My CU-Boulder J School Letter, Part TwoPosted on November 17th, 2010 No comments
On the eve of the University of Colorado’s expected recommendation to close its Journalism School (for which I’m an advisor), I just sent this letter to Provost Russell Moore and Exploratory Committee chair Merrill Lessley. I copied Chancellor Phil DiStefano.
Russ & Merrill,
I want to thank you for meeting with the CU Journalism School Advisory Board last week. It gave me a better idea of what the exploratory committee is thinking.
I was particularly happy to hear that you are not, in fact, proposing a faculty-only research institute — something I believe would be a tragedy if done at the expense of undergraduate and graduate education. A state-funded university should always be first and foremost about its students, and any research and development must also include students as much as possible.
You may remember me as the angry board member who spouted off about his discontent with the SJMC discontinuance / exploratory process at a public hearing, then expounded on my blog. I’m still dissatisfied with the process, but just to be clear, I am 100% in favor of the reinvention of journalism education — and then some — and I am still in favor of the school’s discontinuance.
More to the point, I’m passionate about the need to give CU students rich, interdisciplinary, project-based experience. Why? Because that is what I received from CU 16 years ago (more on that later).
What You Have to Gain
CU now has a unique opportunity to not only teach students about responsible and effective uses of digital publishing, but to help them “learn by doing” with other students from business, computer science, law and even art & design. These are the important roles in any startup, business and even non-profit, and the most novel innovations always come out of companies where people of such different and complementary backgrounds work together.
If you set up this new entity the right way, I think it’s likely that the next Google or Facebook will come out of CU — but with much more thought put into their desirable effects on society.
Why should you believe me? I have a unique background as a Boulder entrepreneur who attended the School of Engineering and College of Music for two years, then graduated from the School of Journalism. Think of me as someone who created his own ATLAS experience before ATLAS existed.
Since earning my CU degree, I have worked on the leading edge of user-contributed content and social networking at iconic brands like The Washington Post and Knight Ridder, as well as “pure-play” Internet companies like America Online and now my own Boulder-based startup, FeedBrewer.
Thinking back to my college days, it was interdisciplinary experiences with other students that best prepared me for my career. Through what was then called the Campus Press newspaper (now the CU Independent), I digitized all operations and put the “paper” online for the first time — quite literally stumbling about in the dark of Macky Auditorium and learning as I went along. This experience prepared me for a career in the digital operations of iconic news brands, and now my own startup company.
But thanks to my journalism classes, I was also well prepared for the responsibility side of providing digital news and information. My training in writing, research methods, accurate and fair reporting, ethics and media law gave me valuable skills that I use to this day. And while I didn’t take any advertising classes, what I learned about business while running the Campus Press — which under my watch was brought out of $50,000 in debt for the first time — gave me a good grounding in business and marketing.
What You Stand to Lose
So now let me get to the point of what I am most concerned about, which speaks to what Merrill Lessley means when he says that what’s at stake is the future of human society. And it speaks directly to the main reason I supported discontinuance.
As legacy media companies and “media forms” falter and fail, the core needs that they fill for communities are being taken up by entrepreneurial startups (both for- and non-profit). This is a great thing, but these organizations are in large part unequipped to deal with their new responsibility to society.
I personally feel a sense of guilt about this, because at AOL and now even at my BookBrewer.com startup, I fanned the flames that allow anyone to publish to a community of interest — something that not that long ago was only possible for a newspaper, magazine, TV or radio station.
I firmly believe that digital self-publishing is the purest expression of Democracy and I’m proud of what I’ve helped happen, but where our society is gaining in some ways, it’s losing in others. People are increasingly getting their news from ideologically filtered sources, and even from commercial brands like consumer packaged goods (yes, now even Tide is a source of news and information!)
These new types of organizations and companies need the same basic training in truth, accuracy, fairness, research, and good writing that are taught in journalism schools — and currently ONLY journalism schools. And how will they get these skills? From their university.
This is About Society, Not Industry
Where I probably differ from some is that I really don’t care what happens to legacy media companies anymore, or the “news industry” as it is currently organized. Despite a lot of attempts (including by me) to help these companies innovate from within, I now feel that most are destined to disappear. Their problems go beyond their ability to embrace technology, and go straight to how these companies are managed and the business models upon which they’re built. Most will fail because they simply cannot save themselves.
Realize that this is quite a statement from someone who only a few years ago receive a “20 Under 40″ award from the Newspaper Association of America. It’s not that I dislike newspapers — I just don’t think their organizations have been able to change quickly enough.
This makes training the individuals and startups that are already replacing these organizations all the more urgent. As a society, it’s in all of our best interest to ensure that the next generation of “journalists” however that is defined are trained in the most important values that the news industry has fostered for centuries.
The Path Ahead
In closing, I urge you to think hard about how to provide the right mix of journalism education along with ample opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students of many disciplines to collaborate and learn together. If CU can graduate seniors who have hands-on experience working on projects — or even developing products — in conjunction with students who have different backgrounds and expertise (software engineering, business, content, community, and even entertainment) they will be the most sought-after graduates in the country. And society will be all the better for it.
If, however, you kill your journalism school and create a faculty-only research institute (an expensive playground), you will be part of society’s problems and not their solutions. Please choose the right path!