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Essay: Embed Serious Journalists Inside Universities

Now that 2009 is drawing to a close, somebody or another will probably soon issue a list of the key words of this decade. When they do, I hope they include "embed" on that list.

Certainly, the concept of "embedded journalists" within the U.S. military during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 warrants its inclusion.

in addition, the concept of embedding media workers within other institutions is gaining some urgency given the waves of layoffs that have crippled traditional media sectors like newspapers over the past several years.

Now, in an essay in this month's Chronicle of Higher Education, veteran reporter and author G. Pascal Zachary lays out the case for "Embedding Journalists in Academe."

Zachary, currently a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information, reported for The Wall Street Journal here and overseas, for many years, and authored Showstopper! The Breakneck race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft in 1994.
In his latest essay, Zachary duly notes the "severe distress" traditional publishers are feeling these days, and then considers whether universities might be able to "rescue ailing newspapers."

Here are a few highlights from his provocative piece:

  • "Few people believe any longer that serious news gathering and intelligent reflection on contemporary affairs can be commercially viable."
  • "Might the academy pick up where (and when) corporate ownership of newspapers ends?"
  • "Rigorous academic departments, whether in physics, chemistry, psychology, or economics, can provide [good] homes for journalism's refugees."
  • "News-media consumers need help in making sense of the world, especially of technical or complex issues..."
  • "Universities, because they are the foremost repositories of expertise, are the ideal place for explanatory journalists to take refuge."
  • "Embedding journalists in academe will require adjustments on both sides. Academics will have to suspend their prejudice that even the best journalists are little more than inspired amateurs."
  • "For journalists to thrive in academe, they must raise their commitment to explaining how the world works and how things might work differently."
I'm not sure whether I agree with all of these points, exactly, but they are thoughtful and they reflect the growing interest on the part of some philanthropists to bring journalism and high education institutions closer together.

In my 20 years or so experience teaching journalism in various universities, I rarely encountered an environment there that actually encouraged the pursuit of serious journalism outside of a few pragmatic-oriented courses, many of which I -- as an experienced journalist -- was tasked with teaching.

But, the larger context here no doubt is that without a new home, many veteran journalists are headed for the scrap heap of a business model in transition, and that could prove to be a societal tragedy..

Related Bnet Media Post:
The Rise of the Non-Profit News Model "There have been a lot of creative efforts to re-energize serious journalism lately, especially from the non-profit perspective, with the latest being a $5 million grant from a local philanthropist to set up a new Bay Area news bureau in San Francisco..."

(Disclosure: Gregg Zachary is a friend and a journalist I deeply respect.)

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