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A New Branded Journalism

Medill is retooling the way it teaches the trade, to the dismay of faculty and students.

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Journalists have always told tales. Aspiring reporters wish to learn how to fashion truth into compelling narrative. But something's happened. The industry's shattering, the public is turning away from mainstream media, and today's young journalists feel under intense pressure to become Scheherazades, to cling to their fickle audience by any means necessary because failure will cost them their lives.

The other day I asked a senior faculty member of the Medill School of Journalism about changes there, and was surprised to hear this professor tell me, clearly fearful, "I don't think I can talk to you. I'm sorry. I'm not tenured." Journalists don't usually talk that way--if they don't like the way their place is operating they say so, on or off the record. And senior professors don't usually talk that way because they have tenure and can be fearless. But at Medill, professors of journalism are not only angry but frightened, and few are protected by tenure. Most are under contract, hired for a certain number of years to teach their trade.

In addition to journalism as most of us understand it there's a second component to Medill: its groundbreaking Integrated Marketing Communications program. Its goal is to turn out graduates drilled in advertising, PR, and marketing techniques "who understand the changing marketplace and who can implement a customer-focused approach." The IMC is interdisciplinary, cutting-edge, and futuristic, and most of its professors are tenured.

John Lavine, the founding director of Medill's profit-making Media Management Center, was named dean of Medill in late 2005 with instructions to turn the school upside down. The IMC curriculum had already been overhauled, and Lavine has left it pretty much alone. But the journalism side is being rewritten in a way that's made a lot of the faculty feel disdained, as if Lavine thinks their heads are in the past and his is in the future.

Medill's home page is evidence of the disconnect. It now introduces the school in the kind of pretentious gibberish old-fashioned journalists despise: "ENGAGING the AUDIENCE with relevant, differentiated storytelling & messages." Stronger evidence is a resolution passed a month ago by Northwestern's General Faculty Committee condemning Medill for its "violation of faculty governance . . . in violation of the University's Statutes" and predicting "damage to the national reputation of the School." You'll find a more in-depth discussion of that resolution in a June 22 post on my Reader blog; the comments that follow it, most from Medill students and graduates, convey the rising tide of discontent.

"Relevant, differentiated storytelling" is jargon Lavine originally unveiled in "Medill 2020," a document he produced soon after taking over that the Columbia Journalism Review, in an article on Medill last summer, described as a "carefully worded and sometimes inscrutable manifesto . . . attempting to show where the fields of marketing and journalism overlap." Old-fashioned journalists will concede they inevitably overlap, and argue the function of a journalistic education isn't to learn how to take marketing into account but to learn how not to.

Jargon bugs the faculty. It's an easy-to-kvetch-at emblem of philosophical differences. Consider, as a prime example, changes in the Medill News Service, the graduate program based in the Loop that's given students a chance to work beats and publish stories in client newspapers like the Daily Herald and Daily Southtown. Mindy Trossman, the professor who cofounded the program in 1995 and has run it ever since, has been recalled to Evanston, and the beat system has been discarded. It's no longer about "institutional coverage," as Mary Nesbitt, the associate dean for curriculum, describes it. She says young reporters won't be based in City Hall and the county courts--they'll drop in, covering them as part of some bigger picture that will "really connect with readers."

But what about nuts and bolts? What about showing up at City Hall every day and slowly getting the hang of it, as the pols behind the important desks get to know and trust you? A lot of teachers and grads say this is what Medill students need lessons in--simple tradecraft.

Nesbitt makes the point that the ten or so weeks that students are assigned to the news service is too short a time for them to master any beat, "so you have to weigh what's the greater advantage. I had this discussion the other day with a student about City Hall. He was making the case that insinuating himself around City Hall will be extremely beneficial. And I said, 'Perhaps, but think of what you could do if you could insinuate yourself into community groups, networks of other sorts that could give you leads and insights you could never get talking to politicians and bureaucrats. There's more than one way to skin this cat.'"

