Parenchyma: How do you teach “content”?

I’ve kept this article by Mark Briggs up in Safari for the last week or so, mostly because I’m not sure what to make of it, but also because I care quite a bit about the future of journalism education. In it, Briggs argues that it might be time to relegate journalism education to being a part of a larger communication major, rather than a major itself. The idea, he says, is that “content” is becoming more salable than journalism on the internet, so we shouldn’t waste (“waste” is my interpretation of his position, and is meant to be hyperbolic) students’ time with this pesky journalism business that is just going to keep them from getting a job.

While I don’t have a settled and clearly better suggestion than this, I know that this has to be the wrong way to go. Journalism education has largely been subsumed into mass comm departments over the last 50 years or so, and I don’t have any problem with that (I’m entering my second teaching stint in one of these departments right now, and all signs are positive so far), but to confuse journalism with the other “stuff” of content is wrong. Not all “stuff” is the same. Journalism is more than just filler for media; it is not just parenchyma. Parenchyma, a word I picked up from having too many friends who are medical doctors, refers to the undifferentiated functional stuff of a bodily organ. The working cells of a liver, say. It’s only moderately useful, even as metaphor, but it’s fun to say.

What’s different about journalism, I think, is that journalism plays an active role in a democratic society. Journalism is a political act–even if it is somewhat vapid entertainment journalism or a heartwarming feature story. Journalists are conscious actors in creating a society and a culture. Content providers are entertainers or time-killers. They may inadvertently contribute to the culture, but as conscious actors, they are profit-oriented, not culturally oriented. It’s similar, I think, to the difference between art and entertainment. Journalism is more like an art. It aims to change.

So I don’t think you can teach “content.” Content just is. And while some of the parts of the act of journalism are difficult to teach, the principles behind this important process are essential.

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