Sunday, February 17, 2008

Professor, teach thyself

Kudos to David Spett, a Medill senior at Northwestern University and columnist at the Daily Northwestern, for applying his classroom journalism lessons to the j-school environment itself.

Our story takes place at the Medill School of Journalism, where a new dean has been making big changes. Long one of the nation's leading journalism schools, Medill has spent decades grounding students in the traditional tools of the trade. (Tell the reader who, what, where, when, and how; write it pyramid-style; save your personal slant for the op-ed page; and even when your mother says she loves you, check your sources.)

The recently installed Medill dean, John Lavine, believes that journalism training alone is insufficient to prepare students to compete in a new-media world. Citing the gradual financial decline of the newspaper industry as evidence of a paradigm shift, he overhauled the school's curriculum last year to emphasize a softer cross-disciplinary approach incorporating quasi- (or more accurately, non-) journalistic disciplines like marketing, public relations and advertising.

Specifically, he has decreed that students develop proficiency in creating Web sites, video games, podcasts, advertisements and multimedia content, in class time that would otherwise be spent learning to report and write stories. Students must also learn to poll their target audience, as a focus group might, in order to try to determine the tastes and desires of their prospective consumers, whom he calls "customers."

Lavine has elevated his "Integrated Marketing Communications" program to equal importance with journalism education, in turn demoting journalism to a, rather than the, focus of the school. See, for example, the above logos taken from a current Northwestern website, in which Journalism, like Integrated Marketing Communications, is a mere subset of the Medill School.

His conception of a news audience as a commercial customer to be satisfied, rather than a populace to be informed by objective reportage, reflects his misguided thinking. A "customer"-oriented approach to journalism erodes the time-honored Chinese wall between the journalistic and business sides of any news-gathering organization, a wall that must stand whether the news is conveyed via tickertape, newsprint, radio, television, website, podcast, RSS feed, or otherwise. Without the wall, there can be no credibility; without credibility, there is eventually no audience.

As one of the many online commenters to this story observed, asking the public what news it wants to read will result in more Anna Nicole and less Darfur coverage; do parents feed small children only what they want to eat?

Underscoring the threat Lavine represents to Medill's long standing as a bastion of traditional journalistic values, he is also interested in changing the school's name from "Medill School of Journalism" to simply "Medill." This idea has drawn heavy scorn from current students and alumni. Although university trustees would have to approve an official name change, the school's website has already been overhauled, with banner art now reading "Medill at Northwestern University."

The perversity of the name-change idea is that the word Medill, in and of itself, connotes a journalism school. It's named after Joseph Medill, a long-forgotten Chicago Tribune editor, but to those who know it, "Medill" means "Northwestern's j-school." Take away the journalism school, as Lavine is doing, and what's left? "Medill" has meaning only to the extent that the place has already spent decades building a reputation and goodwill. With the school's academic mission now in flux, calling it simply "Medill" will be increasingly feckless over time; the antecedent to the name will gradually weaken as memories fade that Medill once stood for teaching journalism.

Current Medill professors have anonymously voiced disgust for the growing emphasis on marketing at their journalism school, but with their jobs on the line, have little latitude to make public waves. Other Northwestern professors have been less reticent, as the university-wide faculty senate recently blasted the school's administration for denying Medill faculty a voice in the direction of the school and questioning Lavine's mandate for change. The man whose opinion matters most, University president Henry Bienen, is in Lavine's corner, recently extending his contract despite the faculty censure.

Happily, not every dean of a leading j-school shares Lavine's vision. The dean of Columbia University's journalism school, the New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann, says the marketing-driven approach is "not going to happen at our school, not on my watch."

The radical reëvaluation of Medill's mission has also drawn howls of protest from current students and observers who feel that the new direction threatens the school's hallowed emphasis on basic journalistic standards.