Nesbitt probably has a point. But then we get back to nomenclature. Product from both the Chicago and D.C. bureaus of the Medill News Service is now identified on the Medill Web site as Medill Reports. The name was already in use to identify the weekly news show produced by broadcasting students. Nesbitt likes the repetition. She wants to get away from the "news service" tag altogether.

"We've been kind of casting around for something that gives the same idea, that doesn't have the trappings, the baggage of the old 'news service' idea," she tried to explain to me.

Baggage?

"I think 'news service' in the working newsrooms in the industry can have a pejorative aspect to it. It also has the notion of 'We push it out to you.' And news consumers are now able to pull news in from a variety of different sources. And we want to be one of them."

I didn't see the problem.

"We still refer to it as 'news service,'" she said. But "I've gone through all kinds of discussions and brainstorming about a better name that's more active and more, sort of, expressed the richness of what it is our students are actually doing.

"It may be we're talking about branding. It's not just what you do but how you communicate what you do. The marketplace is so crowded with brands that you need a robust, consistent one that has meaning for whoever it is you're trying to reach."

I'm sure of one thing: there are a lot of teachers at Medill who don't mind if their students learn the hard truth about branding, but they don't want to have anything to do with teaching it.

Questioning Woodward's Ethics

William Gaines hasn't let go of Deep Throat. A Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter for the Tribune (twice) and now a journalism professor at the University of Illinois, Gaines set out in 1999 to figure out the identity of Bob Woodward's Watergate supersource. In 2003 Gaines and a team of student investigators announced that Deep Throat was Fred Fielding, a White House attorney under President Nixon. Two years later Vanity Fair reported and Woodward then admitted that it was actually Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI.

Gaines told me in 2005 that his investigation went wrong because Woodward and Carl Bernstein had planted false clues in the book that introduced Deep Throat, All the President's Men. Gaines said he approved of the deception--he'd felt previously that the two authors described Deep Throat a little indiscreetly. Now Gaines has more to say, and it's not as generous. He and Max Holland, who operates the online newsletter "Washington DeCoded," have joined to publish "Deep Throat 3.0," a long critique of the Felt-Woodward relationship. Gaines contributes the argument that Deep Throat, described in All the President's Men as someone who did no more than confirm or deny leads the Washington Post reporters had independently developed, was actually central to the paper's Watergate coverage. "It's fair to say," says the critique, "that but for Deep Throat, in 1972 the Post would have been just another groping member of the press pack rather than its crucial, and mostly solo, leader." Holland provides the argument that Felt was treated more cavalierly over the years than Woodward has ever acknowledged. "At several pivotal moments," the article says, "Woodward amended the terms of the 'deep background' agreement to suit his, Bernstein's, or the Post's best interests, but not necessarily Felt's." The prime example of this is the authors' decision, while writing All the President's Men, to reveal that a source such as Deep Throat existed at all.

If you're interested in a closely observed analysis of one of the most mythologized chapters in the history of American journalism, the Gaines-Holland study (posted at washingtondecoded.com) is worth your time. But Holland tells me a lot of editors didn't see it that way. June 17 was the 35th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and Holland says he and Gaines sent their piece well in advance to media critics at the nation's top newspapers and print and online magazines. "Nada in all cases," he wrote in an e-mail. "I think it was consciously ignored by people . . . who have written column after column about the Deep Throat parlor game in years past yet somehow didn't think that serious questions about, for example, Woodward's ethics over the years merited any attention."

Gaines's study of the Post's Watergate coverage led him to conclude that the Post got a lot wrong--as newspapers often do with big developing stories. He says the Post would quietly correct its mistakes without ever acknowledging it had made them, and he doesn't think that's proper. As we traded e-mails, I asked Gaines if he felt he had a score to settle with Woodward for the egg on his face when Deep Throat turned out to be Felt, not Fielding. Not much of one, he replied.

Gaines, who's retiring in August, just published a new textbook on investigative reporting that doesn't spend much time on Watergate, and he told me he got as even as he wanted to get "by revealing that while Woodward is shown making many phone calls to try to connect Howard Hunt to the White House, if he had looked in Who's Who in America he would have found him there listed as a White House consultant."

For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Lavin; Mary Nesbitt photo by Robert Drea.

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