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Schools for Scribblers

Newspapers dwindle, but journalism graduates keep coming.

12:00 AM, May 26, 2006 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Amazingly enough, some J-schools are recognizing this problem and trying to adapt. In May 2005, the Carnegie Corp. and the Knight Foundation partnered with five journalism grad programs (Columbia, Northwestern, UC-Berkeley, USC and Harvard) to launch a $6 million initiative to bring more academics to J-school curriculums. The goal was to get subject-matter instructors from other parts of the university--say, economics professors--and have them teach lessons in their areas to J-school students. The initiative, spearheaded by Carnegie President Vartan Gregorian, has been so well received that last March four more schools signed up.

Columbia's journalism school has embraced this notion so whole-heartedly that it established an alternate degree, a Master of Arts, in which students select a concentration in one of four disciplines: Politics, Arts & Culture, Business & Economics or Science. "We do the craft, or skills, in house," explains Columbia J-school Dean Nicholas Lemann of the new program, "and we contract out, or outsource, the substance to other units in the university."

It seems likely that other graduate programs will follow this lead and that the new emphasis on facts-over-process will eventually filter down to undergraduate programs, too. But why go to journalism school to read, say, David Hume and Adam Smith? Why not just take philosophy and macroeconomics in the standard liberal-arts programs and, with less effort and expense, pick up a course or two (at most) in how to interview a "source"?

Even there, innovation is on move. Last January, Steve and Cynthia Brill pledged $1 million to Yale to fund a program to train undergraduates who aspire to journalism. Mr. Brill, who bristles at journalism studies, wants to keep students pursuing academic majors. Instead, his program will bring a journalism career counselor to campus and a visiting journalist to teach a seminar once a semester. It's the best idea yet.

If America's universities were providing students with adequate academic instruction, instead of pumping out degrees in pseudosubjects like "communications," then J-schools wouldn't need to adapt at all. They could simply shut down.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard and a weekly op-ed contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer. This essay originally appeared in the May 19, 2006 edition of the Wall Street Journal.