Archive for February, 2010
Why are we innovating?
(1) What we’ve been doing is increasingly less useful for our students or industry. Too much has changed.
(2) Demand for our current products is changing and possibly declining.
(3) The need for what we can produce is higher than ever.
(4) The state of our economy requires us to remain productive but spend less money doing it.
(5) We need to demonstrate our relevance and usefulness within the university to survive.
What are we innovating?
I don’t consider students “products.” But for the purposes of this thought exercise, I think it is useful to be very clear about what we are discussing. Innovation is so often conceived as a product-related activity that the analogy is useful for the moment.
We produce two products: educated students and new knowledge. Our purpose for both products is that they contribute in meaningful ways to a better quality of life for our community, state and country. This sounds lofty and abstract, but if we are able to make this purpose more concrete and real, our innovations will be more successful in the long run. The obvious need for improving public life, social conditions, culture, governance and economy in our state is highly motivating.
We can innovate in our methods: how we produce our products (students and knowledge). And/or we can innovate with what kinds of students or knowledge we produce.
Some might argue that journalism schools produce journalism, and that our innovation should be to produce innovative journalism. Our school does not produce journalism at the moment, other than through what our students produce. If we change this then we could include journalism as our third product.
PRODUCT 1: STUDENTS
We have defined our primary product as a student who is an excellent writer, versatile in the use of multiple media technologies and capable of creating accurate, ethical, and professional work in the journalism, advertising and public relations industries. To do this, part of our job is to weed out students who will not make high quality practitioners in these industries. Do we want to maintain this position? If so, then our innovation will be focused on how to make these future professionals more skilled, smarter and adaptable to compete for the increasingly scarce jobs available to them. We will position ourselves as a highly focused, demanding program for those who are motivated to compete in an exciting, challenging set of industries. We recognize that we would prove our worth not by size but quality.
If we chose to keep the production of professional journalists/communicators as our primary activity we will do so in the recognition that significant change in what we teach will still be necessary, given the deeply structural changes in the way journalism and media are created, produced, distributed, shared, linked, consumed and remixed.
If, on the other hand, we believe that journalism practices could be of value to a wider population, we could position ourselves to serve a much wider university population. In this approach to innovation, we could change or expand our product line. If we believe the demand for skilled journalism professionals is declining, what other type of student might we productively produce in our program?
– Students skilled in innovative thinking, practices, and creativity relevant to journalism and communication
– Students committed to active public citizenry through the use of journalism and communication practices
– Students skilled in the academic study of communication and journalism
– Students literate in using and contributing to media/journalism informally
– Students capable of using media technologies for use in a wide range of disciplines
– Students capable of using journalistic forms of communication for use in a wide range of industries
– Students focused on communication/journalism in one discipline — environment, business, law, politics
The more ‘products’ we chose to include in our mix, the more challenging it will be to maintain focus and direction. It may be that we have one focus for students in their freshmen and sophomore years and different choices for juniors and seniors. Or, we may have faculty members group themselves together, not in departments or sequences, but according to the type of products they want to produce together. We could have multiple focused minors or multiple majors.
PRODUCT 2: NEW KNOWLEDGE
As part of a land grant university, our mission is to create practical and intellectual forms of knowledge that benefit our state and community. Historically, this product has been developed solely at the discretion of individual faculty members, with little consultation or coordination. We can continue this practice, or we can discuss alternative ways of aligning our collective research direction. We can continue to separate our ‘product lines’ (students and knowledge) and assume little overlap between them or we can decide to align our innovative energy in a particular direction.
Deciding the direction of our innovation requires taking stock of the resources we have at hand and the most important of those are the skills and interests of our faculty. We have strengths. We have holes. How might we expand our strengths and fill the holes? In what areas might some of us want to re-focus, change, contribute? Too much attention to existing interests will limit our reach and ultimate success but at the same time, ignoring existing interests could lead to failure.
Once we know what we want to innovate, we can use all our creative energy to figure out what it would take to do it. Questions of curriculum, teaching methods, majors, minors and credits will flow from the decisions we make about the direction and purpose of our innovation. We could be very innovative even within our existing curriculur structure. We have a lot of freedom within our courses to change examples, emphases, skills and assessment to adapt and reinforce the choices we make in the direction of our innovation.
Two final points: We have the tools to include students, past, current and future, in our conversations about the direction of the school. How much do we want to enlarge the conversation? Will it be deliberate or informal?
And second is an acknowledgement that we have the freedom to innovate a working environment for ourselves that is stimulating and rewarding. What kind of place do we want to work? Can we combine our skills and work together in ways we haven’t done in the past? Can faculty group themselves together in new ways and produce pods of innovative activity? If so, can we develop ways to evaluate, assess and reward such activity?
Our colleagues in the journalism industry are facing similar questions without the safety net of university employment. Will we learn from their plight and rouse ourselves to contribute to the renovation of our discipline? Or will we repeat the same mistakes and ultimately suffer the same fate?
Michael Shudson has been elaborating on the value that journalism schools can contribute to the “reconstruction” of American journalism. In a recent talk given at USC Annenberg and in a interview on KPBS, he elaborates on themes identified in his co-authored report “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.”
I would add that – as with culture and the arts – the universities have and should have a growing role in supporting journalism. Walter Robinson, a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter at the Boston Globe for several decades, returned to his alma mater, Northeastern University, two years ago and began teaching an investigative reporting seminar to both graduate and undergraduate students. In two years, those students have produced twelve front-page stories in the Boston Globe. Robinson proudly told me “In all the stories so far we’ve not had a single correction or substantive complaint.” More journalism schools are going into the business of actually producing journalism. Here at USC, integrating the California Healthcare Foundation’s impressive health reporting initiative into a university has not, Michael Parks told me, been a piece of cake and maybe he will one day produce a handy guide for others moving in the same direction. At any rate, his effort is part of a movement that is changing journalism.
J-schools have been “doing” journalism since their earliest days (see the University of Missouri as Exhibit A). In the current environment, these efforts are seen less as student exercises, and more as valuable contributions to the journalism necessary for healthy communities.
I think it’s also important to recognize:
(1) Reproducing some of the journalism of the past is not necessarily a high value activity for j-schools. For this work to have value, the standards, organization, editing and networking of new models must be incorporated into the creation and distribution of the journalism. We owe it to students and to the health of the discipline to push for new skills and mindsets for the future, and avoid absorbing all energy into reproducing work we already know how to do.
(2) We need to be experimenting with new models and practices, and that doesn’t always lead to the type of journalism that some people expect from j-schools. Expanding our definitions of what journalism is and how it is practiced is an important dimension of our work; we need to avoid becoming further wedded to an idealized form from the past.
(3) In addition to doing, j-schools can contribute to learning from the many experiments already flourishing. As Schudson points out, we lack concrete measurements of quality journalism. Scholars attuned to the formation of new organizations and the dynamics of community information flows can contribute significantly to identifying and defining value and then begin developing effective practices.
The schools Schudson points to are important leaders in helping us learn what is possible, valuable and desirable in the j-school of the future.
What other j-school projects would you point to that are doing similar work?
California Healthcare Foundation and the USC Annenberg School for Communication: Reporting on Health
Walter Robinson, Investigative reporting at Northeastern University School of Journalism
Rich Gordon and colleagues at Northwestern University have been producing innovative projects news companies and others are learning from: Medill–Innovation Projects