Change 101

Reading Vin Crosbie’s piece about the resistance to change and general obstructionism he has found teaching at journalism school (he doesn’t say it, but he has spent the year at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University), it makes me triply glad I am teaching at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. This will come off as blatant self-promotion for the school but so be it.

Vin said: “What I found were faculties resistant to change and students whose insights and mastery of new media were being eroded by the authoritative resistance to change of so many professors. . . I’ve also discovered that media academics follow, rather than lead, their industries.”

When I arrived at CUNY, I feared I would find what Vin did. But I haven’t, not at all. I thought I might be marginalized as the crazy guy. But that hasn’t happened.

Instead, in the last few months, I’ve been teaching the faculty itself in all the tools of online: blogs, wikis, RSS, video, SEO, and on and on. The best part of this has not been my colleagues’ receptivity to, curiosity about, and eagerness to adapt the tools themselves in their classes but the discussion we have shared about the impact of these tools on journalism and education. We’ve had rich back and forth on the new architecture of media and news that the impact of this change on journalism education.

I don’t mean to say that my colleagues immediately drink my Kool-Aid; there is disagreement and debate, as I’d hope there would be. At last week’s session, for example, I showed Twitter, predicting that a few of my fellow profs would shake their heads at the tchotchkefication of the world into 140 characters’ worth of words. Heads did shake. One of the professors said she gets the impact on journalism of other technologies we’ve discussed — indeed, she is using them, creating class blogs and more. But she challenged me to demonstrate the journalistic relevance of this one. Fair enough. I showed news organizations using Twitter to distribute headlines and bulletins. I talked about other news organizations, like, using Twitter to report on breaking news live. I told them that I’d just seen the BBC and Reuters using Twitter to extract news (by, for example, searching for big-event tripwords like “explosion” and “earthquake”); the thought is that Twitter could be the canary in the news coal mine and that similar use of Flickr, YouTube, Technorati, and other services will surface witnesses’ pictures, video, and accounts. I passed that quiz.

Here’s the Keynote we’ve been using as notes for this discussion.

At CUNY, we are teaching the tools of all media to all students and requiring them to make stories in various media throughout their time there. The faculty are learning the tools as well (I say “are learning” instead of “have learned” because it’s a neverending process). At the same time, we are trying to plan how to pull down the walls between old media tracks — print, broadcast, interactive — while still preparing students for specialized jobs. We believe we have to be careful not to be overeager with this because we risk getting ahead of the job market. But there is no resistance at all to the idea that all journalists must work in all media.

More important, we realize that we are teaching change. Rich Gordon at Northwestern has said this, too: We have to get our students ready to adapt as the tools inevitably evolve. But, of course, more than the tools change. The structure of the craft changes and with it the relationship of journaliasts with the public and with newsmakers. The structure of the industry changes and with it their jobs. And the structure of narrative changes as we have new ways to tell stories. So we are also teaching our students choice. They no longer pick a medium at the beginning of their careers and stick with it. Now, every time they tell a story, they have to make choices about the best ways to do that for their audience and for the story itself. Not all students like this much choice at first; some wish we’d just tell them how to do it. But we agree that choice is one of the key skills we have to teach. That was the discussion we had at our faculty tools session last week.

How am I so lucky? I think it helps that we are a new school without a legacy to protect; instead, we are building one. It also helps that the deans recruited a great faculty and that we both get along well and, as it has turned out, agree about the need to teach change while we also teach what we love to call the eternal verities of journalism: accuracy, fairness, reporting. . . . And it helps that we are drawing students who know they are part of a new school in an industry undergoing upheaval; they are daring and they demand that we are as well. They are the ones who are going to change journalism and that’s why I took this job.

We also see that helping and leading the industry in change is part of our mission. That’s why we got a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to hold meetings in networked journalism last fall and in new business models for news this fall. We got a grant from McCormick Tribune for my entrepreneurial journalism course. We got one from Knight to help bloggers learn what the needed about media law. We are about to announce something else along these lines.

We’re far, far from perfect. Every term, we learn — from listening to our students — how to better teach our courses, adjusting syllabi as well as the curriculum. In the videos here, I describe the interactive courses to new students just admitted and we are now trying to do a better job of telling them just what tools and skills they will learn at what level. That’s an improvement. I am also constantly struggling with finding ways to teach interactivity when student journalists don’t have a public with whom to interact (any ideas, please share them). So we must change, too.

Here are the relevant slides about the interactive program.

I can’t speak for any other journalism school anywhere. And I think that Vin said what needs to be said to the academy and the industry. All I can say is that I shared Vin’s fears but I have seen that it is possible for journalism education to change and — only time will tell — lead.

In the meantime, Vin, come on by for coffee.

: ALSO: We’ve just announced our 100,000-mile warranty for students, enabling them to keep up on and brush up on new tools and skills after they graduate.