Editorial: Journalists trained to watch bottom line, not government

Editor’s note: Part one of this series, “Top journalism school sells out to corporate media,” appeared in the Sept. 26-Oct. 2, 2007, issue.

What’s happening at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., is happening at journalism schools across the country. More and more emphasis is being put on training “journalists” as marketers, advertising executives, flacks and business managers, while less emphasis is being put on teaching journalists the importance of the First Amendment and the role of journalists as watchdogs of government.

Two journalism departments from which I graduated—the undergraduate program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and the graduate program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—continue to try to balance the tenets of the “new” corporate media with the “old” tenets of civic-minded journalism.

In 2003, the College of Communications at Drake University—a four-year college—joined forces with the College of Business and Public Administration. The theory was that journalism students should have the option of focusing more on taking courses in business and finance than in arts and sciences, such as history, political science, sociology and philosophy. The obvious objective would be to train students to become bottom-line media executives rather than civic-minded journalists—or an odd combination of the two—rather than focus on humanities.

Meantime, an ad hoc campus committee at the University of Illinois recommended in 2004 that the provost consider disbanding the College of Communications, establishing a separate school of journalism, and disbanding the Department of Advertising in favor of a possible advertising track in the new school. The U of I College of Communications—composed of departments of journalism and advertising, the Institute of Communications Research and the Division of Broadcasting—is a two-year college that students enter in their junior year. The university decided in May 2004 that the College of Communications would remain intact.

The university, however, recommended that the College of Communications expand the undergraduate courses offered by the Institute of Communications Research, “in part as a means for making the institution more financially viable,” according to a May 5, 2004, university news release. It also suggested that the college offer a broader media studies program, “involving connections between the Institute of Communications Research and units outside the college, most prominently in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,” the release added.

The goal, ultimately, is to create a college that makes money and that balances the tenets of “old” and “new” journalism.

I graduated from Drake University’s undergraduate journalism program in 2001. Through that point, the school was guided by the wisdom of two old-school journalists (and great teachers)—Herb Strentz and Bob Woodward (not that Bob Woodward, but “the other Bob Woodward”). Strentz went into partial retirement around that time, while Woodward retired in about 2004.

I remember one time working late at the campus newspaper at Drake in 2000. The newspaper’s office was in the same building as the offices of journalism professors. I was alone in the newspaper office when Woodward—with light gray beard and light gray hair combed over his head and down the side of his face in an eccentric and carefully-crafted combover—shuffled in the door and sat down in a chair next to me. He looked exhausted, and began talking about the politics behind the College of Communications and how much of a struggle it was to fight for the Department of Journalism. At the time, the college was considering cutting all funding to the campus newspaper, and making significant changes to the curriculum.

Woodward, who always said journalists needed to have a certain “energy,” always displayed that energy himself every time he was around students. That energy was not present that night in the newspaper office. He looked dejected and deflated. He retired about four years later, after the new curriculum went into effect.

Woodward was a phenomenal teacher. He was a former principal assistant national editor and world editor at The Washington (D.C.) Star from 1965 to 1972 (the evening newspaper in Washington, D.C.). He was at John F. Kennedy’s funeral. His main tenet was “ACCURACY! ACCURACY!! ACCURACY!!!” and he insisted on being fair and balanced, and “getting the list and following the money.”

Strentz was all about the First Amendment and freedom of information. In fact, he often would joke that he started each day on the hill in his back yard screaming at the top of his lungs, “FREEDOM OF INFORMATION! FREEDOM OF INFORMATION!! FREEDOM OF INFORMATION!!!” He was secretary and founding member of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council (IFIC), viewable online at www.ifoic.org. His unforgettable quote to our class regarding obscenity in journalism was, “I have no problem with shit, piss or tits.”

More eloquently, is the quote from James Madison on the front page of the IFIC Web site: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

At the University of Illinois, my uncle, the late Bob Reid, was—and still is—referred to by many of his colleagues as “the conscience of the college.” He taught students that public affairs journalism was not just about a bunch of talking heads—but about people and how public policy affected their lives.

Reid encouraged students to be “Curious Georges” who would ask endless questions and want to know everything about everything. Instead of teaching classes about “how to write the perfect lead” or “how to construct the perfect story in inverted pyramid format,” his classes focused on what to do when you have to decide—on deadline—whether to use a picture of a person jumping to his death from near the top of the World Trade Center on 9/11 or whether it’s ethical for a journalist to accept financial support from a public figure.

