As journalism evolves, J-schools must

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By Nation Hahn, Director of Growth for EdNC.org

Hello, everyone.

NationHahnNation Hahn here. For those I haven’t met, I am the director of growth for EdNC.org — a nonprofit newsroom focused on the entire educational continuum from birth to career. I participated in EdNC from the beginning as a consultant, joining the organization full-time in 2015. I also serve the journalism industry as a coach in the American Press Institute’s Mid-Major Table Stakes program, among other roles. In the past, I co-founded EdNC’s Reach NC Voices engagement platform, consulted on engaged journalism efforts across the country, and participated in the 2019 Media Transformation Challenge.

I also did not attend journalism school. This fact may, or may not, surprise you given that I would like to spend a moment considering the future of journalism school.

Part of the search for a new dean for the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media includes key stakeholders having conversations around who might be the choice. That topic is beyond my pay grade, but I am deeply interested in the future of the school — and other journalism schools across North Carolina and the country. 

When it comes to the topic of what the school ought to do as a participant in shaping the future of journalism, in addition to the existing body of work, I believe the next dean and their team need to consider three trends:

  1. The rise of well-financed nonprofit journalism efforts. One needs only to look north to Baltimore as a new effort is under way that will set out to compete with the Baltimore Sun, thanks to the resources of Stewart Bainum Jr. — or Cleveland, where a consortium of local foundations has pledged more than $5 million to launch a newsroom. I expect this to be a trend rather than an aberration in the years ahead. These efforts are quite different from the humble beginnings of most emerging nonprofit newsrooms — and yet the combined effect of both trends will likely mean thousands of journalism jobs will exist in the years ahead at endeavors that do not now exist.
  2. The rise of entrepreneurial startups. I group any number of efforts, including Substack newsletters like The Charlotte Ledger, hyperlocal for-profit entities such as 6AM City and Axios Local, and more. Young journalists could very well find themselves working for a two-person, newsletter-focused media organization that will require them to be journalist, editor, and salesperson all at once.
  3. Engagement and service-focused journalism is here to stay — and will continue to grow. Organizations across the country such as Resolve, MLK50, Outlier and Oaklandside show what is possible when we orient our work around the needs of our community — and when we recall that the community we serve is not always the same as the audience that comes to our websites. This work requires a different skillset as well — one that is often a mix of community organizer, content creator, and researcher.

The challenge for journalism schools is their need for enrollment growth to fund their work. The proven course would be to expand their public relations courses, given the functioning — and often thriving — job market for PR staff. 

My friend Tom Rosenstiel, former head of the American Press Institute and now an author, media critic, and visiting professor on the future of journalism at the University of Maryland, noted during a recent conversation that the more challenging course is to help shape the future of a journalism field that continues to shift under our feet. Yet it is this course that would best serve the public and our democracy.