Teaching journalism in the 21st century

New York University professor Adam Penenberg asks provocative questions in an overdue story in Wired, The New Old Journalism. It seems Adam and his friends have been discussing whether Universities should continue teaching the old model of journalism.

Should we raze our curriculum to the ground and start over, perhaps, and look to the web for inspiration? Could it be beneficial to jettison “objectivity” and “balance” in favor of transparent bias, much like bloggers (and online columnists) do? Would it be wise to encourage our students to exchange fact-based narrative for edgy commentary and digital trash talk? And if we were to banish the inverted pyramid to the scrapheap of history, what could we replace it with?

Or do the basics of newspaper writing and reporting offer students the necessary foundation for them to succeed in any medium, whether it be print, online, broadcast, wire service, blogs or any other information-distribution system that may be coming down the pike?

I’ve been admonishing higher education for a number of years that it needs to change, most recently at the Broadcast Education Association annual convention in Las Vegas. If we agree that the journalist of tomorrow will be multimedia trained, where are they going to acquire those skills if not in school? If there’ll be no such thing as a “print” journalist or a “broadcast” journalist downstream, why do we continue teaching those careers as if there will be?

Penenberg concludes that it’s not newspapers that are dying, it’s the print medium. As such, he says, there will always remain the need to teach “how to craft a killer lede, a well-honed nut graf and an airtight structure.”

I assigned blogs to my graduate students this past semester so they could cover a business beat. Other professors have also jumped fingers-first into digital journalism, most notably Jay Rosen, founder of the media blog PressThink.

In our classes, we discuss wikis and Wi-Fi, and invite bloggers and online reporters to share their experiences with us. We debate “citizen journalism” and journalistic ethics. We encourage creativity, but not at the expense of clarity.

I think this is a smart approach, although I’d stretch students even further by requiring they look beyond the issues of objectivity and balance and explore the lost art of political argument in journalism. Much of what tomorrow’s reporters will need lies in the skills of those who wrote the news before Walter Lippmann got ahold of the trade and “professionalized” it in order to sell advertising.

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