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I visited American University last month to try to answer a burning question for me: Why was the School of Communications there becoming such a hotbed for new forms of journalism? The Center for Social Media is there. The J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, moved to American from the University of Maryland. And Charles Lewis, the founder of the non-profit Center for Public Integrity, decided to start his new Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University as well.

I met with all the folks representing these centers at American and asked them my burning question in a series of video interviews, below. The answer kept coming back to a few factors: 1) the dean Larry Kirkman was an alchemist, a producer who brought people in from across disciplines; 2) the student body is interested in social justice and change; 3) Washington, DC, is a great place for academics to be part of the political action.

After my visit, Kirkman, the dean, wanted to clarify even more what he told me in the video interview. Here’s part of what he said:

We share a social mission. We can imagine a communications environment that supports a vigorous and inclusive public culture. We are anticipating and helping to shape it through educating the next generation of media professionals, innovative production that demonstrates what’s possible and communication research that informs and validates our work. Public affairs and public service cut across our three programs — journalism, film and media arts and public communication. The school is dedicated to media and democracy, media as a tool for public knowledge and action and the social responsibility of our professions and industries…

We are a communication laboratory, working at the intersections of these three disciplines, that provides a powerful platform for these centers, especially in contrast to the traditional silos of most journalism, film and public relations programs. So, among our professors: Lynne Perri, former editor for design, graphics and photography at USA Today, works with Dotty Lynch, former senior political editor and chief pollster at CBS News, who is in our public communication program and heads up our public opinion and audience research courses and projects. They both work with Bill Gentile, who is a former Newsweek photojournalist and a pioneer in backpack video, with an MS in Journalism from Missouri, who is in our film and media arts program. For example, all three of them are working with Amy Eisman, former USA Today founding editor, and David Johnson, former Scripps Media Service Chief Technology Officer, and Gannett on research, production and training projects.

Here are those video interviews:

Pat Aufderheide, head of Center for Social Media

Jan Schaffer, director of the J-Lab

Charles Lewis, director of the Investigative Reporting Workshop

Amy Eisman, head of writing classes at School of Communications

Larry Kirkman, dean of School of Communications

What do you think about American University’s bold moves into new forms of journalism and communications? Are you impressed or do you think the school could do better? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: In the comments below, American student Ethan Klapper says he likes what the School of Communication has been doing, but could be doing a better job with curriculum:

While J-Lab and the Center for Social Media are leaders of new journalism, the undergraduate journalism curriculum itself lags behind in my opinion.

For undergraduates, the only required ‘new journalism’ class is a new class called multimedia productions skills (added last year) that teaches students about basic HTML, audio recording and video production. However, I feel that my skills (and the skills of some of my friends) are already beyond the scope of this course. I will be taking it in the fall.

Perhaps most frustrating is the rumor that AU SOC is adding a new track to its journalism program — interactive journalism. I know many people who would jump at the opportunity to major in that instead of choosing the existing broadcast or, especially, print tracks.

Kid me not, the AU School of Communication is a great place to go to school. The professors are top-notch and I’ve been happy. However, I’d like to see SOC accelerate the implementation of its new journalism curriculum at the undergraduate level.

I’ve put in a query to the dean, Larry Kirkman, to get his reaction to Ethan’s comment and will update with his comment.

UPDATE 2: Here’s a comment I received via email from Jill Olmsted, the journalism division director, in response to student Ethan Klapper’s concerns about the school’s curriculum:

Curriculum reform is the No. 1 challenge facing all journalism programs. Just as newsrooms struggle to balance digital media skills with traditional skills and values, so are we. While we have made several curricular changes, more are on the way and it is good to read that our students are pushing for more.

I took over as journalism division director in January and reform is my first priority. So far we have added a required course called Multimedia Production Skills and added Writing for Convergent Media as an elective. I expect both to evolve with the times. We’ve held some undergrad focus groups on proposed tracks that Ethan may have heard about; we’re revising those plans based on input.

In the meantime, less systematically but just as important, we’re adding digital content to existing courses. Students are doing podcasts, weblogs, live blogs, using digital audio recorders and Flip cams for newsgathering, putting newscasts online in a program called ‘District Wire News,’ and of course are using social networking platforms. Professor David Johnson oversaw a partnership with CBS.com and NPR for an acclaimed Twitter report on the Inauguration. Both grads and undergrads were involved.

Continued undergrad curriculum reform is coming.

Reform is difficult for journalism and communication schools that have been focused on legacy media for so long. And just when they have a new media curriculum in place, it’s bound to shift quickly as technology changes so rapidly. We’ll see how American deals with the fast pace of change and whether they can satisfy the expectations of the student body.

(Note: AU professor David Johnson has another view on curriculum at AU in the comments below.)

UPDATE 3: The SOC dean Larry Kirkman also has responded to Klapper’s comments on the curriculum. Here’s part of his email response:

The School of Communication (SOC) is accredited every six years by ACEJMC, The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. Accreditation, with its commitment to a strong liberal arts education, limits our undergraduates to only 40 credits in communication courses, out of 120 credits required for a B.A. It’s a tight fit to cover writing, reporting and editing, and legal aspects, ethics and history, media production skills. We are continuously reinventing core courses and introducing new elective courses. For example, we’ve recently added Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting, International Investigative Reporting and Visual Strategies.

We count on students, in the spirit of Ethan Klapper’s comment, to push us to meet their needs and help us define, and shape, emerging professional roles. And, we learn from regular review by our peers. Last year, an Accrediting Council site visit team, chaired by Carla Lloyd, associate dean of the Newhouse School at Syracuse, and including Karen Dunlap, president of The Poynter Institute and Brooke Kroeger, director of NYU’s journalism program, found a curriculum that ‘provides a balance between theoretical and conceptual and professional courses (and) equips students for multi-media storytelling.’

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.