How Much Does Physical Space Matter in Journalism Education?

    by Anna-Cat Brigida
    September 22, 2014
    Photo by Brett Van Ort/USC Annenberg.

    Engaging curriculum, knowledgeable professors and well-run student news organizations — these are just a few aspects that contribute to a successful journalism education. Another factor could soon populate this list: an innovative and collaborative journalism school building.

    Amid scores of other uncertainties brought by the digital disruption, many programs are wrestling with a new question: does the space where journalism students learn really make a difference in their education?

    “Our behind-the-scenes systems are designed to converge. It’s not just what you see but what you don’t see, too.” - Serena Cha

    A closer look

    A new five-story, collegiate Gothic-style building greets students at the University of Southern California this academic year. Passersby can glance inside the glass windows to see the Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication’s nearly $60 million project.


    Walk inside Wallis Annenberg Hall and you encounter a forum designed to showcase guest speakers and events. Look left through the glass walls to see students work diligently in the Media Center. They discuss story ideas at the central assignment desk, finalize their audio or video project in an editing booth or stay updated on breaking news by glancing at one of the many television screens.

    Wander farther upwards to discover 23 classrooms, each with a different layout and purpose. Furniture moves freely to adapt to a professor’s needs. The third floor features a digital lounge that offers workshops and collaborative study space. Then head up to the fourth floor and take a look down. From there, you can peer at the forum through the hollow center of the building.

    Photo by Brett Van Ort/USC Annenberg.

    Photo by Brett Van Ort/USC Annenberg.


    “The building itself offers opportunities for learning in formal and informal settings,” Journalism School Director Willow Bay said. “We have classrooms that are multi-purpose, multi-functional rooms that can be configured to the needs of the class. You also have opportunities for informal gathering spots with other students and faculty much in the way that they do with start-ups where people gather in the hub and share ideas.”

    The space is bigger, technology better and design newer, but will this improve the educational experience of this year’s journalism, public relations and communications students at USC Annenberg?

    Crafting a vision

    Molly Steenson, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializes in the relationship between media and architecture. While classrooms with an aesthetically pleasing layout are inspiring, she said, ultimately the students make the experience.

    “I’ve also had great classes in a classroom that wasn’t quite so pretty and the students still turn out great work,” Steenson said. “I don’t think that it’s the classroom that makes the thinking. It’s the students and their engagement with what they are working on that makes the inspirational end product.”

    Yet Wallis Annenberg Hall is more than just inspiring classrooms.

    From the start of the design process four years ago, the team sought to establish more than a design plan. They crafted a vision for journalism education. The main goals were transparency, nimbleness, collaboration and innovation.

    Every element of the building, from the study spaces to the forum to the Media Center, embraces these goals.

    “People talked about how they wanted to use a new building and they wanted a lot of these gathering spaces,” said Serena Cha, USC Annenberg professor and executive director of the Media Center. “That’s why this building reflects the wishes of the students, faculty and staff members.”

    According to Cha, who has been involved in the planning and design process for three years, the building reflects extensive research conducted to tailor the building to the Annenberg community. The design team toured academic institutions and news organizations, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Bloomberg News, to find inspiration.

    The result: the Media Center

    This research led to what Annenberg students use now. The cornerstone of the building is the Media Center, the student newsroom that Cha oversees.

    Here all the Annenberg news organizations — print, online, radio and television — gather to create, collaborate and innovate.

    The two-story student newsroom features a central assignment desk where all the heads of these organizations gather. When students cover a story, they report to the front desk where they can speak with all editors.

    This allows students to collaborate and think about producing content across all media.

    Will Federman, executive editor of Annenberg’s digital news site Neon Tommy, said the space has made all the difference.

    Last year, Neon Tommy’s offices could barely fit 10 people. As a result, writers worked remotely and collaboration with other news outlets within Annenberg was difficult and forced.

    Annenberg TV News had a similar problem. The organization formerly resided in a basement where reporters couldn’t even get cell phone service.

    Faith Miller, executive producer at Annenberg TV News, said the new space has given the organization a rejuvenation of energy.

    Now communication across Annenberg’s news outlets is effortless. This means that students are now learning the ins and outs of video, radio, writing and web production.

    USC Annenberg faculty and technicians begin installation and setup of the master control room for Annenberg TV News in Wallis Annenberg Hall. Photo by Brett Van Ort/USC Annenberg.

    USC Annenberg faculty and technicians begin installation and setup of the master control room for Annenberg TV News in Wallis Annenberg Hall. Photo by Brett Van Ort/USC Annenberg.

    “Our behind-the-scenes systems are designed to converge,” Cha said. “It’s not just what you see but what you don’t see too.”

    What you don’t see is the state-of-the-art technology students use to capture and edit their work, the sense of teamwork and the exchange between students as they learn from each other.

    The impact

    None of this was possible in the former Annenberg space. According to Bay, just a step inside the Media Center shows how the space improves the student experience at Annenberg.

    “When you go into that Media Center and you feel the energy, it feels like newsroom,” Bay said. “You have the energy. You have the buzz. You have the heat.”

    This is what will prepare students for their future jobs in the media, which is exactly what lead project manager Charles Peyton envisioned for the student experience in the Media Center.

    “It pushes the envelope enough so that students will be prepared for what’s next,” Peyton said.

    To students like Miller, the Media Center or Wallis Annenberg Hall as a space does not define the student experience but the mentality that accompanies it.

    “In 10 years, this is going to be outdated,” Miller said. “You can’t buy brand new technology every two years, but you can just maintain the mentality that journalism is changing. Are we changing fast enough to teach the next generation of journalists?”

    Anna-Cat Brigida studies print and digital journalism at USC Annenberg. She reports on community issues for Intersections South LA. She aspires to be a foreign correspondent in Latin America. Check out her work here. Follow her on twitter here

    Tagged: annenberg school for communication and journalism collaborative journalism journalism education journalism students usc annenberg wallis annenberg hall

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