Q&A with Ted Conover, Part 1: On Journalism Education at NYU
Professor Ted Conover of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing.” As Director of the Carter Institute at NYU, Professor Conover sheds light on how to create and maintain a dynamic journalism education for future journalists.
May 8, 2019
WSN: Do you have thoughts on the idea of how to prepare students for a world where information is so readily available? How can you make the curriculum in a journalism school adhere to this so that it remains relevant and provides a necessary skill set?
Ted Conover: It is a truism that journalism education is always a step or two behind the leading edge of innovation. Journalism educators try really hard for maximum relevance, but things change so quickly that it can take time to build a program that is maximally helpful and relevant. At NYU Journalism, we teach both graduate and undergraduate students. To answer you with specifics, I have to talk about both those things. On the graduate side, our most recent two graduate concentrations are Studio 20, which is taught by Jay Rosen, who is a journalism theorist and guru who operates a workshop program that engages students in all kinds of new digital journalism; and we have a more traditional program called Literary Reportage, which started out as a more long-form writing concentration, but it has morphed in the last five years to include a lot of audio reporting and podcasting. It has been cool to see that it is not a stretch to leverage this traditional skill set of strong reporting and strong writing to make great podcasts. We absolutely want to build that out as fast as we can.
Our next concentration, which is going through many approval steps, is Data Journalism. It is probably the part of journalism with the most job growth lately, so one of our most recent faculty hires was Professor Meredith Brussard, who is a data journalist and is developing this program and teaching both graduates and undergraduates.
On the undergraduate side, we have been emphasizing multimedia skills for quite some time now. I don’t think our instruction is perfect, but we are working hard to make it top-notch, and we are working to make it more possible for undergrads not to put all of their eggs in the journalism major, but instead have the option to take multimedia and other courses as part of the minor. It would be an option to empower them resume-wise while they develop other skills and knowledge as well.
We don’t envision that there is one kind of journalism that we are preparing everybody for, and we do not pretend that we even know all of the journalism we are preparing people for. We want to include as much tech as makes sense, but I think that at the end of the day, we are part of a Faculty of Arts and Science. We are not a School of Communication, like at other big universities. We are a liberal arts department that wants to teach critical thinking and interpretation and writing skills because those seem to be the most valuable skills we can impart.
I talked earlier about the values of journalism as opposed to the values of blogging or being on social media. The difference is reporting — it is journalism’s traditional role of questioning government and holding power to account. It is about standing up for common people, whether they have been abused by an institution like the church or [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] or Hollywood producers. We are not just teaching practice, but we are teaching values like originality and fearlessness.
WSN: Can you tell me a little bit about your career? You’ve done so much in the investigative and long-form realms of journalism. You have had an incredibly diverse career. How did you get there and how your career has lead you toward the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU?
TC: I started, like many others, with newspapers in my junior high and high school. I interned for some suburban newspapers outside Colorado, and I interned for U.S. News & World Report when it was still a real magazine, and also for a communal bilingual newspaper in Dallas run by a group I worked with as a Vista Volunteer. I worked for a student magazine when I got to college. I’ve never worked for a big news organization, which is sort of unusual for a journalism professor. It seems that most of the people who teach journalism have some experience with a network or on the staff of a newspaper or wire service. But I was always a freelance [journalist], so my kind of journalism has seldom been deadline-driven. More often, it has been about big issues like incarceration and immigration. That aspect of it dovetails well with the [Carter Journalism Institute] which encourages professors to go deep with subjects.
And for some reason, I’ve always felt the most comfortable with a first-person voice. I think there is a particular power in personal witness and in firsthand experience of things, and I want to promote that. I think it is a piece of a trend in journalism away from the institutional voices of the past — which were limited in number — and toward a more diverse landscape of voices that is much more inclusive, but is also much more chaotic.
Some people get their news from Twitter, which really is more like getting headlines since Twitter itself does not [produce] journalism. I think that one of the things we try to do at NYU Journalism is help students find a framework for assessing the reliability of news, and what constitutes news. They learn how to source stories so that you can make distinctions between different places you are hearing something and make your own decisions based on a certain skepticism.
NYU Journalism is unlike most other programs in this country, insofar as we do not have professors of advertising or professors of strategic communication. We are really focused on journalism, not just as a practice but as a calling and a set of values. We believe in the importance of real journalism that is reported, in which the author of a piece stands behind it and can be identified. We believe in journalism that pays people to do [this], which is a key piece. Making a living wage on journalism is a huge crisis in today’s media world. I know this particularly because I have been a freelancer since I was 23 years old, and for the most part, I was able to make ends meet — but I think it is now harder than ever to do so. Freelancing is one of the kinds of journalism I think about and try to help students strategize about so that there is a chance that they might make a living [doing it].
WSN: Since your background is in freelance journalism, do you think that today, freelance is an even more important aspect of journalism than it once was because there is a gradual reduction of traditional print office jobs for journalists?
TC: It might be. If freelancing is something you do because there is no real job, I’m not sure that is necessarily good. But when freelancing is something you do because it lets you focus on things that are important to you and that you cannot find within a job but that you can do in your spare time, then yes, that is important. It is also a way that younger journalists can build a portfolio and then get noticed by people that might actually be able to give them a job. It is important in a lot of ways, and probably more prevalent than it used to be, which is not always a good thing.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
This article is part of a special series from WSN called “The Future of Journalism,” in which the Opinions Desk plans to explore the future of the journalism industry in the current political and social climate, as well as try to gain a better understanding of how we can prepare our future journalists for the field.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
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