What the Medill uproar is really about

Here's another item I wasn't going to touch: The uproar at Northwestern University, where Medill Dean John Lavine is being raked over the coals for writing a letter promoting the school in which he used an anonymous quote that he can't back up. But I am inspired by Gawker firing both barrels of double-ought snark into the middle of it:

All that self-referential ivory tower bullshit is not gonna do one thing to change the fact that all these kids are shelling out huge money in order to be trained for a dying business. We know that great journalists always, on instinct, attack their own bosses , like a trained pit bull will attack a baby. But it's time to get over it, and focus on something that actually matters. Because those Medill students are gonna be upset when the journalism industry continues to tank, their jobs don't exist, and this Dean Lavine story ends up being the biggest one of their entire careers. No mas.

And by Pat Thornton's observation:

For every Mindy McAdams there are 100 professors who don’t have a clue about the Web.

And Will Sullivan's comment:

Getting a doctoral degree pulls you out of the real journalism world for 4 years. And four years is 1/3 of the entire life of the web. You’re dead in online journalism with that gaping hole.

Here's the deal. This is not about John Lavine citing an unnamed student who he says liked the changes he's making at Medill.

This storm began the day Lavine was appointed dean with a mandate to radically change Medill, to tear it apart and rebuild it to meet the needs of the 21st century. This outsider, this unholy businessman, crashes into the Church of the Journalist, suspends the arcane rules of the academy and starts pushing an integrated marketing and communications program and jiggy new multimedia studies and setting up a satellite school in Qatar funded by the Qatari government. For cryin' out loud, they don't even have a First Amendment there.

Suddenly the whole world is turned upside-down, the tenured faculty is in a snit, and a bunch of people who have a lot of time on their hands are looking for something, anything, they can use against this apostate in dean's clothing.

I haven't visited Northwestern's campus in years, but I spent time with some great Medill students and faculty last year, and I've talked with Lavine, and I've been watching with interest as this unfolds. I don't think there are any villains in this opera. Lavine has a plan that he thinks will reposition Medill so that it can prepare students for the world of 2025. Some of the faculty fears that these changes represent the end of cherished values.

I think the angry faculty who are fighting change need to step out of their comfort zones and take a really hard look at their assumptions, their motives, and their own skill sets. In the future we need great editors who can act as -- gasp -- the chief marketing officers, content strategists, and product leaders of their journalistic organizations. This will require a mastery of tools and techniques not taught in a 1970-style reporting and editing course.

Some of the students need to wake up and see that they're not looking ahead to the world of 2025. Being a student, as opposed to a mere pupil, means that you take responsibility for your own education. Getting trained for old-media jobs that may not survive to see the end of your student loan isn't responsible behavior.

And all of those responsible for the utter lack of perspective and proportion being shown in this matter need to take a cold shower. Journalism is about news judgment as much as it's about digging, and I'm not seeing it displayed in this case.


Interesting post, you may well be right about the other agendas at play. However, I think you are being a little harsh on both the faculty and the students.

Before John Lavine took over, Medill was doing more than '1970-style reporting and editing' courses to train students for careers in Journalism.

I do question whether the shift (when we reach 2025) will be that big. Of course we need to be more conscious of our audience, but many of the basic principles of journalism will remain the same. Reporting and editing will still be the backbone of that, but the packaging and approach will most certainly change. We will have to become a lot more flexible and be able to do much more: write copy, edit it, take photos, shoot video, record audio, update websites, write headlines, write blurbs, design graphics and much more. In the short year I spent in Medill (Lavine took over about six months into that time) I learned how to do many of these things and in my current job I am learning to do several more.

I think what people in Medill fear the most is researching your audience and then writing to it and honestly they should reject that idea. Of course you need to take into account what your audience is looking for, but you also must try and engage them in the topics/stories they may not initially want to know about.

For most journalists (be they graduates of Medill or not) I think if the world of journalism makes the kind of shift you are predicting by 2025 it won't be a profession we would want to be involved in.

I've hired more than half a dozen Medill students and grads over the years and found all of them to be bright and impressively well prepared to deal with the challenges they'd face had they graduated in 1974.

I've also found them to be utterly crippled by the assumptions that have been embedded into their very souls by their mis-education at Medill.

The people who were responsible for this don't need a cold shower. They need to be deep-sixed. Medill is the poster child for an educational malpractice suit.

As someone who is trying to prepare journalism students for the world ahead of them in a useful and value-for-money way, I would really like to know more about what the previous commenter means by:
"I've also found them to be utterly crippled by the assumptions that have been embedded into their very souls by their mis-education at Medill."
Unless we (I take a large collective responsibility here) know what these assumptions are we won't know what to change.

I, too, would like specifics about Joe's comment. I wonder if he's referring to the anti-business bias that many J-school students bring with them.

Blathnaid's comment zeroes in what I think is a key to understanding a lot of the pushback: "I think what people in Medill fear the most is researching your audience and then writing to it...."

I recall having a debate on that very issue years ago with Chris Ison, a great investigative reporter (and Pulitzer winner) at the Star Tribune.

Research scares hell out of a lot of journalists. But tools are just tools. I think the mistake is assuming that the tools of market research automatically taint the journalistic process with the values, motivations and ethics of a carnival huckster.

By the way, I didn't mean to suggest that Medill is stuck in the disco era. The media management students I met last year certainly were not.

I didn't have the typical j-student's anti-business bias in mind when I was writing. The students come with such a dense cluster of biases that it's hard to tease that one out of the bundle. And j-school grads don't differ much from other college students in that regard.

Here are some of the attitudes that I've repeatedly confronted:

We went to Medill. We know better than our audience what they should be interested in. What matters to us is what should matter to them, and all that is worth reporting. Our job is to talk; theirs is to listen and appreciate.

When in doubt about who our audience is or what it wants, we'll ask two of our friends. They're the audience. Your 20 years experience in listening to thousands upon thousands of your readers is valueless. We went to j-school and are experts at communicating.

Objectivity is whatever we believe to be true. You need to adapt to that rather than question our assumptions. Only facts that bolster our assumptions and reinforce our biases are worth paying attention to or reporting.

Words in print are worth far more than words on the Web. Words in any medium matter more than images – far more than moving images. The more words the better: the only good article is a long article.

We don't have to fact-check anything or write coherent sentences or spell correctly or quote people accurately. We're writers – you need to hire people to take care of these menial tasks.

If we didn't have a course on it we don't have to know it. We're very smart. That's enough.

We refuse to learn anything related to our job unless you teach it to us during working hours. We refuse to retain anything you teach us unless we think it's relevant.

We're masters of passive-aggressive behavior and can wear you down while we collect a check, accumulate clips and look for a better job with more right-thinking people.

I could, sigh, go on and on in this vein. All that said, Medill grads are among the best of them.