That line is from Monty Python of course. But it might well apply to journalism colleges these days. Have they lost touch with the realities of the media industry, producing graduates that have little clue about how to tell stories in the digital world? As media organisations in this part of the world go through creative collapse (to a point where the best thing to do would be to start again), a friend and colleague in the news business pointed me towards two articles today. One in the New York Times about a lawsuit at Columbia... I encourage you to read the whole piece.
A tenured professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and co-director of that school’s business program filed a lawsuit on Tuesday accusing the university of misdirecting $4.5 million in funds over the last decade.
The professor, Sylvia Nasar, who is the John S. and James L. Knight professor of business journalism at Columbia and the author of the book “A Beautiful Mind,"which inspired the movie of the same name, charges in the suit that the university mishandled funds from a $1.5 million endowment provided by the Knight Foundation to improve the school’s teaching of business journalism. Elizabeth Fishman, a spokeswoman for the journalism school, said in an e-mail that “we don’t comment on matters in litigation.”
The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court, comes at a time of transition for Columbia’s journalism school, which on Monday named Steve Coll its new dean. He succeeds Nicholas Lemann, who announced last fall that he would step down by the end of the academic year after a decade as dean.
The other article is from USA Today by Michael Wolff which profiles the new Dean at Columbia, Steve Coll, and at the same time questions the future of journalism schools. Some powerful arguments here which I keep bumping into on this side of the Atlantic. They charge huge fees and give very poor coaching about writing and producing for a digital world. No wonder the media organisations themselves are in freefall. Most have totally lost touch with their public, not being engaged at all.
Steve Coll, whose books include Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, and who has just been appointed dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism — aka the "J-school" — is a very thorough and worthy writer. But, in my opinion, he's also quite a boring one.
Often, boring equals thorough, and so is a positive virtue. But it might seem that, as journalism becomes an ever-more challenged profession, people trying to build a journalism career might want to know how to hold an audience's attention, with verbal pyrotechnics, say, or technological acumen, as well as how to scrupulously inform it.
Coll, like his predecessor as dean, Nicholas Lemann, comes from The New Yorker, and before that The Washington Post, two organizations that were once powerful voices but are now substantially less so (and, as well, less advertised in).
I'm sure they are hoping at Columbia that Steve Coll will be something of a renaissance man and can, despite his own orientation, look to the future.
But hiring another New Yorker writer, one who, of note, has never tweeted in his life, is yet quite an audacious statement about news values and direction. It is an opposite point of view, and almost as audacious as just hiring the journalist with the most Twitter followers.
The overriding circumstance which the J-school seems to regard as not its concern is that the news business, which it counts on to employ its graduates — newspapers, magazines, television news, even online news — is shrinking at historic rates. According to Outsell, an information industry research group, newspaper revenue has fallen by more than 40% from 2007; at the same time, television news is stagnating and online advertising rates at news sites are in steep decline. Given that this pace seems to be continuing, Columbia, raking in $58,008 in yearly tuition and fees from each student and then sending them into a world of ever-bleaker prospects, ought, more reasonably and honestly, to just shut its doors.
But, ironically, or cruelly, journalism schools are getting more applicants precisely because it is harder to get a job. (Coll, like Lemann, the current dean, conspicuously did not go to journalism school.)
Journalism school, especially Columbia's vaunted program, is often anti-market in outlook. Much of what the market wants, journalism training doesn't give it. You surely won't learn at Columbia how to be a tabloid reporter, or an opinionated Fox News host, or an online aggregator, or a brand-name columnist full of brio or bile, or a social or mobile visionary........
The disgrace is not just that the school takes students' or their parents' money to train them for a livelihood that it reasonably can predict will not exist. But it is also an intellectual failure: The information marketplace is going through a historic transformation, involving form, distribution, business basis and cognitive effect, and yet Columbia has just hired a practitioner to lead it with little or no career experience in any of these epochal changes. The J-school is a product of many New York organizations, such as The New York Times and Time — supported by these organizations, getting its teachers from them, trying to send its students to work for them — which themselves are existentially threatened by the future.