Design Thinking and Journalism: A Vital Match in Changing Times

This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism monthly blog conversation. Big thanks to University of Reno journalism professor Donica Mensing for posing a great question this round: Have you applied design thinking in your work? Has it been useful? Why or why not? 

I learned about design thinking only recently at the Memphis Innovation Bootcamp last fall, but it has had a major impact on both my research and teaching, dovetailing well with my interest in journalism innovation, organizational change, and media entrepreneurship.

#jpreneur students doing design thinking exercise at Crews Center

#jpreneur students doing design thinking exercise at Crews Center

Like any other process or tool, design thinking is not an end-all, be-all, but it’s valuable for journalism innovators for the following reasons: 1)For a long time, journalism was dominated by the ethos “the editor knows best, and will tell you what is important for you to know,” which often extended beyond standard news judgment to the way news organizations were run and new products decided on. Personally, I value the judgment of many of the excellent editors I’ve worked with, but in the digital age, the most important thing we can do to build news products that people will actually use is to learn what our audience really needs and wants. And to do this with empathy and care as design thinking suggests, not just through the use of metrics we may not fully understand.  2)Design thinking can be taught and practiced, making innovation more practical than relying on a sudden brilliant insight that may never come.  3)The newsroom of the future is nimble and capable of constant learning, and that’s a big part of the  overall philosophy of design thinking.

Developing empathy to discover user needs

Developing empathy to discover user needs

In the classroom, design thinking engages journalism students. It helps them unleash their creativity, reinforces the need to start building a new product only after talking to users, and to iterate constantly rather than waiting until you’ve invested many hours in your ideas to test it, a strategy also common to agile development. This semester, I took my entrepreneurial students over to  our brand new campus Crews Center for Entrepreneurship to do a design thinking exercise I learned about at the bootcamp. Instead of just telling them what design thinking is in a lecture, an exercise allows students to experience it.

The design thinking exercise, designed by Stanford’s d school, puts students in teams of two to solve a common problem, taking them through all of the crucial steps: Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. At the Crews Center, we were lucky to have access to lots of great prototyping materials – everything from pipe cleaners to modeling clay. It was fun. Then, throughout the semester, we use  design thinking as part of our process of developing media startups. Students talk to real potential customers for their products they are building, engage in lots of brainstorming, and do some basic prototyping using wireframes and other things. I’ve also started to incorporate this kind of thinking into my other classes as well, getting students talking to users before starting a new blog, social media strategy, etc.

Getting feedback on the prototypes

Getting feedback on the prototypes

Design thinking has also informed my research on organizational change in newsrooms. The ability of organizations to LEARN is a key element of the theory of organizational change,  as described by scholars Chris Argyris and Donald Schon. My research buddy Jonathan Groves and I are seeing many parallels between this body of theory and design thinking as well as the lean startup methodologies advocated by Eric Ries and others that we think could be useful for newsrooms, based on our extensive ethnographic fieldwork. We are going to be writing more on this topic  soon.



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Be kind. Be curious. Be present.

No, I haven’t taken to writing self-help slogans for kicks – this is my entry in this month’s Journalism Carnival, where we are asked to write a letter to our younger selves, sharing “advice, things to look out for, things you wished you did differently, regrets, hopes, what you’ve learned about your life, choices”

Dear wee Brizzyc,

You are in for an interesting ride.

Believe it or not, soon enough people will be utterly flabbergasted at the notion that you possibly could have ever been shy, or that the people in the pizza joint you work at sometimes can’t hear your soft voice when you announce a new order to the kitchen. Hustle up and get over that already. College is going to be SO much more fun if you stop being so g-d self-conscious already, and your early stints as a reporter will be more successful if get some confidence and realize you are mostly an extrovert more quickly.

Speaking of college: You are already pretty nerdy, let’s face it, but I don’t think you fully appreciate the exquisite privilege learning is; someday you will muse that it is wasted on the young.   To be able to listen to smart people share knowledge with you, to read fascinating books and articles, to think about complex issues and ideas and ask questions is pretty amazing; lots of people in the world never get the chance to do so. Right now, school is still something that, while you sort of enjoy it, you primarily conceive of as something to be achieved under constant pressure and fear of failure. When you are older and become a college teacher yourself, you will come to cherish opportunities to be in someone else’s classroom who is willing to share their thoughts and insights with you. Sure, there’s always a lot of extraneous BS involved in any institution of higher learning, but really, when you stop to think about its essence, school is damn cool. Professors are much more willing, even thrilled,  to help you and any student with motivation and interest than you think, so stop being so afraid to ask.