Dean Lavine tried to calm this roiling cauldron of discontent by writing two letter columns for the school's alumni magazine that included three anonymous quotes purportedly from current Medill students. The quotes included such Pollyannaish happy talk as "I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I've taken" from a Medill junior, and "This is the most exciting my education has been."

That brings us to David Spett, the Medill senior. The quotes raised his eyebrows for a number of reasons: the stilted phrasing so unlike the speech of today's college students; the use of 'sure' as an adverb, a colloquialism associated with Lavine himself; and the fact that the quotes were presented without attribution for no apparent reason, a departure from standard journalistic procedure.

Further, the quotes were entirely self-serving. In Medill's tense environment, where so much change has been foisted upon the school, anonymous quotes heaping lavish praise onto the controversial new curriculum, proffered by the very dean who had pushed it, in a magazine written for and mailed to vocally upset alumni, seemed rather tidy.

Having just been granted his own column at the Daily Northwestern, Spett put it to good use. He figured out from which class Lavine had claimed to collect the quote from the unnamed Medill junior. Spett went to every one of the 29 students in the class, including all five juniors, and they all denied providing the quote in question.

Spett brought his concerns to Dean Lavine, who could not identify any of his student interviewees. He suggested that the quotes had come from student email messages to him, but could not produce such messages. (Lavine later told the Chicago Tribune that he couldn't remember whether the quotes came from either emails or his own handwritten notes of person-to-person conversations, and that he could not produce any of these.)

What Lavine did do, in his recorded interview with Spett, was rationalize that in a letter column in an alumni magazine, as opposed to a hard news story, a lesser journalistic standard applied. He suggested that tying specific words to specific interviewees was less important in a casual article, and that it was acceptable to present as actual quotes, remarks which summarized the gist of what he claimed students had told him.

This from the head of a school where students can and do receive a zero grade for failing to source every quote in a news story, a school that, like most journalism schools and newspapers, strongly discourages the use of unattributed quotes without a compelling reason to do so.

In a week when Roger Clemens took an oath before Congress and presented pitiful denials in the face of damning evidence, Lavine's explanation fell far short of what one would hope to hear from a journalism school dean. It sounded like hogwash.

Spett wrote up the story for the Daily Northwestern and all hell broke loose. Within hours it was a major story, receiving coverage including the following:

NU journalism dean taken to task [Chicago Tribune]
Medill Student Tracks Dean's Anonymous Sources [NPR's All Things Considered]
Journalism dean quizzed on unnamed sources [UPI]
Did Medill dean make up quote touting ad class? [Chicago Sun-Times]
Northwestern Columnist Questions Dean's Anonymous Sources [U.S. News & World Report]
Journalism 101 [Chicago Tribune editorial]
Medill dean needs to verify quote to set an example [Chicago Sun-Times editorial]

And it's not just Spett who smelled a rat; various students, unnamed faculty, alumni and outside observers share his concerns.

David Spett's spadework was impressive; still in j-school and the kid already seems qualified to teach investigative journalism. It's the dean who seems to need an ethics refresher course.

It's encouraging to see that, despite the current dean's best efforts, Medill is still teaching its students to sleuth out a story. I also admire Spett's (perhaps self-protective) restraint in not calling out the dean as a fraud, choosing in his original column and subsequent interviews simply to present the facts and let others reach their own conclusions.

By coincidence, I actually once interviewed an NU dean too. When a new dean came aboard during my second year at Northwestern's law school, I profiled him for the weekly student newspaper. Our conversation was pleasant, if unremarkable; we talked about faculty recruiting, the physical plant, and so on. Of course, our dean was not in the process of subverting the school's academic mission and threatening its national reputation, nor had he published dubious anonymous quotes about how amazing his curriculum was, so there was no Woodward-style exposé lurking beneath the surface (or if there was, I missed it, in which case maybe I should have gone to Medill).

Although Spett's gotcha moment makes for a juicy story, this frustrating episode will come as little consolation for the many who are appalled by Lavine's ongoing attack on Medill's tradition of teaching pure journalism. Where the question was once whether Medill's new dean might lose sight of the line between journalism and PR, the question is now whether he is aware that the line exists.

