The role of digital journalism in journalism education

What is the role of digital journalism in journalism education?

It is an important question, and it is one that I have discussed and thought about more than usually since yesterday. The occasion is an opinion piece by Signe Okkels on (the trade journal for Danish journalists) where she critiques the journalism study programs in Denmark for not taking the digital dimension serious even though the digital is probably here to stay. Okkels studied journalism at Roskilde University and her point of comparison is a nine-months program at University of Southern California. Her conclusion:

“The level of Danish journalism education must simply be improved, and that calls for a different prioritization of and attitude toward digital journalism.” (translated by me)

It would be easy to just dismiss the critique as anecdotal (“well, that’s just her experience”) and off the mark (what does Okkels know about the other journalism educations in Denmark, including the one I work at?). But I actually think that, to some degree, she has a point – and her piece certainly struck a chord among people in the news industry:

The people tweeting here are obviously ones who pay more attention to the digital and will likely place more emphasis on it than your average editor or journalist (for one thing, they discuss this matter on Twitter…). But that does not disqualify their points of view. On the contrary: they work with the tensions and conflicts that surround the digital in newsrooms on an everyday basis. They know what this is about. For that reason alone, it would be wrong for journalism educators to just discard Okkels’ piece.

I agree with much of what Okkels and her tweeting supporters say. At the journalism study programs, we can do better in integrating digital with everything we do. Or rather, we should stop treating digital as a distinct category and instead teach our students to work with writing, audio, and visuals across all media. Instead of teaching “television and radio”, we should teach “moving images and sound”. We should teach our students about emerging business models, social media skills, WordPress, scraping, and the basic principles of coding as integral parts of the existing curriculum. In many instances, we should get rid of the “digital” prefix – nobody talks about “analogue” or “electronic” journalism, right?

But the thing is – and this is where I respectfully disagree with Okkels’ assessment of current journalism education in Denmark – that we already do much of this. At least at the Centre for Journalism at SDU where I work; what the other institutions do, I cannot speak for. We do not do it all the time, and we do not do it everywhere. But in our “old” MA program, my “J-Lab” course on media innovation and concept development in a transformed media environment is now mandatory. And on the new MA program, which just started on September 1, digital is one of the three cornerstones: the students must make their own websites and publish on it, they learn to write and produce audio and video for whatever platform they choose, and they will spend half a year on a “digital project” in collaboration with media organizations. It is our explicit ambition that these students excel at being digital journalists when they graduate.

I do not mean to be self-congratulatory, because we are not there (wherever that may be) yet. Could we move faster? Yes. Should we move faster? Yes, I think so. Should we be more agile and adapt to changes faster than we do? Yes, of course.

It is one thing that universities are slow organizations with above-average institutional inertia. But Magnus Bjerg from Danish TV 2 raises an important issue in his tweet as does Pernille Holbøll from free daily MetroXpress: not very many students are actually all that interested in the digital. Their observation corresponds with my own experiences from teaching our students and what I hear from colleagues on other Danish universities. Sure, digital is fine and all, but what really matters is getting your byline on the front-page of the printed newspaper or in the evening news. In that context, it is sometimes uphill for educators who actually want to push things in a digital direction (but we can, of course, be better – I am not making excuses). That is also a serious challenge for the news organizations now and in years to come, no doubt about that.

I cannot help thinking that all of this connects somehow to another issue that journalism education at universities must deal with: the theory vs. practice issue. While most professors, themselves socialized in an academic system, are interested in giving their students as much knowledge as possible, most students are interested in practicing journalism and learning the tricks of the trade. They do, after all, study journalism in order to become journalists.

But as Kurt Lewin put it, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” A theoretical perspective can inform practice and distinguish the reflexive practitioner from the one who is just doing a job. I strongly believe that in times of rapid and profound contingency changes, practitioners are better off with more theoretical knowledge, not less. And I do not necessarily see a conflict between the theory and practice when they can be mutually informing.

You can, with all due respect, always learn to make a timeline with Timeline.js and embed it on your site, but seeing through the communicative structures of the hybrid media system is not necessarily something you can just do just as good without being familiar with Chadwick’s scholarship.

One example (anecdotal, I am afraid): in most of my under-graduate courses, I at some point present Habermas’ theory of the public sphere to the students. Even though I am quite explicit about my reasons for doing so, I cannot escape the feeling that only the smartest of the students actually grasp why this is important (it proposes one very influential framework for understanding journalism’s raison-d’être), and even they would rather be out there interviewing sources for their next piece of journalism… It will sometimes (often?) be years, before they get the “oh, that’s what he was talking about” moment.

The challenge is that theory is abstract, insights come slowly, and this type of knowledge often exists as a reservoir of understandings that help inform what one does but not always in an explicit or obvious way. Practical skills are concrete, they can be acquired on a basic level fast(er), and they are part of everyday professional life. I understand why students (and their employers-to-be) do not always appreciate the need for and relevance of theory here and now when they could improve their practical skills. (By the way, the tension is of course not new. In 1958, it was what kept the conflict going between Doris Day and Clark Gable in the movie Teacher’s Pet.)

But I think it will be a slippery slope to just focus more on the practical skills, even though they are in high demand, at the expense of the theoretical dimension. Rather, I think we need to re-calibrate the journalism study programs in line with what I have mentioned above. I think we are doing the right thing with our new MA program. And I think we as researchers and educators at journalism study programs could be better in articulating why theoretical approaches can be useful for the students and the news industry. American scholars like Nikki Usher and Mark Coddington are extremely good at this; we can learn from them.

