John Lavine is stepping down as Medill dean at the end of the school year. I asked two Medill alums — both had issues with deans during their years at Northwestern — what qualities they thought the next dean of Northwestern’s journalism school should have. My thanks to David Spett and Sam Eifling for their contributions.
Four years ago, David Spett made national headlines after questioning Lavine’s quotes in the alumni magazine. “One quote, attributed to a student in a 29-person class, contained unnatural-sounding phrases like ‘I sure felt good’ and ‘truth-telling in journalism,’” wrote Spett. “I contacted all 29 students, read them the quote and asked whether they had said it.” They all said no.
Spett now works at the Center for American Progress.
BY DAVID SPETT
The opportunities arising from the changing media landscape and the distress over print publications in financial turmoil have justifiably brought substantial change to Medill.
But in embracing and coping with these challenges, the school lost touch with the basics. There are some amazing faculty members, but also some poor ones, particularly in the core courses. Certain programs and offices are well-run; others lag. In my time there from 2004 to 2008, I found the administration frequently ineffective, at times even incompetent.
So the next dean must be an efficient, effective administrator, one with the vision to plot a future for Medill and the courage to make personnel decisions that will create a more competent faculty and ensure smoother functioning of the school.
Medill’s name change confuses me, since I consider journalism and marketing to be opposites of one another. But as long as Medill is a journalism school, it also needs a dean who understands and is familiar with the craft of journalism. He or she should be forward thinking, open to innovation, keenly adept with technology and new media, and uniquely thoughtful on the journalism industry’s evolution. Such a dean would realize that journalism’s tenets are the same as ever: New technology influences the way people get information, and yes, it demands certain changes in journalism education. But it does not fundamentally change the craft.
My advice to those involved in the search for a new dean? Look for someone who won’t forget the basics.
During the 2001 Medill graduation ceremonies, Dean Ken Bode read an email from one of his critics, student Sam Eifling. “The ceremony’s mood took an awkward, almost hostile tone,” the Daily Northwestern reported. Eifling was one of nine graduates who refused to shake Bode’s hand when they accepted their diplomas.
Eifling is finishing a master’s program in journalism at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver,
BY SAM EIFLING
In any economic system, the profits shrink as the barriers to entry approach zero. Journalism knows this better than anyone. Websites are a nickel per half-dozen, photostreams radiate from every iPhone, and Twitter feeds are like opinions are like assholes — everybody has one. For a j-school to demonstrate its worth to students, it cannot throw them into the same pool with the hordes of mom’s-basement netizens. I like some of the measures Medill took in the 10 years after I graduated. More students study abroad now, and experience in Doha, for one, benefits greatly from institutional leverage. But the school still has to add value to a craft that has been steadily devalued since Craigslist hit the industry like a plague of locusts. Young journalists have been encouraged to fill this value void by building our own personal brands, presumably without sounding like self-absorbed twerps as we do so. But we can’t compensate for an industry that won’t fund its product, and more than self-promoting, we need to be shown where the resources are and how to use them.
Many alumni felt our guts lurch during the school’s renaming, some foofarah around dropping the words “integrated marketing” into the title. The whole point of going through journalism school and getting a reporting job and fighting the formerly good fight is to avoid a life of spreadsheets and market surveys and optimized workflows and all the other petty scrapping that most jobs involve. Journalism done right shouldn’t be mistaken in any form for clerical clock-killing. It should marry joie de vivre with rat cunning and an indefatigable sense of justice. The only reason journalism workplaces can survive as so legendarily inhumane is that the craft itself is still, for its warts, kind of a blast. A marketer’s worst fear is being poor or ignored; a journalist’s is simply being bored.
When I met Dean Lavine last year at my 10-year reunion, I pressed him on this question of how a journalism school can survive as such if it’s intertwined with marketing. He replied that all media are, in a sense, marketing themselves. Would you rather your story be read by few people, or by many? This realpolitik stance works only to a point. Journalists know the dance, nudging your work into the world without being seen to call too much attention to it, writing the cover letter that stops shy of saying you should get the job. Preferably, an advocate (an editor, a colleague) takes up that mantle for us. Preferably, at a school, the faculty does that on behalf of the students.
I like to say that the best editors shield their reporters from the pressure of putting out the paper, allowing the reporter to focus on writing. This is what an ideal journalism school dean does. The dean digs for resources to fund overseas programs and technology labs and the like (Helen Gurley Brown’s gargantuan gift toward media innovation at Stanford and Columbia proves that a few folks still pay for media these days). The dean looks ahead to the emerging areas in the field and makes interdisciplinary connections. The dean fosters a sense of media entrepreneurship over a sense of relentless marketing. The dean hires faculty who can teach, above all, the killer apps of journalism: reading, writing, reporting, editing. Then the dean allows those faculty to focus on the students. My contretemps with Ken Bode, the dean during my undergraduate days, stemmed foremost from his persistent disregard for faculty and students who I happened to think represented the best of Medill. He chose to make a private disagreement we had very public, and in so doing displayed a level of self-regard that reflected badly on the school and the craft. Egos are inevitable in a business that puts its practitioners’ names in print and on Chyrons. But squabbling is the last resort of the marginalized.
The school could do more to pull students — hell, the whole craft — out of a petty frame of thinking. Whether it would be possible within the university or not, I’d like to see Medill move its core classes to a pass/fail grading system. Allow students to take chances and screw up with aplomb. A young journalist who doesn’t make mistakes is one who’s not really trying. Charitably we might say the same for Medill’s recent deans.