Mass communication: A moving target

We’re prone to make predictions about everything – the season finales of popular television, the winning team of the World Cup, the apocalypse, the economy, technology and everything in between. Though hardly impervious to market shifts or trends, academia is generally a little late to the game. More often than not, announcements of new courses, programs, certifications and degrees are met with public statements that start: “In response to the growing need for … “

And yet the University of Colorado Boulder is positioning itself as a future-betting ringleader as it weighs in on what’s  ahead for media, communication and information dissemination. 

The 2011 shutdown of CU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication was attributed to the accelerated transformation of media. Two years later, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Russell Moore announced plans for a new communication-centric college on campus.

“After more than three years of faculty discussions, after consultations with the deans, and with the support of the chancellor, we have moved beyond the question of whether we are creating a new college, to the phase in which we do the work necessary to present our ideas to the board of regents,” Moore said in a statement.

And so, the university released a draft of the proposal for the College of Media, Communication and Information focused on digital storytelling. Committee members explored the details including: budget, curriculum, degrees, necessary hires, space needs and faculty governance, soliciting community feedback earlier this year.

The proposal sheds light on the specifics of the college’s mission, allocated departments and disciplines, a core curriculum and other details. Rather than merely a reorganization, the “total transformation” of the media program at CU focuses on “convergence,” incorporating disciplines such as information science and media production, according to Journalism and Mass Communication Director Christopher Braider.

“Any journalism program that isn’t focusing on using technology and the Web to help tell stories is antiquated and a waste of time,” said Kyle Ringo, sportswriter at the Boulder Daily Camera. He added that in his decade at the newspaper, numerous students from CU, Metropolitan State University and other statewide and national journalism programs have taken positions at the paper while in school and post-grad.

“We’re constantly adapting how we cover stories, and students and young journalists fresh out of college quickly find that is the only way forward in this business. Students need to get their hands dirty, so to speak.”

In the wake of digital media and the ensuing shake-up of the traditional industry, journalism education has largely failed to keep up.

According to a recent study from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, roughly 40 percent of journalism graduates did not believe they were given enough exposure to technology to handle the realities of journalism in their jobs.

One important step higher education can take, and CU is attempting, is to get journalism students out of their “silos” and interacting more with other disciplines.

“There’s such a demand from the (Boulder) business community to get out of the silo of school,” said Fletcher Richman, managing director at Spark Boulder, the first student incubator and coworking space in the college town. He admitted he was only familiar with “rumors” of the proposed new media college. However, he also said, “Media is a huge part of the startup scene in Colorado,” adding that the addition of a new communications-centered college would be a good start to changing CU’s “brand perception and it would make entrepreneurship a key focus. … It’s a chance for the school to not just end the trend, but make a splash right in the middle of it.”

Richman explained the reason behind Spark was to address a noticeable and detrimental gap between the startup community and top talent at CU.

“There needs to be more focus on practical application than theory,” he said. “The school doesn’t do a good enough job out of the classroom and in the real world.”

Forces that have spurred change at universities include: declining public funding, shifting demographics, ever-advancing technology and a challenging job market, among others. Regardless of the specific institution, higher education must get creative and innovative to lure ample enrollments and endowment dollars each year.

In its attempt to more closely reflect the present media landscape, the College of Media, Communication and Information will be the first newly formed college at CU in roughly five decades and, if approved, an international dean hunt will ensue. The goal is to introduce the first freshman class to the new college fall 2015. Braider said reactions have been “almost entirely enthusiastic.”

Statewide, the University of Denver and Johnson & Wales University Denver have both recently added new or improved journalism and mass communication programs.

“With its focus on experiential education, Johnson & Wales is expanding its degree programs to include majors that are relevant and necessary for our current job climate,” said Christine Battista, program lead for the new media and communication studies program at JWU. “With the quickly evolving media landscape, students must be equipped with the necessary skills, tools and technology to keep up with the changing times.” Battista said the mass-communications program provides students working knowledge of industry-standard software. “Our program is distinctly predicated on this dynamism and effectively prepares students for successful careers in this rich, versatile field.” 

“Journalism is in desperate need of context,” added Braider. “To pursue this craft, you need to know how to develop relationships and share resources … the openness of Coloradans alongside their entrepreneurial spirit” makes this the ideal environment to pursue the profession.