Among the things blown up by the digital age were local newspaper monopolies. As advertising collapsed, newsrooms shrank. In some cities, the newspapers provide only a fourth of the local news they once did.
Journalism schools are stepping up. They're producing community news. They're experimenting with new techniques and technologies. But they won't be able to serve their communities well unless their professionals and professors work better together.
In the United States, nearly 500 journalism and communications colleges, schools, departments, or programs enroll more than 200,000 students. Like much of academia, journalism schools have been slow to include the digital age - social- and mobile-media innovations, but also digital law, ethics, and history - into all of their classes.
Leading schools (of all sizes) have embraced the "teaching-hospital" model. Students learn by doing actual journalism, just as medical students heal people, or law students file real briefs. This helps the schools stay current. Students at Philadelphia universities, including Temple and Drexel, are providing local news. To do their best, however, "teaching hospitals" need to have more professionals on hand - and they need to find new ways to not only inform but also engage communities.
Who will track the progress of digital-journalism experiments? For that matter, who will tell us much more than we do now about this profoundly new age of communication? For the first time in history, we carry a mass-media device in our pockets. It's a library, a telephone company, a broadcast studio, a printing press, and much more - with the smartphone, we've got the whole world (of media) in our hands. What does that mean?
The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project is doing excellent research, but more is needed. To really understand this new age, we need our greatest scholars and greatest journalists to work together on research. Not just once in a while, but all the time. They'll need to get out of their respective silos to do it.
That's a good idea, says Jerry Ceppos, former Knight-Ridder company news executive and currently dean at the Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication:
"For starters, I would gently say that professionals could improve the accessibility of some writing and even graphics without reducing the gravitas of articles. After all, that's what professional journalists do. In addition, research areas suggested by professionals might help the journalism industries - again, without reducing the quality of content."
From the scholarly side, Jean Folkerts agrees. The professor and former dean of the school of journalism and mass communications at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, sees them as a combination of academic expertise and journalistic experience. "By doing the research together, they inform each other and learn from each other. Such collaboration ends the vicious cycle of academics believing that journalists jump to conclusions without adequate data, and of journalists thinking academics have no regard for journalistic work."
So what are we waiting for? Let's unite the tribes. We need everyone's help to bring high-quality journalism into the digital age, to perfect new ways to keep independent news and information flowing. We are desperate for a better understanding of the "science" of how news informs and engages communities.
Happily, there's support for all this in the new standards adopted this summer by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. One new standard says students must be able "to understand the digital world." Another says digital skills should be "in keeping with professional expectation." A big change allows more crossover classes, so journalists can learn the kinds of business, software, and design skills needed to launch the news organizations of tomorrow.
Flexible students require flexible professors. For that, we need help from such places as the University of Pennsylvania, one of the finest research universities anywhere, with more than $700 million in annual research-and-development expenditures. If Penn were to match researchers with top professionals and focus on applied research, the results could be spectacular.
Columbia University did a similar thing recently, putting sociologist Michael Schudson together with Len Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post. The result: a report called "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," read in newsrooms and in classrooms, calling for greater public support for good journalism.
Said the report: "American journalism is at a transformational moment. . . . The means of news reporting are being reinvented, the character of news is being reconstructed, and reporting is being distributed across a greater number and variety of news organizations, new and old.
". . . What is going to take the place of what is being lost, and can the new array of news media report on our nation and our communities as well as - or better than - journalism has until now? . . . What should be done to shape this new landscape, to help assure that the essential elements of independent, original, and credible news reporting are preserved?
". . . Choices made now and in the near future will not only have far-reaching effects but, if the choices are sound, significantly beneficial ones."
For professors and professionals, that sounds like a call to action.
E-mail Eric Newton at email@example.com.