Where USF faculty, students and graduates are invited to talk about journalism and its problems and opportunities. This blog is not affiliated with the University of San Francisco, nor is the university responsible for any of the opinions expressed herein -- though it is certainly responsible for the people who entertain those opinions, having educated them. They make us proud.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

"Should USF Create a Journalism Major?" Has Been Dragged Back to the Top

The basic question is why a journalism major at USF? Some of us have been working toward that goal for a long time, and, although we do have a minor now, the taking of the final step is not guaranteed. (By the way, it would not be a renegade major. It would remain ensconced in Media Studies, drawing on that unit's resources.)

What some of us have argued is that a small college with a commitment to intellectual rigor and a commitment to social justice -- that's what some people say about USF, anyway -- is a desirable place to train journalists at a moment in our history when journalism is under attack for lacking passion and/or submitting to the false god of objectivity and/or wallowing in bias (right? left?) and/or stooping to the lowest common denominator in manners and morals in pursuit of the advertising dollar.

Or should we back off, stick with our minor and concentrate on doing what we now do but doing it better?

Tuesday, August 2: And let me add one more thing to promote discussion. There's a middle area here that grads from recent years are so very well qualified to talk about. Say that we do go ahead with the major. What courses should be required? What courses should be offered as options? What courses, either current or possible, should be avoided? In short, if we decide to do it, how should we do it? And a final point: Currently this site is set to allow anonymous comments since anonymity can promote truth-telling. In the unlikely event, things get nasty I can change the setting.


niall said...

Dr. Robertson... good to hear from you!...

I work in sports PR now, and work closely with our local newspaper in Long Beach and other Los Angeles papers, and to be able to know both sides of the business, is key to publicizing my school... all of which I learned at USF...

I tell our student-athletes all the time, it's not what you learn in the classroom (I mean come on, how many of us have read a year's worth of reading from Mr. Goodwin! And he knew that!)... it's the experiences you have outside the classroom...

the small-time, hands on, hands into everything experience from the beginning at USF, from the Foghorn to KDNZ to the TV station was key... I've talked to people at quote-unquote big schools, and they didn't even do anything until their junior years... if you want to, you can do that as a freshman at USF!...

in the classroom, USF did a great job of teaching me the basics... what I did with them was up to me... of course a good story from Dr. Robertson, always made a Wednesday afternoon fly by!

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Hmmm. Adler praises USF's geography -- which is a good point. San Francisco is stuffed with opportunities for those who want them. I recall Pat Bhoolsuwan on her first day of school as a freshman walking into my office and telling me she had an internship, needed an hour's credit for doing it and I had 30 seconds to sign the paper. So Point One well made: We aren't New York or LA but there are internship opportunities. And there really should be many many opportunities for Web work around here, and Web is the future, right? So we have another good question: Should the next hire be a Web publishing guru????

Teresa said...

Michael... Thanks for the invite. This officially marks my first step into blogdom.

I admit to being torn on the Journalism major idea. But why I'm torn is a little harder to describe, but if you all bear with me I'll try.

There was a mantra that was often chanted at the Poynter Institute along the lines of "you don't need to major in journalism to be a journalist."

That was nine years ago and I had majored in sociology and mass media comm. I liked the idea that I was entering reporting with a background that wasn't limited to journalism. My sociology background has helped in giving me a broader perspective of the things I cover.

But that created an incredible learning curve when I had my first and only newspaper internship at the Sun Sentinel. It was so bad, I left the field for two years, pondering if I had what it took to stay in this business.(Icrammed my com major into a year and had maybe three writing classes when I graduated and one mystifying class in radio and tv news)

Now, when I puruse Journalismjobs.com most of the ads ask applicants to be J majors or have some related educational background. I can understand that but at the same time, any working reporter can tell you that along with knowing how to write a solid news story we essentially have to be "experts" in a little bit of everything.

An example: Yesterday I wrote about perchlorate discovered in local drinking water. Today, I wrote about state smoking laws.

I look at our interns and they are all journalism majors and I wonder if they would have landed their internships if they had been economics majors.

Having an understanding of the history of journalism, its legal issues and all the hands on classes you can get under your belt is critical, but at the same time having a broad education and a perspective beyond journalism is important too.

