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Home > Publications > Quill > Education Toolbox

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014
Education Toolbox

Writing (and debating) a j-school prescription

By Jeff South

Whenever I hear the call for journalism schools to be like teaching hospitals, I can’t help but picture an editing professor bellowing to student reporters in scrubs, “We’re losing this story. Get me 20 CCs of active voice — stat!”

Jokes aside, we’ve been hearing a lot lately about the teaching hospital model and other prescriptions for reforming journalism education. The model’s advocates want j-schools to operate news outlets, just as medical schools operate teaching hospitals.

Nicholas Lemann, then dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, coined the metaphor in 2009. “Like teaching hospitals, journalism schools can provide essential services to their communities while they are educating their students,” he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Two years later, two reports fleshed out the idea.

First, the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education published a study of curriculum reform at 11 top-tier j-schools. It lavished praise on News21, an internship program in which students, supervised by professionals, produce investigative projects for distribution nationwide by traditional and new media.

Then, the New America Foundation published “Shaping 21st Century Journalism: Leveraging a ‘Teaching Hospital Model’ in Journalism Education.”

“Journalism programs must be thought of and begin to think of themselves as more than simply just the teachers and trainers of journalists, but rather as the anchor-institutions involved in the production of community-relevant news that will benefit the entire local news ecosystem,” it said. “Many schools have long embraced elements of this vision, but satisfying the information needs of communities will require schools to take on all the challenges of engaging as serious and valuable producers of meaningful journalism.”

In August 2012, six foundations that funnel millions of dollars annually to j-schools (Knight, McCormick, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism, Scripps Howard, Brett Family and Wyncote) published an open letter to university presidents, phrasing the issue in terms they especially could understand: money.

The letter threatened to withhold funding from schools that fail to adapt to the digital age and to adopt tactics like News21: “Schools that favor the status quo, and thus fall behind in the digital transition, risk becoming irrelevant to both private funders and, more importantly, the students they seek to serve.”

A counter-proposal: The ‘entrepreneurial model’

The “teaching hospital” approach drew fire in August 2013 from Donica Mensing and David Ryfe, associate professors in the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“Our argument is that this model, if practiced by many journalism schools, could actually slow the response to change,” they wrote in an online essay titled “Blueprint for Change: From the Teaching Hospital to the Entrepreneurial Model of Journalism Education.”

“The metaphor implies that journalism is a settled profession with clear boundaries that needs only to be practiced more rigorously, instead of a field with its most fundamental premises unraveling. Rather than creating conditions for students to help re-think journalistic practices, the teaching hospital model reinforces the conviction that content delivery is the primary purpose of journalism. Put simply, it makes it hard for students to think differently.”

The two professors advocated an “entrepreneurial model” in which j-schools would equip graduates “to compete with the core news industry. We need students ready to provide labor and creativity for the disruptor organizations.”

Some educators applauded Mensing and Ryfe’s essay. Some journalists slammed it.

Derek Willis, an interactive developer with The New York Times, called the article “buzzword bingo” and a “hatchet job” on the teaching hospital model. “This is scholarship?” he asked on his blog.

Willis said teaching hospitals can be entrepreneurial — and that the two concepts are not mutually exclusive: “There is nothing wrong with injecting some entrepreneurial life into the teaching and doing of journalism. There is something very wrong with claiming that the teaching hospital model would be harmful for students without actually verifying that claim.”

‘A sense of urgency’

The debate may be partly a question of semantics. And it might reflect longstanding tensions between journalism educators and journalism practitioners (and between professors with Ph.D.s and those with extensive professional experience).

But most educators and practitioners agree that j-schools must change. They share “a motivation born of a sense of urgency,” according to “Rewriting J-School,” the lead article in the Spring 2014 issue of Nieman Reports.

It urged j-schools to become laboratories for new ways to cover and produce news. That’s happening at Arizona State University, which has a wire service, a nightly newscast and bureaus in Phoenix and Washington, D.C.; the University of Maryland, which generates stories for Maryland media from bureaus in Annapolis and Washington; and Northwestern University, which operates news services covering inner-city Chicago and the nation’s capital.

As Nieman Reports stated: “Journalism education has come to the same ominous inflection point that journalism itself has reached — and the stakes are just as high.”

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