Geneva Overholser: Defining the university’s role in the changing news ecology

USC Annenberg Journalism School Director updates “Manifesto for Change” and applies it to journalism education

By Gretchen Parker

As journalism undergoes a modern metamorphosis, journalism education must transform with it. Geneva Overholser, director of the Journalism School at USC Annenberg, is tasked with making sure students learn the skills they need to lead the paradigm shift.

That requires not only overseeing the daily workings of the Journalism School. It requires stepping back and taking a broad view of the academy’s role – not just in education, but in the community as well.

With that objective, Overholser recently used her widely read report – “On Behalf of Journalism:  A Manifesto for Change,” first published in June 2006 – to frame a new view of journalism education. She released her updated paper: “Applying the ‘Manifesto for Change’ to Journalism Education” at this summer’s World Journalism Education Congress in Grahamstown, South Africa.

A synopsis was just published online at PBS MediaShift.

The nine propositions of “Manifesto for Change” have served as guideposts for Overholser since she first drafted them after discussions with scholars, journalists and a year of individual research. In the updated paper, she applies them to journalism education and uses them as touchstones to gauge the movement and future direction of journalism education.

 Three themes emerged: The role of journalism schools as providers of news; the potential for journalism schools to be the laboratories for new economic models; and the responsibility of journalism educators to guide readers’ news literacy (helping them discern and shape credibility in their news environment).

In this edited Q&A, Overholser reflects on the goals and conclusions of the updated “Manifesto.”

Q: Of all the changes in the journalism world, since your original paper, what stands out?

A: Journalism school as an example of the growing importance of the nonprofits’ role in providing information in the public interest. Journalism schools have always done some journalism. Missouri, for example, did a lot of journalism, always, for years. But mostly it was really kind of an exercise that was sometimes useful for the public – but usually not widely seen. But now we at Annenberg we’re doing all kinds of journalism, and it’s very much making a difference in the media ecology here in Los Angeles.

Q: Universities have to figure out where they stand, as they take on this larger role?

A: It’s true. Our students – the journalists who are doing this work – sometimes become worried because they get letters from people saying, ‘Well, I’m going to call the provost!’  It’s unsettling to them. And I say to them, “You should assume that you can report and write exactly what you find out.“ And yet, when I speak to the powers that be, I also need to acknowledge that they face pressures that are somewhat different in a university. We have an educational role to play in teaching independence in journalism, while the university balances other interests – fiduciary interests, community relations, privacy interests.

Q: It seems simple on its face, that journalism schools are making more journalism. But it brings up complicated questions?

A: Yes. What does it mean about teaching journalism students? We must give them room to try and fail. We have to protect the pedagogical responsibilities of the university. And how much do you have an effect on other legacy news institutions? What happened in the Bay area was all the news institutions got mad, and who can blame them? Who are all these free laborers coming in, like scabs, from the journalism schools, they asked. Are we taking jobs away from these other people, or are we in fact filling information needs that aren’t being filled, because those jobs already have been siphoned away by the economic challenges? And the experience of the student has to be considered. He or she benefits, of course, by getting great clips or video or audio because they’re really out there doing important work or because they’re in the LA Times – but on the other hand are we requiring them to work for free? There are so many questions.

Q: What are the other main threads in your paper?

A: We are going to play an important part, too, in exploring the citizen’s role – in news literacy – and the search for economic models.

Q: Can you say more about the part universities play in exploring the citizen’s role?

A: The relationship between news and consumer has been redefined. And because of the fall of the barriers to publication, the public has a totally different relationship with the news. It has a different expectation about its role. So that is huge. If anything, that’s the fundamental change. We’re not the monopolies we were in the old media, so the top-down approach doesn’t work. And so now it’s all about so many new questions. We have to figure out how to pay for the creation of content. How are we going to tap the wisdom of the crowds? How are we going to continue to matter to the people who can create their own media? We must consider the role of legacy media, because I do believe most people fundamentally believe that we have to have some credible sources of original news.  And as a university, we should be a font of teaching about news literacy to our campus and to our community.