Of course, that said, the best part of education, not to mention the future jobs you will have,  is the friends you will make along the way, and all the people you’ll meet on your journey far away from your hometown to six other cities. You will always look back on time with them and your family as well-spent, no matter how tired you are the next morning or how many things aren’t crossed off your to-do list. Indeed, you will regret almost nothing in terms of your personal relationships. They won’t always be easy, but they will always be worth it. Don’t take them for granted.

You will learn that often, when you are trying your best to do what is right, people won’t like it, or you. This is incredibly difficult. You really, really want to be liked, as I think most people do. But if you aren’t pissing anybody off, you probably aren’t doing anything interesting, because there are a lot of people out there who don’t like new things and they especially don’t like bold women who do them. (Sexism still exists, by the way. Sometimes it’s not even subtle. I could give you a few examples of things you’ll experience you won’t even believe right now. Just, you know, don’t be naive.)

Finally, the last and most  important lesson is perhaps the hardest one. That old cliche: “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention” isn’t just a pithy platitude. You will be outraged, I’m afraid, because you will be paying attention.

You will, as the years pass, engage regularly with people from a wide variety of backgrounds very different than yours, read voraciously, leave your comfort zone, seek out quality  investigative journalism from around the world that exposes injustice and corruption,  and take jobs and roles that require facing a number of messy realities, such as a broken education system and a variety of economic and racial disparities. You may end up in the so-called Ivory Tower, but you will not cloistered within its walls; if anything, it will be among the things you often see as wrong.

As a result of all of this, you will witness, firsthand,  examples of bigotry and inequality, and read about many others in great detail as well.  All of this will make you angry.

It should. But what it should never do is make you bitter.

The way to handle ignorance, adversity, and bad experiences from the tragic to the mundane, I have found, is to try to remember three simple things: “Be kind. Be curious. Be present.”

It is NOT to pretend bad things don’t exist or to chide yourself not to be such a Debbie Downer or to always try to put the best spin on everything. Positive people are great, but the world also needs those who see things for what they are and to have the courage and determination to fight. There are far too few of them.

The difference between confidence and arrogance is empathy, as Cody Brown wrote with eloquence. Kindness is what will keep you grounded, and prevent outrage from stewing into a sense that you are somehow better than others. Kindness is necessary because in one way or another we are all suffering.

Curiosity fuels magnanimity because even in failure or adversity, you are always learning. We can learn even from ignorance: About what fuels it, how to fix it, why it persists. Side bonus: A genuinely curious spirit will take you incredibly far in a knowledge-dominated world. For example, you are a natural-born curator who will bother your friends by sharing links to stories with email long before social media comes around, and while some people will dismiss these new media tools, you will learn to use them productively and get a great deal of satisfaction from them. (And yes, you were right about that whole “blogging” thing – you won that fight in the end.) And even better yet, curious people embrace experience over owning things, which leads to a very rich and never dull life.

Being present I stole from the yogis, but I think the ability, however fleeting, to be in the moment, is among the most profound gifts we can give to ourselves and others. You are terrible at multitasking, so don’t even bother trying – your gift is the ability to focus. Use it. Be there. And good luck.


Your future crazy self

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Marketers need journalism skills to drive engagement

On Tuesday, December 3 at 3pm Central, MA student Janine Tano will present her final project: Is Publishing the 5th “P” of Marketing? Why Marketers Need Journalism Skills to Drive Engagement. All are welcome to hear her presentation using Adobe Connect software – you can sign in as a guest, just be sure to mute your mic so we don’t get feedback.

ImageJanine conducted a content analysis of  Facebook posts by three international retailers: Sears, JC Penney, and Macy’s. She examined the relationship between types of posts and the level of user engagement with the content, such as “likes,” shares, and comments.

Her work is instructive for any marketing professional hoping to maximize ROI on social media and capture the elusive but increasingly important metric of engagement, and persuasively makes an argument that the kinds of journalism storytelling and reporting skills taught in journalism schools are now applicable to many areas beyond traditional news.

