Eye-opening New York mag piece on a rift at the Columbia Journalism School as it struggles with the concept of “new media”: The current faculty doesn’t have the skills in digital storytelling that (some of) the school’s leadership wants to teach. Hiring adjuncts costs a lot of money. So they’re considering crash courses for the professors. And it sounds like they’re still ambivalent. This quotation from the school’s dean, Nick Lemann, deserves some unpacking:
“You can go to the Learning Annex and take a Flash course. I don’t think what we should do is be replicating courses you can take at the Learning Annex. But you have to have some familiarity, or you’re not able to execute a website.”
This straw man is so lightweight it’s amazing it didn’t evaporate as Lemann spoke it. The Learning Annex has a pretty extensive curriculum, you know; they’ll teach you writing and reporting too. All the basic skills that Columbia Journalism School teaches can be learned at extension schools and night schools and in the school of one’s own pajamas. The value the school presumably offers is in how it teaches writing (and photography and, one hopes now, online journalism): not just the basics of accuracy and clarity and economy of expression — the nuts and bolts of reporting and writing — but the ethics and the thoughtfulness and the passion. Right?
Columbia presumably understands that this is its job when it comes to teaching traditional newspaper and broadcast reporting. But suddenly, when the skills involved are newfangled Webby things, that job becomes discounted, something anybody can learn from any old extension school, or any faculty member can pick up by cramming.
Of course these journalism professors should familiarize themselves with the tools if they haven’t already. But you wouldn’t want to try to learn the soul of the discipline from a newbie, would you? Any more than Columbia would ask someone who’d just written their first headline to teach basic news editing. The roster of Columbia faculty is an impressive list, but they are mostly veterans of an era that is fading today, and it is unfair to both them and their students to expect them to become overnight experts in a new world that most of us are just beginning to understand.
The condescension on display toward new media forms here is a recapitulation of what the pioneers in photojournalism encountered in the early days of that field, when it was more technically forbidding but hardly seemed like a serious part of covering a story. Today, one hopes any serious journalism educator understands that learning photojournalism is a lot more than just acquiring the technical facility of taking a decent shot. Similarly, the business of learning to use different online media forms to tell a story goes way beyond just “taking a Flash course.”
We need journalism schools like Columbia to take the journalistic traditions that they have long preserved and carry them forward into the digital age. But they will not be able to play that role until they take these new media forms seriously. The New York piece describes the school’s efforts to begin to integrate digital-era skills with its basic curriculum. That’s promising. But if it’s serious about this, it needs to hire people who know Web journalism as thoroughly as the current faculty knows the journalism of previous eras.