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Tuesday, August 3, 2010
From the President

Mentoring is the key to ending classroom versus newsroom debate

By Kevin Z. Smith

Last year I was attending a Future of Journalism conference at Yale University when a panel of academicians took that stage touting their views of the future of journalism education.

The way they saw it, the wave of the future was citizen journalists. These were the people we needed to pay attention to and make way for. I listened intently and then took my shot at their vision with a question something like: “If the future of reporting is with citizen journalists, wouldn’t it make sense to deconstruct the current education system which has schools of journalism and communication? We’d get rid of theory courses, toss out tenured professors and all their research and turn these classes over to community colleges and vocational schools. If we are to train citizens to replace professional journalists, shouldn’t we be accommodating them?

“So,” I asked, “who among you is willing to give away your ivy walls, tenure, Tuesday and Thursday schedule to teach night courses, work on one-year contracts and do it for less pay?” No surprise, there weren’t any takers.

I’ve been teaching for 11 years, on the heels of more than 20 years in newsrooms. I’ve heard both sides of this classroom versus newsroom debate for far too long. This panel simply presented the latest chapter.

The problem is there seems to have always been a disconnect between what is being taught in journalism schools around the country and what newsroom executives think their staff should know coming out of college. And, despite conferences, mutual aid agreements, advisory panels and committees over the years, I can’t say this philosophical gap has narrowed.

During recent travel, after speaking to a group on the future of journalism, a local newspaper editor approached me and wanted to know “just what is it that you are teaching students these days in journalism schools, because they don’t seem to have a clue?” Was that a rhetorical question? It certainly was loaded because no matter what I answered, he had his mind firmly made up that j-schools today are far worse than when he left.

“Well, let me ask you this: What would you like to see taught?” His answer wasn’t surprising.

“Basics. They don’t know how to write leads, transition, use quotes properly,” he said.

So, here we go back to the disconnect. Do your really believe that even the smallest journalism program in the United States doesn’t cover interviewing skills, lead writing, transitions and quotes? Of course they do.

On the reverse end of this argument, I can tell you that many professionals make lousy teachers. My success rate of hiring professionals as adjuncts is marginal. Yes, they have skills, but they are incapable, in most cases, of effectively teaching them to young student journalists. So, newsroom experience doesn’t always translate into good classroom guidance.

Part of the solution, I think, already exists within SPJ. One of our best-kept secrets is our mentor program, which allows young journalists to be matched up with professionals. You might be surprised to know this program has been around in various forms for about 20 years. I mentored a college student through SPJ while working at a newsroom in 1992.

With a membership of nearly 5,000 professionals and 1,500 students, it’s easy to see that we have a built-in program that can do wonders to improve the skill sets of the next generation, giving them the much-needed guidance from newsroom professionals and bolstering their learning experience.

The problem is we have too many young people signed up and not nearly enough SPJ professionals to accommodate the demand. That’s a shame, and we need to reverse it. As professionals, if we cringe at the idea of turning journalism over to citizens, if we think our current college system needs mending and we sincerely want to see the next generation of journalism professionals succeed, then this seems like a logical and worthwhile solution.

Yes, students need to complete internships, but a semester of classroom work translates into a simple 40-hour work week, not nearly enough time to transform a fledgling journalist into the professional execs demand upon hiring. Mentoring through SPJ’s program isn’t just about lead writing and framing television shots. It’s about developing maturity that allows students to gain confidence and wisdom that comes from being shoulder-to-shoulder with a veteran.

If you’re a professional and want to have a say in our journalistic future, I ask you to seriously consider being a mentor. If you’re a student who wants a leg up on your employment competitors, I urged you to apply. The friendly staff at headquarters will make this work. Find out more at spj.org/mentor.asp.

SPJ might not end the debate of classroom versus newsroom, but we can go a long way toward making it irrelevant when we talk about our future.

Kevin Z. Smith is the 2009-10 president of SPJ. Reach him at ksmith@spj.org.

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