Monday, September 08, 2008

Hard Copies of Newspapers, and the State of Journalism at NYU.

Is New York University behind the times in journalism education?

NYU student Alana Taylor made journalism news headlines last week with an interesting missive on PBS MediaShift about the journalism program at the university, once referred to merely as the "Department of Journalism" at NYU and now branded as the "Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute" at NYU (with revamped curriculum to match), by stating that, in so many words, the NYU journalism curriculum doesn't serve the new media needs of a Generation Y student.

An undergraduate at NYU, Taylor blasts the paper-only mindset of the school, lamenting that she has to bring a hard copy of the New York Times with her to class, among other old-media, MSM things. The reaction around the journalistic blogosphere, acute and forceful, turned the barrel back on her for complaining. "You are wrong," "back to the NY Times," "learn how to write news" and "take some classes" were among the responses, criticizing her for being critical and generally missing her point entirely.

Well, this whole thing is not about her. It's about NYU.

A card-carrying Gen-Y'er, I found my love for journalism at NYU as an undergraduate, like Taylor. But when I attended, the curriculum was ad hoc at best, lenient and directionless with no ultimate goal. Had I not joined the school paper, the Washington Square News, I would never have been able to truly flex my journalistic muscle -- albeit in the old-style way, as in hard news -- nor befriend people on the same path, since the NYU journalism department was one of the largest majors at the university while I attended. My classes generally did not account for the computer as anything more than a tool for research. To most, it was not a publishing platform.

But, as evidenced in Taylor's description, NYU journalism is much better off than when I attended just two years ago. Yet it's clearly still not up to par.

Like Taylor, I'm new media-inclined, and I, too, blogged and "plugged in" as part of my journalistic experience there, mostly outside of class. I, too, complained about bringing a hard copy of the Times to class, because I read it online.

So, with all the "convergent" changes NYU has made, it is a valuable critique that the department's -- sorry, institute's -- new media instruction pales to the competition. Sure, Taylor is an undergraduate, and that group in particular receives far less specific training than the graduate level.

But when I attended NYU, the only new media class I took was called, amusingly, "digital journalism" -- and it was a blog-focused affair that looked at the ethics, practices, writing style and issues of online news and opinion taught by the affable Patrick Phillips, of I Want Media (another was taught by the media storm of a man that is Jay Rosen). And this was all in 2006.

So, in two years -- light years for the Internet, and just look at any webpage from 2006 to see it -- NYU's new media outlook hasn't changed that much. It's lamentable.

I was lucky enough to attend Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism after NYU, for new media. And one of the reasons I attended was to do everything I wasn't able to only had a taste of as an undergraduate at NYU. Video, audio, interactive design, blogging -- that was something I used to do in my spare time. At Columbia, I did it for my degree. At NYU, it was a grand experiment in an entire class blogging.

NYU's undergraduates either study "general and investigative reporting" or "media criticism," and graduates study one of 10 subject-related fields. Columbia's M.S. graduates study "print," "broadcast," "magazine" or "new media," and it's M.A. graduates delve into the subject-specific matter.

I don't intend to compare NYU's undergraduate curriculum with Columbia's graduate instruction as apples-to-apples. I merely want to show how radically different an experience can be in just one year's time, from one school to the next. How different an approach to journalism education can be with regard to categories.

Categories or not, Taylor's taking to the challenge by learning on her own, like I did. Good for her, I say. She knows she's ahead of the curve anyway, and she's getting an education by learning what she doesn't like.

So why is NYU behind? Allow me to posture. From what I've seen as a student, lots of staff changes in recent years, with a revamped curriculum (undergrad and grad) and a new building entirely. NYU's journalism school is a department within the greater College of Arts and Science, so it does not have the dedicated resources that it would if it were a separate school, instead bureaucratic red tape and a lack of funds. The department's never had much of an identity (a "department" is now "the institute," which helps greatly) and, given its size, hardly any community at all, with a serious lack of alumni relations (and I mean no disservice to the single alumni coordinator).

I was speaking with a former editor-in-chief of WSN, and we agreed that, had we not joined the paper, which is (was) not promoted by the department at all, we would never have made journalism student friends. Which is hard to believe, since j-students are a tight-knit, give-a-helping-hand group of professionals. When I simultaneously created NYU and Columbia journalism groups on LinkedIn, the popular networking site, the "join rate" of Columbia's dwarfed NYU's, even though Columbia is a much smaller program and lacks undergraduates entirely. (To date, Columbia's has 130 members, while NYU's a paltry 24).

The reason I say all this is because NYU's journalism program is in the midst of profound change -- much like the kind of change newspapers are going through all over the country, one of identity and mission. The department is turning a corner, slowly, but it remains to be seen if Taylor's concerns about new media are a part of the new direction of the department. Perhaps there is no reliable system of feedback for its own, many, graduates. Sure, NYU now has great new facilities for such instruction, but is it actually a part of the practical, bootstrap, nuts-and-bolts instruction? Apparently not, according to Taylor. And that's a real shame, because there exists few journalists in this world that don't have digital copies of their clips these days.

I don't fault anyone for not knowing Mashable -- as popular as it is, it's easy to miss. But to not account for a journalism student's desire to eventually write for the web -- and not a paper, or magazine, etc. -- that's bad news in my book.

Oh, and you know what, Alana? In all my time at NYU and Columbia, I've only read a paper New York Times twice (I read it several times a day online). Both times, NYU professors were "to blame." But I'm happy I had to, just those couple of times. It's easy to forget how some people read the news.

But there's a vice-versa to that, too.

(Much thanks to Lam Vo and Simon Owens at Bloggasm for the heads-up on this.)


Alana said...

Excellent :)

By the way, if you have any advice on how to get into Columbia grad -- I would love it.

I'm interested in either new media journalism or intellectual property law... OR BOTH (I hear Columbia has a joint degree program for J-school and Law).

Anyway, thanks for the good read. It was one of the best responses/reactions.

(Much better than some of the short negative comments on MediaShift, haha).

See you on the blogosphere!

DigiDave said...

Excellent post. It is interesting how j-schools are having to change. Do you follow Patrick Thorton? He's been ranting about this as well on his blog

Alana: If you read this, what I tend to tell people about my grad school experience (also at Columbia). I don't regret it one bit. But if I could go back, I probably wouldn't do it again. The best thing about my time at Columbia was that I did it part-time and worked outside of school - oddly enough for Jay Rosen an NYU prof.


Alana said...

Dave.. thanks for the insight on grad school :) I am still contemplating. I think a part of me is sort of fascinated by the whole "title" of it all. I want to prove that I am smart enough to take it to the next level.

But at the same time I am driven by pure curiosity to learn more about the areas I am interested in.

And, yet... I am not liking school very much and am thinking it could not be physically or mentally possible for me to continue in such a place.

Of course, all normal thoughts of a twenty something.