Towards a Media University

B. R. P. Bhaskar

The last two decades also witnessed expansion of facilities for training of journalists. However, media institutions have been proliferating faster than training facilities, leading to a steady growth in the shortage of trained media professionals. Since the bulk of the journalism schools are substandard, the quality of available professionals leaves much to be desired. It is not, therefore, surprising that complaints about low standards of the media are widespread.

India is going through a media boom. According to the annual report of the Press Registrar, which does not give a full and reliable picture as it is based on voluntary disclosure, last year there were more than 82,000 newspapers in the country, about 10% of them dailies, and their total circulation was around 330 million. The big story, however, is the vast expansion of the electronic media. In two decades, more than 800 television channels have come up. They include about 100 round-the-clock news channels, which have made breaking news and live television a continuous experience. More channels are on the way. Television now reaches about 150 million homes. Thanks to the spread of computers and smart phones, the new media is also expanding rapidly.
The last two decades also witnessed expansion of facilities for training of journalists. However, media institutions have been proliferating faster than training facilities, leading to a steady growth in the shortage of trained media professionals. Since the bulk of the journalism schools are substandard, the quality of available professionals leaves much to be desired. It is not, therefore, surprising that complaints about low standards of the media are widespread. Often long-time readers are heard bemoaning fall in the standards of their favourite newspaper. The ills attributed to the media are myriad. Almost every malaise that afflicts it can be traced to lack of professionalism, even though it is not always identified as such. Take, for instance, the evil of paid news which has been widely debated in recent times. Those who took up the issue vigorously viewed it primarily as a problem concerning politics, but it cannot be divorced from the problem of lack of professionalism in the media. 
With literacy rate and purchasing power on the rise, India’s media and entertainment industry, valued at Rs 652 billion in 2010, is expected to grow at more or less at the present rate for at least two decades more. The print media’s overall growth rate is pitched at 10% a year, with the regional press registering a higher rate of 12%. Last year the Economist reported that India’s newspaper market, the fastest growing in the world, had outstripped China’s, with 110 million paid-for copies. The electronic media market is set to grow at an even faster rate, with the radio forging ahead at 20%. If journalism education does not grow at a comparable rate the gap between the demand for media personnel and their supply is bound to widen, leading to further deterioration in standards.
Fall in media standards is not just an Indian problem. Complaints in this regard are common even in the West, whose media we habitually ape. The rot in Murdoch’s empire, revealed by the recent UK inquiry, is but the tip of the iceberg. It is, of course, a natural consequence of the greed for profit. The journalists who were accomplices in the misdeeds, too, bear as much responsibility for them as the owners. While there may be differences on the cause of the malaise, there can be no two opinions on the need to strengthen the professional foundations of the media and to reinforce professional values to find a lasting solution to the problem. That calls for quality journalism education.
Early Indian newspaper practices followed the British tradition. New recruits picked up the rudiments of journalism during in-house training under experienced editors or senior members of the staff. After World War II, American influence spread and institutions to impart journalism education appeared. Some universities began journalism courses and a college of journalism was established at Nagpur. Later a Hindi-medium journalism university came up in Madhya Pradesh. Newspaper owners evinced little interest in these institutions, and editors, believing that journalism, like swimming, has to be learnt by doing, did not attach much value to their degrees and diplomas. There was also a proliferation of diploma courses, which, though of an elementary nature, helped identify young people who aspired for a career in journalism. Lately new generation journalism schools which provide short-duration courses with emphasis on new technology have come up in different parts of the country. They charge hefty fees which generally limit access to the institutions to youngsters belonging to the affluent sections of the society. On passing out these students can look forward to a good start as their campuses attract corporate recruiters. They can surely be expected to make good media honchos but can they be relied upon to keep in mind the larger interests of the society with the limited exposure that they get to the problems of the oppressed and the marginalized through occasional lectures and short field trips?
While educational reform is a hot topic in India today there has been no serious discussion on journalism education. However, the subject has been discussed keenly elsewhere in the world in the past few decades. In a 2006 paper, evaluating the ideas thrown up in the process, Indiana University professor Mark Deuze, drew pointed attention to a major weakness: they tend to reify and essentialize existing ideas, values and practices within the constructed sequence ignoring the ongoing hybridization and convergence of genres, media types and domains. He noted that most if not all of the media across the world are developing along different but related lines of fragmentation and generalization. Clearly, the media landscape is undergoing complex changes and journalism education needs to be reordered to meet the new needs.
Both the apprenticeship scheme and the short-duration course evolved when print dominated the media. Essentially, they prepare a newcomer to the profession to meet current needs. Most editors are quite content with these systems which prepare the newcomer to internalize what the seniors do and fall in line. With technology transforming the media at a pace unknown in all its history, the time has come to think of a new mode of journalism education to produce media personnel to meet not just today’s needs but tomorrow’s as well. The fast pace of television and the new media does not permit slow induction of the newcomer as in the print media. He (or she) must come in well equipped, ready to go full steam ahead straightaway. Since the boss may well be a product of the old school and not quite familiar with new technology, the new entrant may have to be an innovator and not a mere imitator. In the circumstances, we need a well-rounded programme of media education to produce personnel with a range of skills to handle complex tasks. It must take into account the social, economic, political and technological environment in which the media functions. 
While academic studies relating to journalism have been scarce in India, we can benefit from the prodigious labour of Western scholars. However, we must recognize that adoption of Western models has its pitfalls. The current state of the economic and communication models of Western origin does not commend them as good examples to follow. We may take from the Western experience what is appropriate for our conditions but we must explore the possibility of developing a new model of journalism education which will best serve our interests as well as those of other countries with comparable political and economic conditions.  
When a journalism school is oriented towards a specific medium, it is likely to turn out products with the kind of skills needed to succeed in that particular area. In recent years, around the world, there has been an increasing tendency among journalists to move not only from one institution to another but also from one medium to another and from one country to another. We, therefore, need a pattern of education that prepares the individual to work in different environments. The emergence of a converging media landscape further reinforces this requirement.
The media is linked with the society in a way no other industry or profession is. This unique relationship enables journalism to play a role as an agent of social transformation. Journalism education must give entrants to the profession a clear understanding of what they can do, how they can do it and why they should do it.  Contrary forces are at work in modern society, some driving towards globalization and some towards regionalization. Some Western academics have identified corporate colonization of the newsroom as an issue that demands attention and suggested that journalism curriculum should cover commodification of news and matters that come under the label of infotainment. 
Whether generalist or specialist, the journalist must have a broad knowledge base. This can only come through exposure to a wide range of subjects. A multi-disciplinary university environment offers the best chance for providing such exposure.  In the age of technology-driven media convergence, qualified journalists alone cannot ensure quality. Trained personnel are needed in the technical and managerial departments as well. Setting up of facilities to train the personnel required for every kind of activity in the media industry in one location will make it possible to develop adequate infrastructure to impart practical training. All this suggests the time has come to think in terms of a Media University.  
A full-fledged university is an ambitious project which has to be planned carefully after assessing the current requirements as well as the needs of the immediate future in consultation with representatives of the industry and competent professionals with practical knowledge of the working of various sections of the media. While this may take time to materialize, Kerala, which is teeming with jobseekers, has to devote urgent attention to expansion and modernization of the existing journalism training facilities so that it can benefit from the burgeoning national
media market.

B.R.P.Bhaskar is a Senior Journalist, Media Consultant and Columnist. His E-Mail: [email protected]