"If a paper doesn’t sell, it dies" says John Lavine, the dean of Northwestern University’s respected Medill School of Journalism since last year. On the other hand, a Medill professor says, "Marketing can get dangerously close to pandering."
Dirk Johnson, in a very informative article in the September 2007 issue of Chicago magazine entitled "Campus Revolutionary," examines a sort of generation gap struggle going on at the prestigious school between those who revere the old traditions ("turning out journalism students the old-fashioned way, preparing them for disappearing jobs in print publications and giving them little knowledge of the changing demands of consumers," according to Lavine) and those who fully and enthusiastically embrace an emphasis on new technology and marketing.
In the "old media" sector, newspaper circulation and advertising have been falling at big-city newspapers, "owing to the Internet and changing tastes, particularly among the young." When a Medill student complained about paying over $40,000 in annual tuition to hone his writing skills in order to land a job at a publication like The New York Times, only to be forced to "do all this video stuff," Lavine answered, "It would be unethical for us to educate you only to be able to write. . . . It would be like sending you out with your left arm and your right leg tied behind your back." According to Lavine, "The increasing challenge for journalists is how to get their work read, watched, or listened to. . . . We teach students how to gain insights into the people they are trying to reach–what their lives are like, what kinds of news and information are relevant to them, what they need to know."
Another student pointed out, "The training in technology has eaten up time that could have been spent in developing skills in reporting and writing. . . . I’m a little worried about this idea that we’re supposed to be focusing on the ‘consumer,’ like news is just another product to be sold." Even some supportive faculty members note that a great deal of material has been crammed into classes. "It’s as if you were teaching basic math and then shoved in some calculus and statistics."
I am not a journalist (I wanted to become one, but realized many years ago that my lack of aggressiveness and self-confidence would interfere with my getting "the real story"), so I can only take an interested outsider’s view. Personally, I love the written word, and am indifferent toward most videos. Perhaps that’s a generation gap in action. I embrace the Internet, but mainly as a place for self-expression and sharing ideas and experiences (in writing) by ordinary people. I embrace technology, and I have no desire to go back to the era of writing in spiral notebooks or on manual typewriters or of setting type by hand. For an older person, I consider myself quite open to change. I embrace computers, but I still insist on subscribing to and reading a daily newspaper, sometimes two.
I wonder: can Medill or any other journalism school do it all and still retain its stellar reputation? I hope so. Can the school fully embrace the new media and marketing arenas without shortchanging the writing component? Of course I don’t know the answer. I guess only time and the marketplace will determine the future of the "old media," the "new media," and Medill itself.
Incidentally, I still wonder why the "new journalists" have occasionally given more time to Paris Hilton’s antics than to the Iraq War?
Johnson, Dirk. "Campus Revolutionary." Chicago September 2007: 109 +.
Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne