Journalism Schools Need to Look to the Future, Not the Present

My wife and I recently began the college search with our youngest child and toured two very similar schools: Marymount Manhattan College and Emerson College. I was encouraged that they both seemed to mix real-world experience with classroom learning, a combination that I think is essential in today's job market. However, I was troubled that one seemed fixated on the jobs of yesterday, while the other seemed more focused on the careers of tomorrow.

To be fair, the programs were similar in many ways. Both offered a liberal arts curriculum centered around the arts and communications. Both had small, city-based campuses and were similarly equipped, including a journalism program, TV station, and a theater. 

My son is fixated, for now, on communications with an eye toward journalism, even though he fully understands that the journalism jobs of the past are few and far between. He's a good writer, and he wants to prepare for whatever comes next.

Both schools have lots to offer. Emerson appears, in many ways, to be a great school focused on communications, including literature and publishing, marketing and journalism-subjects that I know a little something about. Perhaps because I do know these fields, I was more critical about what I saw.

One thing that was niggling at me as I took the tour was that the curriculum seemed focused on where these fields were, rather than where they are headed. There was a distinct lack of emphasis on digital marketing and publishing techniques. As an example, we were shown a nicely equipped newsroom, which is great, but most students aren't going to be working in a conventional newsroom. I'm not suggesting the schools shouldn't be teaching basic skills, but they need to be emphasizing blogging, content marketing, and online publishing alongside more traditional methods-and the student tour guides never mentioned those.

Meanwhile, Marymount Manhattan had a similarly equipped room with modern computers, but instead of calling it a newsroom, the guides called it a lab. They talked about students collaborating on interdisciplinary projects and using the lab as a space to facilitate that. Additionally, the guides spoke of preparing students for whatever comes next, while giving them the basic skills the students need to understand the underlying discipline.

At Emerson, we were shown a marketing room devoted to focus groups, which the student tour guides seemed particularly proud of. As I sat there watching them talk about how they perform actual focus groups, I couldn't help but think about the speed of digital transformation and the impact that has on traditional marketing techniques such as focus groups. While companies are trying to find the perfect product asking a few people what they want, somebody with digital tools and a rapid development environment is talking directly to customers via social media.

As James McQuivey points out in his new book, Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation, Digital Natives aren't afraid to fail. They simply treat it as part of the feedback loop and move on. With this kind of attitude, direct access to customers and a keen instinct for what people really want, Digital Natives create without fear. Focus groups are part of a mentality of looking for the perfect product with feedback from a small sample of users. Innovators, McQuivey points out, aren't really concerned with the perfect product.

Perhaps it was a difference in approach. Emerson used student guides, while Marymount Manhattan let us hear from three communications professors. The enthusiasm for their craft and seemingly innate understanding that the future was evolving left me more confident in their approach. 

Overall, in spite of my concerns, I was impressed with the Emerson students that we met and the nature of the curriculum. They were smart and dedicated, and they were certainly willing to try new things.  

It's hard to beat either school, and I'm not sure which one my son will pick-or if he'll decide on a different college altogether. Whatever he does, the decision is his. But if it came down to these schools and he was asking my advice, I would tell him that all schools need to prepare young people for the job market reality of the 21st century, and I couldn't help but feel Marymount Manhattan was doing a better job of that.