He wanted to make people think, and—above all—emphasized the important role journalists play in our democracy.

As Reid, himself a product of the “old” civic-minded Medill School of Journalism, wrote in a column titled “Are profits killing newspapers?” for the U of I Department of Journalism’s online magazine Spike in January 2000: “In a very real sense, newspapers have been, are and will remain the day-to-day textbooks of our democracy. Newspapers can provide us with accurate views of the world outside our immediate, personal gaze. Those views—or the lack of them—shape our agendas and actions as citizens. If newspapers lose their credibility with the public through a loss of belief that they are trying to tell the truth, fairly and responsibly, then citizens are left to grope largely in the dark.

“Quite rightly, those who control newspapers worry about the effect of rising public skepticism. But they tend to worry more about this as a matter of losing potential profits than as one of losing the potential to better inform citizens. Thus, the response of many of these newspaper executives has been to apply modern management techniques to the running of their newsrooms. These techniques generally are generic ones, devised so that those who learn them can run a soap factory or a department store profitably. Such techniques stress employing market studies, enforcing uniform production methods, cutting costs and using a variety of equivalents to the assembly-line production of goods and services. The techniques apply well to some aspects of what newspapers do, but poorly to others. …

“Although newspaper profits in general are very high compared with other businesses, many newspaper customers are receiving a lower quality and are paying a higher price for what they get currently versus previously. Profits have been kept at high levels by considerable cost-cutting, including areas of newspaper operations where the quality, ethics and morals of journalistic performance are at stake. This has seriously diminished the ability of many newspapers to fulfill their roles as civic educators and civic watchdogs.

“Expensive, serious reporting has become less frequent, cheaper fluff and sensationalism more prevalent. In many instances, senior editors are so engaged in marketing and other management activities that they no longer closely review major stories before publication or even spend much time with their sub-editors and reporters.

“Around the country, many papers are no longer attracting as many of the best and brightest from the next generation as they once did. Also, cost-cutting has forced some of the best of seasoned, serious journalists into early retirement.

“Making profit the main goal of journalistic endeavor has demoralized many of the best reporters and editors. This has led a few of the more ambitious or more insecure journalists into some serious ethical lapses that have resulted in fabricated, sensational or under-reported stories. With increasingly large portions of the literate public, all of this has seriously undercut the credibility of newspapers. That, in turn, has led to calls from powerful people in business, politics and the judiciary for shrinking First Amendment rights.

“I think it’s time for newspaper publishers to consider the prudence of using these thoroughly modern management practices so single-mindedly. …”

After reviewing some of his personal experiences from his newspaper career that proved responsible journalism could deliver what he called “reasonable profits,” his column concluded:

“High-quality journalism, in short, is both practical and good for the ideals our society cherishes most. The core problems of newspapers today are not ones of systemic inevitability. Rather, newspapers face a challenge relating to human character: a challenge to their publishers, editors and reporters to act with real respect for readers and potential readers—as have John Gardner, Gene Roberts, and Nelson Poynter along with the Sulzberger family in New York, the Grahams in Washington, D.C., and the owners of The Wall Street Journal.

“All of them have proved that individual profiles in courage are not incompatible with realizing reasonable profits. They also have demonstrated that reasonable profits are not incompatible with conducting responsible and ethical journalism. That is the only kind of journalism capable of commanding the respect which ultimately is vital to preserving the freedoms our society enjoys under the First Amendment to the constitution for the children and grandchildren who follow us. Future generations depend on us to be responsible stewards of the freedoms we have been given, freedoms we should strive to hand down to them intact. We owe them nothing less.”

The full column can be viewed online at http://www.comm.uiuc.edu/spike/index.pl?story=reid-column.

The only problem is corporate media are not interested in “reasonable profits”; they want massive profits. And corporate media believe they will not get massive profits by continuing to use the traditional tenets of journalism. Instead, they prefer media that are more reactive—giving audiences only what they want—rather than being proactive—giving audiences what they need to know to be informed citizens in our democracy.

The impact of this on journalism schools changes their curriculum away from civic-minded journalism toward bottom-line journalism.

from the Oct. 10, 2007, issue

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