5 Reasons Journalism Professionals Should Accept Feedback & Criticism From Journalism Professors

Since my post about Business Insider’s failings went live last weekend, almost everyone has agreed that the outlet produces subpar, rush-job, headline-driven journalism.

But many have also stated outright or implied that I am not in a position to criticize BI or anything else in the news business or that my insights will not be taken seriously.  Why?  Because I’m a professor, not a “professional.”  I’m supposedly an outsider to the “real” industry, unable to fully grasp its structure, day-to-day stresses, and longer-term shifts.

Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget: “Dear Journalism Students: Don’t Mean To Intrude, But Your Professor Doesn’t Get It”

ZDNet’s Tom Foremski: “[M]y chief complaint about journalism professors is how distant they are from a real newsroom.”

About.com’s Tony Rogers: “Journalism professor Dan Reimold started a fight he couldn’t win when he criticized Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal.  That’s because journalists more often than not see journalism professors as effete, ivory-tower types who are woefully out of touch with the realities of the news business, especially in the digital age.”

The headline to the About.com post: “Reimold’s Problem? Journalists Don’t Trust Journalism Professors.”

This distrust, and the accompanying perception that j-profs just don’t “get it” and live in ivory towers far from real journalism, must change.

Below are five reasons journalism professionals need to accept and should excitedly welcome input and, yes, criticism from journalism professors.

This is the age of the professor-professional. 

Each workday, the staffers at Business Insider search for stories, blog, and write occasional longer pieces.  Funny, so do I.  I am a professional blogger for a pair of national organizations (ACP & USA TODAY), a paid (and in some cases unpaid) freelancer for a few more, and an author right now under book contract.  By year’s end I will have attended and spoke at journalism, media, and literary conferences and workshops in Singapore, Senegal, Seattle, New York City, Fort Lauderdale, Gainesville, Chicago, and St. Petersburg.  Earlier this year, under deadline, I blogged from a hotel bathtub in Malaysia– the only spot in the room with working Wi-Fi.  (See photo below.)  Is it made of ivory?

Yet, apparently I’m not professional, nor am I in the know about what’s happening within “real” journalism today and how to do it.  Blodget: “I’m just guessing here, but I’d bet that if we put the good professor in [Business Insider deputy editor] Joe Weisenthal’s chair, he would fail miserably.”  Sir, just name the day.  I’ll pay for my own plane ticket.  And I don’t even need a chair.  (See photo above.)

Blodget seems to truly believe professors like me just don’t “get it.”  According to Rogers, we will never be trusted by the newsroom masses.  According to Foremski, we are distant from what’s going down.  Gentlemen, unlike the tub above, these assessments need to be scrubbed.

Show me a top journalist who isn’t adjuncting or guest speaking or strongly considering returning to school for a higher degree.  Show me a good professor who isn’t freelancing or under professional contract.  Show me a standout journalism student who isn’t working or writing for a professional outlet.  The lines are not just blurring.  They no longer exist.  We are all teachers-students-professionals nowadays, at least the good ones.

We are also all faking it until we make it.  See point two.

Professionals don’t know any better than professors. 

This past January in Singapore, I took part in a simulated skydiving session within the world’s largest vertical indoor wind tunnel (a pic below).  It was deafeningly loud.  Gale-force winds whipped me dizzy.  I frequently found myself twisting and turning upside down, against my control.  It reminded me of journalism, circa now.

We are all lost in a swirl of journalism topsy-turydom.  No one– not I, Blodget, Foremski, Rogers, Jay Rosen, Jill Abramson or anyone else– knows how it is all going to turn out.  The best we can do– all of us who love, work, and live for journalism– is innovate, experiment, question, and assess where we stand, where we think we might be heading, and how we can do things better along the way.

College newsrooms are people too.

