The Bipolar Synthesis: Journalism in the Academy

My latest column in Clio Among the Media, the newsletter of the history division of AEJMC.

We have a relatively small journalism program here at Washington & Lee University, without grad students or professors of public relations, advertising or anything that is primarily theoretical. Yet we feel confident in our academic status. The history books say journalism education started here, although it’s a stretch to equate the scholarships that Washington College President Robert E. Lee started offering to printer’s apprentices in 1870 with the sort of journalism-school education that began in 1908 at the University of Missouri. We hold to the idea that a good liberal arts education is fundamental for journalists – or for anyone called to contribute to a democratic society through communication. We also believe in the value of Ph.D.s and ACEJMC accreditation and all that. So our website says with pride, we are “the nation’s only accredited journalism and mass communications program in a highly competitive liberal arts university.”

Gene Foreman, former Philly Inquirer m.e., Skype-ing with former NYTimes reporter Roy Reed (on monitor in the background)

Gene Foreman, former Philadelphia Inquirer m.e., Skype-ing with former NYTimes reporter Roy Reed (on monitor in the background)

But it can be an uneasy mix – the best journalism as it is actually practiced and the culture of the ivory tower.

Not that these can’t reinforce each other. I see the two worlds blend well where faculty members had highly successful newsroom careers twinkling with Pulitzers, Murrows, SPJ awards or Nieman fellowships before coming to their advanced degrees and classroom teaching. When colleagues have had more than 25 good years in the news business, they have connections that remain.

The best moments are when these connections reach students. I recently dropped in on the final presentations of our journalism majors’ in-depth, multi-media capstone reporting projects. The professor, Brian Richardson, was himself a Phi Beta Kappa W&L journalism major, ’73, who reported and edited for the Tallahassee Democrat and Miami Herald for a decade before getting a Ph.D. at the University of Florida. He had taught this in-depth reporting course for more than a decade. He also worked many summers on the Philadelphia Inquirer copy desk between academic years of teaching.

As it happened, Gene Foreman, the long-time managing editor of Philadelphia Inquirer during those halcyon years of Pulitzers, was a visiting

Critique session: l-r, student Cory Smith, Gene Foreman, Brian Richardson and Jim Steele

Critique session: l-r, student Cory Smith, Gene Foreman, Brian Richardson and Jim Steele


professor here who was just finishing up teaching a spring term course he called “Journalism that Changes the World.” (During one class, he brought in by Skype former New York Times reporter Roy Reed, who had been with Foreman at the Arkansas Gazette when that paper was doing its legendary coverage of the Little Rock Crisis of 1957. Enjoying Reed’s great Southern gift for storytelling there on the big screen, I was reminded of the way Shelby Foote stole the show in Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series.) Foreman came to the In-Depth student presentations. And on that particular day, he had brought in one of his former star reporters, Jim Steele, of the famed Bartlett & Steele team of investigative reporters, now at Vanity Fair. So the students got a critique from Richardson, Foreman and Steele. They were tough critics, but honestly, were wowed by the students’ work.

The best of the newsroom culture, that rakish tribe of well-seasoned news gatherers, has an uneasy relationship with the good university culture in which journalism programs and schools are embedded.

This is not that old chestnut, Those who can’t do, teach. I am grateful for the good theoretical models, historiography and sociology that created the groundwork for this generation of journalism professors. The work continues. As our chair Kathy Forde pointed out in her previous Clio column, sociology has played a key role in our understanding of media history, and provides useful tools for us to continue the work.

But journalism is not just a craft or trade that we are preparing some of our undergraduates to enter. It is also a mode of knowing, worthy of a respected place in a liberal arts education. I was struck by a recent David Brooks column (“Stairway To Wisdom,” New York Times, May 16) in which he hinted at this. In order to understand a social problem in depth, he said, you start with the data, then move on to the academic literature – the theory and sociology of it. But life experience tells us that individuals, you and I, for example, aren’t entirely generalizable in the way of groups and categories. To get at the deeper meaning of a social problem, you need individual cases, and for that, nothing can match the journalistic practice of skillful listening, writing with style and a gut sense for the story.

“My academic colleagues sometimes disparage journalism,” Brooks wrote, “but, when done right, if offers a higher form of knowing than social science research.”

The Freedom Forum, formerly the Gannett Foundation, wanted to help bring more award-winning seasoned journalists into the academic fold to teach the next generation of reporters. So it created a fast-track, two-and-a-half year Ph.D. program at UNC-Chapel Hill, offering $50,000 a year, free tuition and research money. The program accepted three fellows a year for nearly a decade, then shut down. I was in the last group; we turned off the lights.

I had always been drawn to universities, their deeper draughts of thought and longer time-horizons. But leaping into the world of the Mass Comm terminal degree, especially my first AEJMC convention, was painfully disorienting. After writing for multitudes on daily deadlines and editing magazines, I was getting hazed into this other world of blind review fixations and formulaic research papers. I felt, at first, that I had left a reality of consequence for one of weightlessness and non-importance. My colleague Brian Richardson recalled his experience of that transition as well. His reporter instincts kicked in, and he sensed the whole university system lacked outside accountability. So he grilled administrators with basic reporter questions, and that was apparently a startling experience for them.

But having endured the hazing, we now enjoy the benefits, not only in lifestyle but in intellectual payback. The best of it is achieving some kind of synthesis of journalism, as a way of questioning the world and relating to readers, and the art of teaching it.

Roy Reed, Skype-ing from Arkansas into W&L journalism classroom

Roy Reed, Skype-ing from Arkansas into W&L journalism classroom

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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