Q&A with Professor Mitchell Stephens, Part I: How History Informs the Future and How Journalism Education is Changing

This is part I of an extended interview with Professor Mitchell Stephens, who teaches journalism at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU. Stephens is the author of “A History of News,” “Beyond News: The Future of Journalism” and “Journalism Unbound.” Stephens’ works focus largely on the history of journalism, the future of the journalism industry and journalism education.


NYU Journalism Professor Mitchell Stephens. (Courtesy of NYU Journalism)

By Hanna Khosravi, Opinion Editor

WSN: How do you feel that we are preparing future journalists for this incoming era in terms of journalism education at NYU in particular? How do you even go about preparing journalists for this very malleable era of journalism as it stands, where the future seems a little bit uncertain?

Mitchell Stephens: I’ve been teaching journalism for 43 years at NYU. And the field has changed, dramatically, for the better. NYU has been at the forefront of many of those changes. Journalism education used to be very formulaic. You squeezed the “Five Ws” into the lede, and you [would] write in an inverted pyramid style, with the newsworthiness of the information petering out as you got towards the end, to make it easy to squeeze into newspaper columns. I was early at NYU in teaching television news, and that was also formulaic. There were all of these rules.

It wasn’t the most challenging thing to teach, and it wasn’t the most challenging journalism to pursue. And I think it began to change, in part, with the Digital Revolution, which we underwent and which your generation is a little less alert to than some of the previous generations because you grew up in it. I’m not sure to what extent you realize how profoundly things have changed.

One of the wonderful things about the change is the loosening up of all those rules. The writing in journalism, in general, is significantly better, and journalism, in general, is significantly deeper. Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions to that. But I think journalism education has become a much more thoughtful, creative, intellectually-challenging discipline. We were pushing some of these things by starting specialized master’s programs, where you don’t just study how to write journalism, you study how to do science journalism, so you can come out with expertise in science, business or economics. Or, [you can study] cultural reporting.

And on an undergraduate level, the variety of classes that we offer is so much more rich and interesting and diverse than it used to be back when I started, when there was just “Reporting 1,” and then you would take “Feature Writing,” and then you could work all the way up to “Magazine Writing.” If you compare that with the titles of our courses today, it is a pretty stark contrast.

While other disciplines — [like that of] literature, for example — were complaining about the restrictiveness of the canon of great works and how they tended to underestimate minority voices and other limitations like that, journalism didn’t even have a canon. In journalism school, you weren’t reading great journalists. You were reading simple stories — coverage of a fire, coverage of a police incident, coverage of a speech. So one of the other things we did [at NYU] was bring a hopefully diverse selection of great journalism — people like James Baldwin, Joan Didon […] Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway — into the curriculum. We took the lead in some of these things, and I think it has significantly improved what journalism education is.

We are unusual among journalism programs in that we are not a separate school. Columbia [and CUNY] have Schools of Journalism. We have an undergraduate program, but both our undergraduate program and our master’s program are under the Faculty of Arts and Science, and the Graduate School of Arts and Science. And we’ve used that very much to our advantage. We have tried to teach an “Arts and Science” type of journalism, with an alertness to language, history, political science and sociology. I think it has turned out to be very appropriate for this new era of journalism that we have entered into. It has contributed to a change in journalism education in general.

WSN: What are your thoughts on the fact that in the undergraduate school, journalism is required to be a double major? Do you feel that journalism has become more of a skill to be applied to an area of study rather than an area of study itself?

MS: There’s a reason why we have that double major. There are inconveniences with the double major that we are aware of, but we think that journalists should have an area of subject expertise as well as the skills of journalism. Again, as you’re seeing, a lot of these areas of expertise are contained within our classes and our programs. But [the double major] was very much an expression of this philosophy — that journalism needs to become broader and deeper and less formulaic and smarter.

WSN: How do you feel about how social media and the current spiral of “fake news” has affected the future of journalism? How do you feel about preparing future journalists for a world where people wake up in the morning and scroll through their Twitter feed rather than pick up a newspaper?

MS: I wake up in the morning and scroll through Twitter. I do it with my coffee, and I do it again in the evening, and I do it again on the subway. I’m not really one to attack Twitter. I think that it’s a fantastic news source.

Let’s start with the “Fake News” thing. I actually looked to find the earliest uses of the term “Fake News” in the United States, and it turns out to be in the 1890s, when there was some very sensational journalism by [Joseph] Pulitzer and [William Randolph] Hearst. But we have to disentangle Donald Trump’s totally illegitimate use of fake news as a term to denigrate any story that he thinks criticizes him. There’s nothing to say about that other than that it is outrageous and fallacious. But we have seen some of it during political campaigns, originating in bots, some of it originating in websites that are trying to gather eyeballs to sell. We’ve seen false stories, and they’ve been spread on Facebook. We also see rumors and conspiracy theories spread on Facebook and Twitter. And it’s all scary, and I tend to be optimistic, but I’m nervous about this and how it is going to be dealt with.

