J-Schools: Why ‘Traditional’ Models No Longer Work

Communications@Syracuse Classroom

Communications@Syracuse is one of the newest types of journalism schools evolving out of the industry

When it comes to keeping up with today’s media landscape, journalism schools must be ready to change course.

Or in this case, courses.

“Journalism is changing,” says Anthony Rotolo, director of Communications@Syracuse, a new online master’s degree being offered at The Newhouse School at Syracuse University. “Digital and social media have become so pervasive. There are a lot of folks who have gotten practical knowledge in this area. They’re now in need of journalism innovation, formalizing that skillset and being able to reposition themselves either as journalists or as people to lead the change in media.”

Andrew Lih, associate journalism professor at the American University School of Communication, says innovating in journalism education is on everyone’s minds.

Lih says curriculum tweaking must be ongoing – sometimes even while the semester is underway.

A big overhaul-type redesign or “blowing up” the journalism undergrad curriculum at a school like American University would take a lot of valuable time. And because of the speed at which media continues to evolve, changes likely are to get stale quickly.

“It’s the classic case of trying to hit a moving target,” Lih says. “Agile development makes sense for curriculum development. You can’t rest on your laurels for even a semester. You have to react to the needs of the [media] industry, students, and trends.”

At Syracuse, the Newhouse School program starts in July. Already, there’s strong interest.

Communications@Syracuse offers three specializations: Advertising, public relations, and journalism innovation. Each requires courses in multimedia storytelling, social media, and digital communications systems, among others.

“Journalists really need to understand these to call themselves journalists,” Rotolo says. “We don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘I’m just a PR person’ anymore. The media we’re working with and the ways we’re working with media blurs the lines.”

Linnea Edmeier, external affairs director for the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and former producer with KGO-810AM in San Francisco, says Berkeley has embraced a nimble curriculum.

“Our curriculum is not set in stone,” Edmeier says. “We can change our curriculum on a dime, and we’re not afraid to change or kill classes that aren’t fitting the media landscape. We’re able to evolve and keep evolving.”

Case in point: Several years ago, a Berkeley faculty member saw the need for a freelance course to help writers coming out of the school. A course quickly was put into place, and as a result, the school continues to monitor what’s happening in the freelance world.

While a student might enter Berkeley with an interest in photojournalism, audio, or writing, they’re now taught a little bit of everything, Edmeier says.

“As a documentary filmmaker, you need to know how to work with a web creator and producer to get the material on the website,” she says. “It’s not just documentary filming. You’re going to need to know about social engagement. Five years ago, not everyone needed to know a little bit of everything. Now, you do – in addition to your passion.”

Matt Swibel, director of sustainability strategy with Lockheed Martin Corporation and a communications and sociology graduate of American University, says there’s a greater need than ever for disciplined curricula in mass communications in today’s journalism schools.

“The business model for media is being disrupted specifically because there’s so much more opportunity to create content,” Swibel says. “We’re on the frontline of the integrity of that content. I can’t think of a time other than the turn of the last century where being honest, fair, thorough and responsive is more in demand.”

AU’s Lih says audience engagement – specifically social media and citizen journalism – continues to change the landscape.

“The digital revolution has changed things while upholding what journalism is about – relevant and up-to-date reliable information and truth telling to the public,” Lih says.

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Christine Cube is a media relations manager with PR Newswire and freelance writer. Follow @cpcube and @BeyondBylines on Twitter.

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