Journalism’s values nested deep in a liberal arts culture

[I wrote this in October, 2019, as I began my three-year phased retirement. It might be useful for anyone interested in the position I now leave open for a new hire.]

In 2003, I couldn’t believe my good fortune in landing a tenure-track position in the journalism department at Washington and Lee. After 26 years in newspapers and magazines with nourishing breaks for a master’s from Brown, a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow, and a Ph.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill, I suddenly found myself among other seasoned journalists who were as intellectually and academically engaged as I. The “intellectual and academic” part made us outliers in the honorable but not particularly “learned” profession of newsgathering.  Meanwhile, the “seasoned” news-gathering part made us outliers in a liberal arts college as fine as W&L. It seemed a wonderful miracle of hybridization.

W&L Colonnade, the famous face of the campus

Department head Ham Smith, near retirement after 30 years at W&L, had been an acting public affairs director at WGBH in Boston and an editor at the Richmond News-Leader for six years. He had a master’s degree in political science from Boston University. Brian Richardson, who would replace Ham as department head, was well-seasoned as a metro newspaper reporter and editor in Florida (he drew on that experience in his textbook, The Process of Writing News, published in 2007 and still used in our classes). He was a Phi Beta Kappa and ODK graduate of W&L with a Ph.D. from the University of Florida. The next department head, Pam Luecke, had arrived the year before me, having edited a Pulitzer-winning team at the Hartford Courant and been an editor at Kentucky’s two top newspapers, in Louisville and Lexington. Pam had been a philosophy major at Carleton, a Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University, and master’s degree graduate from the Medill journalism school at Northwestern. She created the Reynolds business journalism chair and program at W&L.

I arrived with another newcomer, Ed Wasserman, who brought to the esteemed Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at W&L a flair for intellectual engagement that spread the department’s profile nationwide through his biweekly syndicated column. With degrees from Yale, the London School of Economics and the Sorbonne, Ed was also a consummate news professional and newsroom manager. After 10 years at W&L, he left to be dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley.

The department I joined also had a strong commitment to journalism law and journalism ethics, requiring separate courses in both, as it does today. Before I arrived, these were taught by professors with less journalism experience than Brian or Pam, or none at all, but a solid academic foundation. Lou Hodges, a tenured religion professor who had created an “Ethics in the Professions” program, eventually settled in the journalism department to be one of the country’s pioneers of journalism ethics. He brought the endowed Knight Foundation chair of ethics to W&L. The j-law professor, John Jennings, another W&L graduate, had earned his Ph.D. at Stanford (the famous Wilbur Schram was on his committee) and had taught at the University of Texas.

An outdoor class in my JOUR101, Intro to Mass Media

This rare blend of deep journalism background and solid academic grounding marked a long period for this historic department, from the mid-70s to today. My first 10 years here saw little change in the faculty. Then a series of retirements began. The replacements fit the mold of the department’s culture and standards from the mid-70s, though probably higher in the professional empyrean than ever. We hired some of the most respected journalists in their particular fields, passionate teachers with publications aimed at the professional or textbook markets, though only one of these mid-career hires, Pam’s replacement as Reynolds chair of business journalism, had a Ph.D., after many years in the profession.

The department is in a period of transition, building for a future that will inevitably be different from the last 25 years. In the news and marketing worlds, the ever-deepening effects of digital and social media have undermined the standard business models. As Matt Stoller put it in a recent New York Times op-ed, “The signaling functions of news brands and the cultural barriers meant to guard against distorting effects of advertising have broken down.” A dysfunctional information ecosystem is filling the gaps. This may be the “Watergate” story of our age, a battle for credible truth and verifiable facts to launch a new generation of journalists. This may be as much a philosophical and “civil sphere” battle as one for crusading journalists. Future “mass communicators” will need the underlying values of a liberal arts education as much as they need the professional skills that our department blends with those values. The practices of journalism and strategic communication themselves will always be a form of applied liberal arts in American life. But their future role in renewing a healthy democracy is in play.

Prof. Alecia Swasy and WaPo editor Marty Baron

The department’s future, like its recent past, is being built on a blend of professional orientation and scholarship. But the admixture looks different today, as it should. Three important goals are being articulated in ways that are voiced differently than they were 25 years ago. One is diversity. The first female on the department’s faculty, a Ph.D. with prior experience in both journalism and public relations, is now in phased retirement. The department has achieved gender diversity, age diversity, and an international-ethnic diversity in its faculty, but has never had a black American tenure-track professor.

