Debate Magazine

Should Entrepreneurial Journalists Flock to Grad Schools?

Posted on the 09 March 2011 by Fcarletti


Allow me to play devil’s advocate on this one: I’m not convinced that universities are the best incubators for entrepreneurs.

In the video embedded above, we see Jeff Jarvis sitting in front of a roomful of prospective students, telling them all about CUNY’s new entrepreneurial journalism program. His non-verbal cues say, “I’m the teacher, and you’re the student. Take our courses, learn from us” — and then, I suppose, come out free-thinking mavericks? Hmm.

Although Jarvis mentioned his openness to changing the details of the course (whether they meet on Mondays, for instance) decision-making power is still concentrated in the hands of the course designers. The would-be students were invited to take part by asking questions, but the agenda was already set, the program courses designed, and the available seats ready to be warmed. Here are a few things I wonder:

Should entrepreneurial journalists flock to grad schools?

Lecture Hall by English 106 on Flickr

(1) The pitch and platform matter. Is this really the best they could do?

I doubt that the school’s target demographic would be inspired by this bland lecture format. The room was presumably full of risk-takers with ideas and entrepreneurial spirit, but did their presence matter? Were their responses really part of the event? I mean, it may just be an information session, but if CUNY is trying to revolutionize journalistic pedagogy, couldn’t they have re-imagined the first impression?

As I watched Jarvis pitch the program, I kept thinking about his book What Would Google Do? In it, he extols the virtues of free, open, searchable, linkable media but does so in a print format, available for purchase and decidedly outside of the link economy. (I’m a new media TA, and this irony was pointed out by several first-year students who reviewed his book.)

This isn’t meant to be personal – it may be systemic. As Clay Shirky notes, established institutions tend to show bias in favour of existing systems, which “turns into a liability in times of revolution.” In periods of transition, we witness the mismatched results of applying old logics to new circumstances.

In this case, an old-fashioned presentation to promote a cutting-edge program.

If J-schools teaching entrepreneurialism don’t want to inadvertently become self-parodies, shouldn’t they acknowledge the ways in which they, too, subscribe to the top-down tendencies of institutions?

(2) Do they know who’s in the room?

Rarely do we see classrooms that are pedagogical portraitures of the students that inhabit them. That doesn’t seem to be the point of mass education.

Really, why would entrepreneurial journalists pay tuition to sit in formal classroom settings as preparation for a 21st century market that no one can yet describe? Do they see it as an island of certainty in uncertain times?

Maybe they’re figuring out ways to destroy it from within. I mean, Jarvis does say the course teaches students to disrupt legacy businesses. He later laughs nervously when describing an open-source learning project one of his students is working on, as it may disrupt the in-class model that now employs him.

As Ken Robinson argues in an RSA speech (embedded below), our pedagogical structures have been modeled in the image and interests of industrialism, and built on the logic of the enlightenment. Schools are organized with a production line mentality.

Yes, Jarvis touched on how great student feedback would be – but bringing collaboration to the classroom is about much more than feedback. Entrepreneurs are more likely to be skilled in the divergent thinking (the ability to think laterally and see lots of possible answers to a question) and harnessing that talent should be built into the very DNA of an entrepreneurial program.

To refuse standardization means throwing away the template and rethinking education itself — which leads me to my last question.

(3) Will these schools be as innovative as they expect their students to be?

We may see more of these EJ programs opening up in the next few years (another was recently announced at King’s College in Halifax). I hope their founders realize that teaching this stuff shouldn’t be a matter of crafting a different syllabus, but rather rethinking very basic mechanisms. For instance, they need systems for assigning value to unconventional thinking, deviance, and even failure — none of which are rewarded in mainstream education.

Should EJ school be a place where you learn a new skill set, or should it be about an entirely different mindset? Will the schools recruit non-traditional candidates? CUNY mentions its ethnic diversity and the presence of journalists from under-represented communities, but what about the big filter called capital-E education?

Both King’s College and CUNY have established their programs at the graduate level. Is this too high up? Some famous journalists didn’t even complete high school (June Callwood, Peter Mansbridge). What about mid-career journalists who don’t have undergraduate degrees but do have newsroom experience?

Could EJ school be a place for those who question authority, ask uncomfortable questions, and propose ridiculous ideas? A place for those who resist classroom/newsroom conditioning, and the comfort and convenience of pack journalism? A place of possibility and inspiration, where professors aren’t at podiums and students don’t sit in neat rows?

Ultimately, my question is: are entrepreneurial J-schools just another place where you might go to learn – or do they have to, fundamentally, be a place where you go to unlearn?

What’s more, do these places of learning have to be associated with universities at all?


Full disclosure: This reflection was originally written to spark discussion in my media ethics and leadership class. If you don’t normally follow my blog, you should be aware that I am in graduate school for journalism. Clearly, I think there are advantages to preparing for the profession through higher education. Still, I am genuinely curious about how entrepreneurial spirit would fare in the ivory tower. I welcome your thoughts!

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