Applying the link economy to j-school

The fine folks at CoPress hosted a session at Saturday’s BCNI Philly on reinventing j-schools, sparking off some interesting conversations (see a live blog of the event by Greg Linch).

I’d like to expand here on a thought that bubbled up during the session, in the middle of a discussion about the inclusion of entrepreneurial journalism in j-school curricula. I had suggested that j-schools should apply the basic theory behind link journalism — do what you know best, and link to the rest — to structuring their own programs. In other words, focus on teaching the craft of journalism and its fundamental theories, techniques and tools within the major, and “link out” to peripheral knowledge bases (business/advertising, information technology, programming and design) by sending students to other schools within the university system.

So what does that look like in action? Let’s take the UMass Amherst Journalism program as an example: currently, students enrolled in the major must complete an official minor, concentration or second major in order to fulfill the requirements for graduation. Now suppose the journalism department established interdisciplinary programs with the other schools and, in collaboration with faculty in those schools, created specialized tracks for j-students. This opens up a wealth of possibilities:

  • A student who wants to get into the business side of news would take a planned series of courses in the school of management concurrent to classes in journalism, then apply that knowledge to a hands-on master class in entrepreneurial journalism.
  • A student interested in environmental beat reporting after college would take a class on environmental policy in the department of natural resources during the same semester as a newswriting class, and practice writing stories for that beat.
  • A team of students could take a programming class in the comp sci department together and develop apps for journalism as part of an independent study.

And so on. The advantage of an interdisciplinary approach is that students get exposed to a much wider range of knowledge, while journalism faculty can focus on teaching to their strengths.

Betty Medsger’s essay, Getting Journalism Education Out of the Way, was brought to my attention and contains a similar line of thought:

Journalism faculty should become gate openers to the entire university, rather than guardians of journalism studies. As such they would work far more closely with colleagues in other disciplines. They would develop the relationships needed to recruit excellent students from other disciplines, not to a major or minor in journalism but to an intensive senior year introduction to journalism. The curriculum would be truly interdisciplinary. Assignments in journalism courses would make use of what students have studied in their major areas of inquiry and also tap the expertise of faculty in other disciplines.


  • You know I’m in full agreement here. This lets J-school focus on what it’s sole purpose is, producing journalists.

    When there exists readily available resources other places in the college system that poses the expertise in other areas of study that J-school would not (and should not)have.

  • From a student half-way through a journalism degree in the UK: I really like the sound of this.

    At the minute, curricula is shackled by pre-requisites and co-requisites. Some employers have commented that a three-year degree is unnecessary – students learn a lot of extraneous sociology-esque theory.

    I’m with you all the way on this one. Follow it up.

    • Thanks for spreading the link to this post around, Josh!

      We have a similar requisites system in the US, usually called gen eds, that too often ends up being a waste of everyone’s time (both for the students who are forced to take courses they don’t want and for the professors lecturing in halls crammed full of disengaged students). There’s nothing inherently wrong with sociology-esque theory, but only if that’s what the individual is genuinely interested in learning and has practical applications for. I think we would see a lot more creativity in higher education if self-directed learning were the norm.

  • This is a great idea Jackie. One problem is that the structure of the university (UMass, but also universities in general) isn’t designed for the kind of 21st century interdisciplinary courses we need to be teaching now.

    For example, a student who wants to get into sport communication would benefit from taking journalism and sport management courses, but sport mgt. is in the Isenberg School, which has its own requirements.

    Web design and the structure of visual information are key skills that would really help our journalism students, but these are hybrids of art/IT/journalism, which would cut across not just three different majors, but I think three different colleges.

    One way around it, I think, from a faculty viewpoint is advising, in which we can direct students to make the “quilt” of courses that will get them to their goals, but I think we should also be looking at breaking down the silos that may work internally but don’t necessarily help students prepare for the jobs that are coming online.

    An essay in the New York Times last week brought up some of these issues, and it’s worth a read:

    • This is so true — the silo mentality is detrimental to education and industries alike. Cross pollination between disciplines not only helps students get the most out of their years in college, it also introduces fresh perspectives and ideas from outside any given field, driving innovation that might not otherwise take place.

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  • I think this is a great idea. There’s no sense in j-schools guarding their students behind a wall.

    I’d add schools of information studies to your list of examples. They study how to gather, collect, retrieve, transfer information of all sorts, but particularly through computers. Much valuable stuff there for journalists.

    One other point I’d add … Just because j-schools draw on other schools doesn’t mean j-profs shouldn’t learn some of these cross-over skills. They’ll be more able to help their students find the right cross-over skills if they have many of them.

    • Good points. Since I don’t imagine many j-profs have the time or inclination to go back to school themselves, how do you think they could best pick up new skills? Maybe a combination of conference workshops, online tutorials and webinars? One idea I’m a fan of — which I first heard from a j-prof at UMass — is collaboratively learning alongside students while working on experimental class projects.

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  • This sounds like what I should have done in college. Great idea and perhaps great advice for j-school students still plotting their routes.

    • Yep, just because it doesn’t exist yet doesn’t mean the current crop of j-students can’t be trailblazers.

  • At San Jose State, this is already in place to a degree (no pun intended). We are required to select an academic focus outside the journalism school. For me, I chose business, and the difference between an academic focus (12 units) and a minor (15 units) was so minuscule I just went for the minor.

    I say “to a degree” because the schools themselves don’t do much interaction. It’s up to the student to craft those in-between classes. For example, next semester I was considering taking an independent study course to draft a business plan for a journalism idea I’ve been kicking around. The units would apply towards my business minor but I would recruit two advisers, a professor from both business and journalism schools, for the course. We will see how it goes.

    • Yeah, that sounds pretty much like how things are at UMass as well. The self-motivated students always manage to find a way even if the guidance isn’t there. I’d love to hear how your independent study goes next semester!

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