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    Why is American University Becoming Center for New Journalism?

    by Mark Glaser
    June 18, 2009
    i-d68a577f6a48360ea59e19da608f209b-american u building.jpg

    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:

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    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:

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    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.

    Tagged: american university center for social media investigative reporting j-lab
    • Frenk

      It’s hard to comment the videos if there is no sound. (Played in Mozilla Firefox 3.0.11)

    • That’s weird. I’m not having any sound issues when I play them. Try going to the Blip.tv site at mediashift.blip.tv and see if that works better.

    • Frenk

      Blip.tv didn’t work either. So it seems to be a bug in Firefox. With Internet Explorer 8 it works smoothly.

      Judging from the other side of the pond I must say that I’m impressed. In particular, Charles Lewis’ notion of “…stir up dust, kick arses, taking names…” is something about investigative journalism that I am missing in Europe and Switzerland. Those american guys seem to take “the fourth power” seriously. Moreover, the visions seem to be appropriate and at the right time. Over here media are struggling, turnover dropped by 30% in 3 months, whole departments are being closed down and people fired. I am sure the critical reader will profit from the output of such a school.

    • Ethan Klapper

      First off, I really appreciate this great publicity for my school. I really enjoy going there and feel that there are many aspects of the experience that are great.

      But the problem I have here is that there’s an air of uncertainty with SOC’s curriculum right now.

      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.

      I’ve heard that Professor Eisman’s Writing for Convergent Media is a great class, yet it is not mandatory for students to take.

      Perhaps most frustrating is the rumor that AU SOC is adding a new track to it’s 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.

      Ethan Klapper
      American University School of Communication, Class of 2011

    • I was able to watch videos no problem in firefox .. Fyi.

      Sounds like a great program, and I’m glad to know where innovation is happening. My worry is that j-schools will get as stuck in the old ways as some newspapers are. I’m glad to hear about schools that are really surging ahead as institutes of learning should.

    • First things first: Frenk: I have audio problems with Firefox too. I turn to IE when watching videos online.

      Second: Yay American University! Really glad to see a report on my alma mater. Thanks Mark.

      -Andrea James
      reporter, seattlepi.com
      AU class of ’03

    • Thanks for visiting AU, Mark. Sorry again I wasn’t on campus to chat when you dropped by.

      As one who teaches this material, I might note that there are ample training opportunities for software and online production skills around the university, such as the CTE New Media Center, as well as in the curriculum, both at the graduate and undergraduate level. We offer straight-up courses in Web design and Web development at the 400/600 level, as well as those with more specific focus to the content. For the most cutting edge work, I’m usually supervising independent study courses.

      Multimedia production skills is a baseline course for communication in the new media space. Just as we’ve taught mass media or basic writing for years, we’ve built in this fundamentals skills course. I’m encouraged to see how new media materials and techniques are simply being incorporated by professors into existing courses. The real focus is still on storytelling, we’re just working with new tools and finding the best tool to tell a particular story.

      My operating philosophy at SOC is that we are building leaders, not training drones. An alumni from AU should be able to drop into any production environment and be able to start contributing value immediately, become an advocate for change and innovation, or be empowered to launch their own product and lead by example.

      The greatest lesson we teach our students is how to teach themselves and others. Part of this experience is seeking the knowledge and creating the opportunity. AU’s students are engaged, critical thinkers with creative minds who work with a collaborative faculty that is plugged into the cultural change moment while strongly rooted in core values and purpose.

      We’re not reacting to the change, we’re working together to lead it.

    • Benet Wilson

      I graduated from AU in 1985, when there were still typewriters in the newsroom. I feel that the education I received at American University was part of the reason I have been able to make the transition from an old school print writer to a multimedia journalist. I’m glad to see that students have access to the tools that will be required when they graduate. I just hope Dean Kirkman will move ahead with more new media curriculum so I can start hiring AU grads!

    • John Ferrari

      It’s been a while since my AU graduation but I try to keep up with what’s going on and what I’ve been seeing for some time now is a willingness to self-promote that was once non-existent outside of SIS. The university has always had a lot of talented students and faculty but not so much in the way of institutional pride. I see that continuing to emerge now from a distance and it’s a healthy development which is likely a significant factor in attracting vibrant people and organizations … I hope the trend continues.

    • American was progressive even when I was there (11 years ago now), so I am not surprised at the spirit, but rather the ability to execute with the same immediacy as the Web.

      Go American!

    • Eagle

      I can say with 100% certainty that I did not learn a single thing in the AU School of Communication. Wait I take that back, I learned I needed to go to graduate school somewhere else to get an education.

    • Grant

      As an AU grad myself – who has done a lot of new-media and political work with my degree. I was frustrated while I was at AU that it seemed the students were driving the new-media advances. Yet, as I have graduated, I’ve realized just how far above trends AU is.

      I mean, we are writing basic memos on how to best use facebook to corporations and campaigns for $80 and hour. I’m not sure AU did it on purpose – but it sure works out well for Grads.

    • Questioner

      Does it seem strange to anyone in the new media institute that journalism majors are very skewed toward liberal ideas? Shouldn’t there be some kind of balance in the recruiting of students and faculty. Affirmative action maybe?

      I have never heard of a large media outlet or school try to find out if this imbalance might be a part of the reason for old media’s decline. If it was wouldn’t you want to know for sure. Then it might be possible to save the papers.

      I think their must be a nagging feeling in main stream journalist minds. As soon as it was possible to find other sources lots of people took it. Kind of damning don’t you think. Maybe it could just be that journalists no longer represent regular people and don’t understand the economics of their lives?

    • Thrive Learning

      Hi! Its one of the best post and this is very creative so keep up the cool post.Thanks a lot.

    • Ally Desrochers

      Hi,

      My goodness, where have “ya’ll” been?? I NEED A JOB; and rather desperately. Even during an economic depression/recession… with all the aforementioned accolades to American U.’s School of Communication… I still come up empty handed, wounded and strapped-for-cash.
      Please hire me. American University, ’06, Govt. and Journalism.

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