So now thatI've shared my internal debate let me say this: I think a journalism major at USF would be a feather in the university's cap. I think of all the working journalists (no matter how brief their stints) that were single-handedly produced by Dr. Robertson (at least during my year com in 95-96) and it makes me incredibly proud to be among those ranks. I can only imagine how many more young people would benefit from that education and experience. That makes me throw my support behind a journalism major.

Oh, I guess it would be helpful to note that I am currently a reporter for the Ventura County Star.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Oh the talk is *flowing now.* Teresa R. has made what I think is an excellent point: If you want to get a job in journalism, the degree is worth something. It's not a waste of time. It's not irrelevant. Although the ideal journalist is one steeped in the liberal arts curriculum and then trained -- in grad school or by an employer -- to do that journalism thing, fewer and fewer newspapers want to be the training ground for the ignorant but brilliant and brillantly well-rounded would-be journalist. So that's one hurdle cleared: a degree in journalism, that is, certification that one has majored in journalism, is a good thing. Now, should *USF* offer one? Or should we be urging every student with journalism aspirations to transfer out to an existing program or to start saving for grad school?

Dee-Jade Chock said...

Yes, by all means, there should be a Journalism major at USF and I'm surprised there isn't one already. (Where did all of my money go?! I even got a plaque for donating money to the College of Arts and Sciences!) USF can definitely use a Journalism major. And, that's my two cents, for now.

Jorge said...


....J.Michael Robertson said...

I see the wisdom in that, George.

Jessica Dryden-Cook said...

I'd love to see a Journalism major at USF! For me, I was much more interested in journalism than "communications." I had to suffer through all those boring comm classes to get to the good stuff, which was mostly Dr. J's classes and the magazines ones taught by Bob S. I loved hearing from real freelancers on what it's like to be one; writing up all sorts of news stories and learning copy editing marks; designing a magazine with a class from start to finish--although we never got it printed, grrrrr!; and analyzing the current media; taking tours of the Chronicle and breathing in the same stale air as real journalist. Basically, I enjoyed all the hands-on activities from my time at USF and feel that they have really helped me in my career today.

L. Shu said...

Hola from NYC, where the weather is 94 degrees and super humid. Fabulous. Now get me out of here!!! But just a quick thought. I will have more to say soon.

My first job in NYC was not what I had hoped for, but a job's a job. But talk about a job where the blind was leading the blind. The senior editors and managers of this magazine did not have a journalism background, nor in writing or english. Everyday was a guessing game. I was a copy editor, and I had to work with an EIC who changed his mind on grammar and style every single day. Although a few of us did have a background in journalism, we weren't in any position to influence the direction of the magazine. And since everyone had their own ideas on how a magazine should run, every issue close was a train wreck that resulted in a mediocre (if that) outcome. And forget any sort of proper research or reportage. None of the writers could string complete sentences together.

So, no, you don't need a background in journalism to work in newspapers and magazines. But that is why there's so much garbage on the newsstands, bad reporting, numerous corrections, etc. Anyone can wake up and say, I'm going to be a journalist, or an editor, or a writer, or creative director, because I can dream, and dreams do come true.

Look at FHM. Lucky. Cargo. PC Magazine. Is this journalism? Or are they all simply creations to meet the needs of Madison Avenue? I think before we start discussing, we need to determine what is "journalism," what is reportage. Is an in-depth story about college binge drinking in Maxim equal to a similar story written in the New Yorker?

Perhaps a reason for the creation of a journalism major is to strengthen the industry. Even though I only had an emphasis in print journalism, the things I've learned from Doc and the faculty are vital to keeping journalism in my personal career a noble profession, whatever difference I can make to whatever newspaper or magazine I'm at. If more people in this industry had proper training, journalism doesn't have to have the image that it has.

OK, it's 8:30 on a Tuesday night, and I'm still at work, and I'm running on fumes. So pardon the brainfarts. I'm sure my situation is an isolated one, but it's becoming increasingly the norm, and it's disturbing.

More on this later when I'm not stuck at work.

Anonymous said...

