I was just notified that I’m now a full professor at CUNY. I’m well aware that one could substitute faux for full as I’m not an academic; I’m a professional. So I’m all the more humbled by the title. I’m grateful to my deans — Steve Shepard and Judy Watson — and my fellow faculty and the trustees for it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through the process but I enjoyed it. Writing statements about my teaching, research, and service required me to think again about what I want to accomplish. Here is my personal statement.
I am grateful to our school for many things but mostly for this: freedom. CUNY has given me the freedom to explore ideas about journalism, the freedom to take on a new career in the classroom, and most of all the freedom to speak. Some may say I say too much, but it is thanks to this freedom that I am able to research, experiment, theorize, practice, and provoke and take part in debates about the future of journalism. And, yes, I most certainly believe there is a future (or else why would I be here?).
In his memoir, Deadlines and Disruption, our dean, Steve Shepard, tells the story of my first day on the job and the rather accidental path that led to my primary concentration at CUNY: entrepreneurial journalism. When Steve and I started discussing his plans for the school, I thought my main role here would be to teach and proselytize new forms and tools for news: new media, online news, digital media, interactive journalism; I’m still not sure what to call it.
I also had an idea for a class that would teach students the business of journalism because I believe our professional disdain for the commercial side of the industry as inherently corrupting helped make us irresponsible stewards of our trade. When I launched Entertainment Weekly, I found that I didn’t have the knowledge and experience necessary to protect my magazine from bad business decisions — only some of them mine — and I vowed I wouldn’t allow myself such ignorance again. Cleaning out our attic recently, I came across a 1993 job evaluation by my editor at TV Guide. It said, “Jeff’s enthusiasm for the business side overwhelms him and he wants to get involved in an area that is not compatible with his editorial role.” I ignored that advice. At that rapidly shrinking magazine, at the bankrupt Daily News, and then at Advance.net, where I spent 12 years before coming to CUNY, I schooled myself on every angle of our business that I could.
At CUNY, I wanted to teach students about the economics of news companies and the dynamics affecting our industry, helping them to find opportunity rather than dread in the profound disruption news was undergoing and to become the leaders who would build journalism’s future. I had the idea of teaching that worldview through exercises in inventing new products — a pedagogical device, really; I don’t think I imagined then that students would be so intent on starting their own businesses. The prelaunch curriculum committee shelved that course in favor of teaching more tools. But Steve and Judy Watson resurrected it and promised I could teach it. That was the first of innumerable times when our deans acted to encourage my work and thus challenge me to explore unfamiliar frontiers.
I am indebted to them both for their leadership, support, guidance, and mentoring. But this is a bittersweet moment as our leader, Dean Shepard, announces his well-deserved if nonetheless lamentable (for us) retirement. CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein charged Steve with building one of the top journalism schools in the country and if we do say so ourselves, he succeeded. Now begins a search for new leadership. As much as I trumpet the virtues of change and the opportunities presented by disruption for our industry, I will confess that personally, uncertainty unsettles me. Yet I hope this moment of change will prove good for us, as we continue to constantly question what we do and how we do it even as we validate — in our new strategy statement — the vision the dean laid out when he founded the school. I have faith that we will come through this transition because this is a school built for transition. From the moment we eliminated required media tracks, our faculty has demonstrated the courage to face and cause change. As our strategy document says, our school was born of disruption.
In my statements in this document, I will try to focus more on the future than the past, on the challenges I face and the opportunities we will see together. But in this personal statement I suppose it is appropriate to reflect for a moment on my past and my career, on how I got here.
I was planning to go to law school but in my freshman year at Claremont, I thought better of my ability to say “yes, your honor” and mean it. Searching for a new path, I realized that I enjoyed reporting and editing for my high school and college papers and thought that could make a fine career. So I transferred to Northwestern and then the Medill School of Journalism.
On the way there, in 1973, I started my first newspaper job for a suburban Chicago weekly, the Addison Herald-Register, and continued working full-time in the business until the day I quit to come teach. I was lucky to get my dream jobs early in life and lucky at each of them to have a mentor. I wish to credit them: Howard Spanogle (my high-school journalism teacher), Christie Bradford, Jennie Buckner, Milton Hansen, Jim Willse (at three companies), Jim Houck, Pat Ryan, Anthea Disney, Steve Newhouse, Judy Watson, Steve Shepard.
