The past, present and future of journalism at JCU: an investigative report

Photo+of+old+print+journalism+stories+titled+Yesterdays+news.+Managing+Editor%2C+Laken+Kincaid%2C+reflects+on+the+death+of+journalism+at+JCU.

Mick Baker

Photo of old print journalism stories titled “Yesterdays news”. Managing Editor, Laken Kincaid, reflects on the death of journalism at JCU.

Laken Kincaid, Managing Editor

Today, the Tim Russert Department of Communication is mostly associated with its integrated marketing communication (IMC) concentration and its focus on digital media production through its nationally recognized radio station, WJCU 88.7. Other areas of pride could be the award winning speech and debate team or its recent successful alumni who have jobs on the silver screen. On the other hand, one aspect of the department that, especially recently, not as discussed is its journalism and investigative writing curriculum; mostly because there currently is not one. 

This remains rather ironic because the department boasts the name of a famed political journalist when, today, it does not host any reporting-centered courses. From current students and faculty members to community members and future employers, this correlation is a little alarming. The anxiety only increases when you look at the potential employment partnerships JCU offers with local news stations and the ever-so-prominent “Meet the Press” fellowship. It is incongruous how a JCU degree can get you in the door while potentially failing to prepare students directly for the work the internship presumably entails.

Ethical and skilled journalists, like any occupation, need to be backed by well-rounded courses and opportunities found in their undergraduate careers. Without question, the current state of journalism at John Carroll is a little intimidating especially to those considering the field for their future.  Even with the wide array of courses that the department now offers, none make up for the lack of a traditional journalism course, and there is no definite guarantee that such a course will be offered again in the immediate future.

However, the curriculum for journalism was not always in this state. In the relatively recent past, there used to be a myriad of course offerings that helped bolster the current, prestigious reputation that the department still tries to hold on to. Some could even argue that, before 2013, there was not nearly as much support for the program as there is now.

The nature of the Department of Communications itself has changed drastically in the past decade.  Prior to 2013, the Department of Communications did not have concentrations we see today; the only offerings were majors in theater arts and a general communications degree. Yet, all students were still exposed to journalism through COM225, an introductory journalism course required for the major. There were also multiple, more advanced reporting courses in the major that specialized in areas such as investigative research, social issues and communication law. 

Nevertheless, the curriculum changed with the invention of concentrations in the major in 2013, one of which was indeed journalism. Other options included visual media, theater, persuasive and relational, general studies and the still pivotal IMC. 

After some time, a few of the concentrations thrived while others began to lose steam, prime examples being journalism and visual media. Yet, they were not the first to be dropped by the department. The persuasive and relational field was rolled into a general “communication studies” trajectory encompassing things like speech and debate. Be that as it may, all of the concentrations started to lose students as IMC grew.

In 2017, the digital media concentration was born from the combination of the journalism and visual media paths. While this switch accommodated the changing field of journalism, it cost the department their higher level reporting courses such as political journalism and classes based on writing about current social issues. Between 2017 and 2019, a core curriculum was developed for the overarching major which required classes like COM130 (Audience Matters) and COM140 (Communication, Technology and Society). To their credit, these classes do have benefits for aspiring reporters however they display the university’s shift of focus towards other careers. 

“To be a journalist, you have to know broadcast and everything,” Dr. Margaret Finucane, chair of the Tim Russert Department of Communication, told The Carroll News. “It is not just print anymore and it is always changing. That can be intimidating.” 

Around this time, the English department adopted theater, marking the end of another concentration and multiple classes. The advocacy concentration took its place, evolving from the general communication studies concentration, taking on the more persuasive approach previously seen. Despite all of these changes, journalism classes still continued to die off as students chose other majors and faculty seemed to migrate with the trends of the profession.

As the major was being altered, the introductory journalism course was also renumbered from COM250 to COM350 making the course reportedly seem too advanced for newer students. The IMC concentration also previously denied it and COM450 (Communication Law) as an elective for their path. While courses with some journalism influences, particularly the new documentary making class offered this semester, are accepted as breadth of interest courses, the future did not seem promising. Now, with the cancellation of COM350 for the fall because of low enrollment, some may say that we are witnessing the death of journalism at JCU. 

However, diagnosing what has caused this downfall is not as clear cut as one would hope. While it is easy to blame John Carroll’s current administration for an onslaught of problems, the issue instead seems to rather revolve around the world that JCU resides in. 

Across the nation, journalism as a field is dying. Reporting courses pre-2013, even before the creation of the major’s concentrations, still filled with students willing to learn and those curious about the craft. However, even as the department seemed to divert its attention to journalism with the advent of concentrations, classes began to lose enrollment. Many did not pass the ten student registration threshold as easily as before. This movement can be linked to the closing of dozens of professional newsrooms across the country. 

With rising technology and new requirements to maintain a foothold in the industry, media that specialized solely in print reporting began to fall behind. Cell phones made everyone a reporter, a multimedia journalist at that, no matter if they had proper training or not. Corporations which survived the shifting dynamics began to face criticism as the politicization of mass media, specifically big name cable news networks like CNN and FoxNews, overshadowed the stories being produced. The nation, especially universities, became skeptical of the field especially regarding job security. No one wants to go into a field that could disappear either from shrinkage or a negative reputation. Just over the past fifteen years, newsroom employment has shrunk by 26% and the jobs that remain have sinking salaries. This created a residual spillover effect for universities.

