When I spoke with USC Annenberg incoming dean Ernest Wilson in 2008, he spoke of “blowing up the school” figuratively because of all the disparate “Centers” there. And a lot of other people in journalism education have been struggling to change longtime institutions from the inside, with that “blowing it up” metaphor getting around (see Eric Newton’s How Journalism Education Can and Should Blow Up the System).

Fast-forward to today as Wilson has been assigned another five-year term to the school, which has launched the Annenberg Innovation Lab, is planning an Experimental School, and is moving to a shortened one-plus-year master’s program from its current two-year length. And did I mention they’re actually going to blow up the current building and recently broke ground on the new Wallis Annenberg Hall — a larger, more open building created for spontaneous collaboration? (OK, they’re not going to blow it up, but it’s hard to resist saying it.)

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Ernest Wilson

Wilson finally feels somewhat comfortable in his job as dean, and has stopped using the explosion metaphor.

“The initial idea I had, ‘let’s blow everything up’ … I’ve stopped using that as frequently as I did before, because I think that scared some of my colleagues,” Wilson told me in a recent phone interview. “What I tell my students and faculty and others: We are no longer observers. We are no longer uni-dimensional providers of skilled people. The Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication, like other journalism schools, we are now participants in the ecosystem of the creation and distribution of news and information.”

It’s a trend that’s happening around the country: journalism and communication schools becoming important news production outlets themselves beyond just being campus or local media. USC Annenberg has its own global online news outlet, Neon Tommy, and will be teaming up with industry to include a practicum as part of its new master’s program that will put students into real-world work situations.

Wilson told me about the school’s success with its Innovation Lab, his plans for a new Experimental School taught by top faculty and practitioners, and the threat and challenge of online classes and universities. Below is our edited conversation with some audio clips.

Q&A

The last time we talked, you said you wanted to “blow up” the structure of USC Annenberg because it was balkanized with Centers. What’s your progress now on changing that culture?

Ernest Wilson: Geoff Cowan, my predecessor, was a visionary and high-energy guy. He ran Voice of America for a number of years — Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The culture here was pretty cool, but I hadn’t quite figured it out then. Here’s the way I think of my first five years, as I’ve just been appointed to another five-year term. The metaphor I used with you then was that there were two planets: the journalism school and the communications school. Then there were all these centers revolving around these planets. What I wanted to do was make sense of that and figure out what our weaknesses and strengths were in trying to reinvent communications, journalism as well as public relations.

What I’ve concluded is that … journalism, rhetoric, public relations, communication, public diplomacy were all merged about 15 years ago into one unit. At the time that made life a little bit difficult for the constituent parts. But then, lo and behold! The world actually moved in the direction of greater convergence. When you talk to people in public relations or print journalism or whatever, they say, “We can no longer have intellectual silos any more than we can have professional silos.”

What I feel really good about is building on this inherited combinations of different disciplines and professions and looking very hard for synergies and places where journalism and communication and public relations and strategic communication can work together. That’s what gives me the greatest sense of satisfaction — that we’re well on the way to doing that. I’ll give you a couple examples: We’ve created the Innovation Lab, and we’re going to create what I call the Experimental School.

The initial idea I had, “let’s blow everything up” …

I remember that was the term you used. You said you thought you would need to blow it all up.

Wilson: I’ve stopped using that as frequently as I did before, because I think that scared some of my colleagues … What I tell my students and faculty and others: We are no longer observers. We are no longer uni-dimensional providers of skilled people. The Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication, like other journalism schools, we are now participants in the ecosystem of the creation and distribution of news and information.

That’s a sea change, because what used to be student media was niche, something created for themselves and just the college community. To be doing something with professionals outside the school, that seems to be a big change lately.

Wilson: It is. I recently talked to Nick Lemann from Columbia University [the outgoing journalism school dean], and we’re all wrestling with it. The piece that was written by Eric Newton, he pointed to several things about J-schools as teaching hospitals and experimentation. We need to be bolder. Journalism schools need to think of themselves as part of the ecosystem the way that law schools and medical schools and business schools and other professional schools think of themselves as not separate from but part of the broader environment they live in.

