Journalism schools must become information management schools

In the 20th century, journalists were people who worked in a newsroom, i.e who had access to the means of mass publishing or broadcasting. Now that everyone can publish to a potentially wide audience, the meaning of journalism has evolved. Journalism is now the act of adding value to an information in the public interest.

This change profoundly impacts journalism education. In all European countries, most journalists are trained in journalism schools, whether public or private. These institutions teach above all technical elements (writing a story, video and audio recording, online editing, fact-checking etc.) What distinguishes them from communication or multimedia schools is that they see themselves as the hatching nest for the representatives of the fourth estate. Even in Russia, a European country that has never had a full decade of free speech, journalism schools celebrate their exiled alumni who managed to become investigative journalists.

Such specialized schools made sense as long as the technical and economic environment allowed for a few media companies to do all mass communication. Not all graduates of journalism schools worked in the public interest, but almost all those who did worked as professional journalists. Now that anyone can commit an act of journalism and that any organization can publish to a mass audience, the rationale for journalism schools has crumbled.

One possibility for journalism schools would be to focus on the second part of the definition of journalism and train students in gathering and producing information in the public interest. This would imply a strong focus on news gathering on social media, digital forensics (to assess the veracity of a piece of content), data gathering and analysis and shoe-and-leather investigation.

There are two problems with this approach. Not all journalism students like these topics. Some still associate journalism with fame (many want to become a news anchor) or travels. Most importantly, there is no market for professional information managers working exclusively in the public interest. At most, a few hundreds are active in Europe on full-time contracts. A solution might be to downsize journalism schools so that they produce as many graduates as are needed on the market. But this will never happen, were it only because most European legislation do not allow for massive layoffs in public or semi-public institutions.

The other possibility for journalism schools is to focus on information management, the first part of the definition of journalism. They need to drop the pretense that they have anything to do with the balance of powers and focus exclusively on producing excellent information management professionals. A curriculum for such a school would include:

  • Information acquisition

    • Open source intelligence
    • Digital forensics
    • Data scraping and gathering
    • Interviews
  • Information analysis

    • Statistics
    • Building and using databases
    • Fact-checking
    • Contextualization
  • Information communication

    • Psychology
    • Audio and video editing
    • Graphic design
    • Effective writing techniques
    • Impact measurement, incl. online analytics

Underpinned by some fundamentals:

  • Information marketing
  • Computer programming
  • Project management
  • Information legislation

Information in the public interest would be available as an elective, along with more specialized classes in radio, TV, advertising, datavisualization, advanced statistics etc. Such a school would produce data scientists as well as journalists, media planners, press officers and project managers. The mix of students, coming from humanities, computer science or law would ensure pollination across disciplines. What such a school would not produce are photographers, entertainers or op-ed writers.

As a journalism teacher, I have seen too many students who chose a journalism school to become reporters or TV anchors and stubbornly refused to acknowledge that the media landscape had changed. Too many of them work on short-term, badly-paid contracts, writing copy from press releases or news wires, often without any original reporting. For some of them, it is a conscious choice. They hope to rise the ladder within a newsrooms. For many others, it is the only thing they can do. Their degree makes them unemployable for any other position.

As an entrepreneur, I have had to hire several information professionals, whether researchers, data scientists (i.e someone with basic statistics skills) or project managers. Although applicants from journalism schools were plenty, few had the skills we needed.

Mass media was an industry of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now that the industry has crumbled, education has to evolve, too. It is great that journalism schools open their doors to people like us, who teach spreadsheets and code. But it remains too little. Unless they adapt their curricula and start recruiting actively outside of humanities, journalism schools will become irrelevant. It would be a tragic loss for society, as computer science or communication schools do not train the critical thinkers companies and institutions need.