When she is not working hard as a journalism graduate student at the University of Memphis, Janine is a marketing manager at Walt Disney World, and she brings her professional experience to her research work in productive ways.

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College Media in the Digital Age

The Carnival of Journalism is BACK. This month we are asked to describe how we would set up a student news organization in 2013 or how an existing college news organization could modernize itself.

What I would love to see is college media organizations reinventing themselves like startups, using some of the tried-and-true techniques used by experienced entrepreneurs.  This doesn’t mean that they have to or should throw out everything that they are doing now, but it does mean that they need to do some hard, creative thinking about the audiences – and the advertisers – they serve, what their needs and problems are, and what kinds of key digital products and features they could offer that will meet those needs.

In other words, instead of getting mired in the endless debates about what skills they need to master [are blogs journalism? do you need to code? etc. etc.], they can learn the PROCESS of innovation , and THEN develop the skills they need to make the create the kinds of news products they and their audiences decide they want.  Bonus is that it is far more motivating to learn skills in this context than purely in a classroom setting, and as a professor, I’d also be happy to adjust my teaching to what students told me they wanted to learn for this purpose.

I would urge college media editors and staff to attend some kind of 48-hour or similar launch program either at their own university or a at a local accelerator, like this one hosted by in Memphis. Or take a hands-on course on media entrepreneurship. Or find somebody that teaches design thinking and then use those processes to reinvent yourselves. Entrepreneurs know a lot about innovation and how to come up with a solid and sustainable plan for the future that is based on more than just intuition, and I think the experience can be incredibly valuable for students who face a future in which they will also have to help media companies they work for evolve.  For example, in my entrepreneurial journalism class we use the founder’s toolkit and the Business Model Canvas to guide us in creating and pitching media startups. These resources would ensure college media organizations leverage digital tools in ways that help ensure their ongoing relevance, impact, and financial sustainability, rather than just flailing around trying to blindly grasp at new ideas.

Overall, I encourage college media to experiment. Those core writing and reporting skills you are practicing aren’t going away, and you can never get enough practice at either of those in college. The Elements of Journalism are as important as ever.  But the relatively safe environment of college is the best time in your life to take lots of risks and try new things.

Side note: Journalism education can be vastly improved. I’ve spent the last 5-8 years of my life trying to change it, with plenty of frustration along the way However, I think far too many people 1)are making assumptions that we can teach every single skill required and churn out idealized graduates who are highly proficient in multiple areas [sorry, that’s impossible] 2)Assuming that people who are ~19 years old know exactly what they want out of education, are extremely motivated to learn, and generally behave with a similar mindset to a middle-aged person working at an elite national news organization [did you think the way you do now when YOU were 19?}  3)that so-called “digital natives” are naturals when it comes to producing digital content. [They are native consumers, not producers.]  We need your fire to help us change antiquated academic thinking, but we also need to to be somewhat realistic about what we are asking and expecting.  Remember that if we graduate critical thinkers who genuinely care about journalism and can write,  learn quickly, and engage well with others, we are doing pretty well on setting them on a path to what will undoubtedly be a lifelong learning process.


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Digital Natives, Not-So-Much: What You Need to Get Hired In Memphis News

I talked to The Commercial Appeal’s Director of Digital Media Michael Erskine about the kinds of skills he looks for when hiring journalists for a newsroom on the brink of a reorganization tailored to help it become *truly* digital first and provide content tailored for news consumption on multiple platforms throughout the day.Image

Not surprisingly, digital skills are a vital addition to always important traditional reporting and writing acumen, Erskine said, including crafting SEO-friendly headlines and web-friendly stories, knowing how to use social media to both promote and report stories, and more.

None of this is exactly breaking news to the web-savvy, but Erskine confirmed what journalism professors also know only too well: So-called “digital natives” may have been immersed in digital media from a young age, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are tech savvy; students need to work hard to build those skills and get as much experience as possible utilizing them while in college.

“There has been an assumption that younger folks have those [digital skills], and we have learned that is not true,” Erskine said. “Some do, but it is hard to keep them. They come here, and then they leave. Over the last couple of years, there has been an improvement, but it is not where it needs to be.”

