J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Adventures at Columbia: Ivy-Walled Tower or Towards a Networked Expertise?

Posted by chanders on August 15, 2006

So, its been an exciting couple of weeks at my current academic home, the Columbia University School of Journalism. Just to explain (and its kind of confusing, I admit), I’m not actually a journalism student at Columbia; rather, I’m a Doctoral student, whose PhD program, in Communications happen to be administratively housed in the J-School, even if it actually is an interdisciplinary Graduate School of Arts and Sciences degree. Its actually a fairly unusual set-up, almost entirely attributable to the administrative genius of the late James Carey. Most J-Schools are housed within sprawling Communications departments, rather than the reverse, or, alternately, they maintain an entirely separate (and often rather hostile) relationship. For my part, I’m a communications student studying journalism from a sociological framework within a J-school.

Understand all that?? (And whether you do or not, that begs a second question: how the $%&! will I ever get a job??). In any event, its been an exciting few weeks where Columbia’s J-School is concerned. First, our Dean Nick Lemann wrote his now infamous article on citizens journalism for the New Yorker. Then, just as the resulting blog kerfuffle was starting to die down, news came out that the two heads of CJR Daily were quitting because of funding cuts and the desire to grow the footprint of the print-only Columbia Journalism Review.

To some people, the two events together spoke volumes:  Columbia had placed itself in a firmly retrograde position when it came to the future of Journalism, they said; or, in Jeff Jarvis’ words, "Columbia‚Äôs J-school seems to be establishing itself as the classicist, the sanctuary whose ivied castle walls guard journalism as journalism has been done."

Let me stop for a second and say that this is, personally, a fairly difficult topic to blog about. First, there’s the inherent conflict of interest here, with me as a student at the school, and the (perhaps foolish) fears of burning bridges, making sweeping statements that will come back to haunt me, etc. Second, as a student (though not a student like many of the MA / MS students), there’s some sense of being in the middle of it all, with trouble seeing the forest through the trees, as it were. But that said, I am writing about this for a living (in fact, an analysis of JSchools will probably be the second chapter of my dissertation), and second, I do have a fairly unique vantage point from which to speak from, even if there is also the conflict of interest at work as well. So here goes.

I don’t think that cutting CJR Daily’s budget, or even the New Yorker article, are the best clue of the where Columbia’s J-School is going (although the New Yorker piece is an interesting window into where Lemann’s own head is at, and even though Columbia does have an industry-wide reputation for professional conservatism).  Rather, the two-year old MA program is where all the chips are at. My guess, based on the documentation I’ve seen, is that Columbia is trying to create a new kind of "journalistic expertise" at the Jschool, one thats different than the old form of journalistic expertise– how to write a lede, how to interview, etc. Rather, the MA program is attempting to position the journalist as a subject matter expert, who can then take their expertise and "translate reality" through it, using the skills of the journalist to write it all up in such a way that it’s still comprehensible by the average person. From the MA website:

In an increasingly complex world, journalists who can master subjects and communicate effectively to the general public are an invaluable resource to the public and crucial to the best functioning of a democratic society . We strongly believe that as journalists develop real expertise in the subjects they cover, the profession will be strengthened.

Note, also, how many times the word expert or expertise appears in the one page summary: 3. The word expertise is also all over President Lee Bollinger’s address to the Jschool in 2002 (6 times) and the 7 page report from the task force assigned to envision the Jschool’s mission (a whopping 15 times. (Just as a side note, a lot of the documents I found on the start of the new MA program are now gone from the J-School website. Perhaps their cache expired; but in any case, I have ’em saved as pdfs.)

So, is all this focus on a "new expertise" inherently conservative? Not necessarily, although, at first blush, it certainly is an attempt by a threatened profession to maintain its knowledge-boundary, which has conservative connotations. But as NewAssignment.net and other "networked" journalism projects have shown us, its possible to combine the expertise of the individual and the expertise of the group, at least in theory. The real question, in my mind, is how Columbia’s new MA students are being taught to regard "the expertise of the network." Are they being taught that they, the "real experts" are a special caste, or, rather, are they learning that there exists such a thing as networked knowledge? These are empirical questions, and I hope to investigate some of them in the years ahead.

Here are some interesting old websites on the start of the Columbia MA program

Rosen, Taking Bollinger’s Course on the American Press

Rhetorica, On Bollinger’s Statement

Zoned for Debate, What’s the Right Way to Train Journalists…Today?

And here are some things I’ve written on journalists and knowledge:

Do Journalists Possess "Expert" Knowledge?

Embedded Knowledge in the Blogosphere

Now playing: "Even Better Than the Real Thing," U2.

AFTERWORD: In which I predict the future … Lemann responds to Jarvis, just moments ago: "I think Jarvis and I also disagree about whether our school should
teach students the substance of complicated subjects that they will
write about as journalists – I strongly believe we should, because that
is one of the most fundamental ways in which journalism can help inform
citizens and thus strengthen democracy." Read the whole thing

One Response to “Adventures at Columbia: Ivy-Walled Tower or Towards a Networked Expertise?”

  1. Fascinating post. I’m trying to figure out what this means and I think you’re right that the question of expertise is pivotal.
    Here’s my response to the response to the response. (Yes, they call this an echo chamber for a reason.)
    http://www.buzzmachine.com/index.php/2006/08/15/he-speaks-lemann-responds/

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