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Update: University media relations departments and j-schools

My post on the sometimes tense relationship between university media-relations departments and journalism professors who seek to use the campus as a teaching tool generated a gratifying number of responses — including some positive moves from the media-relations department at my own campus, Stony Brook University.

In the week since my post appeared, Lauren Sheprow, the interim media-relations director whose methods I criticized, has reached out to the editorial board of at least one campus news organization. On Wednesday, she met with editors of The Statesman, Stony Brook’s oldest student newspaper, to discuss matters of access and communication. And one Statesman reporter tells me that Ms. Sheprow responded to her request to interview a top university financial official with alacrity — after hours, no less — and arranged the interview well within the reporter’s deadline. This surely is not be the first time Ms. Sheprow has responded effectively to a Statesman reporter, but it is unusual enough to merit notice — and praise.

Whether my post galvanized Ms. Sheprow to take these steps, I can’t say, but whatever their impetus, I welcome them.

In one of her several comments on my post, Ms. Sheprow wrote:

…it is tragic that there are those who feel it is appropriate to mention someone by name in a disparaging blog post, yet fail to sign their own name at its conclusion. Why not take credit — and responsibility?

Gotta say I agree with you on this one, Lauren. While those comments reflected years of frustration with stonewalling, calls returned after deadline and the resulting inability to tell complete stories, nastiness is never dignified. And while I understand that current students may hestitate to criticize Ms. Sheprow on the record for fear of an even deeper freeze-out, I — like most readers — have much greater respect for those with the courage to sign their names.

A few other points: Continue reading


University media relations: help or hindrance for j-schools?

College and university journalism schools offer their students a built-in community to cover: the institution that houses their program. A campus offers practice in covering politics, budgets, race, education, crime, social trends – in short, many aspects of life in the wider world.

The institution’s media-relations personnel can play a key role in helping – or hindering – journalism educators who use the campus as a teaching tool. They can help students find scholarly and administrative sources for their stories, whether for class assignments or for the student media, or they can use their power to block access and prevent students from gaining needed reporting and interviewing experience.

The argument can be made that students must learn to deal with recalcitrant media-relations personnel, whom they will surely encounter as professionals. But questions arise: When does learning this lesson cease to be useful? What is the responsibility of a university administration to aid in the pedagogical efforts of the journalism program it sustains? Where the relationship has been problematic, have the parties resolved tensions and established useful working relationship? If so, how? What makes a good working relationship possible?

At Stony Brook, the opening of our School of Journalism in 2006 coincided with the departure of the university’s longtime spokesman, a former Newsday sportswriter. His replacement was the Continue reading

SBU/Journalism Commencement 2010: Our third graduating class

It’s over.

The busy spring semester is finally finished. All the work is graded, all the grades are posted, the orations have been heard and the cap, gown and master’s hood returned to the university bookstore. Our third class of graduates has moved its tassels from right to left.

I’m enormously proud of this group, as I have been of our first two graduating classes, but in some ways of this group just a bit more. These graduates embody not only their own talents and perseverence but also our growth as a faculty and a school.

It’s our biggest class yet (seven majors in 2008, 19 last year, 29 last week). Three are going to prestigious graduate programs in journalism (Columbia, CUNY). One has already started as a reporter for the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Recorder, a six-day-a-week newspaper near his upstate home. One has a job as a desk assistant with WCBS-TV/Channel 2 in New York, which she earned after proving herself in a semester-long full-time internship. Another expects offers from either of two major metro news websites. Another has been called back for a second interview at Cosmopolitan. Another will be attending law school at St. John’s University. For students graduating in this economy at this point in the evolution of the journalism industry, having a quarter of the cohort with something solid ahead of them seems a victory. And I expect to hear more good news in the coming months.

I’m confident because while we as a school still have a lot to figure out about what and how to teach, we’re learning from each class of graduates, making changes and building on our successes. One thing we’re learning to do better is teaching professionalism. We have emphasized resume writing, portfolio construction and mock interviews, and the results show in the confidence with which our graduates are approaching the job hunt. The Cosmo girl (couldn’t help that) practiced with me in our senior-project class. The assignment was to find a job posting online that she really wanted, tailor her resume and cover letter for that position, research the organization and then sit for a mock interview. When she went for the real thing, she was ready, with ideas for the website and a successful senior project on a difficult topic that showed she could report, write, produce a video, take digital photos and add interactivity online.

Our push for every student to have one solid journalism internship, if not two or three, is beginning to show results, too. Fewer students than I would have liked interned, but 14, nearly half, did, 10 more than once, at newspapers, websites, magazines, television and radio stations, the full gamut. A couple “walked,” as they say, in Friday’s commencement ceremony but are postponing their official graduation date until August to squeeze in one last internship that requires academic credit. We have 15 students interning for credit this summer, at last count, mostly juniors, so I expect the percentage with internships on their resumes to rise next year.

