Michael Tracey | June 1, 2011
Last fall, by a vote of 38 to 5, faculty at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism approved a doozy of a name-change. The board of trustees then lent its final imprimatur in March, and with that, one of America’s leading journalism schools was henceforth known as – take a deep breath – “The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’d first call your attention to the faculty’s apparent rejection of Associated Press-sanctioned grammatical norms. Given the industry’s longstanding reverence for the AP stylebook as a semi-divine standard of journalistic propriety, this has the makings of a landmark decision.
That aside, I’ve found that the most common reaction people had to the news was something along the lines of, “What the heck is Integrated Marketing Communications?” Northwestern’s website describes it as a “Medill-invented field,” which partially explains the widespread confusion. But even so, there seems something deliberately obfuscatory about the term; like it was “invented” in a boardroom by middle-aged white men desperately brainstorming ways to appear cutting-edge. Indeed, its function is ultimately reminiscent of those banal slogans often found in a college’s promotional material, like “Commitment to Excellence” or “Where Leaders Look Forward.”
An IMC “certificate” is available to Northwestern undergraduates who complete five credits of requisite coursework. The program, according to Medill’s website, prepares students for entry-level positions in fields like advertising, public relations, and “corporate communications.” Of course, there’s nothing especially new or surprising about the actual curricula – business students are taught similar stuff, and PR-training has been a feature of journalism departments for years. The real question is why one of the country’s leading journalism schools has elected to so fully integrate marketing into its identity. You need not be a stuck-up purist to prefer that the two be kept safely apart. Moreover, I think it’s fair to say that journalism and marketing are in fact profoundly antithetical enterprises.
As one would hope, the big name-change news was met with derision from just about everyone not associated with Medill. Mark Oppenheimer, director of the Yale Journalism Initiative , summed up the prevailing sentiment when he wrote “We should all be a little concerned that the same schools that teach people to see through bogus claims are also the same schools teaching students how to perpetuate bogus claims.”
Jeff Jarvis , a Medill alumnus and noted professor of journalism at the City University of New York, directed a less-than-equanimous tweet at his alma mater, calling integrated marketing “the kind of bullshit jargon your teachers should be editing out.” One of the few faculty who voted against the change, associate professor Doug Foster, told me the new name “fuzzes up the sense that this is an institution devoted, at its heart, to the essential values of journalistic practice.”
The most pertinent question is whether the change can be taken as indicative of wider trends in journalism education, or if this is all just peculiar to Northwestern. Every institution has its eccentricities, and one must be wary of drawing broad conclusions about an entire academic field based on a single decision. But Medill’s journalism program is widely heralded as one of the best around. It tops lists. It describes itself as “a jewel at one of the nation’s elite universities.” It has an impressive rolodex of notable alumni . So unless Medill’s reputation has been criminally inflated, one can reasonably infer that what happens there has implications for journalism education in the rest of the country.
Most Northwestern people I spoke to agreed that the impending name-change is more symbolic than substantive, formalizing a cultural shift at the school that had already been underway since John Lavine, an entrepreneur and former movie company executive, began his term as dean in 2006. Lavine, who also teaches at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business, declared his intention to “blow up” Medill’s curriculum shortly after assuming office. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, his introductory manifesto contained “references, vague though they were, to narrowing the gap between the journalism and marketing sides of the school” — enough to make some faculty queasy from the outset. Lavine’s clear assertion was that marketing and journalism are, in fact, complementary pursuits.
David Spett, a Medill alumnus who now directs the Center for American Progress’s college journalism program , followed Lavine’s tenure closely as an undergraduate. Three years ago, as a student columnist, Spett noticed something fishy about an article Lavine wrote for Medill’s alumni magazine, in which the dean relayed high praise from several unidentified students for a new course entitled “Advertising: Building Brand Image.” Spett suspected that stilted remarks like “I sure felt good about this class” were unlikely to have been uttered by a “Medill junior,” and even if the quotes were perfectly authentic, he asked, what possible reason was there for Lavine to forego proper attribution? Everyone knows that allowing promiscuous anonymity is a violation of Journalism 101, and higher standards are surely expected of even the most unschooled freshmen. So Spett contacted every student enrolled in the course at the time, and sure enough, none corroborated the quotes. Lavine denied fabricating anything, but never provided exculpatory evidence – citing an email-related malfunction. An ad-hoc committee later cleared him of wrongdoing. The delicious irony, however, caused the school considerable embarrassment.
Ethical lapses notwithstanding, Lavine’s pedagogical vision seems to have gradually materialized. Lindsey Kratochwill, a Medill journalism major and managing editor of the campus newsmagazine North by Northwestern, told me she’s “felt that in some classes, there is sort of an emphasis on business, or how to ‘market’ your story.” So goes Lavine’s “narrow the gap” strategy: Insist that without attention to marketability, the journalistic enterprise is incomplete. My question, then: if this is the trajectory of the country’s premier institution for journalism education, might it be time to reevaluate the premise of journalism education in the first place?
