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The New Old Guard
A battle unfolds between Marquette students and faculty over the latter's vision of J-school education in an increasingly digital media climate.

Mirroring the industry its students hope to join, Marquette University has carried out a major overhaul in its journalism curriculum.

Core journalism courses at MU’s Diederich College of Communication now expose entry-level students to the newest tools and techniques of professional newsrooms. “If you’re not thinking digital first, then you’re not equipped to be a success as a journalist in the future,” says the college’s dean, Lori Bergen.

But some students say the trendy subjects like video and social media are crowding out basic skills needed by all journalists. And they’re pushing back.

“I certainly understand what they’re trying to do,” Andrew Phillips says of the college’s revisions. Phillips, a journalism and philosophy double-major, just completed a term as editor in chief of the Marquette Tribune, the twice-weekly student paper. In an editorial  this past fall, he and other Tribune staffers bemoaned Marquette’s new approach:

Courses that once focused on the nuances of news writing and beat reporting now teach students how to write the most gripping cover letter and create the perfectly polished LinkedIn profile. We were once taught to prioritize context, fairness and critical thinking. Now, re-tweets, pageviews and self-promotion come before all else.

In an interview, Phillips says the piece was prompted by a
Tribune team’s trip to the National College Media Convention in Chicago, where seminars and workshops covered topics like freedom of information requests. They came back dismayed at how outmatched they felt against peers from campuses across the country.

“They were talking about all these things that I realize were just basic. But it was totally new to us,” Phillips says. One group of students discussed the six months they spent on one investigative reporting project. “We’ve never done one of those.”

The editorial issued “a call for the start of a conversation” to address
  “frustrations among students that cannot be ignored.”

Meetings followed involving students
, faculty, and administrators over the next few months. Phillips says students were counseled to be patient and to understand that “the curriculum is still evolving.”

At one meeting with faculty, he says, “I said to them … ‘You all have had decades of experience, and this shiny technology is attractive to you’ Maybe what they’ve done is design a curriculum that works really well for them because they already have the reporting skills.”

Bergen defends Marquette’s new approach. She says the curriculum remains grounded in fundamental journalistic skills and values: relying on multiple sources for stories, thinking critically about the issues, treating people and topics fairly and with appropriate balance, and communicating clearly.

“We add to that the aesthetic of digital media,” says the dean.

(Talk about a role reversal. Isn’t  it supposed to be the younger generation championing the flashy new technology, while the old hands grouse that no one’s teaching the kids the basics anymore? At the J-school I went to 30 years ago, one of our biggest complaints was having to write assignments in student classrooms equipped with old manual office typewriters instead of word-processing computers.)

Marquette once had a two-track curriculum, with print and broadcast considered virtually separate disciplines. “For a long time, students had to pick, ‘What part of the news industry do I want to be in?’” Bergen says. Today, “we teach journalism in one place. The skills that a journalist needs are ambidextrous.”

“There’s writing and reporting in every class,” adds journalism department chair Karen Slattery. And by learning across various media, “you begin to learn which medium works best for which stories.”

Both Bergen and Slattery say journalism students have opportunities for practical experience early, such as writing for the Neighborhood News Service, which is in a partnership with the college.

And they promise more to come: Earlier this year the Marquette announced an $8.3 million grant to set up the  O’Brien Fellowship, enrolling advanced students to undertake in-depth  journalism projects. Those students will be a small, select group – a point of contention for some dissatisfied journalism majors. But Bergen says plans call for involving many more undergrad classes in pieces of the fellowship’s projects.

The dean also says she’s heard from students who are enthusiastic about the new curriculum and have praised it because “the essential skills they need are really integrated now into the curriculum.”

Phillips isn’t sure how the issue will play out. “I think they understand where we’re coming from,” he says of faculty and administrators. “What they’ll do with that, I don’t know.”

There’s already been an impact, says Slattery. Students wanted more direct experience sooner in their classes. “They didn’t feel like they were getting out early enough to talk to people,” she says. “Now in the first course, they’re doing that.”

“The faculty continue to take their concerns very seriously,” she adds. So much so that there are plans to meet with students more when classes resume in the fall.

“We want to institutionalize these conversations. I think it’s always important to honor and listen to what people are saying.”

On the heels of the curriculum controversy, another overhaul has further rankled student journalists at Marquette. A 5 percent student media budget cut earlier this year sparked plenty of anger and anguish. And earlier this month, the Board of Student Media announced a restructuring program that, like the revised curriculum, is rooted in a “digital first” philosophy.

The plan joins the university’s four student media outlets – The Tribune, the magazine The Marquette Journal, and student radio and television stations –  together in a single “NewsCenter” website staffed by a pool of reporters and editors. More budget cuts are expected.

The media conflict and the curriculum complaints aren’t directly connected – student media are extracurricular activities run separately from the journalism academic program. But they can’t help but overlap, especially because of similarities between them.

An end-of-semester Tribune editorial acknowledged the rationale for the convergence proposal – then decried the specifics as “a hastily produced plan that blatantly ignores student input and ‘evolved simply for the sake of evolving, a plan that puts the quality of student media at risk.”

But a recent study from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. might give the
Tribune’s print loyalists a fresh talking point.

Assumptions about the growing dominance of digital media over traditional forms might be premature. At the very least, the picture McKinsey paints is a bit more complicated.

When the time people actually engage with particular platforms is taken into account, the legacy media still win. And they do so in a big way.


Another buyout: The Journal Sentinel has instituted yet another buyout program, I’ve learned. On the plus side, the thinking appears to be that the newsroom isn’t the focus, although some reporters may weigh the deal – especially since the severance terms (two weeks’ pay for every year of service) actually exceed those called for in the newest newsroom union contract.


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