The Outstater: J-Schools Have Reason to Be Embarrassed

March 18, 2015

by Craig Ladwig

All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.” — Robert Montgomery Knight

An officer of our foundation spoke at a local university recently on the topic of journalism. Afterward, talking with students, he was surprised that, although they hoped to work in newsrooms of one sort or another, they were not journalism majors. Rather, they were enrolled in something called a “professional writers program.”

Journalism, it turns out, is no longer scholastically fashionable. Registrars may have figured out that nobody wants to take out $80,000 in student loans to be unemployed in a profession that the public currently ranks near the bottom.

The situation, to borrow from Mark Twain, is this: “A thunderstorm made Beranger a poet, a mother’s kiss made Benjamin West a painter and a salary of $15 a week makes us a journalist.”

It hasn’t always been so. Post-modern journalism burgeoned 40 years ago when Robert Redford stepped into the role of a dead-end reporter at a lowly bureau of the Washington Post. Newsrooms soon filled with the hyper-educated young, and salaries rose to sufferable levels. But the utility of journalism schools in any of that has always been suspect.

Newsrooms at the zenith of print circulation were not staffed with the handsome and erudite. Rather, you would find the compensating introvert, the aimlessly curious and the totally unremarkable, all backed up by alcoholics with photographic memories plus an occasional nephew of the publisher to sign the checks. And yes, when I first broke on the scene, there were spittoons at some desks and half-pint whiskey bottles in the bottom drawers.

Too effete for that, some journalism schools today are reinventing themselves accordingly, expanding their customer base into more respectable professions, trying to move up a notch or two on the Pew Ranking of Public Esteem.

Northwestern University’s Medill school of journalism changed its name to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

And the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, pipeline to the New York Times and Mecca for Baby-Boomers seeking to change the world, has cut enrollment back to “historical norms.” No faculty will be affected, the school assures us, the world apparently having been changed enough.

It serves no purpose to dwell on the hypocrisy of journalism schools that are embarrassed to be associated with journalism. It is important to say, though, that since the halcyon days of Watergate, those schools have been sending innocents to socio-political slaughter armed with nothing more than late-night dormitory opinions.

That, and not the Internet, has been the ruin of us. For there is no market for adolescent opinion. There is a demand, however, for the skills of prescience. And those skills, difficult to teach and tedious to master, are embedded in the century-old “Journalist’s Creed” by Walter Williams of the University of Missouri. Here is his concluding paragraph (be warned that God is referenced):

“I believe that the journalism which succeeds the best — and best deserves success — fears God and honors man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power; constructive, tolerant but never careless; self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid; is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of the privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance, and, as far as law, an honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world-comradeship, is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.”

Heavy stuff. Yet, for today’s struggling journalism schools, restoring those principles — and the practical skills required to further them — might be more effective, cheaper in the long run, than hiring a marketing firm.

My first job was with an outstate daily of 4,000 presumed readers, most of whom had the same last name. A yellowed copy of Williams’ creed was posted on its bulletin board. My editor, upon receiving certain directions from corporate headquarters, would walk across the newsroom with purposeful steps to strike out the pertinent sentence in the creed.

I never found out what happened when that particular copy was fully expunged. Now, though, I can see the damage that the abandonment of Williams’ ideals has done to journalism in general.

The repair, if it is attempted at all, will take more than a rebranding.

Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review.

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