I don’t know if it’s true anymore, but there was a time when the Annenberg School had the second largest newsroom in L.A. after the L.A. Times. The “blowing up” piece I took very seriously. We either innovate or we die — that was my mantra at the beginning [of my term as dean]. The good news, without bragging, is that the Annenberg School is large and has a pretty good reputation and has some resources. The bad news is that we’re large and have some resources.

Wilson explains what he thinks is the “USC Advantage” and extols the virtues of his faculty:

Tell me about the ways that you have worked more closely with professionals and outside companies?

Wilson: We are aggressively seeking partnerships with the communities of practice. One of the things that surprised me when I became dean, coming from teaching at a public policy school at University of Michigan and Maryland, I was used to talking to the communities of practice that we were allegedly training people for.

You didn’t see that at Annenberg?

Wilson: I thought it was just Annenberg, but then I started to go to these Carnegie-Knight meetings and comparable meetings on the communications side, and I just didn’t see it and it was shocking to me. I took a year and a half to talk to the CEOs and COOs of public relations companies, and people at companies in Silicon Valley, and publishers and editors at newspapers and magazines. And I said, “When you hire people, on what basis do you hire people? And when you promote people, on what basis do you promote them?” And they said, “That’s interesting. No one’s ever asked us that before!”

I told them, “Tell me what you do, and I’ll go back to my faculty and find out whether in fact we are teaching those skills and competencies.” In some cases we were and in other cases we weren’t. So we have been reinventing a lot of stuff at the school to make us more relevant to the communities of practice that we provide our students to. And it’s worked really well.

You mentioned the Innovation Lab and the Experimental School. Can you tell me more about those?

Wilson: Sure. Building on the idea that we innovate or die or become irrelevant, in the same way that the L.A. Times or broadcast media or AOL has to innovate, we invited an Innovator in Residence. His name was Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who came from IBM. He said, “Why don’t you think of some kind laboratory for the ideas you have, and take them to communities and groups and take them to market?” So my faculty got really excited about that, and we created the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

What I’m excited about is that there are signs up all over the lab that say things like “Break Things,” “Fail Early” and “Learn Quickly.” It’s all risk-sounding and rhetorical and blah, blah, blah, but we’re attracting the kind of faculty and students across the campus who want to push the envelope on what it means to be in journalism or communications.

And among the firms who have come to work for us are Warner Bros., IBM, Apple, the L.A. County Museum of Art, France Telecom.

It sounds like the MIT model where they work with industry really closely with the students.

Wilson: That’s an excellent analogy, and I’ve been out at the Media Lab there a bunch of times. But I think the Media Lab tends to be 75 percent on the technology and the gadgets and 25 percent on usability. We spend about 75 percent on usability and 25 percent on the technology and gadgets.

What about the Experimental School?

Wilson: The Experimental School reflected the conversations we had with the communities of practice … We listened to them very carefully and I looked at the success we were having with the Innovation Lab, and I said, “Why don’t we create a new platform that will try to create a learning environment where students can walk away at the end of their time … and be able to achieve these experiences and competencies?”

When I say experimental, I mean experimental in terms of content, in terms of where the students will take their classes — they’ll be taking classes at Silicon Beach, South Central L.A., and the L.A. Times. It’s experimental in the sense of not being lopped into semester-long three- or four-credit courses. What I want are one-credit, two-credit courses.

Wilson explains what provoked the idea for the Experimental School:

Will the Experimental School just be for students at the school or for others?

Wilson: That’s a good question. We will still have the Journalism and Communication School, but we will have this Experimental School as a platform where students can propose courses. Right now, it’s a vision and a dream. We’re going to start offering some classes; I’m going to teach a small seminar on pattern recognition next semester, and then in the fall it will take off at full tilt. So we thought, “Who should we let in the classes?” and at first we thought that anyone who is experimental and eager should join them.

