ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
The following are areas that the School could develop in the next three to five years:
- Specialised journalism. Our new courses in Business Journalism and Science Journalism can be expanded and strengthened, with the aim of becoming the number one in such programmes in Asia. Our current link with A*Star, which sponsors a Visiting Science Writer to co-teach our Science Journalism course, demonstrates the potential of forging links with external partners. There is also great untapped potential for working with other Schools in NTU to develop our specialised journalism courses.
- Public policy journalism. On top of our established Public Affairs Reporting course, there is scope to develop an in-depth Singapore Studies programme for students headed for jobs as reporters of local politics, economics and society. Our Asia Journalism Fellowship, which exposes visiting journalists to Singapore governance, has given us valuable experience that can be channeled towards our undergraduates. This programme would be for a limited number of students, no more than six a year, as the market for reporters specialising in public policy is small.
- Asia Journalism Fellowship. The AJF, sponsored by Temasek Foundation, has marked an important entry by the School into training mid-career journalists. The next step is to make such opportunities available to more professionals, especially Singaporeans. Coming rounds of the Fellowship will see the launch of an Associates scheme, targeting journalists who are enrolled in our Masters programme, and working journalists in Singapore.
- New media. Employers have commented that one of the strengths of many our graduates is their comfort with multiple media. However, more can be done to put the School at the forefront of journalism training for new media. We are in discussions with the industry association, WAN-IFRA, for the School to be the base of its third “Newsplex” – a prototype convergent newsroom used for training and research. This would make the School the Asian centre for Newsplex.
- Journalism for the civic sector. With the internet having lowered journalism’s barriers to entry, many of our graduates end up practising journalism as skilled amateurs or as communication professionals in non-media organisations. We can turn this challenge into an opportunity to position ourselves as a national and regional thought leader in citizen journalism and social media, promoting media ethics, responsible blogging, community moderation and management skills for these small and informal media. Journalism schools must stop pretending that the production of journalism has not spread beyond traditional media organisations.
Journalism education at the School has benefited from strong support from industry and other stakeholders. The Wee Kim Wee Legacy Fund has been a boon. Several benefactors have made it possible for us to offer innovative programmes such as Go-Far as well as generous scholarships. Their support is a constant reminder of the special responsibility the School bears in educating journalists.
There are, however, several practical limitations that we face. They include external factors that are outside of our control, as well as internal constraints that could be addressed over time.
First, the School has to take its input – its student intake – as a given. Since we are able to attract some of Singapore’s most able A-level and polytechnic students, one might assume that they already possess on arrival a certain standard of English, plus a basic understanding of the local context from 12 or more years of National Education, and some interest in current affairs. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The lack of these basics severely limits what our teachers are able to do. For example, how can we teach students to be producers of journalism when most are not even consumers of journalism? It has proven to be an uphill task inculcating a newspaper reading habit at this late stage.
Second, the School has no control over the availability of meaningful professional positions within the industry. Educators around the world have noted the steady dilution in the quality of journalism job openings. An increasing proportion of jobs fall in entertainment, lifestyle, advertorial, content repurposing and other pseudo-journalistic categories. While we try to focus on public service ideals, news organisations are under severe commercial pressure due to an unresolved dilemma – the market is not yet willing to pay what it takes to sustain high quality, public service journalism.
Third, is an internal limitation – one that is common to leading universities around the world. It arises from the less than perfect fit between practical journalism training and a self-image of a research university. An emphasis on academic research in hiring, remuneration and promotion handicaps journalism departments’ ability to recruit and retain the best teachers for their particular needs – which would usually include experienced editors and journalists without PhDs.
Fourth, is another internal dilemma, but this one more peculiar to Singapore. This has to do with our universities’ passionate pursuit of “world class” excellence. The unintended consequence of this drive is to abstract ourselves from local context and local needs. This may not be a major problem in certain fields such as science and engineering. But, it has more serious implications in the humanities and social sciencies. And, it is potentially damning for journalism education. The pursuit of “world class excellence” risks compounding journalism’s already tenuous place in academe by making it harder to justify potential programmes that have a significant social value locally but are of no consequence to NTU’s global standing.
I have been credited as one of those who proposed renaming the School after our late President Wee Kim Wee. I admit I was too naive to recognise it as a major fundraising opportunity. Rather, I wanted the School to benefit from the aura of one of the best communicators and best loved public servants that the country has produced. Furthermore, after returning to Singapore in 2003 to join academia here, I was troubled by the direction of our two public universities, which seemed increasingly concerned about global benchmarks at the cost of abstraction from the local.
My private hope was that naming the School after Wee Kim Wee would be a powerful statement – to ourselves – that we are at heart a Singaporean institution. This paper has been guided by the same spirit: I have tried to outline how, even as we aspire to universal standards of excellence in journalism and journalism education, we must remain grounded in the local and mindful of our multiple stakeholders’ legitimate expectations.
The thoughts in this paper are the result of administering the School’s journalism programme since 2004, starting as acting/deputy head, as well as discussions with colleagues. It is not the first time we have tried to articulate our approach: in 2007, for exampple, then-chair Ang Peng Hwa wrote a paper for the university president on “How We Groom Journalists”. Nor will this be our last attempt to think through these issues. The journalism programme will benefit from more consultation and more research as we try to build on what we have already achieved.
Cherian George, 30 October 2009