Monday, August 08, 2011

Journalism loses accredibility

Old Capitol, heart of the University of Iowa campus.

I see by the morning paper that my alma mater, the University of Iowa School of Journalism, has managed to lose accreditation for its professional master's program and narowly avoid losing accreditation entirely. Careless, I'd say, but nothing exactly new.

I'm a double-dip U of I grad, bachelor's degree in journalism before Vietnam, master's degree after --- the latter superfluous, but hey, I couldn't think of anything better to do at the time. Not long after I finished up that second degree, the whole program crash-landed, then was renewed and reaccredited and flourished.

During my undergraduate years, the University of Iowa "J" School was one of the best in the country with an amazing lineup of skilled, inspiring and innovative faculty. But the focus was on practical journalism --- reporting, copy editing, photography, ethics and, to a lesser degree, theory.

Rising on the horizon, however, was Marshall "the-medium-is-the-message" McLuhan and the flowering of theoretical, rather than practical, approaches to mass communications.

While I was away, a new J School director came on board, the emphasis shifted from practice to theory and out the door went the shining-star faculty --- to other universities delighted to have them. So when I came back, the joint was a shadow of its former self and quite frankly I don't remember much about the months it took to finish up the master's --- in large part because there wasn't much to remember.

The curious thing about communications theory is that its practitioners while de-emphasizing practical skills somehow managed for the most part to underestimate the overwhelming power of technology. The field has been paying for that oversight ever since.

It's not clear exactly what the accreditation problems are this time, but one issue certainly is a declining number of students, which is hardly surprising. Journalists rarely get rich and print journalism is in trouble in large part because its masters and practitioners have no idea how to deal with the Internet (nor do I). So jobs are scarcer and job security even more elusive. Who would choose it, unless somehow called? Certainly not I.

Advocacy and "story-telling" journalism are in nowadays, and even print reporters are expected to be stars of the blog-o-sphere, a far cry from the days when "accuracy" and "objectivity" were mentioned at least twice during every lesson and staff writers were expected to guard their objectivity by maintaining a certain distance.  The news now has to sell as well as inform, or revenue shrinks even more and corporate masters fuss --- then hire more advertising salespeople and fire a reporter or two.

None of this means there aren't fine committed journalists still out there, scattered among the media, trying to keep their heads above informational high water. And I'm sure it will all work out, probably in Cyberspace. But as with everything else, there certainly seems to be a good deal of confusion right now, and it's not clear who, if anyone, will be training their replacements.

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