Sputtering Program Promises to Be One of the Best

“Hunter is in an enviable position compared to most journalism programs. Its location in New York, its access to ambitious students, and its excellent faculty have enabled it to come very far already. With strong leadership, greater pedagogical definition, and additional resources, it has the chance to become one of the best undergraduate journalism programs in the country.”

That comment is taken from a report by a journalism review committee of the Middles States Commission on Higher Education that reviewed the journalism initiative in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Hunter. Most students are unaware of the process of accreditation that evaluates how well colleges and universities do the right thing. That’s understandable. Serious students have enough on their minds. However, this is an important matter for Hunter students serious about journalism and those serious about careers in communications (because, as everyone should notice, journalism can be found in all spheres of communication).

I was suppose to have written by now several blogs, including one about the IPPIES of the Independent Press Association of New York and one about the demise of the WORD-print, which had a loose affiliation with Hunter WORD that I edit and publish. Lots of things got in the way and just as I was about to resume writing (some would say NOTHING SHOULD EVER GET IN THE WAY OF WRITING), the report by the journalism review committee became finally available to my department, the Department of Film and Media Studies.

F/M’s journalism initiative has been sputtering erratically for several years. Here is the irony of F/M: A number of students have over the years garnered the best internships and journalism awards in the country, yet, a number of really good students have faltered when they should have been succeeding. I blame the department; F/M says no way. The administration has said that things could be significantly better for students and that the department should do more. F/M has shuffled and faltered and fumbled. Why is that? Well, it’s not important here to describe the ins-and-outs of why department politics bore students but it’s important that students know big changes are in the works even if they don’t know all the details and, of course, the politics. But it’s frustrating to me as an instructor that all the creativity flows down from the top and all the grungy resistance rises from the bottom.

The committee report isn’t a blueprint. It’s an outside observation to provide material for a blueprint. Consider it RAW data. And, without much ado, I am posting the report below. Future blogs, either on this site or another that I am developing, will go into the dynamics of journalism education. But for now, students can get an idea on what will be evolving in F/M.

The Report

General Observations Professors Robert Boynton and Chris Martin spent two days this past June at Hunter’s Department of Film and Media Studies evaluating the status of the department’s journalism component. Overall, we were very impressed, both by the enthusiasm and caliber of the students, and the dedication and passion of the professors. Although journalism doesn’t currently have an official status within the department, most of the elements one associates with a thriving program – student publications, solid reading and writing courses, career advancing internships, project-based classes – seem to have developed organically.

As Hunter considers the question of how best to organize its journalism offerings – whether through a program within the existing department, a new department, a joint program with another department –it must confront the fact that, regardless of which path it chooses, it needs a strong, visionary leader in its early years, a kind of maestro who can manage and orchestrate the disparate resources and personnel required to craft, implement and maintain the program. We don’t believe that journalism needs departmental status and that a better-defined program within the existing department would be the best outcome. It is essential that whomever is assigned this role, he or she must be given chair-like authority to implement the changes required to improve the program.

Therefore, the bulk of our recommendations have to do with specific ways the emerging program can augment its offerings and shape its identity as an independent track. In general, we believe the program is well-positioned for the future and, with further investment from the university, could become one of the premier undergraduate journalism programs in the country.

This is obviously a desirable, but with such a program will come a new stream of students and an increase in the size of the track. No good deed goes unpunished, and the inevitable result of journalism’s higher visibility will be demands on the faculty and facilities. We don’t see this as an obstacle to improving the department’s journalism offerings but simply something to keep in mind.

Specific Recommendations. We were extremely impressed by the direction of the department’s project-based curriculum and believe it will help integrate the existing array of mediums – print, radio, video, web –far better than any formalized course additions. The goal of a project-based curriculum is less to teach students to master particular technologies via traditional classes than it is to familiarize them with the various ways each medium helps or hinders their ability to report the news and tells stories about the world around them. The department should never offer courses entitled “Introduction to Podcasting, Advanced Blogging, or Intermediate Video.”

These skills are important, of course, but they should be inculcated via subject – or genre-based courses in which students produce high quality, public work. How, then, does a student acquire such skills? We recommend that the department sponsor a variety of technical clinics — during intersession, over the summer, at opportune periods during the semester – during which students receive a crash course in using equipment. Then, during 15-week courses, they work with their professors on journalistic projects involving one or several of the new media forms.

For instance, all Hunter-s publications could have links to video and audio reports, much as The Hunts Point Express already does. All of these would be web-based. Not every class need produce its own independent publication, but virtually all classes should be oriented toward placing select student work in a number of existing and new publications.