“There were not enough people signed up for the journalism class this fall so we had to cut it,” Dr. Finucane continued. “It is a national problem with newsrooms shutting down. Everyone is a journalist and it is highly political. People want to stay away from it.” 

All of these changes were reflected across academia. We see this across the nation with the rate of undergraduate journalism degrees decreasing by 5.65% since 2013. Recent figures also say that only 20% of journalists currently have a masters degree in any field with even fewer specializing in journalism alone. However, the death of proper education in the journalism industry means the death of proper reporting in all of society. Those without training are more likely to fall into bias and unethical writing, leading to the perpetuation of more fake news spawning even more political division. 

A special report by EducationWeek says that improper journalism education can also have even graver impacts regarding school safety and amplifying the voices of the public. Needless to say, as journalism courses die, society as a whole will suffer. Improper reporting leads to the spread of misinformation which does a disservice to the public and cripples mass media reliance.

“National journalism has been a little bit interesting because we’ve seen changes there,” 2022 Meet the Press fellow, Aiden Keenan ‘22, told The Carroll News. “But then also, undergrad institutions across the nation are suffering. I would be hard pressed if you could find me a single college not having difficulties right now as a result of it, and John Carroll gets hit as a result of it. Also, considering former President Trump’s statements on the media as the ‘enemy of the people’ is something that’s affected the interest of journalism nationwide.”

However, there is hope for the future of journalism at JCU. Regarding the prestigious programs the department sponsors, Dr. Finucane does not see these changes impacting the partnerships it has with other media companies including NBC. While the proper education of the Meet the Press fellows may be up for debate, the Tim Russert name and the program will most likely stick around especially because of its roots on campus.

“Tim Russert wasn’t even a communications major,” Dr. Finucane stated. “He did political science [at JCU]. Now that we have opened up the fellowship to all majors, I do not see it struggling.” 

Besides these programs, Finucane hopes that journalism will make a return in the Spring 2023 semester, albeit possibly under a new, less intimidating name without journalism or its threatening aliases in the title. 

“We hope to bring back a journalism class in the spring but we don’t know what to call it,” Dr. Finucane stated. “Journalism is important but people may not want to sign up if it is directly called that.”

Another idea proposed is changing the course number of the introductory journalism class to a lower figure. Many freshmen can be intimidated by higher course numbers and refrain from taking a class because of its perceived difficulty. In fact, most college guide websites that students may look to for advice categorize 300-level courses as more advanced causing newer students to potentially be more hesitant. 

“[Course numbers] used to be based on the content of the course,” Dr. Carrie Buchanan, a former communications professor who retired from JCU at the end of the past academic year, told The Carroll News. “So if something was an introductory course, it would either be a 100-level or a 200 level. In our department, when we changed the curriculum, we made some introductory courses at 300 levels, because they fit into a certain place in the program. People are not going to take the introductory [journalism] course because of several reasons: the number is 350 and because the enrollment gets canceled before the freshmen can enroll, that kind of stuff.”

“For me, personally, I’m more comfortable taking classes with lower numbers just because I am a freshman and would love to build a solid foundation of communication classes before I take the next step toward those higher level classes,” Jillian Langley ‘26, a freshman considering the communication major, told The Carroll News. “That being said, if a course title and description truly seem appealing to me, I don’t think the course number will prevent me from registering for the class!”

Langley’s thoughts and Buchanan’s worries reflect those of many freshmen, upper level courses can seem daunting to those new to college. However, like Langley said, a course description can still lure in potential students even with a higher number. 

The Carroll News reached out to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences regarding the future of the program but did not receive a response. 

For those looking to become journalists, 2021 and past Carroll News Editor-in-Chief, Sophia Maltese, says that the best way to learn journalism is through hands-on experiences via opportunities provided by the university. However, she also stresses the importance of supporting these activities although the field is rapidly changing. 

“I think that The Carroll News was incredibly valuable in my journalism education — almost chiefly so,” Maltese stated. “While I enjoyed my communication courses, there’s nothing that teaches you more than actually doing the thing. That said, I think it is essential that John Carroll continues to prioritize The Carroll News and give it the resources it needs to maintain its success and provide students with an essential learning experience.”

Keenan also echoes this by stressing that, during this transitional period, students should get involved with extracurricular activities both inside and outside of the communications department, many of which hone the skills employed by journalists, to help develop their skill set. 

“In terms of journalism, a lot of the things that helped me outside of the classroom were speech and debate and The Carroll News,” Keenan stated. “Obviously those, but also student government. Finding the intersection between that helped me to figure out what questions were important. In a perfect world, I would love to see more classes on it. You’ve had a lot of strong experts around the university. And if they are able to, you know, allow, if they’re able to help others fill their shoes would be awesome. I don’t want to overburden their professors. But I also think that our co-curriculars were incredibly instrumental in my development, and I think they need to be strengthened.”