I worked at The Hawk Eye in Burlington, Iowa, as part of Medill’s Teaching Newspaper program — a great experience and the reason I was enthusiastic about our internship program from the start. I next interned on the Detroit Free Press in what was still called the women’s section. As I finished my last courses at Northwestern, I got an internship and then a job as a rewriteman — we still called the post that — and energy reporter for Chicago Today, covering the ’73 oil embargo, a great story. Today died a year to the day after I’d arrived. It was “the paper that has no tomorrow,” a heartless flack said to me as we worked on our last edition, even while our heartless owner, Tribune Company, was prying the nails out of our city desk. I caught the lifeboat to the big paper on the midnight shift. While waiting for shootings and fires to cover, I started playing with these new-fangled VDTs that dotted the newsroom. I was the kid who wasn’t afraid of this strange new technology and ended up training much of the newsroom on it. Little could I know how much technology could come to guide my career.
I became an assistant city editor at age 21 — dayside was the fringe benefit. Then I left for the San Francisco Examiner, where I edited the Examiner’s half of a combined Examiner-Chronicle Sunday paper and was plucked out to write a six-day-a-week column (the publisher liked a caption I’d written — such was my luck). After that same publisher and I came to disagree, New York beckoned and I went to People as a writer and then TV critic, which inspired me to write a memo proposing Entertainment Weekly six years before it eventually launched in 1990. In the vast entertainment choices brought to us by our new cable remotes and VCRs, there was confusion, and in that change I saw a need and an opportunity. I was inexperienced as a magazine editor and was able to bring EW to the market only with the help of amazing partners, including Joan Feeney and Peter Hauck (I’ve had the privilege of working with each of them again and both have been friends of our program at CUNY). EW went through a rough and notorious launch, but that’s a long story better told over beer.
I left over true creative differences and was hired by Jim Willse at the Daily News as Sunday editor, just as an ugly strike was about to begin. “Man,” said city desk wag Hap Hairston, “you jumped from the frying pan into the microwave.” After the News went bankrupt, I left for TV Guide as critic, also working on development projects. Then — after a very brief detour at News Corp’s fledgling internet acquisition, Delphi — I followed Willse again to Advance, just as this thing called a browser was released commercially. There I oversaw the content, technology, strategy, and launch of Advance’s 10 newspaper-affiliated sites (including NJ.com. NOLA.com, and OregonLive.com) and helped on the launches of its magazine-affiliated sites at CondéNet (including Epicurious, Style.com, Concierge, and others no longer with us). I also worked on projects at Random House, before Advance sold it, and Brighthouse Cable.
At Advance, I had the privilege of working for Steve Newhouse, who is unsung in our industry as an innovator and true believer in interactivity. It was Steve who taught me the value of opening up to conversation with the public. Steve schooled me in understanding the fundamentals of our business. He later tolerated my blogging and outspokenness. He also made it my job to seek out, learn from, and negotiate with entrepreneurs and technologists. One of them was Nick Denton. We invested in his company, Moreover, where I served on the board, and Nick also got us to invest in and save a mortally challenged startup with the silly name Blogger.
I clearly remember the day Nick demonstrated blogging to me. I confess I didn’t comprehend the big deal. But that changed after September 11, 2001. I was on the last PATH train into the World Trade Center as the first jet hit the north tower. To my wife’s continuing ire, I stayed downtown because, after all, I am a journalist. I was about a block from the south tower when it collapsed, thrown into utter darkness in the cloud of destruction. After taking shelter in a Chase tower, I walked to Times Square and wrote my story for online and print. Days later, I had more to share and so I started a blog, honestly believing I’d do it for a few weeks. Then two bloggers in Los Angeles read what I’d written, wrote about it in turn, and linked back to my blog. I wrote in response and linked to them. And that was my career-altering *ding* moment: Thanks to the link, we were having a conversation but in different places at different times. I began to see in rough form a new shape for media. I will admit that I thought this notion of news-as-conversation was fresh, until I had the privilege of meeting Columbia’s Jim Carey, who told me he’d built his career and scholarship around this idea.
To this day, I marvel at the power of the link to disrupt what we do, changing our relationship with the public we serve (who are now, to name one role, our true collaborators); the form of news (for example, isn’t a link often better service to the reader than a background paragraph — and once we start unraveling the article in such a way, where does that lead?); and the business models that sustain our important work (is it time to serve people as individuals rather than as masses and doesn’t that, too, require that we reset our relationship with the public?). Those are the themes I am pursuing in my work now: new relationships, forms, and models for news.
There is the education of a would-be educator. The threads that make me who I am are obvious in hindsight: finding opportunities in technology and disruption, questioning orthodoxies, benefitting from mentors’ guidance and collaborators’ help, facing business challenges, and embracing every opportunity to join a startup — like our school.