Reinventing J-School: We get the Gillin imprimatur

It’s nice when someone whose opinion you value tells you, “You’re doing the right things.”

Responding to the invitation I issued in one of my first posts on this blog, Paul Gillin, creator of the widely read Newspaper Death Watch blog, came to Stony Brook University last week to see for himself what we’re doing at our 4-year-old School of Journalism — how we’re reinventing j-school at a time of chaos (or challenge and opportunity, as my dean prefers to call it) — in the news industry. He liked what he saw.

“Journalism Educators Who Get It,” the title of his post about his time with us, was a nice change from “Misshaping Young Minds,” the post he wrote just before he arrived, or “J-Schools Get an F in Finance,” the post he wrote back in February that triggered my invitation to him.

He liked our News Literacy program. He liked our multiplatform worldview, our insistence that every student learn to write and edit text, to shoot digital photos, to shoot and edit video, to blog, to create interactive news elements. He liked the 18-credit interdisciplinary concentrations each of our journalism majors completes in addition to 47 credits in journalism. (A typical course is 3 credits.) Ditto our required senior project, in which students spend six weeks reporting a story and then tell it three ways: in text, in video or audio, and interactively. Ditto Journalism 24/7, the class I teach on the history, present and possible futures of the news business. Ditto that each student in the class reflects on what he or she is learning via twice-weekly blog post.

He had ideas for us, too, some that I liked a lot and others that I liked less. I liked his suggestion that we expand on the concept of our new Center for Communicating Science, which is about to have its first big event at Brookhaven National Lab, and provide a thread of courses teaching writing, blogging, audio and video skills to undergraduates from all disciplines. Scientists outside of the information-technology area lag in understanding how to use the power of the Internet, as my friend Denis Pelli, a psychology professor at New York University, showed poignantly when his timely panel on the subject drew a meager audience.

I liked his insight that Web sites will decline in importance as information consumption rolls inexorably onto mobile devices. This comment startled my colleague Wasim Ahmad, who cherishes good Web design and has made design central to his teaching philosophy. Food for thought: Original design won’t mean much when most people get to the Internet via the tiny screen of a smartphone.

I didn’t agree with Gillin’s print-is-dead pronouncements. Media history has shown that new platforms are built on the old while the old learn how to live with the new, processes definitively described in 1997 by Roger Fidler in his essential work, “Mediamorphosis: Understanding the New Media”: “Coevolution and coexistence, rather than sequential evolution and replacement, have been the norm.” People still hunger for print. The audience for print is shrinking but not vanishing. For j-schools, this means coevolution and coexistence in course offerings. Continue to teach writing and copy editing, layout and headline writing, but make room in the curriculum for all students to learn the other modes of communication, too.

That’s how you get to a 47-credit journalism major.

I’m still wrestling with the argument Gillin made, one made by many on the leading edge of journalistic entrepreneurialism, that the wall between editorial and business is not sacrosanct, that it is being eroded by journalists’ need for survival skills. Yes, journalists need to make money in an era of fewer staff jobs and click-driven metrics, but (to round up the relevant cliches and mix a metaphor or two), it’s a slippery slope, and you can’t serve two masters.  Of all that the faculty discussed with Gillin, this idea gave my colleagues the most trouble.

We are a forward-thinking group and we’re doing a lot that earns the praise of those who, like Paul Gillin, seem to see clearly where the news industry is going. But as a faculty, we have some old-school ideas about right and wrong.

My next post will report on Gillin’s visit to my classroom and how our students responded to his vision.

  1. Indeed it’s true that Mr. Gillin’s comments on design gave me a lot of pause. It’s something I’ve struggled with a bit myself – does one need a traditional homepage to serve as a hub for all of the spinoff information – i.e. tweet, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, etc? Or is it enough to have a slick blog and make that home base?

    For now, I’m leaning toward the first way of doing things – borrowing the model from “old guard” media such as the NY Times (NYtimes.com is their hub, but there’s a host of other ways to go about getting their information) and established freelancers such as Joe McNally (www.joemcnally.com is his hub for all of his social media spinoffs). That said – Mr. Gillin and many others do just fine with a blog as a central site.

    One thing teaching good Web design does afford, though, is that in the process, students learn a lot of the technical points that they’ll need to know to figure out how to effectively leverage social networks, multimedia sites, blogs, etc.

    Thanks for the post – and for extending the invitation to Mr. Gillin to visit our school. I certainly appreciated hearing his thoughts on the industry.

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