Q: How important is news literacy?

A: As we move forward, it’s going to be more and more crucial that citizens make choices about what they consume, because that is going to be the determinant of what survives. If people want to be well-informed, they can be now, better than ever. Or they can be completely overwhelmed with the media equivalent of junk food. So news literacy becomes extremely important if we’re going to continue to have an informed citizenry. I hope if they’re news literate they’ll be making good choices about what they write and link to and share as well as what they consume. I don’t mean I expect everyone to just be eating spinach. But people want to know what’s credible.

Q: Beyond journalism schools being providers of news and having a news literacy purpose, you also explore how the academy should be a laboratory for new economic models for news.

A:  Yes. We have to move away from the old idea of – all we do is teach people how to go forth and do journalism, and the rest of it is just sort of set up out there, ready for them, an existing business model. Well, none of that is to be relied upon as the only thing journalists will do now. And indeed, we can’t have a whole lot of confidence right now – I do have faith and hope – but we can’t have a lot of confidence right now that we know exactly how content is going to be paid for. Shouldn’t we be putting the best minds in journalism onto the question of how we’re going to sustain it?  Our journalists need to be thinking entrepreneurially, they need to be innovating, taking risks, trying and failing and trying again.

Q: What did the original manifesto accomplish?

A: I’ve been blessed to see occasionally that the original manifesto has helped some people think about ways to look at what was happening with more detachment and less constant anguish. All of us at the media industry looked at this so long as something we had to stop. And it was not stoppable. Looking at it as – let’s pick strains of this and look at what they mean – it helped me, and I hope it helped other people move beyond the lament and to a more thoughtful consideration of the possibilities of the future. That was always my goal. Let’s open our minds. Let’s quit clinging to the past. Let’s think about the realities and what might they mean, and then we could act on them instead of trying to push against them. Which wasn’t working, if we noticed.

Q: And thinking about the future is what universities should be about.

A: Precisely. But really journalism schools were never about that for journalism. I shouldn’t say never – there were people who did thoughtful research. But most of it was looking in a rearview mirror. I do think business schools and medical schools – lots of professional schools – do focus on the future and trying to help the craft, the business, the profession they serve. Journalism schools did not. Now, we must.

Q: So our role should primarily be to focus on the future on how to move forward?

A: It’s also in many ways teaching people how to do what we’ve always done. Those are the fundamentals that separate journalism from just every other form of communication out in this big cacophony. So what are the fundamentals, and how do we separate our traditions from our principles? We must take forward the things we must and imbue in all of our students a sense of fairness and truth-telling and comprehensiveness and proportionalism. But how do we do that in an environment where the applications of them all look very different? Do we describe accuracy differently when the public is an important part of letting us know accuracy? Now the public is a huge ally to us in figuring out the truth – in providing verification.

Q: You talk about the difference between the principles and the traditions.

A: We must teach the verities, which must remain with us, or who are we as journalists? We’re the ones who are focused on this kind of information. This information that serves the public interest, and it serves the public interest because it’s characterized by these certain principles that we’ve got to carry forward. But we can’t say, ‘Well here’s how we do it – the who, what, when, where, why, lede.’ An inverted pyramid on paper. All of those things aren’t the principles; they’re the traditions. They’re not what defines journalism, so what does? Is it keeping an eye on what the public needs to know and also recognizing that we have to go where the public is to bring the message? How do you define journalism, information in the public interest, now?

We love tradition. It’s been a great romance, a great mythology we’ve built up around journalism. Heaven knows, I’ve loved it all. But one of our most important responsibilities now is deciding which parts to keep. What really defines the heart of journalism today?


“Applying the ‘Manifesto for Change’ to Journalism Education" (2010)
“On Behalf of Journalism: A Manifesto for Change” (as updated in 2008)