My field isadvertising.
Here's a parallel:
just as little as 10 years ago the biggest, most prestigeous ad agencies in New York all were hiring Humanities graduates from the Ivy League and giving them basic ad training at the agencies.
After the "crash" of 2000 (and following) which most have yet to fully recover from, a new strategy was formed. Hire graduates of UT Austin (which has a huge advertising program) or the like (oddly, most of the big programs are in the South) and - while you might not get the "smartest" people, you'll certainly get those that speak the language.
In short, don't put money in training and (to paraphrase Pope Innocent III) let God sort 'em out.
In reality, in advertising we get regular opportunities for pruning staff. All you need to do is lose an account and you hack off the least productive of your staff. I've done it myself on a modest scale. The big ones in New York hack 50+ people at a time.
I'm not sure journalism is in the same position, but I do understand their need to cut expenses like "training."
This will be an interesting blog!

Patrick Lagreid said...

As someone who's not into journalism, but still an active part of the media as Program Director of X104 (www.x104.fm), I can't really say if a journalism major would be a good way to go or not. Added visibility? Sure. Potential liability when some grad reveals that he made up sources or drops an F-bomb on live TV? Possibly.

Other comments aside, I learned a lot from Dr. Goodwin...pop culture and the media is a hell of a lot of fun for me. We're constantly reinventing the wheel when it comes to keeping the on-air image fresh. Being in the media connects me to a bunch of people in countless industries. Couple that with Niall's comments about being able to get hands-on with things at and around USF, and I think that I got a good amount out of my four years there. Looking back on it, I only wish I'd done more, such as write for the paper or take on another internship or two.

If nothing else, USF taught me that you can make a lot out of a little, and that nothing replaces doing as the best form of learning.

I now help teach radio to kids in high school up here - and they have the opportunity to get more hands-on knowledge in one year than some people I knew got in 4 years at USF.

Hope all is well with those reading this -- give a yell sometime.

Pat Lagreid

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Brother Pat Lagreid emphasizes the value of hands on and the fact San Francisco is a place where hands on opportunities are at hand. I will take that as an endorsement of our continuing to think about a major. I must say I love his rather common sense comment that if we graduate fools or rogues their follies later on will jump up and bite us. The fact that right now in America some reporters and editors are getting their feet tangled up in a variety of ethical dilemmas is an encouragement to USF; I mean, I'm not saying USF grads are literally holier than thou, but the thrust of the university is that life/work has an ethical dimension. Of course, every profession, every school and unversity, gives lip service to ethical conduct. But there's more of an emphasis on such at USF.... This would make a fine thread/post. Is the ethical emphasis a something extra, a value added, that USF actually offers? Or am I living in a fool's paradies, i.e. 5th floor, University Center?

David Gudelunas said...

Ok, first off JDC, It is Communication, not CommunicationS. Cool? I don't work as journalist, and was never even a good college journalist (I just liked the long distance calling perks at the Foghorn) BUT WOW do I have comments. This is a tricky discussion, particualrly at Jesuit Universities. To complicate things (man, really?) I think the job of a liberal arts institution is to teach students how to think. Prefrably critically. Vague? I teach in a communication department now that is grounded in a social scientific approach to the discipline. I teach nothing practical whatsoever, though I once spent an entire class discussing why I hate wearing ties, and that is pretty practical. Anyway, I think an applied area is practical for all sorts of social science/humanities majors. In the case of communication, you should absolutely have a minor in production, journalism, politics, fine art. As a major? I'm not sure...

Lia Steakley said...

Okay. Here we go again.

Why USF should offer a journalism major and it's own version of the Pulitzer (can we get that thrown in the basket, too, Dr. R?)

Journalism is about asking questions, preferably the right questions. And that is a learned skill. As Pat pointed out, journalism in requires reporters to multi-task like nobody’s business. You hold a conversation, take notes, and formulate new questions all at the same time. On deadline you have to do this very fast or else you're left with a half hour to write. I've had to knock out 20 inches in 30 minutes. I’ve seen TV reporters that have to rush back to edit footage just in time to make the 5 p.m. newscast.

Thinking critically is a must (liberal arts education) and so is writing well (also from the liberal arts education). You have to be able to use both quantitative and qualitative information (thank you Barker-Plummer). And as Teresa said knowing a little bit about everything is imperative.