Publication Requirement. In order to enhance the strength and increase the frequency of student publications, we suggest a publication requirement that every journalism student meet in order to receive his/her degree. The requirement wouldn’t specify the number, length and genres of published pieces. Rather, it would require that every student become involved in at least one of Hunte’s myriad publications (many run by project-based courses). Requiring a series of radio pieces or articles will strengthen existing student publications, encourage students and faculty to create new ones (whether class-based or not), and help students to produce portfolios for career placement.

Editorial Budget. Another way to improve the quality and frequency of student publications is to create a tangible incentive for writers and editors.

This might be done by granting the editor of each publication tuition discounts (whether via outright monetary grants or tuition points), and by giving writers a token payment for each story published. Nobody would get rich from such an arrangement, but it would be a way to underscore the importance of producing excellent work. At NYU, for instance, the editor of the Washington Square News receives a semester’s worth of tuition for his or her work. Since instating this policy, the paper’s quality has improved significantly, evidenced by the fact that it has won several national college newspaper awards.

Advertising Revenue. One way to defray the cost of this initiative would be to sell advertisements in the various (improved) publications. A single, dedicated professional salesperson could sell ads across the publications, producing an independent revenue stream.

Webmaster. The combination of a publication requirement and an increase in the number of project-based classes will require that the journalism program have a dedicated technical administrator – a webmaster — to service the multimedia needs of these projects. Whether involving the creation of publication websites, podcasts, streaming video or blogs, these project-based classes require the constant attention and presence of someone who can maintain and integrate them. Hiring such a person is a very high priority.

Equipment. In the future, journalism students will need more equipment than they do today as well as greater access to it. Again, each student will not be required to master each medium. But every journalist is going to need access to audio recorders and video cameras, in addition to the laptops many already have. The journalism program will need more investment in editing and production software. Given that Hunter is a public college and its students often might not have the resources for such equipment, we suggest finding private funding and looking into other fee remedies and incentives to allow students access to equipment at a reasonable cost, of course.

The good news is that the cost of equipment is plummeting: a reasonable video report can be shot on a $350 camera, its sound recorded by a $75 microphone and edited on a computer with a $250-software package. The existing facilities that film students currently use to edit their work –a room of Macs, connected to a common hard drive – will probably need to be duplicated for journalism students. A number of manufacturers that have donated equipment to several journalism departments in the recent past – the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Medill of Northwestern University – might do so for Hunter.

Journalism Track. Aside from equipment and publications, Hunter needs to establish a clearly-defined journalism program that capitalizes on the breadth, depth and scope of the multi-disciplinary department in which it resides. It must establish a clearer sequence of courses, with clearly defined introductory, intermediate and advanced classes. The advanced classes should entail some kind of a capstone piece, which, along with the new magazines and projects, would aid each student in fulfilling his/her publication requirement. We urge the department to re-examine the definition and content of current courses and review the effectiveness of generic courses. As it stands, the sequence doesn’t seem to build toward anything.

We recommend greater transparency in course offerings – syllabi should be posted online, course descriptions should be more than cursory. We found the department websiteæs presentation of journalism courses extremely confusing – a problem which we now under stand reflects confusion about the place of journalism within the department. The journalism program should have its own website in order to showcase its course offerings and its student publications.

Finally, we suggest that the department explore ways for it to use the new resources at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Perhaps the journalism track could be part of a five-year program, ending with a joint BA/MA? If a student were guaranteed admission to graduate school upon entering Hunter, he could be steered toward a greater number of liberal arts courses, without having to worry about mastering journalism immediately.

Conclusions Hunter is in an enviable position compared to most journalism programs. Its location in New York, its access to ambitious students, and its excellent faculty have enabled it to come very far already. With strong leadership, greater pedagogical definition, and additional resources, it has the chance to become one of the best undergraduate journalism programs in the country.

This report was edited for style.


One Response to “Sputtering Program Promises to Be One of the Best”

  1. Daniel Allen says:

    Glad to see this online. The recommendations are sober and, as far as I can tell from taking at least fifteen credits of journalism courses, doable. While I definitely agree with a journalism track within the major, but I just can’t envision Hunter F&M being progressive enough to offer tuition remission for editors. (NYU has an endowment large enough to make things like this happen.) The report does not mention, however, the attitude of certain professors towards their students. I have encountered professors in the F&M department who A) Treated teaching as a chore and students as a burden B) Scolded students for asking for a crash course in Final Cut Pro instead of offering constructive advice C) Relied excessively on T.A.s to teach their class. But for every bad experience, I’ve had 100 positive ones. The hope for the department lies in the hands of those professors and staff members who really love their job and stay loyal to students. I graduate next semester, so any transitions will have to be left to the next generation of students. Two nights ago, I covered an event where noses were turned up when we were outed as Hunter J-students. Three Columbia J-students, however, got everything they asked for. Perhaps if the department acknowledged the need to improve, maybe it would have been the Hunter students who scooped the competition.