The second goal is to have scholars with a research agenda. The academic grounding of the department’s faculty in the last 25 years has been solid enough, but that aspect has been secondary to professors’ professional standards and values. “Fly the flag,” Brian Richardson would always say about our attending academic conferences. Earlier, one long-time department head, Ron MacDonald, had been an influential figure in broadcast journalism but had no advanced degree. Before him, O.W. (Tom) Riegel was an international pioneer in documentary and propaganda studies, but had no higher degree than a master’s. Academic expectations have risen steadily. Two faculty members who combine years of professional practice with Ph.D.s – one being me – are now the first in the department’s history to face retirement without becoming full professors, having been turned down by the Advisory Committee three years ago. Our two youngest recent hires have been new-minted Ph.D.’s with strong research agendas but less, or little, professional experience.

But the third goal is still professional experience and standing. It is this goal that I want to talk about here, lest it be misunderstood as merely an “old” thing or a “weight” on a scale pan that the other two goals can balance out in compensation.

With Judy Woodruff in a DC event

W&L is credited with being where journalism education began. Actually, the program established in 1869 was a scholarship designed to attract young printer’s devils to a liberal education, combining tuition at the college with an apprenticeship under Lexington printer Col. John J. Lafferty. It didn’t last, and no student’s name is on record as getting the scholarship. But in the 1920s, publishers of Southern newspapers established a journalism foundation at W&L to honor their idea of Lee as a Southern icon as well as a visionary for journalism as an academic branch of practical knowledge. This became the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. So, from the start, it was funded and shaped by the news business. That business is changing dramatically, along with its technology and its relationship with consumers of news and information.

Meanwhile, over the past century, American journalism education has developed a multitude of communication studies by borrowing methodologies from the sciences, sociology and the humanities to gain a respectable home at research universities. The news business has always felt somewhat remote, or quietly superior, to this academic side of journalism and mass media studies. News outlets appreciated the practical training for their new hires from undergraduate and master’s programs, but had little use for or awareness of the higher-level theories and research being done in the Ph.D. programs. (The Freedom Forum Fellowship that put me in a fast-track Ph.D. program at UNC was a small, short-lived effort of former Gannett editors to add a Ph.D. to award-winning journalists and speed them into the classroom.)

In academic status, communication studies will never measure up to the disciplines they have borrowed from. And against the research universities where communication studies carry some weight, Washington and Lee will never be competitive. Our value, recognized nationally, is in our teaching of professional practice while meeting the more balanced and high standards of a top-tier liberal arts college.

Washington and Lee has a rare treasure, being the only highly selective liberal arts college with an accredited journalism program and one with professors who excelled in the business and remain connected to it. Within the past 12 months, reporters and editors from the Washington Post and the New York Times have visited with tales of holding Trump accountable, and have been debriefed at campus dinners. Our students majoring in journalism or strategic communication must get academic credit for summer internships in those businesses. The faculty may need more connections with the strategic communication professions to help students in this relatively new major, but our rich connections with news continue to give our students a shining reputation with business journals, major newspapers and broadcast news outlets. Our standard for journalism majors, by tradition, has been that they will have the skills and self-confidence to begin reporting news from their first day on the job.

Knight chair in ethics Aly Colon visits my JOUR201 class

Journalism is a wayward profession, almost as improvisational as jazz because of its historic role in America’s democratic experiment and the freedom implied in the First Amendment. But at W&L, the useful aspects of its energies and skepticism as a way of knowing combine, sometimes powerfully, with the ideal of learning as an inherent good. Cardinal Newman’s “Idea of a University” makes the distinction between the inherent good of knowledge and the usefulness of practical skills. Those skills, he says, are more easily and quickly acquired by the liberally educated. He calls liberal knowledge an acquired illumination, “a habit, a personal possession, and inward endowment.” In my experience, journalism feels like that as well.

Here, that inward “illumination” comes from the values and practices of journalism tested within a culture of global thinking and the liberal arts. This alchemy cannot happen without the solid connection with professional practice the department has always had.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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2 Responses to Journalism’s values nested deep in a liberal arts culture

  1. Colon, Aly says:

    Hi Doug,

    What a inspirational, yet practical, examination of W&L. I feel honored to have had the opportunity of working alongside you. You are indeed a scholar with ink-stained connections to a profession where many toil without pedigree but not without purpose.


  2. Doug Cumming says:

    I love that “without pedigree but not without purpose.” It matches my feeling that it’s like American jazz — a gathering of all sorts and different traditions, but a common bond and freedom.

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