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Posted: December 27, 2010

The future of journalism

An alchemy with technical creativity might be the way to go

Sandra Fish

The University of Colorado at Boulder is considering closing its School of Journalism and Mass Communication to "permit a strategic realignment of degree programs," as recommended by a Program Discontinuance Committee in November.

At the same time, another committee is examining the need for a new program melding information, communication and technology.

As an instructor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at CU, I feel strongly about our need to educate citizens who will serve their democracy -- and I feel strongly about the essential role journalism plays in informing those citizens about their democracy. Following is my letter to the exploratory committee.

I'd like to encourage the Exploratory Committee on Information, Communication and Technology to recommend a School of Digital Media at the University of Colorado's Boulder campus that combines educating students and researching the intersection of digital communication, particularly emphasizing journalism, with computer science and data gathering and presentation. I make this recommendation based on almost 30 years as a professional journalist and 10 years teaching a variety of courses, typically incorporating digital media, at CU's SJMC.

Ideally, the Digital Media School would take advantage of the "alchemy between technical creative thinking and journalism," a phrase used by Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School and former news and media director of digital content of the Guardian, at the Online News Association conference that I attended in October.

A new School of Digital Media could find a great convergence between journalism and courses now being offered through ATLAS, as well as potentially offering the sort of computer science courses non-engineering students will find useful in their digital-native world.

Let me explain some of my reasoning.

And first and foremost, let me focus on students, who often seem left out of the conversation about the future of journalism education this fall. When Elizabeth Osder, a founder of the Online News Association visited the SJMC recently, she noted that "it is the era of the customer, and you have a responsibility to provide value to your students."

Journalism education, I believe, is part of that value, not just for future potential journalists but for future citizens in our democracy. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel make this clear in their recent book, "Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload." (Bloomsbury USA, 2010)

In this age where everyone can be a content producer, citizens must learn to identify content and determine its validity, Kovach and Rosenstiel write. This is especially true when, as they write, the lines between different media -- journalism, public relations, advertising, entertainment and even raw information -- are often blurred.

For students who don't plan to go into journalism or advertising or other media as a career, it's still important for them to discern between different types of media and identify the motive behind different messages. A media literacy course aimed at all University of Colorado students could be a linchpin in training them to be active, informed citizens in our democracy. And isn't that an essential part of a university education?

For students who want to become journalists, public relations specialists, advertising executives or content producers, a journalism education is essential. And keep in mind that the School of Journalism and Mass Communication continues to attract a steady stream of undergraduate and graduate students.

Some might logically determine that journalism and advertising don't mix, but I'd seek to dissuade you from that idea.

Both journalism and advertising students must know the audience they are addressing in their communication. They must analyze that audience, then gather information and verify that information in order to communicate with that audience. They must synthesize the information for that audience and communicate it across many of the same platforms. The messages they communicate and their delivery are certainly different, but the two disciplines share some core competencies and values, from the ability to communicate effectively to communicating ethically and within the law.

The world of information is changing quickly, and the business of journalism and journalism education hasn't always moved quickly enough to keep pace. That disconnect is also present to some extent in computer science, where the connection between the code and the public user is often virtually nonexistent.

Yet journalists, computer scientists and news technologists are bridging that gap between code and information delivery every day. Consider the recent interactive "budget fix" application from The New York Times or the Pulitzer Prize winning site Politifact.com. These are examples where journalism and programming intersect to provide information citizens need to be active participants in their democracy.

And if the University of Colorado at Boulder is to truly fulfill the Flagship 2030 vision, we must focus on making our students citizens of our democracy and the world.

Speaking of students, while at the Online News Association conference, I had the opportunity to get together with many former CU SJMC students. These young professionals are the sort of digital journalists a new college should continue to produce and send out to the world to spread the news about democracy, and help other citizens spread that news as well.

For instance, Dan Pacheco, CEO and founder of Book Brewer, a company that allows authors to publish and distribute their work electronically, was there promoting his new business.

I ran into Jason Bartz and Danielle Alberti, both of whom are now working at Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C. Danielle is a multimedia intern helping cover government and politics, while Jason is a multimedia and web producer for the news service.

Stephanie Clary, an online producer who shared in a Pulitzer Prize at The Seattle Times, attended the conference, as did Andrew Villegas, a CU SJMC grad who is now an assistant editor with Kaiser Health News. Andrew's work shows up in print, on National Public Radio and online.

And I met up with Yu Miao, a graduate of our professional master's degree program who is now a U.S. citizen and works in video for Voice of America's China division.

These are only a few examples of the great potential that CU's journalism students can fulfill. There are more students out there looking for these opportunities and needing creative core journalism classes to succeed. If CU doesn't provide that opportunity, they'll seek it elsewhere.

If CU is to truly be the state's flagship university, we must retain journalism education for both those who hope to become media professionals and those who will become citizens informed by the media in our democracy. I believe a School of Digital Media is the best way to achieve that goal.

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Sandra Fish is a journalist and journalism instructor at the University of Colorado who specializes in politics, government, data analysis and interactive reporting. She's also a correspondent for PoliticsDaily.com, an Aol.com news site. Go to http://www.politicsdaily.com/bloggers/sandra-fish/

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