What counts as newsroom experience these days?  Working in an old school one?  A print-digital hybrid?  A fully virtual home-based version?  What about the campus newsroom?  Some student news outlets and journalists are bad.  So are some professional outlets and journalists.  But on the flip side, the best student journos and pubs are innovating and producing content on a level that deserves greater attention and respect.  (Three quick examples: The Crimson Tide’s historic post-tornado coverage; The Red & Black’s digital reinvention; and The University Press’s special Board of Trustees investigation.)

In most cases, these students have professors at their backs and by their sides– teaching, mentoring, revising, probing, and, nowadays, helping reinvent.  As I mentioned, the professor-professional separation is fading within journalism.  So is the student-professional label.

Bottom line: Many journalism professors assist and advise outlets that reach tons of readers, keep their community’s power-base in check, and face the same advertising, economic, digital, and distribution issues as their professional counterparts.  These profs-advisers “get” what’s happening to journalism, as a practice and an industry. They see it and experience it for themselves every day.

We’re at your back and by your side.

Journalism professionals spend their careers focused on others.  Don’t bristle when the focus is turned on you.  Professors are engaged individuals who study journalism and are given the time, freedom, and tenure-tracked motivation to analyze various aspects of the industry and help make sense of what it all means.  Who better to provide this service?  When the story is about journalism, we are trusted sources, same as professionals.

A “scholarly” colleague once told me the professor-professional relationship is the equivalent of the police and internal affairs.  I disagreed vehemently.  We’re not out to simply catch wrongdoing or keep things in check.  Similar to our role with students, we stand side by side with professionals or have their backs, offering credit when it’s due, providing context to help frame achievements in larger terms, and trying to educate everyone on what the heck our craft is all about.

Love and Other Drugs

Anyone who criticizes me for commenting on journalism by asserting I’m not a true professional doesn’t love the craft as much as me.  Journalism isn’t professional to me.  It’s personal.  It’s the love of my life.  I practice it, study it, teach it, and soak it in every single day like a crazy-cool wonder drug.  And when I feel the responsibility and urgency to comment upon it, I will.  When I do, I’m not a professor or a professional.  I’m a journalist.

As part of a journalism-rights-focused First Amendment Free Food Festival (FAFFF) at the University of Tampa last fall, we hired a glitter tattoo artist. My arm is the one on top. :)

16 Responses to “5 Reasons Journalism Professionals Should Accept Feedback & Criticism From Journalism Professors”
  1. Patrick says:

    blogged from a bathtub? Wow, that’s hardcore. Jschools by and large are money-making jokes populated by profs who did an internship or worked a year or two at a paper and publish little or nothing as academics. Of course there are exceptions. Practicing journalism is more vocation than anything and the line between J academics and professionals is more distinct than ever. I would suggest students who aim to be journalists major in something that delivers niche knowledge (city planning, business, engineering, etc., etc.) and write for their local, or college, pub, or whatever. Good reporting isn’t easy, but the process, ethics, structure, and all that, isn’t rocket science. If you can write and report, you can write and report. Have a degree, any degree, a stack of solid clips, and demonstrate a grasp of style and ethics, and editors don’t give a rip if you went to jschool, in my experience. And some see it as a plus — having the specialized knowledge, and not having spent years in the jschool machine.
    Plus, if and when things go tits up, or when one is looking for a change, they’ll have a degree in a field that really requires a degree. Want to be a reporter? Get smart in something, read a ton, and write, write, write. Great thing about this business historically, and perhaps now more than ever: you drop a great enterprise story on an editor’s desk and they don’t care who you are, where you came from, or what your diploma says. If the story checks out, there’s a good chance it will run.
    And, by all means, if there’s a J prof at your school with a record of real production, seek them out and soak them up.

    • Dan says:

      Patrick- Thanks for the comment. I agree that some can become journalists without the formal j-school training. Others really benefit from the classes, personal mentoring, and networking opportunities a decent j-program provides. And yes, a dual major or minor is a huge plus. Dan

  2. Patrick says:

    Absolutely. Well taken. That route I described would probably pan out only for the more talented and driven. Sorry about the snarky lede. That wasn’t needed and I appreciate the convo.

