The age old question has cropped up again, but this time with a digital angle: Does a journalist today still need a degree in journalism? Journalism educators and professionals aren’t necessarily on the same page about what journalism students need to know to succeed — or whether students even need a journalism degree.

According to a new survey released late last week by the Poynter Institute’s News University, journalism educators and professionals think differently about the effect of a journalism degree on the job preparation of graduates, and about whether journalism education is keeping up with dramatic changes in the industry. That difference of opinion might point yet again to the need for innovation in journalism education.

Howard Finberg

Howard Finberg

In a presentation at the annual Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Washington, D.C., Howard Finberg, News University’s director for partnerships and alliances, discussed the survey results. A full report [PDF] was also released on the News University website. Finberg’s interpretation of the survey data suggests that the days of journalism education as most know it — organized into four-year degree programs within university departments or schools — may be numbered, if these programs don’t swiftly and thoroughly modify their structures and their instructional strategies.

Just as the journalism industry and other businesses have faced dramatic change due to technology, so too will journalism education, Finberg argued.

“Journalism education is not going to be immune to this disruption,” he said.

The Data

About 1,800 people answered the News University survey during the last three months. About 38 percent of the respondents were journalism educators; another 38 percent were employees of media organizations (broadly defined); and the remainder were independent media workers, students, or other respondents.

Most noticeable in the results are the significant gaps between educators and professionals in their regard for the importance of journalism degrees — not journalism education, as Finberg would elaborate — in helping graduates get jobs and be ready for work in the field.

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Asked whether a journalism degree was important for understanding the values of journalism, 96 percent of journalism educators responded that it was “very” or “extremely important.” Only 57 percent of the professionals thought the same. And asked whether that degree was important for improving a new hire’s news gathering abilities, 98 percent of educators said it was very or extremely important; just 59 percent of the professionals shared that view.

Media professionals had a mixed sense of whether journalism education was doing enough to keep up with changes in the industry: 48 percent said it wasn’t at all, or only a little, while 43 percent said it was “mostly” keeping up. Educators’ opinions were similarly divided, with 39 percent offering the “not at all” or “only a little” ratings, and 46 percent in the “mostly” category.

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Finally, a question on whether journalism degree recipients made appealing job candidates also received diverging responses. Just more than half, 53 percent, of journalism educators thought having a journalism degree was very or extremely important for their students to get hired, but only 41 percent of the professionals thought the journalism degree was very or extremely important as a hiring criterion. And — a result that might say a lot about the journalism curricula of today — only 26 percent of the professionals said that the last person hired at their organizations had most or all of the skills they needed to succeed in their work.

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Mind the Gap

Finberg argues that the opinion gap revealed by the survey points to a growing divide between the professional and academic journalism worlds.

“The bridge between the professional community and the academic community … I don’t want to say it’s burned down, but if you’ve seen an Indiana Jones movie where they’re trying to cross a rickety bridge — it’s kind of like that,” he said.

Accreditation of journalism programs was meant to ensure a good fit between graduates’ experiences and journalism employers’ needs. But accreditation no longer seems to ensure that coherence.

“Perhaps accreditation has slipped out of the grasp of the professional-academic partnership,” Finberg said. “It is now being driven more as an academic process. I know that professionals participate in the accreditation process, but … my experience tells me that very few professionals are engaged and [that professionals] care very little about the accreditation process today.”

A few attendees at the presentation wondered if some embittered journalism professionals, whether employed or working independently for lack of job opportunities, might have skewed the survey results after finding their degrees had not helped them succeed in the layoff-prone, poorly compensated industry. Yet the opinion gap appears large enough to have other explanations.

Finberg recommends renewing the connection between journalism academics and professionals through innovative changes both within classrooms and in the larger organization of journalism education.

Right now, he said, “We’re not teaching innovation. We’re dancing around the edges of it.”

Flipping the Journalism Classroom

Digital tools could change the focus of faculty members’ classroom time and allow them to share resources with other institutions. Online materials could replace some of the direct instruction in journalism topics, and face-to-face classroom time could be used for other kinds of teaching — as in the widely discussed “flipped classroom” approach.

“Let the Internet do the heavy lifting,” Finberg said. “You do the most important part, which is the coaching and mentoring, the personal, the one on one.”

Online instructional materials could be developed once and then shared by multiple institutions. These materials could take a variety of forms, including journalism MOOCs.

“Are there ways to collaborate across universities, to create curriculum that is shared among universities?” Finberg suggested. He alluded to “rivalries” among j-schools that provoke competition instead of cooperation. “Can we leverage the power of technology to allow certain things to happen centrally for the benefit of everybody?”

Students could learn online and then come into the classroom for follow-up and practice. The student’s perspective would be that the “MOOC is where I absorb information and methods, but I bring all that knowledge to the classroom where a mentor, a facilitator is helping me understand how to apply that,” Finberg said.

(The survey sponsor, News University — part of the non-profit Poynter Institute — offers its own online training materials, both free and paid, with a variety of levels and styles that include non-degree certificate programs.)

As Finberg noted, the survey was at “the 50,000-foot level,” and raised more questions about what specific topics educators should teach. Some of those questions will be explored in an upcoming follow-up survey that will ask educators and professionals more specifically about skills and attitudes needed by prospective journalists.

Journalism Degree or Journalism Education?

More radically, Finberg suggests divorcing journalism education from journalism degrees — or at least weakening the connection, so that training in journalism skills can be made more widely available to not only college students, but to the wider public, including those who commit what Jeff Jarvis calls “acts of journalism.” Documenting that training might come through achieving a digital “badge” in journalism — a recognition of knowledge and training in a field that is separate from any degree program, but that can be shown to employers and others to demonstrate ability.

“People could show their body of work without a degree … We’ve had a lot of good experience with certificates of proficiency. Can we develop, with academic institutions, a digital badge that would show you understand the important things, including ethics, as a student, or as a professional who’s changing careers?” Finberg asked. He said that journalism skill is measurable. “We have ways we can judge the nature of a well-written story, in terms of ethics, proficiency, the ability to take information and turn it into something.”

Opening journalism education to a wider customer base, so to speak, could also help it remain financially sustainable, even as college costs increase and journalism jobs become both fewer and lower paid. Though Finberg didn’t discuss this rationale for creating new non-degree journalism training opportunities in his presentation, the News University survey report does address it: “When it comes to value for dollars invested, journalism degrees may have much less value than they did in the past.”

Though new modes of digital instruction and new institutional collaborations would be significant and challenging changes for many educators and their programs, Finberg argues that having the “spirit of a startup” is necessary for journalism education to match the innovation of the professionals already in the field.

“If we fail, we need to try again. That’s what startups do,” he said. “Let’s take something and just try it. We need more failures. We need more failures in journalism education to teach us what we need to do.”

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. She teaches media theory, writing, and editing, and does research on magazines, social media, and political communication.