Monday, April 20, 2009

Convergence Does Not Signal "End Times" for Journalism

It's near the end of the semester, and I'll be finishing up a pilot course in the Eugene S. Pulliam School of Journalism. It's a course I was super-excited about: Online Journalism. The result was pretty cool. The department bought enough Flip Cameras for everyone in class, which we used to go out and get "man on the street" interviews, and then uploaded to the computers. We learned about writing for the online medium, and ended the courses with a multi-media project about how the recession has affected Butler University.

Next year will be a year of transition for the department. There will be new course offerings like Convergence Journalism and Web Design. For the first time in Butler's history, our two news media, The Butler Collegian (print) and Dawgnet News (online) will follow the industry trend and converge to become one staff.

I began at Butler as a media arts major, with a video production emphasis. Then I decided to sharpen up my writing skills, so I added journalism as a secondary major. In doing so, I've found many similarities between the two departments. True, they each have their own uniqueness and wonderful faculty, besides. 

But in an effort to better understand why the two departments have not come together as a college of communications (see Ball State University's and University of Missouri's programs as examples) I wrote an editorial about it. I interviewed Dr. Nancy Whitmore, head of the journalism department and Dr. Ken Creech, head of the media arts department. Their responses accurately reflect the state of media today and the dilemmas it faces.

Written for Marc Allan's Editorial Writing class (JR317) on Tuesday, February 10:

All that separates the Media Arts Department and the Journalism school is a flight a stairs in the Fairbanks Center. There shouldn’t even be that much separation. Merging the departments would strengthen academics and keep curricula up to date with the real world.

Journalism is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, while Media Arts is considered by some to be the “stepchild” of the Jordan College of Fine Arts. Journalism seems lost within a college of many different majors, while TV producers don’t bear any resemblance to ballerinas or musicians. 

Attempts have been made in Butler’s history to merge the two departments. In the early ’90s, former President Geoffrey Bannister encouraged monthly meetings to discuss the possibility. Former Provost Bill Berry organized a task force to examine how other universities were embracing changing media and technology.
Neither effort led to anything of substance. 

If we examine the curriculums of both departments closely, it is evident there is an overlap of courses. Journalism offers JR426 – Mass Communication Law – while Media Arts offers MDA432 – Law and Regulation of the Electronic Media. Sound the same? Maybe because they are.

Both departments also offer core classes in ethics, as well. This repetition forces students, who want to learn from both areas, to take repetitive courses. The separation of the two departments puts students at a disadvantage when trying to explore the convergence of print and broadcast journalism.

One step has been taken, however. This semester, the journalism department is offering online journalism, a pilot course that will get students acquainted with the basics of writing for the Web and demonstrate how to incorporate video into the new medium. 

Larger schools, which benefit from more resources, have been able to create individual colleges that encompass public relations, advertising, radio, TV, print journalism and online journalism. However, as Media Arts Department Chair Ken Creech pointed out, creating a whole new college would cost a lot of money – something that is not available in these tough economic times.

Creech said there has been discussion about how to best accommodate students in both curriculums, and said the best way might be to create a collaborative program that would allow students to more freely take classes between departments.

“Both [departments] went our own ways and so it’s hard to bring things back,” Creech said. “We all agree with keeping curriculum fresh, especially given [the industry’s] changing nature. At least media and journalism should be looking for ways to collaborate more formally.”

Both departments worried that a merger would eliminate job security. Creech said his staff would be worried about not earning tenure, and Dr. Nancy Whitmore, head of the Journalism department, said both departments develop faculty with different mindsets. 

Still, with more traditional publications being revamped with video and websites, Butler curricula needs to reflect the changing industry. If the cost of hiring a dean for a brand-new communications college is too much to ask, then the departments should still find a way to implement each other’s material into the classroom. Convergence is the future, and if the curriculum isn’t preparing students for the reality of that, then it isn’t doing its fundamental job.


Fysh Phoenix-- said...

I have to confess to being part of one of those bigger schools that benefits from being able to shuffle disciplines in and out of colleges. I will say this: journalism moved from Arts and Letters to Communication Arts and Sciences just as I was arriving here. The results were favorable-- they belonged with the Mass Media Studies people more than the Philosophers and Lit Majors.

I chuckle at myself: I'm in Arts and Letters and Com Arts and Sciences. I guess I belonged with all of the above... though I managed to miss-out on most of the Mass Media studies we have here at MSU.

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