“Yes, these are the best of times…” With a dash of sheepishness and a tablespoon or two of self-satisfaction, NYU J-school prof Jay Rosen confirmed the recent skyrocketing status of American journalism education that I had just described to Irene Toporkoff, the French co-founder of our soon-to-be world news startup. We were in the Latin quarter after Rosen’s inaugural lecture of the academic year Thursday at Paris’ prestigious Science Po University… his invitation itself a confirmation from abroad of the realignment of the US media biz star system in the internet age.
Of course in France, the entire humanities academy is already firmly planted both on a pedestal and within the chatter of daily life (and the daily press) in a way that some US profs would only dream of. As for the specific case of the métier of journalism, universities have long been the accepted training ground and certification process for a healthy tranche of the profession, paving the way for the status of card-carrying members of Europe’s intellectual class.
In the US instead, where we don’t like the ‘i’ word, journo types have tended to revel in our hackdom, boasting of bar stools and pounded pavements and gumshoe labors. At our most highfalutin’, we’ll describe our work as a craft or justify the obsessive nature of the job as a calling. But the ideal still remains the smart and resourceful small-town kid who rises from news clerk to beat reporter to foreign correspondent and bigtime editor, without ever becoming too, er, fancy. In this context, journalism education (both undergrad majors and master’s programs) has long been viewed within the news industry as a bit silver-spoonish and generally superfluous.
I for one went to J-school in 1992-93, and it gave me some real practical training and the tools to think critically about the profession I was stepping into. But it was also true that I learned more about being a reporter in the first few weeks on the cops beat at the local paper where I started than I’d learned that whole year in my branded grad program (though such a contrast is probably applicable to many kinds of career training, no?) Still, the point is that I would never advertise my master’s degree to colleagues (or sources) over the years, and would find myself justifying the choice as just about “helping me get that first job…”
In addition to veteran reporters and editors who could teach me the ropes, I had professors with more academic backgrounds like Rosen’s, who some grizzled colleagues would hold up as the best proof that j-school was worth neither the time nor money. Rosen describes himself this way: “I’m not really a member of the press…I’m more an anthropologist of the press tribe.” But by the time he was featured in Paris last week, he — like the journalism academy as a whole — had conquered a standing well beyond just detached researcher-scholar. In the full throes of the digital information revolution, and resulting economic/existential crisis in the news business, the most valued resource is R&D. And with neither media companies nor the government inclined to lead the way on such innovation, the laboratories of academia not only allow for foresight about the changes underway, but can provide active, practicable solutions. J-schools are no longer just churning out journalists, they are reinventing journalism.
Still, for his much anticipated lecture Thursday, the new media guru chose not to offer API crash courses or theories on the semantic web. It was in some ways, very much a traditional American academic lecture, rooted in a historical narrative (and geographical context) and some of the latest thinking from his field of study, from the French Revolution to the Paris Peace treaty of 1919 to a post-Internet reading of the “mad as hell” scene in Network….which led to his urging the would-be young French journalists that “the way you imagine the users of journalism will determine how useful a journalist you are..”
Of course, both his history lessons and survival tips for the digital media jungle are also useful for we veterans, both in trying to move the big ship of MSM companies (where Rosen and other profs are now busy consulting), and providing intellectual oxygen to those of us creating new journalistic experiments of our own. For Irene and me, and our global news project, one of the most relevant thoughts he shared was at the beginning, as he noted that Thursday was also the beginning of the academic year back home at NYU journalism school…a reminder that: “the struggle for the next press is an international thing…” Oui!! When history is unfolding, hearing about the past can only help imagine the future. And when you’re flat in the middle of a revolution, it will always be the best and worst of times.