But then we decided to set some higher standards. So the students will need to be interviewed by the professors. It will be a special opportunity for students to be in small classes with senior professors and also world-class practitioners from beyond the campus.

Tell me about the new Wallis Annenberg Hall building that you just broke ground on. You talked about taking classes outside the school with the Experimental School, but it sounds like there’s still a need for a physical space to bring everyone together.

Wilson: Absolutely …The new building is both an expression of our past and present successes and also our future ambitions. The current building that we’re in was built for about 200 people. We now have 2,200 students, 100-plus faculty, a dozen research and training centers. We have become victims of our own success.

It’s almost literally like trying to fill a water balloon. If I put another drop of student or faculty in here, I would have to pop the balloon — or worse, I have to cut somebody’s office in half. Which is a great way to piss off your faculty. We spent a huge amount of time talking to people like IDEO who came in early in this process, who said, “You have a heterogeneous community.” We wanted them to address that. They spent weeks and weeks as anthropologists interviewing faculty, interviewing students, trying out ideas.

What we decided as a faculty was that we really wanted experimental space, flexible space, open spaces that would force these different experts to come together, listen to one another — both on the faculty side and student side. We have an amazing fly-through online [see below].

How does someone afford to go to USC and then pay it back on a journalist’s salary?

Wilson: That is the $64 billion question these days. We do have a generous scholarship program — not only at USC as a whole but just within the school. I’m proud to say that USC as a whole and the Annenberg School have a higher percentage of minority students of color than does UCLA. And we have more first-generation college-educated kids than does UCLA. But it’s a challenge. We’ve been fortunate, in the surveys that we’ve seen — take it with a grain of salt — something like 75 percent to 80 percent of our students are employed within 12 months.

They’re getting picked up and going to every great outlet and media publication in the country. I’m also trying to raise $64 million, as part of my fundraising campaign, and a big chunk of the resources that I’m committing to raising has got to go to fellowships.

We’re looking at shifting from a two-year program to a one-year-plus program. What we’re thinking is that there will be a boot camp at the front end, teach the basics eight hours a day. Then there will be seven or eight months of traditional class teaching, which will be tied to what we’re calling the practicum. In the practicum, we have alliances with the L.A. Times, KPCC, we’re talking to KOCE, KCET and the AP. My view, which I’ve been pushed into by some of my professors, is that students need to be doing journalism from Day 1. We don’t need a year of classroom instruction and then send people out to cover a beat.

The practicum will not only send people to local, national and international outlets, but we also have Neon Tommy, our 24/7 news channel online … With the practicum, they won’t just have an internship but will have something that looks like a real job for six weeks to two months. It’s not just fetching coffee for someone … There are some things that will be lost [in moving to a shorter program] but we believe a one-year-plus is the way to go. They’ll have a master’s degree as they had before.

What about the competition coming from all the online classes and universities?

Wilson: That will be a challenge for everyone in academic administration and everyone in the academy for the foreseeable future … The starting point is blended classrooms with the latest tech tools and a telepresence talking to people in Dubai or New York, and co-teaching classes around the world. And the competition from online sources, we’ve been looking at that very carefully … I think what we’re discovering is that the first course like that was up at Stanford about artificial intelligence. And the completion rate was like 5 percent or 10 percent. My own thinking is that if you are in the business of teaching, reasoning, logic, analysis — these are not easily done online. Teaching math, engineering is the relatively easy thing to do online.

I am utterly convinced that the online experience can be both satisfying to teacher and student. Now there’s a lot of caveats to that. You can have a lousy classroom experience or a lousy online experience. I’m developing ideas that would provide information in the public service about the nature of this digital society and digital media. We’re still kicking that around. I think it would be nutty if a school like the Annenberg School didn’t provide online resources for the communication age.

*****

What do you think about the direction that Wilson has taken USC Annenberg? Do you like the idea of focusing on innovation and openness and the Experimental School? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Full disclosure: USC Annenberg has been a longtime sponsor of PBS MediaShift. Mark Glaser wrote a regular column for USC Annenberg’s Online Journalism Review from 2001 – 2005.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian and fiancee Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+