Why We’ve Blown Up Journalism Education

Journalism isn’t just for journalists.

Two-and-a-half years ago, my teaching partner Jennifer George-Palilonis and I hatched a plan to build a graduate program that would combine:

  • the storytelling elements of journalism
  • the simplicity and beauty of design
  • the problem-solving framework of design thinking, and
  • the interactive engineering of human-computer interaction.

We believed in the transformative power of non-fiction storytelling in all its forms, but we also understood that the skills required to be a good journalist prepared our students for far more than just journalism jobs. For several years, we’ve seen some of our best and brightest scattered across a variety of industries, from entertainment to content management.

But we also believed that non-fiction storytelling happens outside of journalism. We believed that you could bring together artists from a variety of backgrounds and pair them with technologists, and build entirely new storytelling experiences for people that still retained the essence of journalism.

We’ve seen the outcome of such partnerships with shows such as Cosmos, which brought together effects wizards, television production experts, scientists, writers, artists, and on air personalities. Almost nobody would consider that journalism, and yet its television, interactive, and social experiences were built around non-fiction storytelling and education.

And that was the guiding principle behind the development of the Center for Emerging Media Design & Development at Ball State University, which will be home to our new two-year, hands-on, lab-based storytelling graduate program launching in Fall 2015. We believed that in 21st century, every company, organization, non-profit, and educational entity needed to understand how to tell stories and to engage with audiences across a variety of media.

And we believed journalism was the vehicle to teach those skills.

The state of Indiana agreed with us. On November 13, the Indiana Commission on Higher Education approved Ball State University’s new graduate program: The Masters of Arts in Emerging Media Design & Development.

What’s the matter with journalism education

So here’s where I’ll stray from the collective “we” and begin to speak just for me.

With respect to my colleagues across the United States who are diligently working on transforming journalism education, I co-developed this program because it felt like journalism and its companion education had lost its way.

Too many people were arguing about whether blogging was journalism ((too many here)), whether social media should be included in curriculum ((and here)), whether journalists should learn how to code ((here, here, here, here)), whether they should learn multimedia storytelling, whether they should integrate more video into our curriculum ((newspapers and video here)), or whether backpack journalism was the new norm.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

I couldn’t help but think that all of those arguments missed the point of what journalism does. Those were arguments about whether to use pens or pencils, and now about how to tell stories better. Here’s what I mean.

Maybe as much as any GenX journalist, I came of age with technology. I was on the Internet when I was 12 in 1984, surfing the BBS systems while I was in middle school, using Telnet to tunnel into libraries, and playing around with hacks (while running up huge phone bills).

In 1994 when I landed my first newspaper job, my boss refused to allow me to Telnet into our public library to retrieve articles from the paper because she didn’t trust that they were real. In 1996 I was writing articles for places such as CitySearch (remember that website?!?). In 2000 I earned my graduate degree from UC-Berkeley where I took all of its New Media classes (one if I recall). From there, I was the writer and multimedia reporter at Wired.com and eventually the senior editor and Web producer at MIT’s Technology Review.

That’s all to say this: I was a nerdy journalist.

I came of age during the transition from print-centric to digital first. I was in in the middle of every type of newsroom fight you can imagine. I had these conversations at the biggest newspapers and magazines, and at the smallest. What I learned was this: Arguing about technology (whether it’s paper-and-ink or screens) never got me anywhere.

In every battle throughout my 11 years in the industry, what eventually settled the print-versus-technology argument was this: What kind of stories do we want to tell?

Arguing over whether to learn code is the same argument as whether to go Print First or Digital First in that it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Do you learn coding? It depends upon what kind of stories you want to tell. Outside magazine wrote a brilliant story called “Tunnel Vision” in November 2012, and the The New York Times created a multimedia story that same month called “Snow Fall.”

For my money Outside’s story was more compelling, but the point is that each type of story needed a different set of tools.

Which one should you teach? It depends upon the kind of stories you want to tell.

The 21st Century Journalism Student

All of this isn’t to say that I think every other journalist and school of journalism has gone off the rails. It simply means that each program (and journalist) needs to ask “What kind of stories do they want to teach (or tell)?”

At the Center for Emerging Media Design & Development, that answer will come from our cohorts and our projects. We want to tell compelling stories that conform to the platforms that most make sense and the storytelling paradigms that best fit what we’re doing. We don’t worry about pens-versus-pencils or print-versus-screens because those answers will grow out of the design thinking process as we work through what types of stories each person, each team, and each cohort wants to tell.

So what the hell does that mean? Lots, actually, and the best way we’ve been able to define that is by showing you and telling you.

  1. In 2010, we ran an 18-month project called Transmedia Indiana, in which we had more than 100 people contribute. We took artifacts from the Indiana State Museum, and created a DiVinci Code-like interactive book, complete with words, videos, a radio program, and images. We also then took all those artifacts and built a series of websites for the museum that explained the actual history of the artifacts, the towns, and the people.
  2. For several years, Jenn has been running immersive projects with Circle of Blue, a non-profit news agency that is covering the water crisis unfolding across the planet. While their stories primarily appear online, they include written stories, photographs, interactive graphics, and all the types of data-driven stories you might expect to see.
  3. Earlier this year, we partnered with the Conner Prairie Interactive History Museum to create an interactive, story-based program that will reach people across the state, and get them to engage with the museum in digital spaces during the state’s bicentennial. (Students in our first cohort will be working on this project.)

We’re also working on partnerships with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, some nonprofits in Appalachia, and some small presses throughout Indiana.

In other words: the journalism student in the 21st century isn’t just going to be somebody who wants to work at a newspaper or a television station. Our students in the Center for Emerging Media Design & Development will come from creative backgrounds (English, Art, Graphic Design, Advertising, Marketing, Journalism, Filmmaking, Playwrights) and technical backgrounds (Programmers, HCI).

They may work to bring nonfiction alive through video, through audio, through long-form text, through multimedia stories, or through transmedia stories that push between the real world and screens.

Together, they will work in our Creative Projects Lab and our Research Lab, exploring both the kinds of stories they want to tell and the best ways to tell those stories. And when they leave, they won’t wonder where they will work because they will be ready to work anywhere people want to tell stories.