Campus Revolutionary

Last year, after taking over as the head of Northwestern University’s highly regarded Medill School of Journalism, John Lavine vowed to “blow up” the curriculum, changing its emphasis to new media and marketing. Students and alumns have responded with anger and charges of betrayal.

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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

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7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

careful... lavine is no gallup.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

This is a dangerous direction for Medill. Teaching a few interested students some Web and/or marketing skills is one thing; revamping the curriculum and changing its emphasis is another. Get rid of this guy before I'm forced to delete "Medill School of Journalism" from my resume.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

There's nothing inherently wrong with teaching journalism students New Media tools. Lavine is probably correct that their future involves familiarity with new technology. Moreover, journalists should learn about how to understand their audience. Matching coverage with audience needs is as much a tradition in journalism as the "nut graph" in articles.

However, the real separation between journalism and marketing is in the ethical differences. Journalists need to be committed to public service and I have heard very little from my alma mater about maintaining that commitment and the ethical tradition of the profession.

Also, I'm concerned about how faculty have been treated. The day-to-day responsibility of the faculty is curriculum and it doesn't seem that the Medill faculty has been allowed to fulfill its responsibility.

Len Strazewski
Journalism Faculty
Columbia College Chicago

Medill BSJ 1975

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I'm a recent graduate of the masters program at Medill. I've been up to the Evanston campus a couple of times since June and I think someone scratched "Medill School of Journalism" off of the bumper sticker that was on my back window. First I was upset but I guess I see why the random person did it.

Does the "Medill School of Journalism" even exist anymore?

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

“The increasing challenge for journalists is how to get their work read, watched, or listened to,” John Lavine says. He is wrong, and he is wrong in a way that will produce the exact opposite effect.

The challenge for journalists is, was and always will be to be better journalists. It is not the job of a journalist to even think about audience. If Lavine wishes to teach young people how to run a marketing department, or become advertising executives or work in the business office, his approach is sound. But those things are peripheral to actual journalism, which involves the truthful telling of stories in the most elegant fashion one's talents allow.

Mike Hudson
Managing Editor,
Niagara Falls Reporter

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

"It is not the job of a journalist to even think about audience."


This reminds me of the push against diversity in newsrooms decades ago. "Why do we need to recruit women and minorities? We already know what `the news' is." Turns out, getting to know the audience by bringing more of them into the process showed there were plenty of things that are "news" that the white male newsroom had never really considered. What incredibly obnoxious thinking it is that we have nothing whatsoever to learn from our audience. Good thing I don't live in Niagara Falls.


I am not a Medill alumnus. (I was accepted at Northwestern, but couldn't afford the tuition.) But let's be honest here: there are plenty of fine schools out there which teach people the 5 W's. People go to Northwestern for the networking more than the curriculum.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Good point about diversity, anonymous (9:39 AM). However, I would disagree about your assessment of Northwestern. The networking is definitely in place and has been helpful to some, but as an alumnus, I valued the education itself much more. Teaching Media was what rekindled my love for reporting/writing, and many of the professors shaped my way of doing journalism.

I am concerned about Medill's future (and don't care for Lavine much), but I think there are enough folks there who can ensure that good journalism is first on the list.

Mizzou, Columbia, and others are reveling amid all this controversy, but once things settle down at Medill, it'll still be the best j-school in the country.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

These are healthy changes, and this is a healthy debate. Lavine is, in the process of reforming curriculum, rightly telling the emperor he has no clothes. Believing that journalism was ever somehow about "pure" agenda-free fact-telling is naive and dangerous. Journalism has always been about framing and shaping stories to sell to particular audiences. Lavine is simply a visionary who invites us all to wake up and acknowledge that there is no "pure" information in journalism, that there are always vast bodies of information left out of every story (and what journalists leave out is as significant as what they include), and that it's time for faculty, alums, and current students to come into the 21st century of convergence journalism.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

"lavine is simply a visionary..."??

is that you, john, trolling the chicagomag comments boards?

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Oh my goodness, 10:34. Please leave suspicion and bitterness aside so the issues remain at the forefront of this discussion. Actually I'm an assistant professor at another university, and we are going through similar curriculum reform discussions.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

As a recent Masters's graduate from Medill's IMC program, i'm all for the changes outlined at the school. I work for a large media company struggling to remain relevant in an era of changing consumer tastes. I went to undergrad at University of Missouri's Journalism school (#1 J-school to Medill's #2 at the time) and learned how to write, report; always with a message about understanding who your audience was -- even when providing an unbiased story. Many who are upset at the changes at Medill have probably not even read the Medill 2020 plan. It is vital for the school to remain a leader as the world changes. Consumers of media have more choices than ever. Good writing will always find an audience if it is delivered in a manner the readers want. It is the "long tail" theory -- we all have tremendous choice -- you can satisfy the niche and the masses. But if journalists don't see the distinction...the masses will go elsewhere to find their news.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

As a 1974 Northwestern alumnus, a long-time journalist in print and broadcast and a professor of journalism, I think the curricular changes are muddled.