As a recent job posting for a “content producer” position confirmed, The Commercial Appeal’s new hires need to have astute news judgment for a fast-paced digital publishing schedule, an ability to interpret and boost web metrics and audience, and multimedia, engagement and online community building skills.

Erksine is the first to admit that it can be a tall order to find an employee who excels at all these things.

“I think the job of a journalist is getting harder,” Erskine said. “It’s pretty daunting. You need to write, have news judgment, have digital skills. Your day as a reporter is more demanding,  busier and there are more expectations….I realize now that when I started as a reporter, I had it easy. In some ways what we are looking for today is a ‘super reporter’ that can do it all, and there aren’t that many of those out there.”

Of course, young journalists need to realize that despite the push to digital, it is still vital to master traditional skills and to pick up the phone to speak to and double check facts with sources.

“We have found that young people are actually over-reliant on tech and the Internet when it comes to this,” Erskine said. “They just grab something off of a website and don’t double check it.”


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Tow Report Takeaways: “Proceed Until Apprehended”

Just finally finished reading the excellent, detailed Tow Center report Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present” by three authors whose work and thinking I respect a great deal, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky.  Since I geeked out and took three pages of notes, I thought I would share what I thought were a few highlights here.  While some aspects of the report aren’t new to news nerds who exhaustively follow journalism developments, it’s an excellent overview of the state of the industry today and a must-read for students and others that need to catch up on the latest smart thinking in our field.

  • One thing that I found striking was the powerful and well-articulated argument for the importance of institutions to the survival of public-interest journalism.  Not the endurance of traditional institutions in their current form, mind you, but the ability of those institutions to adapt and/or new ones to stabilize.  Many of the so-called “future of news gurus,” of which Shirky is one of the most well-known, are constantly getting heat for what many seem to believe is their tendency to cheer the demise of newspapers and other traditional media (among other things). Most of these “FONs” have responded to this critique by pointing out that they aren’t cheering so much as simply pointing out the inevitable, but I think this report might help solidify some areas of agreement among those who care about journalism and, one hopes, dispel some of the more useless black and white thinking about the issue. Here is the key quote:

“Institutions provide certain key advantages when it comes to reporting news in the public interest: the kind of leverage, symbolic power, continuity and slack necessary to go toe-to-toe with other institutions: politicians, governmental agencies, businesses, schools, nonprofits, religious organizations. Yet the very same ‘systems of established and prevalent social rules’ that help give institutions their heft also, in their inertia, serve to block necessary and needed change. The solution to this paradox is not to abandon institutions. Nor is it to blindly stick with the institutions that have traditionally provided the best journalism in the past.”

  • I love the watchdog vs. scarecrow metaphor. Let’s face it, as important as the watchdog function is to democracy, the watchdog barks only rarely, but, thanks to institutional continuity, its presence serves as a critical check on power. This is one of the reasons we need institutions, even though they are hard to change.
  • The report also does a nice job of reaffirming the value of original reporting while also noting that curation/aggregation, crowdsourcing, and other new and evolving forms of journalism are important, too. Another good example of avoiding black and white thinking.
  • Their list of what journalists today need is useful for journalism schools to think about when designing curricula: 1)Mindset – to improve journalism, entrepreneurial 2)network – of sources, professional colleagues, etc. 3)Persona, helps readers to feel engaged with the journalist; ability to convey your values, your judgment and integrity 4)Specialist knowledge e.g. “contextual micro fame” 5) Knowledge of data and statistics 5)Understanding metrics and audience 6)Coding (at least how to speak the language if not advanced programming) 7)Storytelling 8)Project management
  • Also of relevance to journalism professors: The artfully named “Final Cut vs. Excel” problem.  “Journalism schools are more likely to teach tools related to basic video production than to basic data exploration.” I’d like to think this is not a vs. but an and, but sure enough, the one class my department in an overstuffed curriculum could agree on eliminating, much to my chagrin, was computer-assisted reporting. (?!?!). Food for thought, at the very least.
  • If you were still holding out some small hope that advertising will be able to support journalism of the future in anything resembling the way it did in the past, this piece will rid you of that notion. Not a new argument, but it’s pretty stark when you stop and really contemplate it anew.
  • Inflexible, print-oriented content management systems are among the biggest impediments to changing newsroom processes. My husband works for a daily newspaper, and all I can say to that is “hell yes.” I like their “break the glass” protocol, which allows you to override CMS protections when you need to on deadline, subject to subsequent oversight.
  • The story of how the New York Daily News built their Storm Tracker system during Hurricane Irene is a great one that resonates with all my research and observations in newsrooms. It illustrates perfectly the core issue that process [and I’d add, culture] are the biggest impediments to change. Cops wouldn’t let staff into the newsroom, so they HAD to hack the CMS to allow people to log in from elsewhere. Also,  Irene happened in late August when senior management was on vacation and couldn’t stop the younger, more junior, web-savvy staff.
  • I love the general advice  for journalists who wants to embrace the future: “Proceed until apprehended.” Pretty much my life motto.