I will add this historical perspective — there were plenty of conspiracy theories around when I was young before the World Wide Web was even a gleam in anybody’s eye. We used to get little newspapers published by right-wing or left-wing groups, a lot to be sold around Washington Square — mostly the left-wing ones. They were filled with everything from fluoridation being a Communist plot to false allegations about various government plans. It’s not like false news was invented by the web and by social media. But there’s no doubt that it is spreading rapidly.

There is a plus and a minus with all of that — in some ways, it is good that attitudes that challenge our conventional wisdom get aired. When I was young and out protesting the Vietnam War, I felt that my position was not really being carried very often in the New York Times or in the CBS Evening News. And we started to develop what were then called “underground newspapers” to push some of these things. But it was a very frustrating feeling.

“The Gatekeepers,” as those of us who thought about journalists called them, decided what news did and did not get into these small newspapers in every town or what got onto the small number of television outlets, which for national news was three [outlets], was really limited. And that was frightening. With the World Wide Web and social media, the gates have been flung wide open, and all of this stuff gets in. Yes, there’s a real negative here — some really harebrained ideas and false stories get aired. There are people who are victimized by these false stories who have a right to complain. No doubt it puts crazy ideas in the hands of mentally disturbed people and has resulted in violence. I don’t quite want to say this is the cost of openness and freedom, but to some extent it is, and we have to be very careful if we want to shut things down again.

In my big introductory lecture class [today], we read something by John Stuart Mill written in the mid-19th century from his book “On Liberty.” It’s a beautiful argument on the freedom of speech, in which he says that all of humankind wouldn’t be right in shutting down one perspective, any more than that one voice would be right in shutting down all of humankind. Even minority perspectives need to be honored.

I asked my students what they thought about that and they didn’t agree with it. And I realized that freedom of speech has become kind of a right-wing thing in this country. Students in my day would all have agreed with that quote. And this is kind of scary to me, that students don’t understand the value of even wrong voices being heard. I understand why because a lot of horrible things have happened through the spreading of false information on social media and elsewhere, but when I was young, it was the left voices that were being silenced. Now, maybe it’s the right-wing voices that are being silenced in some campuses in some way. I don’t agree with the right-wing hysteria about this, but I do agree with standing up for the freedom for people to be heard.

WSN: In looking at the way we consume media today  — the short word count of tweets, or listening to podcasts — there is still good writing in all of these things. But what would you say to prospective journalists who want to be writers, and might be feeling slightly discouraged by the fact that the manifestations of the written form journalism are not necessarily as prevalent as they once were?

MS: Some of the people I follow on Twitter are really good writers. There is a great amount of cleverness on Twitter, which I enjoy. There is some really perceptive writing on Twitter. I’m not sure that the only form of good writing is long-form writing. H.L. Mencken, a wonderfully witty and acerbic journalist of the early 20th-century did a lot of his work in quips and sentences that were delightful and insightful.

Let me say a few things about the whole “career” thing. First of all, a wonderful thing has happened to us at NYU. Back in the old days, the career ladder started in places like Iowa and South Carolina and Kansas, and the idea was that you would get a job at a small newspaper or radio station or broadcast station in some small town someway, and maybe you’d work your way into a bigger city like Omaha, and then if you were really good maybe you’d get a job in New York. This was a real disadvantage for us because we had a lot of contacts out in Ames or Des Moines, Iowa. And that’s changed. Because the starting, entry-level jobs are now in places like Silicon Valley and Austin and Seattle and New York. So our students are leaving our journalism program and getting jobs as much as they ever have before with various kinds of startups. And yes, they’re not getting the chance to be James Baldwin or Joan Didion right off the bat, but they are making some money at it. Which is a wonderful thing, for us.

To be a great writer or [videographer] or podcaster or photographer in journalism, it is not going to be that easy to make a living —  just like being a great fiction writer or filmmaker or actor. These things are hard, and there are more people that want to do it then there are positions for them. But I do think that there are outlets for good journalism and that you might get out into the world through the various kinds of digital journalism that have now appeared.

And I do think there’s a lot of great work being done, I’m not a declinist, I don’t think this is all going to hell and that ever since Walter Cronkite everything has become miserable. I don’t believe that. I think there is great work being done today and I think people that are students today are going to have the opportunity to do great work of their own.

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.

Email Hanna Khosravi at [email protected]