safeguard against those who would undermine our democracy.

What do you think? Does U.S. higher education have a Journalism problem?

Disclaimer: Since I cited the situation at CU-Boulder in this article, I should mention that I worked in its former School of Journalism & Mass Communication and the post-“discontinuance” JMC program from 2010 to 2013, as founder and program director of the Digital News Test Kitchen.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!