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Be Careful What You Wish For When It Comes To Collegiate Accountability

An op-ed published yesterday by the New York Times calling for greater accountability for colleges and “more meaningful standards for academic quality” was on the most-emailed list this morning and is making the rounds of faculty listservs.  It’s obviously hard to disagree with the basic concept. However, I think we need to be wary of unintended consequences of well-meaning notions such as the accountability push that don’t really address what I think is a crisis in American higher education.

First of all, having been part of a faculty that went through an accreditation process that culminated just last week with a visit by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, I just think that it’s important to be aware that while “accountability!” sounds like a concept we can all cheer for, we have to think carefully about how we want to get there. Faculty members and graduate assistants in my department spent literally thousands of hours over the last few months preparing endless, detailed documentation of everything we do as part of the accreditation process, including a detailed assessment of each our courses to determine if students are learning the desired skills. I am not exaggerating. These are hours not spent on teaching, research, or service. I don’t even want to begin to calculate the financial cost if you add up our collective time (and lucky me, I did much, much, less than some others.)

I think a much better approach to accountability would involve less paperwork and forms and binders and instead, outsider experts engaging us, our students and professionals in vigorous conversations about whether or not what we are doing is working and how we can improve, a more iterative approach that can move at the same speed as the digital tools our students need to learn. This might sound wishy-washy, but I think a process for tapping creative and intellectual forces in this way would be much more valuable than costly bureaucracy and an attempt to vigorously quantify everything.

I’m lucky enough to be on a faculty with several other engaged, caring people with whom I am nearly constantly brainstorming, discussing new assignments and syllabus tweaks, figuring out how to motivate recalcitrant students, and more. We don’t wait for a formal assessment or an accreditation visit to start working over what we can do better – it’s part of our daily lives and culture. A slow, bureaucratic accountability system has little relevance to us. So here’s another thing we could do to improve academic quality: Make hiring and retaining great teachers who truly care about students an institutional priority on par with other priorities like research. If you want to improve educational quality, hire great people and give them the resources and support to do their jobs. Don’t measure them by the number of widgets they create, e.g. graduates – you’ll end up rewarding the wrong things. Don’t burn them out and ask them to be all things to all people.

I think the real root of the problems facing higher ed are the big, messy, ugly ones: a)Rapidly declining public support for education b)A failing public education system which begins long before universities get our hands on students (many students are so ill-prepared for college work it would shock most people outside of the academy) c) A cultural shift that broadly devalues knowledge and puts the onus on the faculty and not the student to guarantee learning at the collegiate level. The last doesn’t mean I think we can’t improve. It just means that I think that at some level students need to take responsibility for their own education – I can’t force an adult to learn.

The piece, written by Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation, more specifically calls for the end of the anachronistic credit hour as a unit for measuring student learning, replacing it with “common standards for what college students actually need to know and to be able to do.” That’s fine, as far as it goes, though I’m unclear how much of a significant difference that would make to the bigger picture.


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Threats to a Free and Vibrant Press at the University of Memphis

As a faculty member in the journalism department at the University of Memphis, I would like to publicly encourage my university and its administration, students, alumni and friends to take steps to show concrete support for a free and vibrant student press.

As this story in today’s Commercial Appeal shows, the university recently slashed funding to the Daily Helmsman, our student paper, by one third. The university adamantly denies that this funding cut was based on content, citing instead the difficult budgetary environment. The paper’s adviser and editor-in-chief think differently.  Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., thinks this is possibly a “slam-dunk” First Amendment violation.  A more complete story was just posted on the Student Press Law Center site that details how, just one day after new editor-in-chief Chelsea Boozer wrote an open letter critical of the university police director, police filed two incident reports against her.