  3. Dave says:

    I think Henry is half right here. You don’t have to work under the incentives to put out rumors and shock jockery in volume just to make yourself heard. Journalism is more about influencing opinions in the for-profit world.

    Media hasn’t figured out how to disseminate information of actual substance in this fast paced world. When there are a 1000 media outlets + 10 times more bloggers, it seems they’ll make it up or present rumors if they all can’t say something unique and profound. That’s the burden they’re under and they can’t admit it.

    Kudos to you. If his working style works for him, that’s not the lifestyle that breeds creativity and truth. It breeds schizophrenia with a lack of attention to detail (a busy idiot if you would). You strike something interesting every now and then but most of what you do is pointless. I’ve worked those 16 hour days. You have to be obsessed and automated. It’s not like Henry is spending 16 hours a day spinning his wheels on how to improve human existence. His job is probably mass regurgitation like an assembly line worker in China (one of the least free and creative nations on Earth).

    So in his defense, his pressure doesn’t compare to yours, but they can’t admit it. In your defense, you’re right about journalism but not about the incentives in today’s industry. My two cents.

    Looking forward to round 4.

  4. Justin J. Poppiti, Esq. says:

    Dan, BI is one of my favorite sites. I read a lot of posts and make a lot of comments under my real name.

    Nevertheless, you presented a lot of valid critiques of Joe (and BI as a whole). BI’s misleading headlines and spelling/grammar errors particularly irk me. I look forward to you working at BI for the day.

  5. Francois Heinderyckx says:

    You are so right. We could even argue further that a J-professor even with no significant activity as professional journalist can nonetheless ‘get it’. Talented coaches in many sports are not former champions themselves. It is essential to accept the idea that one can express relevant views, and even be critical about professional practices, even with no current or prior experience of such practices. Can professors of economics have no views on the future of stock exchange unless they are or have been a stock broker? If intellectuals, including university professors, be they in an ivory tower, are considered as unable to express relevant views, then we can only leave it to self-regulation and self-criticism. Or the absence thereof. A debate is always healthy, as long as no one claims the monopoly on relevance.

  6. Chris Harper says:

    I will admit that some journalism professors don’t have much experience, but a lot of journalists are too close to what they do. I spent more than 20 years in journalism at the Associated Press (Chicago), Newsweek (Chicago, Washington and Beirut), ABC News (Cairo and Rome) and ABC 20/20. I have spent 17 years as a journalism prof, including writing and editing seven books about journalism. I think some of us might have some useful things to say about journalism. Take a look at what we produce at Temple: http://www.philadelphianeighborhoods.com
    I spend more time at producing that site than I did on a daily basis in the MSM. I think MSM could learn a lot from what we do a PN.com and from what we research–albeit within limits.

  7. Jason says:

    Another argument for the journalism professor is the fact that they still have one foot in the realm of teaching the craft, which is arguably (or ideally) where journalism is practiced in its purest form. It’s not as entangled with some of the bleak realities that compel full-time non-professorial professionals to bend or even break on the virtuous facets of the “love.” It’s best, of course, if the other foot is somewhere practicing the profession/love in some form.

  8. As a journalism student, it was because of a professor that I fell in love with journalism, and I’m sure there are many students who could say the same. I absolutely love it. Professors have the very important job of educating new journalist-wannabes about the work and the noble vision behind it. I am delighted to have the opportunity to learn so many things about journalism, and my professors are some of my favorite people.

  9. Right on: “The lines are not just blurring. They no longer exist. We are all teachers-students-professionals nowadays, at least the good ones.”
    Keep up the good work, Dan.

  10. Right on: “The lines are not just blurring. They no longer exist. We are all teachers-students-professionals nowadays, at least the good ones.”
    Keep up the good work, Dan.

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