Four Excuses That Impede Change in Media Academia

My last column, which talked about many academics’ reluctance to change their media curricula in the face of observable, fundamental, and permanent changes in the global media environment, led to some unexpected responses and needs some follow-up.

In addition to e-mail from publishers and journalism “think tank” executives, I received dozens of messages from current and former academics. What I didn’t expect was that none disagreed with me. I’d expected to receive quite a bit of flak.

Although the anecdotal experiences of a few dozen academics aren’t statistically valid, they indicate that obstructionist academics raise four hurdles to prevent curriculum change:

  • “I already teach some of that [new media] in my class, so there’s no need for our school to require it in the curriculum.”

  • “The Internet is too new; we don’t need to teach it yet.”
  • “The accreditation agency doesn’t require universities to teach anything about the Internet, so we don’t need to teach that.”
  • “A successful business model for online hasn’t yet been found, so we needn’t worry about teaching anything about online yet.”

I Teach New Media; We Don’t Need It in the Curriculum

If the subject was instead reportorial honesty, objectivity, or writing text left to right, that objection would sound as silly as it actually is. It raises a question: if you think something is important enough to teach in your own class, why isn’t it important enough to be taught in other classes?

The Internet Is Too New

This objection might have had some validity in 1998, but it’s unjustifiable in 2008. According to a variety of surveys, 1.3 billion people nowadays use the Internet; that’s one-fifth of the human population. The growth of Internet use has been even quicker than the growth of television viewing. The World Association of Newspapers estimates that 450 million newspaper copies were sold worldwide each day during 2007. The number of magazine copies sold each month is much less than that. By any measurement, daily Internet use is higher than almost any other form of media, except possibly radio and television (and it’s nearing those levels, too). Is the purpose of journalism and communications schools to teach the oldest forms of media or the forms that most people use nowadays, no matter how new? These aren’t schools of archeology.

We’re Not Required to Teach the Internet for Accreditation

This objection sounds like a wise, authoritative oversight agency doesn’t want Internet media taught or has judged the Internet to be trivial. The reality is that collegiate accreditation agencies require only the most conservative, minimum standards, and those standards are based on a past in which the Internet didn’t exist or play a part. It is patently absurd for anyone to claim that the Internet isn’t reshaping the media environment. The fact that very few, if any, of the obstructionists’ current students get news and information from printed media or broadcast news programs should be self-evident proof of that. Though obstructionists might feel safe raising this hurdle, they’re abandoning any pretext of professional leadership or teaching the state of the art in their fields.

A Successful Online Model Hasn’t Been Found Yet

This is the most desperate hurdle. The last time I looked at this decade’s business stories, almost every online news or information operation is profitable, has double-digit compound annual revenue growth rates each year, and has more readers than their printed editions. Newspapers, magazines, and news networks each year are losing large (often double-digit) percentages of their audiences, are losing even larger percentages of advertising revenues, and are having to cut larger and larger (now often double-digit) percentages of their staffs just to maintain semblances of profitability. So, which form of media hasn’t found a successful business model? The answer is traditional media.

Don’t get me wrong. Obstructionists who raise these hurdles mean well. Many are the most talented professors in their schools. One of my fellow academics likens them to the heroic cowboys and cavalry officers who 100 years ago were faced with automobiles, trucks, and the inevitability of mechanized transportation. I think their behavior resembles Colonel Nicholson in “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” They are excellent people who think they’re upholding tradition and discipline but are unwittingly working against their own army’s winning of the war. The irony is that most are so talented that they could be the best at new media in their fields.

By the way, many readers assumed I’d written my last column because I’d finished teaching at universities. No, I’d simply concluded the academic year, not finished teaching or left my school. I’m currently teaching summer sessions at graduate school.

A professor at Washington and Lee University asked me to expand on what I meant by “outdated concepts such as mass media theory, media companies as the gatekeepers of information, media companies as the agenda setters for communities, or that ‘content is king’ (despite our living in digital republics).” That will be the subject of my next column.

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