Hi. I’m not Goldie Blumenstyk, who usually writes this column. I’m Scott Carlson, also a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering the business of higher education. Subscribe here. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week:
We journalists have a lot of nerve. Mess up your institution — or your life — and we’ll be the first people knocking on your door to get all the details about what, where, when, and why things went wrong. Yet as a group, we’re hardly qualified to frame the mistakes of others. We pounce on everyone else’s moral lapses while overlooking our own. (Think of Walter Winchell.) We lambaste people who put their necks out to start new ventures or create new things, while we invent nothing. (Anton Ego, the villainous scribe from Ratatouille, exemplifies the type.) I’ve known journalists who write about business failures yet have trouble maintaining a household budget. (Uh, let’s not name names.)
Maybe we were channeling frustrations about our own industry.
Newspapers are generally for-profit enterprises; colleges in most cases are not. But the parallels between journalism and academe are striking: We both deal in knowledge and have public service at our core. We have legacy institutions (Harvard, The New York Times) and upstarts (Coursera, Vice Media). Smart, intractable, and often underpaid people — professors and reporters — form the foundation of our industries, taking complex or specialized information and breaking it down for an audience. For many of those people, their academic or journalistic professions are all they ever imagined doing with their lives. To watch their industries crumble is a source of great heartache.
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And while we might blame macro trends and disruptions — anti-intellectualism, the internet, the machinations of our political opponents — the fact is, we kind of did it to ourselves.
I called up Jeremy Littau, an associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University, and discovered that we had both been thinking about the similarities between the newspaper business and higher ed. (And, I should add, we’re certainly not the first.)
“They have both enjoyed for a long time the benefit of an audience that didn’t have other choices,” he said. Other choices came first for the subscribers of newspapers; colleges should heed warnings from their example.
Prior to the internet and self-publishing, newspapers had a lock on the production of local news, Littau explained, and they were wildly lucrative enterprises, with profit margins as high as 40 percent. Even though newspapers’ audiences were aging and slowly starting to drop off in the 1980s, journalists still weren’t prompted to scramble for readers or revenue, or to consider how to innovate.
“I remember being a journalism student in the 1990s, going to journalism conferences, and hearing newspaper publishers and editors declare that newspapers are here to stay,” he said. “They weren’t talking about the news, they were talking about the newspaper, as if there was something ineffable about the product itself that made it valuable, and people were never going to ditch it.” With visions of profits extending far into the future, the industry accelerated its drive toward consolidation, with companies taking on enormous debt to acquire smaller publications.
When the internet arrived — along with Craigslist, The Huffington Post, and many other new competitors — newspaper companies were caught flat-footed. Having underinvested in R&D and new audiences, newspapers had to double down on the print medium, where their dwindling readership still resided. When I was a young journalist in the Twin Cities in the 1990s, I was frustrated with the reporters and columnists at the local big dailies, seeing them as staid and out of touch with my generation. Back then, I remember thinking that the Sunday comics — with tired and irrelevant strips like Blondie and The Wizard of Id — represented everything that was wrong with newspapers.
When I was in Portland a few weeks ago, The Oregonian — like countless other mainstream dailies — was still running those same strips.
Compare that history to higher ed’s: Senior administrators and professors grew up in a world that was much more comfortable than it is today, and many are reluctant to change. Many institutions also accumulated serious debt loads, expanding and putting up infrastructure during the boom years. Littau points out that colleges, like newspapers, focus on traditions and trappings that appeal to an aging audience: their older donors and alumni.
What’s more, both journalists and academics “have these gauzy ways of looking at what we do,” Littau says. Journalists liked to think of themselves as defenders of democracy, when most people were going to newspapers simply for the weather, the box scores, and the lifestyle pages. Academics think of themselves as discovering and distributing knowledge, when people really just want the credential and a job. “We pin our value,” Littau says, “on things that I don’t think the audience is thinking about.”
Mainstream higher-education institutions are already seeing their monopolistic grasp on the credential slip away. Read my colleague Lee Gardner’s report this week about online mega-universities that have embraced low-cost competency-based degree programs. Badging companies are starting to make inroads. And education futurists and disruptors predict that pre-employment assessments could start to emerge, allowing people to skip the degree and go straight to a job.
Don’t make the mistakes my industry made. Don’t wait until it’s too late to innovate.
In this column last week, I wrote that innovation was overrated — that the fundamentals of business practices are more important. This week, I’ll add to that. The key to innovation is not the innovative “thing” — the technical widget, for example — but the change in perspective or attitude that comes from within.
As a print journalist, I could have continued to see my job in traditional terms: to interview a bunch of people and pound out a story by the end of the day or week. Many of my colleagues in the industry saw themselves in that way, and never wanted to change. But today, I talk to crowds at conferences, go on TV or radio, speak at board retreats, organize seminars and webinars, record podcasts, and meet with organizations and people interested in forming partnerships with my employer. My journalism can take the form of a traditional story — or a 280-character tweet, or a 15,000-word report.
Journalists who want to avoid getting snuffed out by the meteor are changing how they view their role. They’re no longer just reporters. They’re translators, advisers, entertainers, and — to some extent — sales agents for themselves and their companies. Those roles are sometimes difficult to adjust to, but they’re necessary for survival.
Littau told me that he, too, is reconceiving his role as professor. Traditionally, he says, colleges have rewarded senior professors by allowing them to teach specialty courses to upperclassmen. “I certainly don’t see myself taking on that kind of role if it’s offered to me,” he says. He wants to teach incoming students, to show them the richness of journalism and maybe form a mentorship that carries a student for life. He gets involved in recruiting efforts for his department and the university — basically taking on a role to sell his institution.
“We need to get involved, because we don’t have the luxury of just thinking of ourselves as professors and mentors within our own discipline,” he says. “In some ways, we have to have a little bit more hustle than we used to.”
Another plea for Twitter followers from this week’s guest columnist: Thanks so much to those of you who followed @Carlsonics after reading my column last week. I’m still far behind @GoldieStandard‘s 10,000 followers (or 10.2K followers, as Goldie oh-so-politely corrected me last week), but as one follower said, I hope to give her “a run for her Twitter.” Now I just have to think of clever things to tweet on a regular basis …