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EDITOR’S NOTE: A Feb. 11, 2008, column by a campus reporter about Lavine’s use of anonymous sources in his column in the alumni magazine sparked controversy at the school. On Feb. 19, members of the Medill faculty released a statement expressing concern and demanding answers. The next day, in an e-mail to students and faculty, Lavine apologized for his “poor judgment” in quoting unnamed sources.
Dean Lavine’s opinion about turning out journalism students the old-fashioned way: “It is immoral.”
It was a bare-knuckled accusation that seemed suited more for a blue-collar saloon in the bungalow belt than the ivied Evanston campus of Northwestern University. “You lied to me!” the graduate student angrily told John Lavine, the dean of the Medill School of Journalism. “I came here to learn to be a writer,” the student said, explaining that he had chosen Northwestern—and forked over more than $40,000 in annual tuition—because he wanted to hone a flair for writing that would land him at a publication like The New York Times. “But you’re having us do all this video stuff. I didn’t come here for that.”
Lavine scoffed at the notion that he had lied to anyone. At that meeting with disgruntled students during the summer quarter of 2006, he insisted he was acting in the best interests of their budding careers. “It would be unethical for us to educate you to only be able to write,” he said. “It would be like sending you out with your left arm and your right leg tied behind your back.”
The rancor could not have come as much of a surprise. After taking over as the leader of Medill earlier that year, the new dean had vowed to “blow up” the old curriculum at what has long been considered one of the best journalism schools in the country. He declared that students needed to be immersed in “new media”—Web sites, videos, filmstrips, video games, and podcasts. And the new curriculum would emphasize an understanding of “audience”—who the customers are, what they want, how to reach them. The concept of marketing—widely disdained by ink-in-their-veins journalists—would assume a key role in the teaching program.
Lavine’s revolution has set off a year of skirmishing and argument both in Evanston and among the wider community of well-placed alums, and the commotion is likely to culminate this fall when the new curriculum takes full effect. Whatever the merits of the changes, the angst mirrors the sense of uncertainty, even downright fear, in the real world of newspapers and other “old media” outlets. Circulation and advertising have been plummeting at big-city newspapers, owing to the Internet and changing tastes, particularly among the young. The Los Angeles Times, for example, lost about 25 percent of its circulation between 1996 and 2006. The New York Times and Tribune Company, among others, have eliminated hundreds of jobs. It is not impossible to find people making brave predictions about a rosier future for newspapers, but Wall Street has been betting against it. Stock prices at many large newspaper companies are half what they were a few years ago.
Against this backdrop, Dean Lavine argues, it is worse than wrongheaded to continue to turn out journalism students the old-fashioned way, preparing them for disappearing jobs in print publications and giving them little knowledge of the changing demands of consumers. “It is immoral,” Lavine says.
But some faculty members object to training future journalists to be marketers. “Marketing can get dangerously close to pandering,” says a Medill professor who declined to be identified, citing concerns for job security. “I don’t want my students to write to the interests of a particular audience. I simply want them to be competent journalists.”
George Beres, who graduated from Medill in 1955, and later taught in the school and worked as the sports information director, fears a blurring of the line between public relations and journalism. “This business of ‘understanding the audience’ is about manipulating the audience,” he says. He worries that when journalists concentrate on “making their product attractive to the customer,” they might “evade or color subject matter to avoid making it distasteful to the customers.” In Beres’s view, professional journalism has already strayed too far in that direction. One of the consequences, as he sees it, was a failure to investigate the motives and rationale for invading Iraq, especially in the early days of the war, when patriotism among “customers” was at such a high level.
If postings on the Internet are any measure, plenty of students at Medill are furious about the changes. “How can I possibly be going to ‘the best journalism school in the country’ if we don’t learn writing,” reads one recent posting.
Lavine says that he sometimes feels that his critics are simply shooting the messenger. “Young people don’t understand that if a paper doesn’t sell, it dies.”
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Photograph: Anna Knott