For the purpose of clarity, I’ll keep this focused on the undergraduate journalism major, which seems to me can serve dual purposes: one, as preparation for students who wish to become professional journalists, and two, as an outlet for subjecting “the media” per se to academic analysis. The latter is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, perhaps best personified by Jay Rosen , the professor of journalism at NYU known for incisively disassembling the hoary tendencies of mainstream press. But it’s the former category – an academic program that supposedly prepares students to become journalists – that strikes me as conceptually dubious.
“Formal training in journalism isn’t necessary,” Rosen told me last fall. “It never has been. The percentage of professional journalists who attended J-school has never been more than 60. Compare that to law, medicine or accounting and it’s clear that there are other ways to join this field than getting a degree in it. And that’s the way it should be. Requiring a J-degree would be a regulation and we have an unregulated press in this country.”
Clearly, the journalism major is unnecessary for entry into the industry. But I’d go a step further – on a whole, it’s actually bad for the craft. Think about the social function of the journalism major. Overtly or not, it creates an implicit regulatory structure, endowing journalism students with the right to manage the university’s newspaper by virtue of their participation in important seminars on media ethics and interview techniques. Conversely, non-journalism students are left with the impression that reporting is best reserved for those who’ve been formally trained to do it.
In reality, the opposite can be true: The most insightful kind of journalist tends to be one with proficiencies in other subjects. Oppenheimer, the Yale Journalism Initiative  director, has it about right: “The animating belief of our program,” he wrote last fall, “is that the best journalism training is expertise in the liberal arts — whether Chinese literature, chemistry, geology, or economics — along with the preparation to bring that expertise, in a tough-minded, hard-hitting way, to the media.” So if you take a full major’s worth of journalism classes, that’s about twelve (or however many) less classes in the humanities that could’ve equipped you with an intellectual framework from which to approach your work.
Formalized journalism training also lends academic credibility to mainstream normative standards, the most notorious being the objectivity decree, which is still seriously entertained as a plausible ideal in journalism departments. To get a job in the “traditional” industry, one former journalism major told me, students are urged to maintain an image of unsullied impartiality, both personally and professionally. This means never taking part in public political events, never affiliating with any partisan organizations, never posting Facebook status updates that might indicate your opinions on matters of substance. Studiously avoid any demonstration of being invested in how the world works, lest you fail to meet the requirements for journalistic seriousness.
Of course, not all journalism students adhere to these dehumanizing rules. But among those who do, you have to assume that if they’ve managed to develop any kind of coherent world-view, it’s likely to be terribly stunted. Not a big surprise, then, that their aspiration is to carry out the disengaged, consensus-affirming, status quo-reinforcing kind of journalism that critics like Glenn Greenwald  have so mercilessly dissected. “The conventions of modern establishment journalism are designed to suppress any genuine adversarial challenges to political power,” Greenwald told me recently. “In 2005, David Halberstam said: ‘By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are.’ I’d add: by and large, the more you cling to the orthodoxies of modern journalism, the less of a journalist you are.”
An irony here is that most journalism majors, simply on account of steadily decreasing employment opportunities, are not going to enter the field. Where do they tend to end up? “I have met approximately fifty journalism majors in Washington D.C.,” says Timothy Carney, a columnist for the Washington Examiner. “And approximately four of them are journalists. I know approximately 250 journalists, and approximately four of them were journalism majors. My experience with journalism majors I meet – if they’re in journalism at all – most of them are selling ads or something like that.”
When Michael Lewis famously skewered  “the desperate futility of journalism instruction” in 1993, it was long before the internet upended the industry. “At journalism school,” he wrote, “one does not simply report a story. One develops a ‘search strategy for mass communication.’” Eighteen years later, such strategies can be developed with a meticulousness never before thinkable. Google now tracks every conceivable metric by which to gauge a story’s popularity and profitably; search engine optimization and click counts have become an integral part of journalism’s business model. So it’s perhaps to be expected that someone like John Lavine would progressively infuse marketing into Medill’s curriculum, under the guise of promoting “new media integration,” because in his mind, he’s throwing students a lifeline. In order to make those $40,000/year tuitions worthwhile, journalism students need to be prepared to take non-journalism work after graduation. And remember: Lavine’s an accredited Future of Journalism expert, so he can authoritatively rationalize diluting the craft with academic-sounding bromides.
The Medill situation will only hasten the acceptance of a realization that everyone should already know: you really can’t teach journalism. Therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised when extraneous bunk like marketing becomes a prominent feature of journalism education. Once again, I have no doubt that there are many admirable journalists who were journalism majors, and I find the insights of journalism professors like Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis invaluable. But the contributions of certain exceptional individuals does not negate the overall social effect of journalism education, which is largely negative.
So what’s the solution? My sense is that the aspect of journalism education most worth preserving is the hands-on experience with seasoned writers and editors. Instead of sequestering journalism into its own academic program, then, why not incorporate it into the teaching of other subjects? Bring in professional journalists who’ll emphasize to students in the humanities and the sciences that they are just as entitled to “do journalism” as anyone else. And it’s not nearly as complicated as they might think.