My area of expertise is not media law, and I’m not seeking to “prove” anything in this post. I’m not directly involved in Daily Helmsman operations, and I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the case. Expect more detailed reporting coming soon from the Daily Helmsman, including more precise information on how the budget cuts compare to those suffered by other student organizations.

Instead, I’d like to respond to Dean of Students Steve Petersen, who, according to a transcript, suggested in a meeting with faculty newspaper adviser Candy Justice and editor-in-chief Boozer that the seven-member committee who voted to slash funding felt that the paper, unlike other university entities, had no “mission.” He said:

What I’m telling you is that the committee feels like there is no foundation on which the Helmsman exists. That it moves around constantly based upon the whims of whoever is the editor.

He also said:

If there is a statement that says this is what this paper is about, this is what we do, then you can be judged on the paper and what it says its going to do, rather than on the whims of whoever is going to be the editor.

I can’t offer an “official” mission statement for this particular newspaper,  but I’m frankly appalled that anybody working in an institution of higher education is unaware of the mission of journalism in our society. When my former bosses Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel surveyed and interviewed hundreds of journalists around the nation for their book Elements of Journalism, they found widespread agreement that the core mission of journalism is to “give people the information they need to be free and govern themselves.” Student journalists are no different. Their job is to hold the powerful accountable, and to inform tuition-paying students and their tax-paying parents how their university is serving their needs and providing them with the highest quality educational experience possible. It’s quite simple, really. I can also tell you quite unequivocally what its mission is NOT, and that is to serve as a public relations arm for the university.

Petersen and other university administrators insist that their complaints about coverage are unrelated to the funding cut. Again, I can’t speak directly to that in this post; hopefully we will learn more.  However, in a transcript from the meeting, Petersen said the committee complained when  coverage of a campus event the Student Government Association hoped to promote was bumped by breaking news of a rape. He also said:

I can’t begin to tell you the examples that came up in that conversation about things that the paper did print that seem to have very little relevance or that seemed to touch very, very few students on campus.

He went on to cite a specific example of the above: A story about a Marxist student group on campus involving just four students.

Let’s leave aside that it’s more than a  little disturbing to hear student government officials or administrators even imply that they should have ANY kind of influence over what an independent student newspaper covers. These criticisms are, on their face, ridiculous to anybody with a basic sense of news values in which, yes, issues impacting student safety are going to trump a standard event story, and that sometimes an unusual or interesting student group might merit coverage even if a large number of people are not involved.  But let me also just share with you a few things the Daily Helmsman also wrote about last year, which helped to make the new editor-in-chief Chelsea Boozer one of the best collegiate journalists in the country – a THREE-TIME NATIONAL award-winner! –  and the paper  second place overall in the “best newspaper” competition in this year’s Region 12 Society of Professional Journalists awards.

They wrote award-winning stories explaining how student fees fund full tuition for Student Government Association and Student Activities Council officers.  They also wrote some excellent stories about campus crime and safety, doggedly pursuing news about an on-campus rape, which involved a month-long open records struggle with the university. Like any student newspaper, they are not perfect, but I’m proud of their hard work and good reporting.

My outrage here not really just about the money. Yes, like many other public universities, we are suffering from massive cuts in state support, so even regardless of what is actually going on in this particular case, there is no doubt that all sectors of the university are struggling to fulfill our educational mission.  That crisis is bigger than just us and is affecting everyone. While I believe that campus newspapers are one of few remaining cases in which printing on dead trees still makes some sense, we can publish on the web if publication days must be cut, and if I was an editor, I’d be actively working to develop a mobile presence; the University of Oregon’s student paper has impressed me greatly with its smart, forward-thinking digital strategy.

My concern lies with my commitment as an educator to my students and my belief that it is our paramount duty to encourage independent thinking and an understanding of the core civic responsibilities that underlie our democracy. I think it is incumbent upon us to actively work to support students’ freedom of speech, and to encourage them to recognize that what separates the United States from countries like China, Russia and Syria is our commitment to a free and unfettered press. Indeed, there are few things I am more passionate about, which is why I’m willing to write this post even though I do not have tenure.