But you can't teach a student a little about everything. And if you tried it would inevitably be the wrong bit of everything. For example, I have never written an article using Roman or Greek literature references or alluded to symbolism in pop culture. Although, I know about it from USF. (I also don't work for the New Yorker, so perhaps these references will be useful sometime.)

A journalism major should teach students how to do journalism. It's a skill, a craft, whatever, but it's not innate. You have to learn it.

It involves seeking out experts that can teach you about a topic very quickly. But even then, you have to ask the right questions. And not just the right questions to learn about the topic but questions that readers would want answered (so you have to think for the public, again liberal arts education) plus the questions that you think the public should know (to help them be participate in democracy).

A journalism major should teach you how to be a top-notch inquisitive reporter that not only asks questions but also then questions the sources' answers. Most reporters, I've found, learn this on the job through a painful process that goes like this:

Reporter turns in story at 5 p.m. Editors arrive at their desk at 5:30 asking a bunch of questions the reporter forgot (or probably didn't think) to ask. Editors demand reporter call sources back, hunt down sources home phone numbers, or god forbid go to their house to get the answers. Reporters pull out all the stops in a "run for your life" type of panic so that they can get the hell out of the newsroom.

Depending on how fast a reporter learns, repeat that exercise several times and suddenly YOU LEARN to ask the right questions or suffer the panic and terror. I know, I know this is just daily journalism.

But shouldn't students be prepared for the worst scenario in journalism instead of thinking they'll land a cushy job at a lifestyle weekly or monthly? That way if they take a daily journalism job they won't be stressed, terrified and contemplating giving up on their career. And if they land at a weekly or magazine, which have relaxed deadlines, flexible subject topics they’ll be happier. But again, the downside of these publications, as Les pointed out, is that the weeklies and magazines are rampant with incompetent editors.

Isn't the idea of a journalism major to prepare students for journalism? Not a certain type of publication or specific job so even if they take a position after graduation thinking, as Les says, “a job is a job” then they are prepared for the job. A journalism major should teach students to be reports that can work anywhere—television, radio, print and daily or not.

And to do that the major MUST give them the necessary skills like computer-assisted reporting tricks for the tight deadlines (like the AP), how to research topics in-depth (for magazine writing), how to ask critical and poignant questions (all types of media) and then combine all the information into a clear and concise story/radio piece/TV segment. Other classes can’t teach this. And so far, no classes at USF teach this.

Media companies are getting sick of training newbies only to have them leave. The anonymous advertising guy’s post is right, companies want hires with a basic level of knowledge because they can't afford the cost of training people only to have them jump ship for a better job.

So, yes, create a journalism major and teach them to be effective reporters by developing a method to learn topics quickly under pressure. Because one day they might have to write a story about if students' tuition money is being used wisely at Fairfield University when communication profs are spending an hour—maybe more?—talking about why they hate ties.

And why should USF, as a Jesuit university, have a journalism major?

Because the Jesuit tradition is about caring about other human being and St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises were about freeing a person from predispositions and biases enabling one to make free choices. Doesn’t journalism do that? We tell others’ stories to bring attention to the voiceless and make the busy, successful and greedy stop and think. And just like the Jesuit tradition journalists, in theory, are devoted to the truth and act for the civic good. So how can USF, as a Jesuit university, not have a journalism major?

Fr. Privett told a room full of 2004 graduates, “Stop and think for a moment how the world might be changed if every college graduate understood that their education was given to them so that their knowledge and skills could be given to others.”

That’s what journalists do every day. We use our education and skills to benefit others. So that people can make informed decisions, understand their community and neighbor better and not be taken advantage of by corporate interests.
And on another note. In the beginning, Jesuit schools became such an influential exponent of Catholic reform. I can’t think of an industry more in need of reform than media. So tell whoever, to give the department some money to create a journalism major that churns out students who think critically, write concisely and use their skills to reform media while making the world a better place. Cause the rest of us working stiffs could use some help over here.

As for a USF Pulitzer that’s more about publicity and parties. But, look at how great everyone thinks Columbia's j-school is because of the award. Plus, I get you could spend five minutes of each awards ceremony speech talking about Catholicism, God or whatever else to persuade attendees to convert.