Can Journalism’s Past Help Us Understand Education’s Future?

I’m a student of the news media as a social institution, so I’ve watched over the years as the Internet’s shockwave reverberated across the journalism landscape, toppling edifices once thought to be rock solid. It’s a story that always sits at the back of mind as I think about the future of higher education.  I was reminded of this as I read a speech given last week by Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, entitled “Journalism’s Big Move: What to Discard, Keep, and Acquire in Moving from Print to Web.”   In it, Baron makes many points about journalism that echo issues within higher ed.

Baron argues that technology and the economy are forces that:

don’t care about how we prefer to do our jobs, how easily we adjust to change, how much we have to learn. They don’t care about any extra workload. This transformation is going to happen no matter what. And there is only one realistic choice available: We can do what we must to adapt and – ideally – thrive. Or not — in which case we are choosing to fail.

After throwing that gauntlet, Baron lists examples of the dizzying pace of technological change and concludes–again in words that could apply to higher ed:

If this pace of change unnerves you, there is no consolation. Things will only get faster. And for those who resist the change rather than embrace it, there will be no forbearance or forgiveness. Their destiny is to be pushed aside and forgotten. That is the brutal truth.  So journalism’s Big Move from print to digital comes with discomfort for those, like me, who grew up in this field well before the 21st Century. We just have to get over it.

Resistance is futile in this vision of change. But Baron is not advocating simply rolling over; he’s calling for agents to help shape the future:

While we can – and should – vigorously debate the smartest path forward, anyone living in the real world can see what human communications has become. Cynicism and pessimism cannot rule the day. We need confidence and enthusiasm, a focus on possibilities. We need to be optimistic. Those who feel they work in vain do not succeed. Success goes to those who believe they can achieve it.

Success, for Baron, begins by letting go of some of the past:

  • Paper will not remain a large part of what journalists do; readers have already moved on.  (Tellingly, I read this speech online via my Post digital subscription–and there’s now a video, too.  Last year, I dropped my home delivery subscription–the first time in my adult life I haven’t received a daily print paper.)
  • Most controversially, the days when print was flush with cash are long over, so now journalists should “… abandon the idea that the newsroom can labor in isolation from the business operations.”  In a challenging balancing act he says, “Without abandoning our principles of independent and honest coverage, newsrooms must participate in creating products that appeal to advertisers, boost readership, and deliver satisfying results for both.”
  • Look beyond traditional forms of storytelling because the “web invites its own means of communication.”  The Post’s recent hires “know how to use powerful tools the web makes possible. These journalists write and edit with an ear for what resonates with digital readers. They are not romantics about a previous era.”
  • Staffing and structure will change to reflect the new realities.  “The web has different attributes from print, and it will call for a different approach. That will require rethinking how we deploy resources and how many we deploy where.”
A screenshot of the Martin Baron speech available as a video on the Post’s web site–embodying the sort of change Baron was addressing.

Baron notes that his acceptance–even embrace–of change runs counter to a history of resistance from journalists–again with echoes of higher ed:

Newsrooms grumbled about having to learn to use computers instead of typewriters. When designers were first hired, people complained that we were emphasizing aesthetics over substance. I recall colleagues grumbling that a new emphasis on graphics was just “dumbing down” the paper. When color was introduced, people argued it would have a frivolous effect. Every change took more time than it should have.

Having accepted deep, often uncomfortable, change, Baron pivots to what is needed now, including a greater embrace of the possibilities of technology, detailed reader metrics to help steer by, and greater entrepreneurship in experimenting with journalism.  He insists, though, that the core of journalism must be preserved, including:

  • original, on-the-scene reporting.
  • engaging writing and storytelling…along with strong editing that demands rigor and fairness
  • and, most importantly, the role of watchdogs who serve the public interest, even when it involves risk, and who hold powerful people and institutions accountable.

And here we run smack into the peculiar challenge faced by both journalism and higher education.  Both institutions must balance pragmatic concerns (money must come from somewhere to pay the bills) with aspirational ideals (the pursuit of truth and public service).  It is the conflict between these orientations–more so than technology per se–that characterizes the shifts facing both social institutions.

