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In Newspapers
by Matt O'Grady

Benjamin Franklin was a pretty well-rounded guy: one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, a leading inventor and scientist (the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses and the lightening rod), an accomplished musician and an enthusiastic vegetarian. He was also a journalist of some renown. This last bullet point on the curricula vitae is worth reflecting on, in light of recent discussions about the value of "educating" journalists. In Franklin's time, there was no J-school. His introduction to the world of journalism was as an apprentice (at the age of 12) at his older brother's newspaper printing operation; varied life experiences, a voracious appetite for reading, and a burning curiosity informed his writing (that, and a rather prodigious intellect).

In the two hundred-odd years since Franklin died, the world of journalism has changed a great deal. Polemics has given way to packaging, as various media try to seduce an increasingly numbed audience; the forum for 18th century civic debates, the newspaper, has lost considerable influence and importance. It has lost it, partly, because of new media alternatives, but it has also lost it because of the way modern journalism is being practiced. Since the advent of journalism school in 1908 at the University of Missouri, there has been considerable contention with the notion that a "trade" could - or should - be taught in a university setting. So as to justify their existence in universities, J-schools have developed curricula that cover the arcana of the profession, with only passing concern for what makes for a good journalist: a breadth of knowledge, an understanding of history and civic issues, an inquisitive nature and good writing skills. Some of this cannot be taught: the motivation to be curious and read widely comes from within. The rest can, but not in J-school (an understanding of history, a civic mindedness and general literacy can, if one's lucky, develop out of a liberal arts education). But most of what makes for a good journalist is practice.

Instead, what a J-school student gets is this:

· Journalism 804: Newsroom Leadership (Ryerson). "This course develops skills needed by the thinking editor, including motivating writers, coaching them on ideas, story structures, leads, writing style and content. Supervisory skills are introduced through challenging, real-life case studies." In other words: learn to lead by reading about people who lead.
· Journalism 510: News Writing and Reporting I (UBC). "Hands-on training in the basic journalism skills regarded as the fundamentals for anyone working in the field: recognizing a story, researching, asking good questions, verifying the information, and organizing and writing the story. Emphasis is also placed on accuracy, meeting deadlines, and learning the elements of journalistic style." How does one teach someone to "meet deadlines"?
· Journalism 319: Advanced Computer-Assisted Reporting (Concordia). "Students develop advanced skills in computer-assisted reporting, working with a variety of software and data storage systems to research, analyse and publish their work. The goal is to equip students with the skills necessary to be successful journalists in the information age. " Learn all this - and then forget it, as your new employer will undoubtedly have a different system.

You could call these courses "trade" courses, but that would be a disservice to legitimate trades. What these courses really represent is a crass justification for publishers to push employee training downstream (have schools do what publishers used to do), and for universities to profit from a high-margin program (relatively little research; exploitation of adjunct professors; professional tuition fees, etc). The problem, though, is that by focusing on such rote skills at university, our future journalists are rarely forced to think, to question, or to justify. They view their profession as some sort of automated process: take news lead, insert into story template 41A, wait 12 hours for editorial pasteurization, then remove bland, shapeless object and hand off to legal. And repeat - again, and again. The proof that many journalists no longer think for themselves is evident in the rise of public relations firms and special-interest groups: Whereas journalists used to seek opinions from the small business owner in Vanessa, Ontario, now they wait for a press release from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business; Whereas they used to investigate the state of water pollution in Halifax, now they wait for the Sierra Club to give them a call. Whereas as they used to create their own narrative, now they take dictation from Hill & Knowlton.

The worst part, as Robert Fulford noted in a July 31st Post column, is that most journalism students don't seem to care about the profession they're set to enter. Fulford reports the following story, from a fellow Ryerson professor: for every J-school class of 20 that he teaches, about 12 students do not even read the newspaper. It is well documented that most young people do not read the paper, but surely, if there's a bastion of young readers - one holdout amongst that apathetic demographic - it's journalism students. Alas, no. Fulford goes on to theorize that perhaps such students expect of newspapers - as they do of everything else on the curriculum - that professors will distill all the "important" stuff and tell them about it in class. If that's true, then it shouldn't come as any surprise that journalists - once in the working world - lean heavily on the crutches of press releases, news conferences and wire reports to crank out copy. The modern journalist assumes the role of salesman: marketing someone else's creativity, then spinning the story to fit the audience.

Which brings me back to Benjamin Franklin. He once said that, "any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain - and most fools do". Well, I guess I'm that fool. And I'm happy to play the fool and leave journalism to qualified practitioners. But that's the crux of the issue: qualified for what? A modern J-school education may produce newsroom leaders with unparalleled time management and computer skills, but can they write with clarity, in a comprehensive, accurate, reliable and independent manner? Do they read widely, and can they ask intelligent questions? And would they know a fool from a wise man?


Matt O'Grady is the one sulking in the corner.



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