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When I visited the campus of Ball State University recently, I was struck by the number of innovative programs the school had carried out, from a live interactive TV local broadcast to its converged newsroom. Ball State is also home to the well endowed Center for Media Design, which conducted one of the most comprehensive (and expensive) usage studies, the Middletown Media Studies, in which researchers literally watched and recorded their subjects’ media usage during all their waking hours. And the Ball State campus itself is aggressively wired with WiFi Internet access, and is filled with gleaming buildings and high-tech trappings.

But the problem, particularly with Ball State’s journalism and communications study programs, is that the school’s philosophy remains mired in a legacy media mindset. You can learn about advertising or PR or newspapers or broadcast or magazines. And the goal of those programs is to get placed into positions as they have been defined for decades: the big PR agency, The New York Times, ABC News, Newsweek.

I went to speak in front of a class of students learning about advertising sales. I was happy to hear some of them were working on a project related to ads on cell phones. I was horrified to hear that there was no class related to online advertising. None, nada, zip. That’s unbelievable, when you look at the growth of online advertising — up about 34% in 2006 alone — compared to the stagnation of legacy media’s ad business. How can students be prepared to go into media ad sales without knowing about the online realm? My only advice to students was to learn it on their own, check out the blogs and websites dedicated to the topic and soak up what they could.

I don’t think for a minute that this is a problem only at Ball State. Almost every interaction I’ve had with journalism schools and their faculty reaffirms that these institutions have a long way to go before they can evolve from the oldthink mindset. There might be pockets of resistance or some innovative projects here and there, but overall the focus of students is to follow in the same footsteps as their professors: Start your career at a podunk daily newspaper and work your way up to the big metro papers, and end up in academia.

Nowhere do students get the inkling that the metro paper might not exist by the time they get there — at least in its current ink-stained format. Nowhere do they learn the ins and outs of being a freelancer, even though they are living in a free agent nation, almost assured of being downsized out of a job at some point. Nowhere do they learn what it takes to moderate an online community, to do outreach into a community and work with citizen journalists and bloggers. The blog, in academia, is looked at by faculty as something to disdain, a lazy way out of doing real journalism; and by students, it is looked at as a leisure time activity, pointless and fun.

From what I learned from Ball State’s administration, there are three groups of professors: those that understand the shift that is happening and are happy to figure it out; those that refuse to change their curriculum that has been set in stone for years; and those that are on the fence. The hope of administration is that the oldthink types can be moved along the path to retirement, while the middle group can be convinced to join the vanguard.

Meanwhile, the students present an interesting conundrum. I figured that they would be chomping at the bit to work in new media, as they are the digital generation born with a laptop and cell phone in their hands. David Studinski, a Ball State senior who is editor of the student newspaper, explained to me over lunch why students were as slow to embrace change as their professors.

“They use the technology all the time, they all have cell phones and they text message,” he said. “But they don’t take it seriously as a work thing. They think of blogging as gossip and MySpace is for fun with their friends. They don’t think they could work in that type of environment as a journalist.”

So what is a university to do? It could start a program for students to learn networked journalism or online journalism. Or it could start to require all journalism students to learn the basics of multimedia production and storytelling, online moderation of communities, and the skill of writing for the web and on blogs. Newspaper students would learn about making — and being on camera for — online video reports. Magazine students would learn the basics of doing an audio podcast. Broadcast students would learn how to write for the web. And advertising students would learn about behavioral and interstitial advertising online.

Freelance writer Greg Lindsay gave an amazing virtual commencement speech to 2005 j-school graduates on mediabistro, noting the same problem with academia. His main point:

You thought you were buying [with your tuition] a set of skills, credentials, and quality time with the placement office. And you did. But your professors also sold you a mindset, a worldview, an ideology — one in which newspapers are God’s work, bloggers are pagans, and your career trajectory is a long, steep, but ultimately meritocratic climb to a heavenly desk at The New York Times or ’60 Minutes.’ Accepting any of this as gospel truth will almost certainly cause permanent damage to your budding careers…

Is there a way to fix this? Maybe, if your professors are willing to admit that they’re evangelizing as well as teaching, and that where they see a decline and fall going on in the media landscape, you might just find opportunities helping tear it down. But who wants to say that?

Who, indeed? What’s your experience in academia? Are administrations ready to shift their teaching along with the times? Are students still focused on legacy media and what will it take to change their mindset? Share your thoughts in the comments below. I would love to be proven wrong with examples of widespread change.

UPDATE: A couple people in academia have explained how they are integrating new technologies into their classes. In the comments, Derina Holtzhausen, associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at the University of Southern Florida, explains how her school has created a full multimedia journalism track at the graduate level, and has introduced “technology bootcamps” for PR classes. Here’s her main point:

We still require many of the courses that are traditionally offered at schools of mass communications. Finding the balance is a challenge. We all want to make sure our students are comfortable with new technology and on the cutting edge of their practice. At the same time we are not teaching in technical colleges but universities committed to providing students with a broad liberal arts education.

The fact is that people in practice are also trying to figure it out. We in academe should be committed to do the same by keeping our departments organic and open to restructuring and change.

Most definitely. I also received an email from Patrick Phillips, who runs the excellent I Want Media site and teaches a digital journalism class at New York University. Here’s how Phillips makes new media come alive in his class:

Journalism students walk out of this class with a strong knowledge of online terminology and common web practices, along with hands-on experience as bloggers. Class guest speakers this semester include indie bloggers (Peter Rojas of Engadget) and traditional media bloggers (Ana Marie Cox of Time.com), who are filling in students on the pros and cons of blogging and the challenges ‘old’ media face from new blog competitors. We debate whether Amanda Congdon and Josh Wolf are real journalists, and whether or not the distinction even matters anymore. (Perez Hilton, they’re fully aware, is an NYU alum.)

Students on Day 1 came in saying they keep hearing that newspapers are dying (which I don’t believe; I think they’re in transition — a big difference), and they want to know more about the online world, which we aim to address. Within the past year or so, several traditional media outlets have launched blogs on their websites, and are now actually hiring bloggers.

Obviously, NYU has the advantage of being in a media mecca where it can bring in such high-profile speakers, but most other college campuses also have local bloggers or podcasters they could tap as knowledgeable sources and speakers. Maybe this is a model that could be replicated at other schools.

UPDATE 2: I’ve also received word via email from a couple people from my alma mater, the University of Missouri, who say they’ve implemented a pretty widespread rethinking of curriculum. Margaret Duffy, chair of the School of Journalism’s Strategic Communication program, told me this:

At the Missouri School of Journalism we are aggressively changing curriculum content and delivery (it seems on almost a daily basis) and doing extensive research in the media landscape. Our Strategic Communication curriculum (formerly advertising) is entirely converged and offers both regular courses and short courses in how fragmented media fundamentally alters consumer behavior. The Missouri news curriculum is converged and experimenting with social networks, citizen journalism, blogs, podcasts, and alternate delivery methods. We also do extensive research in understanding how and why consumers make media choices.

Also, an associate professor at Missouri, Charles Davis, noted how the students had advanced beyond his comprehension. “We are in the midst of doing all of those groovy things you talk about,” he said via email. “Hell, even an old dog like me is watching as his students do all sorts of convergy things that I can’t even understand. But it’s cool because we are arming them with the platforms they need to embrace the future, while continuing to teach them the one thing that
has remained constant: how to report the news.”

I think that’s the balancing act for journalism schools: continuing to teach the basics of good reporting while also considering future directions of media platforms, interactivity, and audience collaboration.

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