A Teacher From the Old School Worries About the Future of Journalism Education

Melvin Mencher says Tech Classes are Having 'Disastrous Effects' on J-Schools

Melvin Mencher's influential "News Reporting and Writing" textbook. Picture of the 12th edition courtesy McGraw Hill Higher Education.

It's been two decades since Melvin Mencher alternately terrified and inspired students at Columbia University's graduate school of journalism. The gruff professor whose withering critiques sent more than one charge running from his classroom in tears is now retired, though he keeps busy updating his enormously influential textbook, "News Reporting and Writing," now in its 12th edition.

But even at age 83, the man who mentored several generations of aspiring journalists - many of whom went on to work at the nation's top newspapers, magazines and television news divisions - has not mellowed. If anything, Mencher is as feisty and angry as ever, particularly about the state of journalism education.

A glut of tech-related classes, Mencher says, is pushing out coursework in the basics of reporting and writing, as well as journalism history and ethics. The problem is especially dire in undergraduate programs, which are limited in the number of journalism credits they can require a student to take, he says.

"How you can have a curriculum that's limited to 30 hours and stuff it with things like how to make a video and or create a blog?" he says in a phone interview. "What the hell does that have to do with the basics of reporting?"

Mencher is especially disturbed by recent developments at the University of Montana journalism school, which no longer requires students to take a public affairs reporting course, and the University of Colorado at Boulder - his alma mater - which announced it might replace its j-school with an interdisciplinary "information and communication technology" program.

"It's now reached a point of no return where the technology is taking over the curriculum, with disastrous effects," he says. "Students are no longer going to be educated in the basic function of journalism."

It's not just that journalism programs are being watered down; Mencher fears they could disappear altogether.

"If this Colorado thing goes through, I'm afraid it will be a model for other universities," he says. "Journalism has had to fight for decades for a place in the liberal arts tradition, so it's an easy target to pick off in times of economic stress. It's not helping itself by doing what these schools are doing."

And Mencher says he's mystified by journalism educators, who seem to have offered little resistance to such changes.

"Something is amiss with the faculties," he says. They seem to be participants in this headlong dash in the wrong direction. They seem to be in love with gimmicks."

Mencher blames the lack of fight on the proliferation of what he calls "academic journalists," teachers who have spent years earning Ph.Ds but precious little time in newsrooms.

"I have the sense that they don't have the kind of indignation or spirit that will enable them to survive," he says. "To be a journalist you have to be tough-skinned and tough-minded, and there's been a dilution of that kind of doggedness. As a consequence these schools have moved in a direction that is ultimately self-defeating."

"It would take a lot of courage and foresight," Mencher adds, "for journalism schools to stop the technical takeover and just say no, to say we can't continue to make ourselves into technical institutes."

(The author is a former student of Professor Mencher's.)