Is Journalism Education The Problem?

I am a both a journalism educator and the product of journalism schools.  And I wonder if the current problems facing newspapers in particular and journalism in general are a product of that education?

I’m not out to slam any j-profs or j-teachers.  I am one and know a great many.  They are all great at what they do – teach the theory and practice of news gathering and news product creation in all its many forms.  What they are not good at is teaching business.

When I was in college and when I worked in the professional media world (newspaper, TV and radio) there was almost always a wall (both figuratively and often literally) between content and advertising.  Most newsroom types didn’t want to get their hands dirty dealing with the business side.  The newsroom’s conception of things was that it is the ad department’s job to pay the bills and it is my job to report the news.

I even remember several ethics classes and discussions where we talked about how important it was to keep a distance from our advertisers, so that we would not be tainted when they were involved in a story we were covering.

When I worked in broadcast, lenslingers usually detested “sales” as the ad department was known.  They were usually creating havoc for us by creating promotional campaigns that required the production department to create promo spots and other materials.  Or they were complaining because we didn’t shoot a local commercial correctly.

The only place I ever worked where there was a certain level of connection to paying the bills by the content creation department was at PBS.  I worked for a medium sized PBS affiliate in Texas and when you work at PBS, you learn about pledge drives, actions and other types of fund-raising.  Everyone understands that their own job is partially supported by that fund-raising.

But even after working at a PBS affiliate for more than two years, it was a shock when I was now in charge of a yearbook and a newspaper when I started teaching.

As the journalism teacher, you are held accountable for the bottom line of every publication you sponsor.  I was terrified.  I did not have an accounting background.  As a college student I had overdrawn my checkbook – twice.

I will say that I was a quick study.  In 15 years, we have only gone into the red twice on the yearbook.  Our newspaper has never done well financially, but we’ve kept it out of danger.  This has always been a struggle for me, both as a journalist and as an educator.  I was not given any professional training in either my journalism classes or my education courses for purchasing equipment, dealing with vendors, approaching advertisers or fund-raising.  And even if I wanted to learn such things in college, there were no courses designed to teach this information.

We need to do a better job of integrating the business department into the journalism curriculum and the education curriculum.  Both journalists and teachers need more business skills than they are given (which is zero).   We should invite the business departments at major universities to teach a course in media funding and revenue creation.  They should also create one for educational purchasing, fund-raising and budgeting.

I think this would go far to change journalists and educators expectations and ability to create funding streams and manage resources based on cost analysis and not pie in the sky, wishful thinking.

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