May 2, 2008

Any Person, Almost Any Study: C.U. Lacks Journalism Major

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When Cornell was founded in 1865, Ezra Cornell stated that “[He] would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” This quotation, which became Cornell’s motto, may not hold completely true, since the University fails to provide many majors, including a journalism program.
Scott Conroe MPS ’98, who taught science writing and magazine journalism at Cornell for seven years, summarized the history of Cornell’s journalism program since he came to C.U. in 1996.
“When I came along in 1996 to go to graduate school in communication, the agriculture journalism major was already gone,” Conroe said. “Majors in 1996 were required to take news writing, which was taught by grad students. The department had had courses in advertising, editing, public relations and print journalism — never anything in TV that I know of. That was where the department’s roots lay.”
The news-writing course ended in 1998. The once popular magazine course ended in 2006 along with the science-writing course, which was taken mainly by science and engineering majors. While Conroe said he viewed these journalism and writing-intensive courses as beneficial to his undergraduate students, the department decided to cut the courses out of their curriculum, shifting from a focus on labor and writing to a focus on theory.
“All of the writing and speech courses were called applied communication — applying theory and social science to real life,” Conroe said. “But the department was debating what to do with these courses … I believe journalism was phased out because it was more about skills such as interviewing and writing leads and news style, less about theory.
Conroe added that classes with such a specific focus “did not help department scholarship. Many didn’t want to, but I believed it was beneficial to know how to write that way: main idea or information first, as few words as possible, using quotes. If you are working in PR, you need to know how the news media thinks and operates.”
While some journalism courses still remain, Conroe explains that they are only for students interested in science as well.
“I think only COMM 352: Science Writing for Mass Media remains,” Conroe said. “The faculty still see value in it, I guess. Problem is — many students don’t want to write about science.”
Prof. Brian Earle, communication, explained the changes in the department’s recent efforts to increase the career opportunities for graduating students of the communications program.
“We used to teach news and media writing,” Earle said. “The department carried out extensive curriculum reviews. We asked employers what they were looked for in graduates as well as looked at the communication majors of competing schools like the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication. The question that we asked ourselves was, ‘is journalism serving our students the best they can?’ We found that the answer was in fact no.”
In order to prepare their students with the necessary skills for a successful career, Earle explained that the department made a conscious effort to teach its students to be the “leaders” in the field of communication and not the “copy editors.”
“[One] proof of our success is [that] one year after the curriculum changes, we had eight students become management consultants and every year for five or six years we have a few students come out as investment bankers,” Earle said. “This department’s shifts have advanced our graduates opportunity and pay.”
As for the Cornell’s future journalists, on-campus publications and internships seem to be the best way to acquire the skills needed in career journalism.
“The best kind of learning is hands-on experience,” Earle said. “Cornell alumni have been very successful in the field of journalism.”
Chris Mascaro ’06, graduate from the communications program in CALS, is now a sportswriter for Newsday. While at Cornell, Mascro served as sports editor of The Sun. Although Mascaro feels that journalism could and should be taught at Cornell, he understands the value of organizations on campus that can teach undergraduates the skills needed to succeed in the field of journalism.
“To not have journalism major is definitely a concern for an institution that claims to provide any course of study,” Mascaro said. “I took a class COMM 350: Magazine Writing while I was at Cornell. I think it would be fairly easy to adopt a course in news writing. However, I’m a big proponent of The Cornell Daily Sun and would be against such courses potentially undermining the publication where the University gets its news. I learned more at The Sun than in any course.”
Conroe said he would like to see journalism brought back to Cornell’s courses of study.
“Journalism needs a home, although I don’t think it needs to be a major,” Conroe said. “Journalism is part of the English department at most universities, but I don’t think Cornell’s English department is interested. They don’t have many courses in nonfiction, which is related to journalism. But I think some department should adopt it.”
Although Prof. Molly Hite, chair of the English department, is aware of the link between journalism and the English major, the English department of the College of Arts and Sciences has decided not to create a journalism concentration.
Hite said, “Many English majors go on to graduate school in journalism. Many newspaper and magazine writers major in English. There are English departments that offer journalism concentrations, but as far as I know they’re not in our peer institutions.”