Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


July 7, 2009

A J-Schooler Makes A Name for Himself

C.W. Anderson dedicated his recently-completed journalism dissertation to covering, well, journalism. He tells Gelf what he found out about its recent past, and his prognosis for its future.

Max Lakin

The practice of journalism is in a bad way, yet the study of journalism has never been more vibrant. One case in point is Chris Anderson, whose recently completed dissertation at Columbia University's Journalism School, "Breaking Journalism Down," is an exhaustive chronicle of modern news-gathering in Philadelphia, and how that city's traditional arms of information attempted to adapt to what seems like the ceaselessly-mutating ground rules of the sport.

Photo courtesy of C.W. Anderson.
"The way journalism schools can stay relevant is to train students to produce publicly meaningful content in a world of rampant media production."

Photo courtesy of C.W. Anderson.

Chris is in the process of cultivating his publishing persona, C.W. Anderson, so as to avoid likely confusion with both the Wired editor and the well-coiffed, well-inked Denver Nuggets forward. In the following interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity, Gelf spoke with Anderson about the academic imperatives of the trade, what J-schools have to do to stay existent, and why enrolling in one now isn't completely like running into a burning building.

Gelf Magazine: We're talking about J-schools, something you know a bit about having spent the last five-odd years on the inside. Now that you've got your doctorate, what's next?

C.W. Anderson: Next fall I'll be starting as an assistant professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island-CUNY. And although I'd love to find a way to contribute to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (which has a faculty relationship with the many CUNY colleges), my main priority for the next few years is going to be teaching media, communications, and journalism classes to undergraduates in the New York City higher education system. I'll also be redesigning their journalism curriculum, which is one of the things I've been specifically hired to do.
I've had an interesting path; I myself was a public-college kid, and so my time at an elite institution like the Columbia J-school is the exception rather than the rule for me. One of the things we forget about—especially in a city which has the best graduate journalism schools in the world—is that most of the people who take classes at J-school are undergraduates, and the majority of them probably never work a day as a journalist in their lives.
So for me, the question is: What is the point of J-school for students who want to go to a place like Columbia or CUNY Grad? For students who want to be journalists without more schooling? And for students who don't want to be journalists, but want to be well-educated and productive members of society?

Gelf Magazine: How long have you been studying the media?

C.W. Anderson: I've been studying the media since I was a political science major in the mid-1990s, but I studied politics specifically in the context of journalism and the media. I was especially interested in the question of how journalism can contribute to a well-functioning democracy.

Gelf Magazine: What is it about journalism specifically? Your CV links your research to political theory, social movements, and sociology. Sounds more like a freshman syllabus survey than old-school news mongering

C.W. Anderson: Journalism is so unglamorous, so unsexy, that we tend to think of it as nothing more than a trade. And it is a trade. But it's also incredibly important, and to understand it, we can't divorce it from things like sociology, political science, and political theory. I think a big problem is that we've turned the study of journalism, and communications in general, into the "joke major," as a character on the Simpsons said once. But what's more important than communication—the way we understand the world?

Gelf Magazine: Your recently-completed dissertation chronicles shifting modes of news production in Philadelphia. For our non-PhD-candidates at home, could you distill what you were looking for and what, if anything, you determined to be encouraging in the near-term?

C.W. Anderson: Basically, I looked at how the work of journalists was changing due to technological changes and the economic crisis in the news industry. In the end, journalists are what they do, and I was interested in how what they did was different.
As far as reasons for hope, well, the day I put the last footnote on my dissertation, the papers I'd spent three years researching filed for bankruptcy. So honestly, the dissertation is pretty damn depressing.

Gelf Magazine: Which brings us to the crux—as far as J-school in the abstract is concerned, how do you see programs staying relevant when local papers are drying up by the hour, the big glossies are starving, and the New York freaking Times is selling ownership shares to a Mexican billionaire just to stay above water?

C.W. Anderson: I think the question of "How does J-school stay relevant?" has a lot to do with what kind of J-school we're talking about. Are we talking about the undergraduate journalism schools, in which many people are enrolled and make a considerable amount of money? Or are we talking about elite graduate schools like Columbia, CUNY, and NYU, which are often the schools we think about in New York City when we think about journalism. I think the answer to the first question is that journalism school stays relevant by training students to produce publicly meaningful content in a world of rampant media production, DIY content, and fragmentation. I think the more elite journalism schools stay relevant by doing the same thing, actually, but with the added proviso that you're specifically training someone for a job, which may or may not exist. But it's not the job of journalism school to save the industry; it's the job of the school to create democratically relevant individuals.

Gelf Magazine: Consider the aspiring journalist who will drop nearly twice the number of dollars for the 10 months of the M.A. program at Columbia's Journalism School than she'll make in the reporting job the program actually affords her. Compounding that with the many editors and writers who deride the necessity of formal training altogether, where's the draw?

C.W. Anderson: Well, to be honest, I think schools like Columbia are in a bit of a pickle. They've always been able to bank their upfront costs on the promise of a great gig down the road—and I'm not even talking about right away. I think that most J-school graduates had to start at the local daily newspaper or weekly when they got out of CU, but after they had paid their dues, they could get that New York Times job. It's hard to see that happening anymore.
That said, controversy about J-school isn't exactly new. In the 1910s, people were writing about how it was a waste of money and real "news-paper men" could only learn the training on the job. If people are thinking of Columbia, I point them toward specialized programs like the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. I think that's the future of a place like Columbia Journalism—that and a broader media education that goes beyond journalism.

Gelf Magazine: Despite all the attrition and general dread, the need for news probably isn't going away. Where does journalism go from here, and what do you suspect it needs to do to afford its devotees a respectable living?

C.W. Anderson: It's become a cliché to say "let 1000 flowers bloom," there are many solutions, etc., even though it's true. I do think that the industry will eventually settle down and coalesce around a few major business models. You'll see the degeneration of former mass-market newspapers to the lowest common denominator of sleaze, and the emergence of millions of niche sites. But I think one of the best things you're going to see is an explosion of sustainable, serious reporting content that we used to call "public" media. It wont be PBS or NPR, and it may not even get funding by the government, but it will do many of the things that public news used to do.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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