What is the Future of Journalism?: An Interview with Alums Mike Brophy and Scott Cohn

Q&A with SJMC Alumni Mike Brophy and Scott Cohn

A recent article in Recode reported that in January 2019, about 2,000 journalists lost their jobs. Sounds dire, but only if we stick to a traditional definition of journalism, wrote Rani Molla.  “Content writer” and “social media manager” jobs, which often require skills similar to those acquired within a high-quality journalism and mass communication curriculum, have proliferated more quickly than the traditional journalism jobs have disappeared. All this suggests that what we typically think of as journalism may be morphing into jobs that require superb reporting, writing and editing skills but are no longer labeled journalism.

Members of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Board of Visitors, an advisory group with many SJMC alumni, have careers in a variety of specializations. Some are, in fact, award-winning “traditional” journalists at legacy news outlets, while others have excelled in public relations, media production, marketing or advertising (what the SJMC calls strategic communication). We wondered what BOV members in these two “tracks” — an admitted oversimplification of the variety of career paths represented by board members —might have to say about the Recode article, their experiences as former J-Schoolers and what the degree has meant for their careers. Two highly accomplished board members, Mike Brophy, former chief communication officer at Aurora Health in Milwaukee, and Scott Cohn, a special correspondent to CNBC, NBC News and MSNBC, weighed in on these issues.

Q: What were a few of the key takeaways from the Recode article?

Brophy: The key takeaway for me is that the basic tenets of journalism — curiosity, the search for facts, accuracy, clarity and objectivity — are timeless regardless of the era or specific position. In fact, one could argue with lines blurring between what was traditional journalism and the functions in play today, that these tenets are more valuable than ever before. The tenets shouldn’t change if a person at any point in her or his career is a print or broadcast journalist, a blogger, a corporate or public sector communicator or a marketer. We need transparency, accuracy and objectivity in all related positions and all related fields.

Cohn: The definition of “journalist” has probably been shifting for as long as the profession has existed — certainly as long as the SJMC has been around. I’m old enough to remember a time when some believed that we broadcast types weren’t full-fledged journalists. Nonetheless, I find it more than a bit disheartening to see bloggers, tweeters, and “branded content” writers considered parallel to a foreign correspondent, an investigative reporter, or even a local city hall reporter. That is not “broadening” the definition of a journalist. It is diluting it.

The article appears to try to minimize the full-blown crisis that “capital-J” journalism faces nowadays — whether due to years of corporate cutbacks or self-inflicted wounds from a profession that all too often cannot seem to find its ethical center. Don’t worry about it, the article suggests, you can always find work as a blogger or a branded content writer, as if there is no difference whatsoever in the skills or commitment required. And we wonder why the public has lost its faith in journalists.

Q: What are the key skills that the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, which has tracks for reporting and strategic communication, excel at teaching?

Brophy: Big picture thinking: the ability to see the forest for the trees and connect dots; the need for curiosity and objectivity; the need to communicate clearly and cogently, written and verbal (including video); a liberal arts view of society and the world.

Cohn: The SJMC seems to excel at teaching students about the landscape of the industry and preparing students to identify their interest and launch their careers. The graduate school seems to be fertile ground for all manner of communication research. I believe that the school is still teaching students the basics of writing and reporting, though it feels like there is less emphasis there than there once was. Basic principles of journalism — from writing to story structure, reporting, sourcing, objectivity and ethics — should be foremost and fundamental, and frequently revisited. For the reporting sequence, maybe this is a given, but it should not be abandoned for students who move into strategic communication. Media literacy should be a key component, now more than ever.

Q: In your career, how did the skills you learned at UW figure into your career choices and professional development? 

Brophy: I always wanted to go into some of sort of strategic communications, which we called public relations back in the day. The SJMC validated my choice and provided me with the skills, knowledge and worldview to work in the field for 38 years, I’m pleased to say. The course work provided me with both underpinning theory of persuasive communications and stakeholder engagement as well as practicum. The group projects which we sometimes dread turned out to be an insightful prelude to corporate America and future nonprofit board work. But most importantly, my SJMC education taught me to be a better writer, to eliminate unnecessary words and to be as clear, cogent and understandable as possible. Knowing how to write well, even if you’re not a journalist, is key to thriving in a business setting, large or small. Your superiors, colleagues, partners and stakeholders need to understand what you’re expressing. Many of my colleagues today shake their heads over the state of interpersonal communication in corporate settings in that we now communicate via PowerPoint decks rather than via crisply written narratives and executive summaries. Thank you, SJMC, for this important instruction and practice!

Cohn: As a 1981 graduate, I am not sure how relevant this is to today’s students — which is not to say it shouldn’t be. The two most important things I gained from my SJMC experience were discipline in my reporting (I was already getting practical experience outside of school, but none of my bosses were teaching me how to formulate a story the way my professors were. I distinctly remember “re-learning” how to write a story in my Intro to Reporting class with Robert Taylor), and career placement. My first two jobs in television were a direct result of the efforts of Jim Hoyt, who, remarkably, still takes an interest in my career to this day. Also, not directly related to the SJMC, my Wisconsin liberal arts education has been very important. I wish I realized how important it would be at the time. It is important that we continue to teach students how to think and how to understand the world. It is not enough to provide career training. They can get that at a trade school or on the job.