Implicitly, Baron understands this.  He observes that there is considerable anxiety about the fact that “…journalism is being thoroughly reimagined — because our traditional economic model is disintegrating.” [emphasis added].  He notes, journalism has been able to delay implementing technological change “because no one at the time directly threatened our business model.” [emphasis added].  Economic pressures are ultimately what spurred change but that took a long time.  My understanding is that different pockets of journalism were partially shielded from these economic pressures for different reasons.  Prominent newspapers were often family-owned, protected from shareholders’ short-term bottom-line mentality.  National network news programs were historically “loss leaders,” expected to bring networks credibility and prestige, but not necessarily profits.  As those realities changed–some of it long before the rise of the Internet, journalism changed.  We shouldn’t romanticize some “golden era” of journalism that never existed, but new economic pressures brought years of slashing newsroom staffs and overseas bureaus, de-funding investigative journalism, and elevating advertiser-friendly “lifestyle” content. Higher education, too, has long made compromises to balance economic efficiency with education.  Those giant lecture halls costing millions to build were not created out of pedagogical concerns.

But Baron steers us off course because he describes economies as “forces of nature.” They are not.  Nor are the technological innovations he describes inevitable.  Human agency shapes these forces and the distribution of power in a society affects who is most likely to be able to influence their direction.  Investors and shareholders, state legislators, students, and voters; these are the agents of social change, not some disembodied “forces of nature.”

And these agents make choices about the relative emphasis they place on pragmatic concerns versus aspirational ideals.  Do we view journalism (and education) through the lens of a market model or a public sphere model?  Elsewhere, I’ve summarized the distinction between the two:

The market model suggests that society’s needs can be best met through a relatively unregulated process of exchange based on the dynamics of supply and demand.  This model treats the media like all other goods and services.  It argues that as long as competitive conditions exist, businesses pursuing profits will meet people’s needs.  As a result, advocates of this model generally call for private, unregulated ownership of the media.  It is consumers in the marketplace, not government regulators, who will ultimately force companies to behave in a ways that best serves the public.

In contrast:

The public sphere model suggests that society’s needs cannot be met entirely through the market system.  Because the market is based on consumer purchasing power, it behaves quite differently from the democratic ideal of “one person, one vote.”  In addition, the public sphere model argues that there are some societal needs that simply cannot be met via the market’s supply and demand dynamic.  It also contends that because it is vital to a robust democracy, media content cannot be treated as merely another product.  Therefore, profitability cannot be the sole indicator of a healthy media industry.  Instead, other public interest criteria–such as diversity and substance–are used in the public sphere model to assess the performance of media.  From this perspective, government plays a useful and necessary role in ensuring that the media meet the needs of citizens, not just consumers.

Read through these lenses, resistance to some technological change–reader metrics, for example–can reflect a genuine concern that overemphasis on pleasing “customers” can undermine journalism’s role in informing “citizens.”  Click-bait does not necessarily make for an informed electorate. Similarly, in higher education, widespread skepticism about the adoption and expansion of new technologies–especially online education–are often intertwined with concern that these models are being advanced to balance spreadsheets rather than enhance education.  And there’s legitimate cause for concern as predatory for-profits and factory-like online efforts focus on generating quantity of dubious quality, often in the name of expanding access.

And so some educators find themselves in a similar position to the one journalists once were in.  Deeply uneasy about why technology is being introduced, even while begrudgingly admitting that its applications can be inspiring, educators look to protect the core of they do while enhancing it through new technologies…precisely what Baron was talking about.

Baron’s right about many things: change is a-coming and merely clinging to the past is futile (and is a disservice to our students).  Merely critiquing, opposing, or cynically standing on the sidelines is no better.  The challenge for us is to “focus on possibilities” and to find imaginative ways to use the new capabilities that are at our disposal–or soon will be, to not only protect our public service mission as educators, but to enhance and expand it.  All the while, we will need to be realistic about the economic pressures that will continue to influence higher education.  That’s no easy task and it will require all hands on deck to survive this shift.

But we may surprise ourselves.  Sometimes we take for granted our familiar social order, forgetting that there’s nothing inevitable about it.  Clay Shirky, whom Baron cites in his speech, has written elsewhere about the once-unthinkable death of the newspaper as we knew it, noting, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” I suspect this lesson about the difference between form and function is what higher education’s future most needs to learn from journalism’s past.  Society doesn’t need universities.  What we need is education. What that will look like in the digital age remains to be seen.  But, rather than bemoaning the past, it seems more productive to get on with figuring out the future.

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