Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A word about Columbia J-School's 'Existential Crisis'

Former New York Sun editor Erica Orden wrote an interesting post today on New York magazine's Daily Intel blog entitled "Columbia J-School’s Existential Crisis," detailing the difficulties that the school is having adjusting to what it calls a "new media mindset."

Orden writes:

The media bloodbath hasn’t made for happy days at Columbia Journalism School. When the Times recently announced that its new, hyperlocal blog experiment “The Local” would be assisted by journalism students not from Columbia but from the City University of New York, you could practically hear the collective gasp echoing in the hallowed halls uptown. CUNY? Since when does CUNY trump Columbia? Well, since digital journalism became the single ray of hope on an otherwise dark media horizon, and Columbia’s vaunted ability to train students as print reporters began to appear obsolete. And so the school is trying to change. Fast.
To back up that statement, Orden notes the arrival of Bill Grueskin, former managing editor of, and the upcoming change in curriculum to focus more on digital endeavors -- which has, according to Orden, "raised the ire of some professors, particularly those closely tied to Columbia’s crown jewel, RW1."

“Fuck new media,” the coordinator of the RW1 program, Ari Goldman, said to his RW1 students on their first day of class, according to one student. Goldman, a former Times reporter and sixteen-year veteran RW1 professor, described new-media training as “playing with toys,” according to another student, and characterized the digital movement as “an experimentation in gadgetry.”

Orden goes on, accurately and with great detail, as to the "zero-sum" struggle of new media vs. old media resources; of hiring professors who know the former better than the latter and training those who know the latter and not the former.

Orden details the struggle at Columbia deftly:

Part of the problem is the perception that the situation is a “a zero-sum game,” as one person put it, where adding lessons in video production or law for bloggers will dilute or displace the school’s long-heralded focus on journalism’s core precepts: concise prose, ethical reporting, and sophisticated editorial sensibilities.

But the hurdles are practical as well as philosophical. Because many of the tenured professors haven’t worked in new media themselves, their classes require the addition of tech-savvy adjuncts, which has Lemann worried about “blowing out the budget.”

Orden wraps up the story with a sentiment I think all of us can agree on: that the real issue isn’t whether j-schools can afford to change, but that they can’t afford not to.

I believe this article reveals, faithfully, the administrative and honest struggle that journalism schools are having coping with a sudden rush of new media. The temptation to "dive in" headfirst without figuring out how to apply it, or without looking at return on investment for new storytelling methods. The struggle to convince "old media" journalism professors that new media is worthwhile, and vice-versa. 

It's a game of politics, but I think everyone is equally concerned for the same reasons: j-schools must continue cranking out the best journalists. But how?

I believe this article is framed incorrectly, however. The meat of the article is accurate, but the lede and the style used to make the point is misleading.

I've written before about my experience in the new media program at Columbia, and I mean in no way to be an apologist or defender of Orden's claims about the school. But I feel the obligation to clarify some of her inferences about and references to the school using the reality I experienced there.

  • The CUNY vs. Columbia "slight" in the lede is a creative way to play off Columbia's establishment position as the training ground for the New York Times, but Orden infers, without directly saying so, that Columbia has suddenly snapped out of its print mindset to catch up to the new media forerunners. 

    That's simply not true. The new media program has existed at Columbia, albeit in a much smaller form, since the 1990s. Much of its development is thanks to chief new media evangelist (and dean of students) Sree Sreenivasan, who has taught at the school since 1993. The program has evolved over time with the technology it covers, and has in recent years seen a noticeable bump in students who apply for the "new media" program. So it seems to me that the program has changed to address student demands, rather than trends in journalism directly.

  • Secondly, Orden credits Grueskin with that change, who arrived on June 4, 2008. I don't know firsthand just how much Grueskin has contributed behind the scenes. What I can say, however, is that the curriculum change for new media students was in the works long before he arrived, because Sreenivasan showed us a working draft of it sometime late that spring. 

  • As for RW1 -- Columbia's core reporting class, the nuts and bolts course -- Columbia "webified" the course for the first time for the school year 2007-2008, adding a content management system so that students could post their stories. Many of the difficulties Orden details about convincing old-time professors certainly do exist. However, Orden singles out one professor as an example of the skepticism -- and I must take issue with that. 

    I had the pleasure of taking a course from the professor that was singled out, and we produced a fine website for the class. In no way was my imagination limited by the professor with regard to that site. It's true that several professors at Columbia are new media tone deaf. And why should they be anything different? Some of them, particularly those of an advanced age, don't have a perceived need to be trained in new media. But that's not to say they aren't receptive to using it, even if they don't understand how to do it. 

    What's more, to debunk one of my own points, some of the oldest professors at Columbia are actively involved in the new media program. And I think that shows a lot of heart and willingness to learn, if nothing more.

  • Finally -- and most notably for Orden's lede -- the new media coordinator that she quotes was, prior to taking a full-time position at Columbia this past May, a new media adjunct at both CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and Columbia. For someone trying to start a new media war in her lede, that's a serious omission -- as are the other adjuncts who pull double-duty at both schools.

But Orden knows that -- she graduated from Columbia's j-school in 2006.

Still, I think the takeaway from Orden's post is far more valuable than the clarification I attempted to provide above. In every journalism school -- like as in every printed publication -- there's a generational, fight-or-flight, ROI-questioning debate about the place and weight with which we should approach new media and the storytelling techniques it provides. 

And for that reason, I believe we're all in this together -- it's not at all a race to be the "new media" king. Especially if the publications at the bleeding edge of adopting new media prefer computer science grads to journalism grads

Among j-school grads, I believe there's a kinship, a knowing bond that has developed from being in the experimental incubator together -- be it in New York, Missouri, California or Illinois (or Arizona, or Ohio, or...). From what I've seen, no one knows the answer to the great "new media" question -- especially j-schools. That's because the publications the schools are supposed to prepare their students for don't know, either. 

I don't want to appear as though I look through rosy lenses -- I have my criticisms of the journalism programs I have graduated from. But they seem to be far more prepared to handle the change than most of the publications I've worked for.

The policy is that there is no policy. As a journalist, I think that's wildly exciting.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, NYU's Jay Rosen directed me toward these meeting minutes from an NYU journalism school think session. It's a revealing look into what journalism educators are grappling with at this moment.


Drew Geraets said...

I would agree the J-Schools are generally doing a good job preparing students [Disclaimer: I work at the CUNY J-School].

And now is definitely the time for collaboration. There is certainly no shortage of opportunities.

More change is coming - especially for higher education. (See Jeff Jarvis' post about "Hacking Education")

One other quick note: according the Times' Web site, Columbia students are involved with "The Local."

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