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It’s new year so let me indulge in a little bit of wishful thinking:

Im imagining that my local weekly newspaper, owned by a large media group, comes up for sale (or they are in a mood to be persuaded to sell). I manage to get the university to put their hands in their pockets and buy it lock, stock and barrel. I staff it with the nearly 200 journalism students in our department. I get the marketing students and management students to handle the commercial side – sell ads etc. The computing and design students build and develop my site to include audio and video created by the boradcast journmalists and numerous media related courses.  The law department help with the legals and all the profit gets pushed in to the community ( the university is a charity after all!)

This dreamy-eyed wishful thinking was prompted by an email from (digital)Dave Cohn of spot us fame, announcing the revival of a little endeavour from years ago – The Carnival of journalism.

You can read Dave’s description of just what the hell this carnival thingymabob is . But in brief it’s a kind of curated, collective ‘think’ about a subject that changes each month.

This months topic :

The changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community: One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

Okay – great recommendations. But how do we actually make it happen? What does this look like? What University programs are doing it right? What can be improved and what would be your ideal scenario? Or is this recommendation wrong to begin with? No box here to write inside of.

For those of you not familiar with the Knight foundation, it’s a US, philanthropic organisations that invests in projects and individuals who are challenging, developing and changing news. Something that I’m intensely envious of over here in the less philanthropic UK.

The fact that we don’t have a Knight foundation (and outside of notable investments by some companies, I don’t think we ever will in that form) doesn’t diminish the impact a lot of what Knight has funded on our thinking in the UK.  Knight projects have often served as totems for the big concepts in digital journalism – crowd sourcing and funding, link journalism for example. I’m sure the next round of projects they fund will see a slew of data journalism related ideas to match the explosion of interest in that area. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that outside the specific references to states etc., the general assumptions they express are ones that would chime with a UK audience.

The role of universities

Unpicking the general premise doesn’t just cause me to daydream, it also raises some really interesting questions and, for me it comes down to two distinct areas.

  • What role can universities have in increasing digital literacy?
  • What role do j-schools have in a changing media landscape?

The first one is an easy: A vital one. In that sense it’s the same one we have always had; preparing students for the world outside of education. But a special case could be made for universities and digital literacy.

In the UK, the last ten years have seen a concerted effort (by the last government at least) to put more young people in to university. More students than ever engaged with higher education and the numbers of undergraduate grew and grew. At the same time, the web went mainstream and has continued to grow at a massive rate. the result? A generation of students experiencing ‘digital’ for the first time, at university.

We couldn’t look to there experiences at school as a base on which to build their digital literacy. Students had to learn as they went. We were all trying to assimilate things like Google and search. We all had to work out how to manage the fallout when students interactivity with Facebook went wrong. We all knew a time before Wikipedia made ‘plagiarism’ commonplace. We all learnt together.

This coming September will see, what i think, will be the first cohort of proper digital natives through our doors. They will have had some time to assimilate digital in to they way they work and live, across platforms. We can honestly start to look across their whole education and expect to see digital run through it. Everyone has a stake. So what role for universities now?

Critcial or employable?

Many would say that it is for universities to ensure that our graduates understand how to be more critical; to see the broader context and impact of digital not just the personal (selfish) benefit. Knight allude to that in their views on digital literacy. In a more uncharitable frame of mind I might say that what many would like to see is a form of benign indoctrination to the primacy of traditional media output….

You could also say that it’s for us to teach students to apply that critical and practical knowledge to a specific discipline – to prepare them for work in a digital world. That last expectation is one that, as a j-prof, I feel most pressure to meet and it takes me to the second element – the role of j-schools.

Experience has shown me that much of the expectations of j-schools comes from industry and it tends to be driven by what they need right now. (even if thats not what’s right) That makes them no different from any other industry a student may enter from uni. They want something of value to them – a useable employee or a working business model. So there is an expectation that we will use our time moulding students and focussing our research to areas that are industry relevant. A not unreasonable position to take for a vocational trade such as journalism.

The underlying tension there is that the expectation often comes with little or no respect for the critical element of what we do. Many have no time for those that think about journalism, only those that do it. It’s very much a case of  “don’t tell me what I’ll need to do in a years time, tell me what to do now”.  Industry relevance is reactionary.

Filling the gap left by traditional media

But there is also another, creeping, expectation coming from outside the media, born out of the social responsibility many ascribe to education, that the Knight foundations statement amplifies. J-schools could or maybe should be there to fill the gaps left by the media. The insinuation being that where large media orgs have failed, specifically in the area of community engagement, somehow we are best placed to replace them. Somehow, it is our responsibility to replace them.

Do I agree with that? In some respects it doesn’t matter, it’s happening.  But I do think that the consequences could be interesting.

I return to my little daydream. I think that it ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to engagement and community. It also ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to the vocational side of what we do. But I’m pretty sure that it would also have the editor of our local daily on the phone, crying foul, before the first paper hit the streets.

So, when the whole area of unis ‘responsibilities’ comes up for debate we need to ask: Are we playing our part or are we filling a gap? If we’re filling a gap then should we be sensitive (commercially or otherwise) to those who left the gap in the first place?

After all, if we do our job in the general area of digital and media literacy, what story do we have to tell to our students and what is the traditional media role in that?  Will the digital literacy that Knight sees as vital for communities open their eyes to just how badly the media, not education, has let them and their community down?

***Note: *In writing this I want to make a few things clear. There are no plans to sell (or buy for that matter) our local weekly.  These are my views, not the universities. Lastly I followed my own little rule of not reading any of the Carnival posts already up on the site. So if this one repeats others, I’m sorry you had to read it twice!