Stephen Shepard became dean of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism when it opened its doors to students in the fall of 2006. Prior to his appointment in 2005, he had been editor in chief of Business Week since 1984. To delve into some of the challenges confronted in preparing students for digital journalism—and to explore the opportunities—Shepard borrowed from Socrates his method of rhetorical examination, asking and responding to questions that he, his faculty, and students are hearing and discussing all the time.
This is a helluva time to start a journalism school. Where are your students going to get jobs?
I hear this sort of thing quite a lot, ever since we announced plans to launch the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. And, yes, it’s true that hardly a day goes by without word of another layoff at a major news organization or a decline in audience and advertising. But that is only half the story. The more encouraging news is that every day also brings talk of phenomenal growth at a newspaper Web site or the launch of a new innovation that enhances storytelling. Think of podcasts. Or citizen journalism. Or YouTube.
This bad news/good news moment is actually a wonderful time to start a j-school, an opportunity to participate in the re-imagining of journalism now going on throughout our profession. It is a time for students to learn the new tricks of the trade—what Jeff Jarvis, who runs our interactive program, calls the new “tool kit.”
Universities, after all, are the natural incubators of new ideas in every field. Why not journalism? Let’s think about the possibilities that technological change brings. Let’s think about new business models, or about hyperlocal content for newspapers, or how journalism can become a genuine conversation with our audience, or about the role of “citizen journalists” as eyewitnesses, using laptops, cell-phone cameras, and audio/video recorders.
As a new graduate school, we start with a clean slate. But we cannot escape a basic question facing all schools: What is the proper balance between teaching the new techniques of the digital age and imparting the eternal verities of journalism—the reporting, writing, ethical concerns, and critical thinking that are more important than ever? Like other schools, we are still grappling with these and other questions, but I believe we have taken some important initial steps.
Let me try to anticipate some of your questions:
Why did you choose a three-semester program?
We felt strongly that one year was too short to teach everything these times require. A three-semester program enables us to run a summer internship program between the second and third semesters. It gives us the time to go beyond teaching only the craft of journalism (reporting, writing, ethics) and add content specialties. We chose four: urban reporting, business/economics, arts/culture, and health/medicine. Each specialty offers three courses, enough to build a substantial base of knowledge, enabling students to develop the expertise and sources to do more sophisticated stories.
Finally, of course, a three-semester program enables us to teach all those new technologies—from Dreamweaver to GarageBand. Students can still choose a media track—print, broadcast or interactive. But they are all required to do assignments across media platforms.
How does your building lend itself to this new digital age?
We have more than 40,000 square feet built from scratch on two floors in the old New York Herald Tribune building in midtown Manhattan. The whole facility is wireless and, as our 50 pioneering students walk around with their Macintosh laptops (required), they are connected to the Internet from any place in the school. We have a large newsroom, TV and radio studios, and editing suites. In short, we have the Tribune’s traditional DNA in our walls and the new media convergence in our very air. It’s the perfect metaphor for what we hope to become as we gradually ramp up to more than 100 students.
Why even bother with media tracks? Why didn’t you just converge the entire curriculum?
Three reasons: First, when we studied other schools that had tried it, we saw lots of problems, primarily an overemphasis on technology at the expense of journalistic skills. Second, the idea of convergence is still developing, and many students and faculty feel more comfortable with traditional media tracks. Third, many news media companies demand specific skills, particularly in broadcast. The job market hasn’t yet shifted as much as rhetoric would suggest.
Will the day ever come when you’ll abolish media tracks?
Maybe. We talk about it all the time.
What is the most popular media track selected by your students?
Even in this day and age, print is the most popular, followed by interactive, then by broadcasting.
But isn’t print obsolete?
Print isn’t just about ink on paper. It emphasizes in-depth reporting, analytical writing, and critical thinking. It is journalism that seeks to provide understanding, context, insight and, on our best days, something approaching wisdom. This kind of journalism, which people associate with newspapers and magazines, can and should be done in all media formats.
Sounds very lofty. How, then, will you teach convergence?
In several ways. First, all students take a first-semester course called “Fundamentals of Interactive Journalism.” They discuss how technology is reshaping the media world. They learn to create Web sites, videos and podcasts. They blog. They learn to use the new tools.
We created something called the January Academy, a four-week intersession in which we offer workshops in new media technologies. For example, print and interactive students can take a workshop in audio and visual tools and production. Or learn how to use Final Cut software. Or take instruction in Photoshop. Throughout the year, we offer evening and weekend seminars in various multimedia skills for interested students.
Sounds like you’re training technicians.
No. We’re simply giving them tools to tell a story in new and different ways. It’s up to them to decide how best to report and present a story—in words, pictures, audio, video or interactively with a community. There’s more choice, more opportunity.
What about the eternal verities you mentioned earlier?
The traditional tools—reporting and writing—are the first tools they learn here. They remain front and center in every course. And if students want to become long-form magazine writers, they’ll find plenty of help here.
How do you teach convergence in the subject specialties, like business/economics?
Glad you asked. Let’s say we have a print student specializing in business journalism. In each of the three business reporting classes she’ll take, the student will do at least one story in another media format—for example, as a multimedia, interactive piece. It will likely be a Web-based package, with audio and video, with interactive elements, with links.
Can your faculty handle all this?
Some can. For example, our business and urban programs are headed by Sarah Bartlett, who was a reporter and editor at The New York Times and Business Week. She also worked at Oxygen Media and knows a lot about interactivity and multimedia. She’ll be able to evaluate the students’ work for both content and presentation.
But surely that’s not true for all of your faculty, right?
Right. That’s why we’re also training our faculty in these new tools. And if a faculty member doesn’t feel qualified to judge a video clip or podcast, we’ll ask Linda Prout, who runs our broadcast program, to take a look, or Jeff Jarvis, or Sandeep Junnarkar from the interactive program. We also plan to use multimedia “coaches” to work with faculty and students on these cross-platform projects.
How are the students taking all this? Some of them must be a bit confused.
Some of them are. Times of profound change are often confusing. I recently talked with two students about their choice of media tracks. They wanted all the advanced writing they would do in the print track, but they also wanted to use the new tools in the interactive track.
What did you tell them?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. We talked about their career goals, their strengths and weaknesses, their experience before they came here, and what they could best learn at school vs. on the job. I emphasized that, regardless of their choice, they would have opportunities to learn both sets of skills at CUNY.
What did they decide?
One chose interactive because he felt his reporting and writing skills were already pretty strong, and he wanted to work more with the new tools. The other chose print because she wanted to do more advanced writing and felt she could learn the technical skills on the job, if she needed them. They each made the right decision.
Have your views changed?
Sure. I’m learning along with everyone else. It’s great fun for an old magazine guy like me to participate in such profound change.