As for where the Medill School of Journalism (that's still the name, however increasingly inaccurate) is headed, I have a few suggestions for Dean Lavine:

1. Marketing is a polite word for sales. It is by its nature a business discipline, not a journalistic one, and already taught at every business school. If Northwestern must provide training in market research and the art of the press release, it should occur not at Medill but at Kellogg.

2. Northwestern has already gotten trendy enough lately, shuttering its unfashionable dental school and rechristening the School of Speech the "School of Communication." A program called "Integrated Marketing Communications" sounds like an academic Frankenstein's monster concocted in the lab of overcaffeinated educational consultants. Even setting aside questions of the program's academic legitimacy, the name has got to go. As you marketing guys might say, it cheapens Northwestern's brand.

3. Students come to Medill each year willing to make the sacrifices necessary to pay $40,000 a year to learn how to write for newspapers, magazines, or broadcast. Forcing them to spend time learning to create advertisements and flash video is worse than an insult, it's a scandal. They are quite aware that Leo Burnett and Columbia College are down the road; they chose to attend Medill so they could learn journalism.

4. You're right that newspaper company stock prices are falling and newsrooms are cutting staffs. A more appropriate response to these sad facts would be to incorporate new media in your journalism program, as Columbia has done, and perhaps to reëvaluate how many students should be admitted each year. Selling out your school's entire mission is a panicked overreaction to changing market forces. With fewer professional journalists out there working, we need well-trained ones more than ever.

5. Oh, and um... if you can't come up with a more satisfying explanation of how you didn't fabricate three quotes in a university publication, you should be fired.

3 comments:

Matthew said...

I do share your shock at the disrespect and temerity shown by Mr. Lavine. Writing IMC plans (a household word in my field, BTW) has no business being taught at Medill, especially when Spee- uh, Communication is right down the street. However, I can't say I agree with your logic that "without credibility there is eventually no audience." Think about Fox News: it's the saddest, most compromised excuse for news you can imagine. Unsubstantiated talking head talking points masquerading as journalism. And it's thriving. They spoon-feed the right wing what it wants, and does it look like it's going out of business anytime soon?

You saw NETWORK, right? And THE INSIDER? I think Lavine wants to teach writers to write a product that competes in the marketplace of noise, attracts eyeballs and ad dollars, and grows businesses. It's absolutely misguided and will only further damage journalism as we know it. But I ain't surprised one bit. He must be a marketer, and marketing is like a cancer taking over everything, slowly but surely.

Ben said...

Fair enough; I see your point about Fox News. I should have suggested that credibility is required to be taken seriously as a news source by reasonable people, not to maintain an audience.

In the case of Fox News, I've never even seen it as a news outlet in the first place. It's bread and circuses, red meat for barroom arguments, all heat and no light. It is to real reportage what the WWE is to an NCAA wrestling tournament.

Its P.T. Barnum is Roger Ailes, a hardcore GOP lifer who has worked as a media consultant to Rush Limbaugh and Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and the first Bush. Ailes created Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch and still runs it.

Despite its name, Fox News doesn't even try to present itself as an objective news source; Ailes wrote its slogans "Fair and balanced" and "We report; you decide" in part to enrage the left. When the New Yorker's Ken Auletta suggested that a more accurate slogan might be "We report; we decide," Ailes responded, "Well, you’re probably right."

The former Onion editor and Daily Show exec. prod. Ben Karlin once talked about Fox News in an interview, saying it was tricky trying to parody it on The Daily Show when it was itself already so absurd. He made light of Fox News' putting the most outrageous things on TV, getting away with it by the use of a weaselly question mark (e.g.: "American liberalism: helping Al Qaeda?").

Of course, if credibility were required to keep an audience, I would have long since lost my literally tens of readers.

Anonymous said...

If they're learning about marketing only in order to _make themselves more immune to its influence_ then I'm find with that.