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What Is A Social Journalism Degree? CUNY Is Trying to Answer That Question

CMC-CUNY-Logo3In the endless discussion on the value of a journalism degree, the question, “Are we teaching young journalists the right things the right ways?” always seems to surface. And as the digital revolution rolls on, creating curriculum that will be newsroom-relevant by the time students finish their degrees becomes complicated.

But the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism has a fresh new idea for teaching journalism in their new degree plan — an MA in Social Journalism. As media blogger and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis wrote over at Medium, the degree is based on the idea that journalism shouldn’t be about providing content; it should be about providing a service. (He has been developing this concept for a while; he first introduced it on his blog BuzzMachine).

On top of CUNY’s core MA in Journalism and MA in Entrepreneurial Journalism tracks, the degree plan, if approved by the university and the state of New York, would teach students how to tap into a community’s heartbeat, movers and shakers and produce reporting and content based on what they learn.

“The first skill we will teach in this new program is listening to a community, hearing and discerning its needs and then thinking about how best to help it meet those needs,” Jarvis said. The MA in social journalism would require that students learn how to share data in a meaningful way, and possibly prepare students to connect readers together.

Jarvis noted in his essay that publishers creating contributor networks doesn’t count as social journalism because the focus is still primarily on the content first, not the audience.

How will students know if they’ve been successful in the three-term curriculum plan? Wrote Jarvis, impact shouldn’t be measured by page views or social media sharing numbers but rather the reporter’s ability to take seriously the concerns of a community and see those members meet their goals.

“Yes, it’s about engagement but not engagement with us but instead about a community’s engagement with its own work. It’s about results, outcomes, impact,” he said.

The program would include two courses just centered around listening to the community you’re covering and working ethically with them, plus two journalism, data and tools courses per student. Finally, there would be a practicum project where students’ overall knowledge of social journalism would be put to the test.

I like Jarvis’ idea behind this. I’m totally on board with treating journalism like social work because in a lot of senses, especially in hyperlocal reporting, that’s essentially what it is. As someone who has worked for a digital local newspaper, I know firsthand the difficulties of coming into a new community and trying to quickly capture its essence. It’s even harder if you’re covering multiple cities at the same time to figure out what exactly your readers want to see out of your journalism and ultimately what it helps that community accomplish. On top of all that, much of my role did involve connecting residents together, or communicating goals of the community back to government and school board officials I was interviewing. It’s a bear. So, I think CUNY would be onto something with this degree plan.

That said, I’m struggling to see how this particular area of study would require three terms of coursework. One semester — even two — I can see, but they may have trouble recruiting for three. And, I’ll be curious to see how they advertise the program to graduate recruits in a way that’s succinct and appealing.

What do you think about a social journalism masters degree? Necessary? What would you rather study?

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