school daze

Columbia J-School’s Existential Crisis

The media bloodbath hasn’t made for happy days at Columbia Journalism School. When the Times recently announced that its new, hyperlocal blog experiment “The Local” would be assisted by journalism students not from Columbia but from the City University of New York, you could practically hear the collective gasp echoing in the hallowed halls uptown. CUNY? Since when does CUNY trump Columbia? Well, since digital journalism became the single ray of hope on an otherwise dark media horizon, and Columbia’s vaunted ability to train students as print reporters began to appear obsolete. And so the school is trying to change. Fast.

Beginning in August, Columbia will offer a revamped, digitally focused curriculum designed to make all students as capable of creating an interactive graphic as they are of pounding out 600 words on a community-board meeting. The force behind the change is former managing editor Bill Grueskin, the school’s new dean of academic affairs. “We’ve gotten pretty good at teaching the skills,” he says of Columbia’s new media chops, “but in terms of understanding the integration of those skills into the creation and distribution of journalism, I don’t think we’re where we need to be right now.”

Grueskin wants to make multimedia skills and storytelling mandatory via the school’s core course, RW1, shorthand for “Reporting and Writing 1,” which has, since its inception in the early seventies, stuck to very traditional lessons in beat reporting and on-deadline news writing. Though RW1 has undergone upgrades such as a class website, Grueskin wants a more significant shift. “Where the transition needs to go is from a skill set to a mindset,” he explains, citing a live blog of a news event, followed by a slideshow, followed by a longer story a week later as an example of new media practices.

But the push for modernization has also raised the ire of some professors, particularly those closely tied to Columbia’s crown jewel, RW1. “Fuck new media,” the coordinator of the RW1 program, Ari Goldman, said to his RW1 students on their first day of class, according to one student. Goldman, a former Times reporter and sixteen-year veteran RW1 professor, described new-media training as “playing with toys,” according to another student, and characterized the digital movement as “an experimentation in gadgetry.”

Goldman’s official take on the situation is considerably more measured, and he insists he is not against new media. “They need to know the ethics and history and practice of journalism before they become consumed with the mold they put it in, because the mold will change — the basics won’t,” he says, explaining his outburst.

But Goldman’s concerns are not isolated. “We have, clearly, two camps: the new school and the old school,” says Duy Linh Tu, the coordinator of the new-media program and Grueskin’s right-hand man.

Part of the problem is the perception that the situation is a “a zero-sum game,” as one person put it, where adding lessons in video production or law for bloggers will dilute or displace the school’s long-heralded focus on journalism’s core precepts: concise prose, ethical reporting, and sophisticated editorial sensibilities. “There’s this big, huge, fundamental issue: How much of the skills do you teach?” says journalism school dean Nicholas Lemann. “You can go to the Learning Annex and take a Flash course. I don’t think what we should do is be replicating courses you can take at the Learning Annex. But you have to have some familiarity, or you’re not able to execute a website.”

But the hurdles are practical as well as philosophical. Because many of the tenured professors haven’t worked in new media themselves, their classes require the addition of tech-savvy adjuncts, which has Lemann worried about “blowing out the budget.” The school has been trying to do away with this added expense by training the professors themselves, but this takes time Columbia doesn’t necessarily have, given the rapid implosion of the industry it serves.

The real issue, of course, isn’t whether the school can afford to change, but that it can’t afford not to. “There’s an argument about whether this is for the better or detriment of journalism,” says Tu. “I don’t get into that argument. This is the reality of journalism.”

Editor’s note: The Local editor Andy Newman points out in the comments that the Times is using interns from Columbia. But the community journalism initiative which is core to the project’s novelty, and its promise as a model for hyper-local online journalism, is being undertaken in collaboration with CUNY.

Columbia J-School’s Existential Crisis