Today’s journalism students must understand media policy and business

I began my previous post with a story about my first, feeble attempt to discuss net neutrality in Journalism 24/7, my course on the changing news industry,  planning to segue into a response to Nick Lemann’s recent “Dean’s Letter” in a Columbia J-school alumni publication. Lemann’s letter addressed the importance of teaching journalism students about media policy, but I never got to it. Instead, I wrote about how that teaching blooper (what students might call an epic fail) taught me an important lesson about pedagogy, one I’ve used to great advantage in the years since.

And now to Lemann’s letter. Lemann, Columbia’s dean since 2003, writes that his attitude toward teaching students about media policy has evolved. His letter begins: “For most of my life as a journalist, I was blissfully, even willfully, ignorant about media policy.” But, he continues,

…I’ve changed my mind. Part of the reason is that being a journalism dean relentlessly focuses one’s mind on the context in which the profession operates – and that includes laws, regulations, and other matters outside the realm of circumstances at a single news organization. Another part is that, because of the Internet’s enormous effect on journalism, media policy – broadcast regulation, First Amendment law, copyright, net neutrality, and so on – is being significantly reshaped right now.

… It’s important not only that we engage with the outside forces that affect our ability to practice our profession, but also that we impress on our students how important these issues are.

It’s no longer enough to teach journalism students how to report, write, shoot, photos and video, edit in all media and post online … we also have to teach them about the context in which journalism finds itself these days. That means understanding not only media policy, as Lemann correctly observes, but also how business works. The most powerful journalistic institutions are owned by corporations, from large to huge, many publicly owned, all seeking favorable regulation and tax treatment. We can’t allow students to graduate without an introduction to how the business works.

Students — like many professional journalists — may be “blissfully, even willfully ignorant” about business.  I attribute this willful ignorance to a fear of fractions (and of math generally) and to the mistaken notion that business news is about companies, not about people. The best business stories are always about people — about the pressures on them, about the choices they make, about how their personalities and experiences shape their decisions.

I spend nearly three weeks during the first half of Journalism 24/7 introducing students to the business world. I begin with a glossary of business terms such as asset, liability, IPO, stock option, market capitalization, vertical integration, horizontal integration, shareholder value and private equity. I take them through the process of starting a company, taking out loans, going public, merging, offering key employees stock options – and explain how newspaper companies went through all these steps, living fat and happy as publicly traded media conglomerates until the Internet punctured their business models. We look at the Knight Ridder-McClatchy deal, the Dow Jones-News Corp. deal and how The New York Times has protected itself with a two-tiered stock structure and the active involvement of Ochs and Sulzberger descendants. We go into detail on the histories of Times Mirror and Tribune Co., including, of course, the bizarre overreaching of the Zell deal and the company’s subsequent bankruptcy. Students write corporate histories of news companies, focusing on the evolution of the companies’ business strategies over time.

This is valuable stuff. When I graduated from Columbia j-school in 1983, my classmates and I didn’t think much about who owned the newspapers and televisions stations we were begging for jobs. I want my students to have a clearer sense of the minefields they may be walking into. I want them to know how to study up on the owners of the organizations that might hire them.

Later in the semester, we spend a couple of weeks on media policy, discussing the role and structure of the Federal Communications Commission and how Congress and the courts get involved. We look at ownership issues — concentration and cross-ownership in particular. And we discuss net neutrality and why it matters – now that I know what it is.

    • Paige Eastwood
    • March 28th, 2011

    Net Neutrality has come to haunt me. Even as a Masters student, I am writing my own policy paper on Net Neutrality. Because of your class, I actually know what it is.

    Being a j-student minor is always nice.

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