Please help us spread the word. You can send comments or support to Editor in Chief Chelsea Boozer at UPDATE: You can also contact President Shirley Raines at or write a letter to the Commercial Appeal:


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Why Professors Value Journalism Degrees More Than Professionals (Beyond the Obvious)

I’m all for disrupting  higher education. I think open-enrollment online programs and “digital badges” to recognize the development of certain skill sets are a great idea, as Howard Finberg of Poynter writes, and I was doing a fist pump in agreement over the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton’s piece deriding the “symphony of slowness” in journalism education. By all means, let us escape from the bureaucratic, risk and change-adverse academic climate to one that welcomes innovation and can help us lead in building the future of journalism.


There’s a reason, beyond the obvious one of self-preservation, that 96 percent of journalism academics said that a degree was “very to extremely important” to learning skills, according to Finberg’s survey, compared to just 59 percent of professionals.

This reason is that many students are coming to college woefully lacking in basic reading/writing and digital skills. A significant amount of what my colleagues and I do as college professors is essentially remedial. SHOULD this be the case? Hell no. But it is. CAN students learn these journalism skills on the job or through their own initiative using online resources? Sure. But in my experience,  very few employers have the ability or desire to do the kind of time-intensive remedial training I’m forced to do in my classroom; they complain about the students we do send them because sometimes we are unable to completely make up for the deficiencies they come in with. And very few students, especially between the ages of 18 and 22, have the kind of self-motivation to push themselves through an online program with no carrot in the form of a formal credential and no accountability in the form of tuition. Each semester, I fail at least one quarter of my undergraduate journalism classes because they simply do not do the work, and that’s in a face-to-face class they are paying for.

Ultimately, this is a problem with our nation’s struggling primary and secondary education systems and the lack of parental and social and financial support for education that many communities face. I honestly believe it is a crisis that will ultimately erode our democracy, which depends on an informed citizenry, as well as our economic competitiveness.

I love my students dearly and care passionately about teaching, so forgive me if I sound down on them. And certainly this does not apply to all of them. But I think we need to have an honest conversation about the state of education today, or nothing will change.

The kinds of people who become journalists at elite institutions are often smart and self-motivated, and it’s hard to conceive of a 19-year-old who has difficulty writing an intelligible sentence or a so-called “digital native” who doesn’t know how to copy and paste a link (I have many of the latter). Trust me, I have trouble believing it myself. And I’m sure the best journalism schools have far fewer struggling students, but they also pull from a far-less diverse population of more wealthy students, too.

If we were to eliminate journalism degrees, what you would see is even more newsroom jobs going to a more homogeneous group of people from upper-class family backgrounds. You would also see a decline in the kind of news literacy we need to ensure future demand for good journalism, as yes, many students with a journalism degree go on to other non-news jobs. By all means, embrace online delivery and open education. I just think it’s a little naive to think that we are ready to eliminate the degree.



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Twitter Offers News Orgs Opportunity to Reach Diverse, Underserved Communities

Last week Pew Internet and American Life Project came out with its latest fascinating set of statistics on Twitter use. It found that Twitter use among African Americans remains more than twice as high as that of whites; 28 percent of online African Americans use Twitter, compared to 12 percent of whites. Twitter use among young people ages 18-24 doubled in the past two years. And people with household incomes less than 30K/year use Twitter on par with or slightly higher than higher income groups. 

These stats scream HUGE OPPORTUNITY for news organizations who are interested in connecting with communities that have been traditionally underrepresented as both sources and audiences for news.  Of course, like everything else social media-related, Twitter is not some kind of magic tool that will automatically make it rain money and/or increase audience without a lot of hard work.

But even aside from the obvious civic value in better engaging and representing all segments of society in news coverage, we all know that as newspaper readers and other traditional media consumers age and the nation rapidly diversifies, it is essential that journalists attract a new generation of loyal audience members to survive.

Not to mention that among social networks, Twitter has been found to be one of the most conducive to news and information; in 2010 Pew also reported that minorities are more likely than whites to identify social media as an important way to keep up with what is going on in their neighborhoods.

Given that I live in a majority African American city that also has a high poverty rate and teach students who are primarily between the ages of 18 and 24, this has been an area of particular interest to me. Memphis seems like the ideal place for aggressive journalism Twitter efforts.