On the day of the ceremony, in their red caps and gowns, many seemed both joyful and anxious. Who could blame them for a few jitters as they leave the intimacy of our program for the big wide world? But they’ll do well. I believe this from the bottom of my heart.

Tenure tragedy

Having written about tenure recently, I wanted to comment on the tragic events at University of Alabama, which initial reports say had to do with Amy Bishop’s learning that she was denied tenure.

There are tragedies within tragedies on top of tragedies in this case. In no particular order —

  • the three faculty members Bishop is said to have killed leave behind families and students who will grieve for them
  • the discoveries these scientists will never make
  • the children of Amy Bishop and her husband, who will endure shame, fear, loss
  • the discoveries Bishop herself will not make; she was apparently quite a brilliant scientist
  • Bishop seems to have been a disturbed person; was she ever seen by a mental health professional? Could she have been helped?

I heard faculty joking about this case today. Callousness, or whistling past the graveyard? We live in a dangerous world.

Playing a different game in academia

Building a journalism school at a research university in a time of tightly constrained funds has to be an exercise in patience for the faculty looking in at the school. We’re such a different animal at this early stage of our development. Typically, first-time professors focus on their scholarship, with teaching and service — things like committee work — taking a back seat. New profs need to prove their intellectual chops, need to establish their cred at conferences and symposia, need to be published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals, need to write books. They need to develop a scholarly reputation that brings distinction to their universities.

That’s not how it’s working at my three-and-a-half-year-old school of journalism, which was born from a journalism minor in the fall of 2006.

First, there’s the teaching. Our founding dean, though an editor for many years, is a reporter at heart, and what he wants more than anything is to turn out reporters. So he’s hired former print reporters and their broadcast equivalents, producers, to fill the first five faculty openings. Academia is a second career for all of us; we’ve been playing one game all our working lives — journalism — and now we’re learning the ropes in another.

Second, there are all the administrative accoutrements that come with building a journalism program. There must be internships, so there must be an internship coordinator. There must be scholarship and awards committees. There must be a student advisory board with a faculty liaison. Because we are ambitious, and because globalization is an important consideration at our university, there must be a study-abroad program. There must be a school website. There must be advising. There must be contact with the rest of the university in the form of representation on committees and senates. In fact, there’s so much to do administratively that each of us professors spends almost as much time on admin as we do on teaching.

Third, we are building this school at a time of unprecedented disruption in the business of news. Neither radio nor television did as much to change the way news is gathered, delivered and paid for as that incredible boon and incredible bane, the Internet. I would say that 2006 through 2008 could turn out to be the most chaotic years of this disruption. In 2007, when I began teaching Journalism 24/7, it was still unclear what was going to happen to newspapers and television. Knight Ridder still existed, as did the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Dow Jones was an independent company. Dan Rather still delivered the CBS Evening News. Twitter was in its infancy. Facebook was a toddler. Smartphones didn’t exist.

While there is much change still to come, the outlines of that change are much clearer now than they were such a short time ago. We have a better perspective now. This blog is a sign that I’m ready to begin articulating what it means to be teaching journalism to 21st-century students. As the administrative responsibilities begin to settle into a routine, and the changes in the industry seem less earth-shattering, an opportunity for reflection and writing has opened.

What does this all mean? I’m thinking about the tenure process. I still have a couple of years to put my academic life in order, but I worry about colleagues whose cases will be considered sooner, colleagues who are brilliant journalists and dedicated teachers but simply haven’t had time to produce significant scholarship. I can only hope that the powers that be will recognize the special circumstances of our situation and base their decision on their potential for academic accomplishment and the reality of their immeasurable contributions to building our program.

A New Year, A New Blog

January 2, 2010. 01/02/10, 01/02/2010. How anagrammatical. Or, as I’m among many to observe, how palindromatic. Inside the J-School Evolution has two purposes. One is to examine how the Internet revolution, which is reshaping the news industry, is driving changes to the journalism academy. It’s a parallel journey. Just as legacy news businesses — newspapers, magazines, network television — are thrashing about in a frenzy, trying to hold onto readers, viewers and advertisers in an era of free content, journalism schools are striving for new ways to prepare students for a very different industry than the one we professors came up in.

It’s a constant amazement that students are flocking to j-schools despite constant reports  of layoffs, cutbacks in coverage, shuttered publications and the rest of that grim litany. Young people want to tell stories. They want to share information. They’re turned on by the things that alternately intrigue and terrify their teachers: transparency, change, community. The school  at which I teach, the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, is midway through its fourth year of existence and has nearly 300 majors and 70 minors. Our youth as a school makes us more flexible than some long-established institutions, yet we, too, struggle to anticipate what will best serve our graduates.

At the same time, the fundamentals of journalism remain paramount. Those venerable ABCs: Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. How to get there? Research. Interviewing. Proper syntax. Quantitative literacy (the clear and accurate use of numbers). Writing about how I teach the fundamentals in the Internet Age is the second purpose of this blog.

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