Many schools have been teaching convergence long before Medill, so Lavine has created nothing new. This adaptation is a useful change.

The influence of marketing in the media is nothing new. That influence, however, is part of the reason more and more people don't read, watch or use the "product" journalists create. Here is what is problematic about what Lavine has introduced into the mainstream journalism program. Should a reporter worry about the demographics of the audience and marketing a story to this audience? That skews content, framing, placement and perhaps balance of a story.

Some knowledge of these elements would be useful for journalists, particularly those who would like to go into news management. Should these issues be a centerpiece of a "journalism" program? I don't think so.

Christopher Harper
Temple University

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I once had a news director who declared "if we say it's news, it's news." And I thought "what arrogance." Journalists need to be sensitive to their audiences.

If readers/viewers are primarily interested in their local schools, why not devote extra resources and space to education? It's a matter of degree.

If we want people to care about budget matters than we have to figure out a way to deliver that story so they do care. That's what it means to be audience-centric.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

In response to anonymous at 11:15 a.m., I would like to know your source for a ranking of Mizzou as the #1 journalism school and Medill as #2 then, whenever that was. There are very few rankings of journalism schools done by anyone--news media, professional organizations, etc.--and those that are done often have far too many votes coming from alums of large and old journalism schools who seem to always rank their own alma mater as #1.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I work in a newsroom and teach a journalism class at one of the most elite colleges in the country, though it has no J-School. One of our classroom guests last semester was a top executive from a prestigious news organization. When asked by students what was the most important thing they could do to prepare for today's marketplace she said simply:
"Learn to shoot video.''

Troll any newsroom job postings and you will see that requirements are quite different than they were just a few years ago. The changes at Medill are realistic and reflect what is going in the industry. Students need to be prepared for that.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Many of the negative comments written here carry an undertone of fear. The fact is "traditional" methods of delivering the message are dying a not so slow death.
What kind of school would prepare its students for careers that will not exist in 10, 20 or 30 years?
Lavine, at 66 is demonstrating the thinking of a man 40 years younger.
Don't be afraid of the future. Embrace the future of journalism and learn how to use the new delivery method so that the message reaches and impacts more of the people you're trying to reach.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I will be entering Medill in a few weeks to start a masters in magazine writing. I did not know about the reforms when I applied this past winter, and having read this article I am already annoyed at the market research I will undoubtedly be spending my time and humility to complete.
What Lavine is doing may be practical, farsighted and even necessary to the growth of the school, but that does not make it right. The idea that the media should report only what people are interested in means that an Anna Nicole story will receive more air time than one on Sudan, that the failure of the education system and intellectual apathy should be reinforced and even encouraged by a bastardized news media in an ever-downward-spiraling whirlpool of complacency and ignorance.

Shall parents only feed their children what they ask for?

Naive in Knoxville

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Naive in Knoxville's concern about starting Medill in magazine writing touches on a key point here. Magazines have always understood the importance of audience. No one reads magazines to get just the facts, they want voice. If you are going to find your writing voice, you have to know to whom you are speaking. I will finish my master's degree in reporting and writing at Medill at the end of this week. Overall I don't feel the changes have been negative, though I sympathize with my classmates who have had a rougher time. I think I did well because I came in knowing how to write a news story and was able to hone that skill and built a repertoire of multimedia skills on top of that. So, to Naive in Knoxville and others just beginning Medill, I would say, don't despair. There is still a chance to get the experience and skills you want, as well as the network. Even if you can't write a news story, someone is still willing to teach you.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

My advice to current Medill students - transfer to another school while you still have time to salvage your education and then sue Medill to get back the tuition money you've already spent ... because the Medill name won't mean a thing if you don't have the "nuts & bolts" skills needed to be a real reporter/writer. I went to a tiny, unknown journalism school, but throughout my working life, I've been hired over numerous grads from big name j-schools because I had better skills and experience. And having worked in both print and television, I can tell you that this guy Lavine doesn't have a clue. I agree that reporters need to adapt to and embrace new technology and communication techniques, but that can be done with out "blowing up" a curriculum that's turned out excellent journalists in the past. Lavine sounds like an ego-maniac who is more concerned about creating a legacy for himself than giving the students who pay his salary the education they deserve.

7 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Of course journalism students have to learn new techniques. The problem with Medill is that the instruction in new techniques is both bad and seriously taking away from writing and reporting instruction.

We're not getting drilled in the basics nearly as much as those who came before -- and I think it shows. Either require more classes, offer optional instruction, or trust that smart students will get the knowledge they need through extracurriculars, publications, internships, self-teaching, helping each other, whatever. Don't make them pay for a second-rate education in both new and old journalism methods.

-- a Medill Junior

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