Last year I conducted an exploratory study with my colleagues Elizabeth Hendrickson at University of Tennessee and Jeremy Littau of Lehigh University.  We conducted 19 in-depth interviews with young Twitter users at our respective universities, many of them African American. We presented the study at the International Symposium on Online Journalism in 2011, and you can read it here. We later added an online survey and updated the paper; we have not published it yet but hope to soon. Our sample size was small, so take the findings with a grain of salt; certainly it is not our intent to make any sweeping claims about how any particular demographic group uses Twitter but rather to take a preliminary but in-depth look with the hopes of gaining some useful insight for news organizations.  To very briefly sum up a few of the findings:

First, the primary use for Twitter among the younger people and particularly among African Americans we studied was as a social tool for informal communication between peers. For example, many said they knew 50 to 90 percent of their Twitter connections in real life. This stands in sharp contrast to how I and most other journalists, older professionals and academic types use Twitter (I’ve never met the majority of my Twitter connections) and is more akin to how most people traditionally think about Facebook.  In many ways, respondents used Twitter almost like texting, a kind of constant communication on friends in which they share thoughts, feelings and observations while going about daily life. For example, a 22-year-old African American male we interviewed said:

“It’s mostly my university name friends. So I like to post what I’m doing and keep up with friends during the day, or when we’re at different parties. Most of my posts are where I am, what I’m doing, or making funny comments during classes. My friends and I, we all reply to each other when a class is going bad and it’s funny. It keeps me entertained in classes. I feel like it’s a good way for us to be together even when we’re going about our days.”

Not surprisingly, hashtags and joking around with friends are popular, as this 22-year-old African American female explained:

I know it’s kind of weird, but I see the black community here as like a family and we all kind of each lunch together and we’ll all go in on a certain trending topic or we’ll make our own. We’ll just come up with a trending topic and start tweeting. Like there’s a song called “Shake Life,” and about two or three weeks ago we were sitting there and we made #UTKshakelife and we talked about the party life at UT. And then other schools started making their own, like #MTSUshakelife. I eat at the UC about three days a week and those three days we talk about Twitter. But they’re always funny. I’ve never participated in a serious trending topic. It’s all goofy.

These results are of course not especially applicable or encouraging for news organizations, but it is still useful I think to understand the general environment you are entering when seeking to interact with various kinds Twitter users. But while news and information was not the main reason many of our research subjects used Twitter, it was one of them, and many were amenable to journalists’ efforts to reach them there, provided their feeds weren’t suddenly saturated with an overwhelming number of links to news articles. Strikingly, the survey also showed that participants were consuming more news than in their pre-Twitter days. Participants said that it is a convenient way to stay updated on the news, making it easy to quickly scan a headline. For example, a 22-year-old African American male said:

I also use it as a news source because I realize that the older I get, the less interested I am in watching the news, because sometimes I find it can be a little depressing.  And so, what I can do, I can follow different media outlets like Fox 13 or New York Times and get little, like, quick feeds and just by reading the little 140 characters, if I read something that sparks my interest, then I can click and read more, but if it’s one of those things where, uh, I really don’t want to read about that, I just keep going down my timeline. But I definitely see it as a source of news.  I read newspapers every now and then, but I kind of stray away from those too, so I believe Twitter can be used as a good news source for people who want to – as a filter I guess you could say, for what they want to read and what they don’t want to read.

Similarly, a 22-year-old African American female said:

People retweet the traffic in the morning. I’ve clicked on several links, several from Katie Couric, and I’m like, this is really cool, it’s instant, it’s right there in my face, so I don’t have to try to find a television or a radio station, if I’ve got my Wi-Fi and my computer everywhere. I’ve got it right here, in my hand, what I need, even the Egypt stuff [Arab Spring in 2011], it was constant, so I got an update, I knew what was going on.

A 22-year-old African American male said:

“I know some people who haven’t picked up a newspaper in years, so I think if they [journalists] were to get on Twitter, it would help keep news alive. Journalism is kind of dying. If people did that more often, people would feel like people had a closer relationship with the person that is delivering the news.”

Other uses of Twitter included fun and entertainment, such as following celebrities or athletes, and, gratifying for their professors, professional networking.  There’s more in the paper.


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