Who will enable the emergence of Journalism?

One of the greatest yarns journalism educators and journalists spin these days concerns their personal relevance to the future of the industry. With everything up in the air, anybody’s guess is as good as the next. But a massive industry contraction has made more than a few hacks have to face the plain horror that a life in journalism can whither much sooner than you plan to do. Suddenly, everyone and their dog is ready to apply “30+ years of experience” to a teaching role in higher education.

For journalists, the dissolution of the infrastructure housing the professional elite is nothing less than  a gut-wrenching betrayal. Some Big Guns of the newsroom, the ones used to the most industry respect and accolades, are packing up their bags with visions of a kinder, gentler place, and rightly so. And I know a number of great salty dawgs of lesser industry reputation who were unceremoniously cut in favour of two or three freshly-minted (and much less expensive) novices. These war horses are bridging the gap to retirement benefits as flaks — writers for hire who spin the company line.

But even that leap doesn’t promise as secure a landing as it once did. The time has also come when the contemporary corporate communications professional lands replete with the Public Relations diploma from a community college or MBA specialization rather than many years in the trenches of daily news.

Higher education can appear a receptive mistress. I’ve been amazed on more than a few instances by how nothing perks up a passel of PhDs more than the chance to meet someone they know from TV.  A fetish for celebrity is immediately rationalized as that sexy edge that would put bums in program seats.

Nobody seems to be worried that 30 years of work in a dying platform might not be all that relevant to the task at hand.

I happen to think Journalism is at a point in which it could really use an opportunity to become more research-oriented, start building actual knowledge about actual applications for actual innovation of practice. We need researchers who can discover new ways of doing journalism.

There’s no question that society has a need for new knowledge about the ways and means by which we can create factual, reliable information for the public in better and better ways using all the latest mobile technology. Why wouldn’t this be Journalism’s baby?

Like a player on the field about to snag that pop-fly.. you’d think you’d hear a good strong “got it!” from j-profs on this one.

Some places are doing it, mostly, by the looks of things, under the steam of that amazing foundation funding infrastructure in the United State. In my home province of Ontario, there seems to be so much peanut butter to walk through — so much already invested in that radio // print // television identity silofication.

I don’t think it is something we can deny for much longer. I can’t remember the last time I watched a local television newscast as it airs and on my regular television set. Yet I watch online news and other factual videos all the time.

I’ve never produced video for the web, yet I’ve been teaching broadcast techniques for 10 years. Would I still teach a basic news ‘wrap’ style? Do I drum out the subjective in favour of the objective if the student is more likely to be producing subjective news for pay when they’re finished the program?

And if I make the leap to the subjective styles, can I be considered a ‘television’ prof any longer? Or am I an ’emerging media’ prof?   Or, as I prefer to think of myself, am I a writing/reporting prof (that uses multiple platforms)?

What labels are relevant to this day and age?

These are real, material concerns on the day-to-day level. And what I’ve found within that daily grind is that, IMHO, too many people in the j-ed biz and the non-j scholars themselves can’t cede old turf. Too many still seem to talk about “emerging” media as if it is something the young geeks do.

Media aren’t the only spaces in need of some evolution.

But back to journalists and research. Biologists teach biology. Engineers teach engineering. But they both get to focus a lot of time and energy discovering new things about the world as part of their research requirement.

As a result of their knowledge creation, their techniques of practice and their ways of looking at their field evolve — sometimes painfully — but they evolve. Knowledge gets produced. It is new knowledge. It progresses. It emerges.

It rolls back into teaching, updating textbooks. It rolls back into the field, updating how things are done or what we know to be true.

Not so for journalism practice.

And this is where the traditional academy is letting journalists down. Not all hackademics have the opportunity to take this on. In a lot of our Canadian journalism programs, practitioners are lucky to have a research expectation. A big spike in journalism programs in the double-oughts in Ontario was created by marrying a university liberal arts degree to a community college journalism program. In this arrangement, when it comes to research, the practitioners are on the wrong side of the fence. No real commitment in those institutions for faculty to produce new knowledge. That’s the university’s turf.

Some universities have a history of giving practitioners teaching-only contracts. No research expectation there. And in other places, practitioners have negotiated the right to keep producing journalism rather than produce peer-reviewed research. This if often characterized as holding less value than peer-reviewed contributions in the social sciences or humanities literatures, but that’s just fine if the journalist remains ‘productive’.  Tidy arrangements, all.

But none solve the problem of who will research the practice of the future. Where, within the academy, should one look to determine the cutting edge of that knowledge?

I’m starting to think that anyone interested about this type of knowledge production within Canadian spaces will have better luck mining programs such as this and this.

Note that they don’t mention the old j-word much, if at all.

It is a little like being that player on the field that reaches up, has the ball in her sights.. and then that glove comes up from behind, out of nowhere and snags the fly instead.

“Didn’t hear ya!” the team-mate shrugs. And before you know it, someone else is snapping your ball to home.

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