- Luke Eastman
The University of Vermont is aiming to start a journalism program — if it can figure out what journalism will be in the coming years and the best ways of teaching a craft that's experiencing an identity crisis.
"There's no consensus, in academia or among journalists, about how to do that, no consensus about how journalism is best practiced, disseminated or taught, or even about what journalism is," said Tom Streeter, a UVM sociology professor. He's a member of a "somewhat fluid" in-house group that's been discussing for nearly a year the possibility of launching a UVM journalism program.
The internet, and the new forms and definitions of news it has spawned, has upended the long-standing understandings of media mavens. And the conceptual chaos appears to be intensifying as President Donald Tweet trumpets "fake news" and his mouthpieces spew "alternative facts."
"The uncertainty is huge," Streeter observed in an email message. "Do we need more objectivity? Or should journalists instead just lay their cards on the table and be clear about their points of view while getting their facts straight? And of course nobody knows how journalism will be paid for in the future, or how it will be organized. If someone tells me they know exactly what will be going on in 10 years, I stop listening. Anything is possible."
Streeter recently contacted a variety of journalism scholars, most of whom are former reporters, to elicit ideas on how a university should train newshounds of the future. "The answers were all over the map," he recounted.
"A few said, do nothing: Just teach them to think, read and write, and then let them learn the mechanics of journalism on the job." According to a point of view shared by many dissident practitioners, academic journalism programs are actually an impediment to producing quality journalism. Formal education in the craft can impart a formularized model that "stifles creativity and insight and encourages an uncritical, get-some-quotes-and-call-it-a-day approach," Streeter noted.
Most of the scholars he contacted, however, suggested, "we should try to do it all." That would involve teaching students fundamental journalism skills as well as the art of critical thinking. Streeter said that Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, told him a program at UVM should encourage its participants to be "serious, principled, high-minded hustlers."
Nothing has been decided about how to structure a UVM journalism offering, its advocates emphasize. Financing, course content, teaching positions and other big issues remain unresolved. A hazily envisioned "trans-disciplinary" journalism program would not be launched until 2018, at the earliest, and may be phased in over several subsequent years, said Rob Williams, a UVM prof who teaches media-related courses in the school's community development and applied economics department.
But the university is at least informally committed to satisfying those students who, Streeter said, "are hungry for journalism skills and the opportunity to participate in the public dialogue." As evidence of that yearning, Williams noted that his journalism courses are "packed" and that student involvement in campus media outlets "trends ever upwards."
UVM President Thomas Sullivan supports the effort to develop a journalism program. "Its strength lies in the emphasis it places on developing both students' intellectual and analytical abilities through giving them strong content knowledge in specialty areas," Sullivan said in a prepared statement, "and building on their written and oral communication skills across a range of digital platforms so they can communicate that specialized knowledge clearly and in contemporary forms." This twin emphasis, he added, "sets the program apart."
It wouldn't be an entirely new venture for the university. UVM already offers a major and minor in film and television studies, along with a course in documentary production taught by Oscar-nominated nonfiction filmmaker Deb Ellis. UVM alumna Gail Sheehy, a prominent journalist and author, is leading on-campus workshops this spring. Chris Evans, a colleague of Williams', also teaches news-writing courses while serving as faculty advisor to student media organizations, including the Vermont Cynic. In the past decade, that 134-year-old campus newspaper has won two national awards from the Associated Collegiate Press.
"We're not looking to compete with larger, well-established journalism programs — Columbia, Berkeley, Missouri and such — but we are looking to develop something new," Evans said.
A UVM journalism program probably wouldn't be a competitive threat to the well-established Media Studies, Journalism & Digital Arts Department just an interstate exit away at Saint Michael's College, said its chairwoman, Traci Griffith. "We're not similar institutions," she commented. "A student looking to go to the state's largest higher-education institution isn't going to come to St. Mike's. But for someone looking to be one of 15 or 20 in a class and have personal interaction with their professors, they'll come to St. Mike's."
"What UVM may do isn't clear," Griffith added, "but what we do is ever-changing, ever-evolving in response to what's happening in journalism. We make room for many." And St. Mike's students respond with the same enthusiasm that Streeter sees in UVM undergrads, according to Griffith. Nearly 200 of her college's 2,000 students are either majoring or minoring in journalism, making it the fourth-largest department on the Colchester campus.
At UVM, Evans suggested, innovation might take the form of equipping students in existing departments with "foundational journalism skills" and multimedia capabilities so they can report to a broad public on their areas of expertise. "The idea is more 'journalism and ...' rather than journalism alone," Streeter explained. And Evans added: "It should be a pretty exciting smorgasbord for new students."
The university currently offers academic credits to students who work on the Cynic and on-campus TV and radio stations. "We'll continue to give students space to develop their skills in real-world situations — a working newsroom, TV station or radio station — where students set the agenda," Evans said. "The only difference would be that many students in the journalism major might have more formal training before they walk into student media offices."
Formal training in the traditional basics of journalism would be the right way for UVM to proceed, suggested Taylor Dobbs, a 26-year-old reporter for Vermont Public Radio. His first stories appeared in the Water Tower, an alternative student publication at UVM. But he left the university after two years because it had no journalism program. He got a degree in his desired field from Northeastern University.
Dobbs urged UVM to teach "ethics, interviewing, First Amendment rights, news sense, public interest, open-records laws." Those are valuable skills he learned at Northeastern and honed in internships, he said. That immersion in mechanics and conceptual rudiments "will serve me in any journalism job, no matter the medium," Dobbs predicted.
Disclosure: Kevin Kelley worked as an adjunct professor in journalism at St. Michael's College from 1995 to 2014.