James Baughman is stepping down as director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication after six years. And those weren't just any six years. It was a period of tremendous upheaval for the mass media, with advertising revenue plummeting, daily newspapers downsizing or going out of business, and the Internet turning the industry on its ear. Has the UW journalism program kept up with these tumultuous events?
Baughman believes it has, pointing to a new undergraduate curriculum, instituted in 2000, that foresaw the shifts in journalism.
"The new curriculum anticipated what's going on in the industry now, in terms of multimedia training," he says. "It sensed that the Internet was going to be the next big thing. We tried to drag our curriculum away from an older model that was too based in newspapers."
In the old days, students specializing in print journalism would learn Associated Press style and spend a week writing obituaries. By contrast, the new curriculum emphasizes core skills than can be used in a variety of careers.
"We're trying to train students who might start working at a newspaper in Jackson County, Wisconsin, and end up doing nonprofit work for the American Arthritis Society," Baughman says. "That kind of segue happens a lot to our students. They begin at traditional journalism jobs and after five or 10 years move on."
Clearly, Baughman's students don't envision their careers the way an old-school journalist would.
"They're not newspaper readers," Baughman says. "They consume niche media, and that's where they expect to go. For example, students could imagine working for magazines, online publications or the Food Network. They could imagine doing internal communications for a corporation, much of which could be online. It's more of a narrow focus."
You might think students would shy away from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, given the state of the industry. But Baughman says the program -- which also includes instruction in advertising and public relations -- remains popular.
"We're still drawing a lot of applicants," he says. "We're turning away roughly 40 percent of students who want to pursue journalism. They know that the mass media are in trouble, but they're not letting that affect their thinking."
If mass media are in trouble, what will the future look like? Baughman is impressed by the online publication VoiceOfSanDiego.org, which focuses on investigative journalism in greater San Diego. The site is funded by contributions and foundations.
"They're constantly breaking stories that the established print publications aren't covering," Baughman says. "It's a throwback to the late-19th-century model of a smaller, independent daily that created goodwill among readers by being the best. If that's the future, I'm much less worried."
Baughman, 57, came to the UW-Madison 30 years ago after attending graduate school at Columbia University and working for media organizations in New York City. With his stint as director ending, he'll return to fulltime teaching. But first comes a yearlong sabbatical, when he'll write a book about changes in political journalism since 1960.
Baughman also plans to revisit his pedagogical approach in the coming year. It's time to become better acquainted with the new breed of students crowding into the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "I need to drag my teaching into the 21st century," he says, "and adapt to what's going on in the industry. I'm so newspaper-centered -- I need to learn more about how young adults are consuming information."