The critique from Okkels and others has two dimensions, one that has to do with what we do (where I actually think we might be a little more digital than we are given credit for) and one that has to do with our pace of adapting (where I think we could be better). Within the structural framework of universities, we – and again, I cannot speak for other than myself and my closest colleagues – try to work with these issues in a way that does not compromise scholarly quality; as C.W. Anderson has argued, one of the unique features of academia is that we actually have time and are expected to think hard about our objects of study, which takes a lot of time. Sometimes the slow approach is the best way to generate new insight, even though it obviously clashes with rapid and radical transformations that take place here and now. I do not mention this as an excuse, rather as an explanation. And it does not exempt us from being digital enough in our teaching. We can do more in that area.

If I should wish for something in return, it would be that our students embrace the digital more than they do today. It is, in all likelihood, where many of them will spend their entire career, but it is all too rare that a critique such as Okkels’ is put forth.

Full disclosure: The Danish community of journalism educators is small, and the circle of people teaching and researching digital journalism is even smaller. For this reason, I know the people Okkels critiques and even consider many of them good friends. I hope this has not clouded my judgment on this matter.

Update, September 15, 2015: The discussion has continued today, and I have added the tweet by Pernille Holbøll above. Furthermore, Filip Wallberg and Mads-Jakob Vad Kristensen have contributed to the discussion on their respective blogs; their basic argument is that starting one’s own medium should be mandatory for all journalism students.

NordMedia 2015 in review

Back from the NordMedia 2015 conference in Copenhagen. It is the biannual media researcher conference for the Nordic countries (in 2013, it was in Oslo), and this time (as in Oslo) it was a very good experience. Congratulations to my former colleagues at the Department for Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen for successfully organizing the conference – in particular, I applaud the efforts of Anne Jerslev and Christa Lykke Christensen, who served as chairs of the organizing committee.

On the conference, I presented two of the projects I am currently working on.

First, I had organized a panel on “Journalism and Social Media”, where Ulrika Hedman (Gothenburg University), Anders Olof Larsson and Christian Christensen (Oslo University and Stockholm University, respectively), and I presented our research on, well, journalism and social media. While the papers by Ulrika and Anders/Christian were empirical pieces with analyses of large data sets, my own paper was of a rather theoretical character, discussing the relationship between the private, the personal, and the professional on journalists’ social media profiles. It was very much a work-in-progress, but I expect it to be a finished article ready for submission to a journal later this year.

I know Anders from my visiting fellowship at Oslo University earlier this year, and Ulrika and I have kept on online conversation going for the last couple of years since our research interest into social media journalism are very closely connected (but for some peculiar reason we had not actually met in persons before the NordMedia conference – very nice to finally do so). For me, it was quite a “dream team” of scholars that participated in the panel, and the presentations certainly met my high expectations. All in all, I think the panel was a success – not least thanks to the insightful questions and smart comments from the audiences.

Here is the proposal for the panel:

As social media have proliferated extensively over recent years, they now play an increasingly important part in journalistic practices and in the workings of news organizations. Having a de-centralized and distributed character, social media constitute a very different communicative structure than traditional mass media, which are built upon the logic of one-to-many communication. Hermida (2014), for example, identifies Twitter as an “ambient news network” because of the constant and multi-directional exchange of information, journalism, opinions, and social intelligence on the social medium. Furthermore, journalists are not the only ones on social media conducting journalism, and not all activities performed by journalists on social media are of a journalistic nature.

So, the established order of journalism is challenged since social media induce alternative, more personalized, ways of expressions and flows of public communication into the workings of the mass media system. The questions, then, are how actors, organizations, and institutions rooted in the “old” media system accommodate to the “new” media platforms, and how their routines and practices change because of them.

The panel brings together researchers from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. It consists of three papers, which complement each other in approaching the how social media influence journalism and the ways news media and news workers work from different perspectives (participatory practices, “social media logics”, sociological role theory) and with different methodological frameworks (content analyses, case studies). Together, they address the multi-facetted responses to the challenges brought about by social media and the heterogeneous research that currently maps these developments.

Be sure to read Ulrika’s blog post about the research she presented (in Swedish – she also has a shorter piece in English) as well as Anders’ about his presentations.

Second, I presented a paper (again, work-in-progress) about media policy responses to the convergence of news media sectors in Denmark (to some degree a re-run of the paper I presented at the 2nd International Conference on Public Policy in Milan last month). Here, I am still collecting the last pieces of data from the political parties eligible to run at elections for the Danish parliament, but I expect the article version of this paper to be published next year.

I almost always find it enjoyable to attend conferences and present my work. But the NordMedia conferences are something special because they constitute an opportunity to see all the good colleagues from the Nordic countries – many of whom I have know throughout most of my academic career and almost consider my “research family”. So I am looking forward to the 2017 conference in Tampere, Finland.

Other highlights:

  • Lee Humphrey’s excellent key note speak on “The Qualified Self” where she, among other things, argued that the sociality and (perceived) self-indulgence of social media is nothing new but rather goes back to the format of the diary in the 19th century. (I unfortunately missed Klaus Bruhn Jensen’s keynote on meta-communication.)
  • The planning of future collaborations with colleagues in Denmark and abroad. One of the strengths of the NordMedia setup is that it facilitates and encourages international comparative work, and after my meetings with some amazingly smart people, there are interesting projects in the pipeline.
  • Being elected chair of the Journalism Studies division of NordMedia.
  • The national meeting, where large parts of the Danish media research community attended, and where we got lots of useful feedback for our work in the Association for Media Researchers in Denmark (SMiD).
  • The “Digital Methods” workshop organized by Stine Lomborg and Anders Olof Larsson as a pre-conference.
  • This tweeted image, which caught my PhD supervisor and friend Stig Hjarvard at a light moment: