‘Journalism Isn’t Dying’: The Dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication Tells You Why

January 8, 2014

Christopher Callahan is the founding dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and vice provost of the Downtown Phoenix Campus at Arizona State University.

Previously, he was associate dean at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and senior editor of the American Journalism Review. Before entering higher education, he was a political reporter for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C., and New England.

It must be difficult to be the dean of a leading school of journalism at a time when so many experts claim that journalism is on its deathbed. What are your views about the evolution of the field and those who insist that it’s heading toward extinction?

I hear people say, “journalism is dying” all the time. Journalism isn’t dying. By many measures — including the number and diversity of news sources — it’s actually growing.

What is dying is the old economic model that made media owners a lot of money for a long time. The result of that, unfortunately, was that those owners paid little attention to the future and put virtually nothing into research and development. I can’t think of another major American industry that invested less in research and development than the news industry. So it’s no surprise that when the digital revolution came along, the industry was wholly unprepared.

But where we are today is incredibly exciting. We have more tools to tell stories in more compelling and powerful ways than ever before. And we are starting to see some exciting experimentation not just with the journalism, but with the economic models too.

There are unprecedented partnerships among news organizations. News companies are starting to develop new profit models in the digital space. And we have seen the emergence of nonprofit news organizations that are producing some amazing journalism — places such as ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Most exciting, for me, is the emergence of an important new role for universities as news partners and content providers. We call it the “teaching hospital” model of journalism education. Similar to medical education, we are creating professional environments — in our case, newsrooms and innovation labs — led by first-rate journalists and PR practitioners who serve as the editor/professor.

Students are immersed in these unique learning environments for a full semester. The result is unprecedented learning, with the byproduct being important news content.

The demand for content, especially in the online environment, has blurred the traditional definition of journalism. How have you changed ASU’s program to track the changes that you’ve seen, and what are your plans for future programming at the Cronkite School?

The program I inherited in 2005 was gone by 2006. We transformed the curriculum to focus on the digital world, where all students were able to produce content across platforms.

But changing the skills was only part of the equation. We also infused concepts into the curriculum that largely did not exist in journalism schools previously. We created a senior capstone course focusing on the business and future of the news industry. We invented courses on entrepreneurship, and opened an innovation lab where students from across disciplines could come and work to help create digital solutions for media companies. And most important, we embraced the “teaching hospital” model.

Today, we have a series of full immersion, semester-long professional programs — including a full-time PR firm, a PBS nightly newscast, a daily news service with bureaus in Washington, D.C., and Phoenix and a digital innovation lab — that are the cornerstones of the program.

And we continue to grow, add and change programs and courses every semester. Within the next few months, we will be opening sports reporting bureaus in Phoenix and Santa Monica, and we will be announcing shortly a new partnership on innovative reporting and source development with American Public Media.

Communicators from our generation were inspired to major in journalism because of Watergate, specifically because of “All the President’s Men,” but we graduated 30 years ago. What motivates students today?

Actually, “All the President’s Men” is still a great motivator! In fact, we show the movie version each year in our First Amendment Forum, hosted by Len Downie, one of our great faculty members who, before he succeeded Ben Bradlee as The Washington Post’s executive editor, was a key editor on Watergate. And that is illustrative of a very important point: Our past is just as important as our future.

We talk a lot about “Cronkite values” — those news values of accuracy, objectivity, thoroughness and fairness that Walter embodied so well for so long. Those are as essential to tomorrow’s great communicators as the digital tools and innovative mindsets that we’ve talked about.

What do you tell your journalism students about the role that public relations will play in their career, and how do you view the relationship between the two professions?

Well, the first thing we tell them — show them really — is that both professions require many of the same skill sets and mindsets.

That’s why our curriculum doesn’t specialize in the first two years. All students — no matter if they want to be a great PR executive or a multimedia investigative reporter — take the same foundation courses that focus on reporting, writing, editing, producing, Web creation, multimedia storytelling, video production, social media and sound ethical decision-making.

A byproduct of these students working side-by-side, without differentiation on career goals, is that there is a natural respect among these students that I don’t think existed [previously]. And I see that mutual respect among professionals carry over when they graduate and join the workforce — either as part of agencies or newsrooms.


Ed Cafasso
A member of PRSA's Corporate Communications Section, Ed Cafasso is a managing director in the corporate and financial practice for Burson-Marsteller and the agency's Boston market leader.


Thomas M. Jackson says:

Callahan is right in saying that journalism was unprepared for the digital revolution, having done very little in research and development. So true. It is however, important to keep in mind that the digital revolution came on faster than the speed of light, leaving media owners, universities, and in fact, many other industries, ill prepared for its colossal impact.

Jan. 13, 2014

James Irvin Gilliland, III says:

Good perspective and insights from founding dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication but I am afraid the proliferation of the new digital media outlets he touts has fed a generation of writers who may try to pass off opinion as an attempt at news reporting; and conversely, news reporters are resorting to these new digital media outlets to opine. The lines of "copy" are blurring. Still this is a very thought provoking piece.

Jan. 13, 2014

Kris Antonelli says:

I graduated with a journalism degree from University of Maryland in 1987 and at that time, public relations was under the same umbrella as journalism We all took classes in both disciplines. But it is interesting to note that now public relations has been separated from the College of Journalism at Maryland. I think Mr. Callahan is correct in his belief that keeping the two disciplines together yields a stronger learning environment. Regardless of which path a student follows there is much to learn from each other during their university years. It is the writer's and publication's responsibility to clearly delineate opinion pieces from balanced journalism news articles. And yes, that distinction, due to new technology, has become increasingly blurred.

Feb. 10, 2014

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