The slang term old school can have different connotations depending on its context. Going “old school” could mean doing something traditional and old-fashioned in a hip way. Or it could be someone who is stuck in an old way and can’t find their way to the new. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism screams old school by indeed being an old school, founded in 1912 and being one of the first journalism schools in the country and the world — and offering the first graduate school of journalism in America in 1935.

Now they’re looking to keep the old school tradition and journalism values, but revamp the curriculum for the digital era.

While the school has made various attempts to keep up with the vast digital disruption among journalism institutions — adding classes, professors and faculty with digital chops — it has always stuck by its deep-rooted “concentrations” that students pick before starting school: broadcast, newspaper, digital, and magazine. Starting in the fall, that will be a thing of the past. Students only have 10 months to get their Master of Science at the school, so now they can take a mix of classes to match the skills they will need upon graduation.

Bill Grueskin

Bill Grueskin

The faculty itself was a driving force in this change, according to Bill Grueskin, the dean of academic affairs at the school and a former editor at the Wall Street Journal. Grueskin has been with the school for five years, and has seen and been a part of the changes over that time.

“What we didn’t want was the journalism school getting too focused on business disruption issues or media innovation and to lose sight of the core values and practices for reporting information that our students need to learn,” he told me in a recent Skype interview. “That’s evergreen. How do you do that in a digital age? A lot of people call it a balancing act, but I don’t think that gives it enough credit. It’s really: How does one inform the other, and how do you make both more powerful?”

The school has also added the forward-thinking Tow Center for Digital Journalism as well as the Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a collaboration with the Stanford Engineering School.

In a wide-ranging interview, Grueskin told me about the changes in the program for the fall, the challenges of teaching many more international students, and the integration of online teaching in some classes. Below is an edited version of the transcript of our discussion, along with some video clips.

Q&A

What was in your original job description that came true, and what wasn’t there that you had to do?

Bill Grueskin: So I’m dean of academic affairs here at Columbia, which means I oversee the faculty and curriculum here at the J-school, and I also teach. That’s very much a part of the culture here. Everyone from president Lee Bollinger to dean Nick Lemann to most of the deans at other schools find ourselves in the classroom teaching at least one if not both semesters every year. And that’s really important and a healthy thing.

The change in the curriculum that we started with baby steps that led to major changes was both slower than I expected and bigger than I expected. We appropriately wanted to spend time thinking about it … Being in a university is quite a bit different than being in a newsroom. Things get decided on a different timetable. We have the faculty governance here, and changes like this one to our curriculum need to get approval from the faculty, and appropriately so. So there are things I’ve had to learn over the last few years.

Things move slower in academia?

Grueskin: Yeah, but things move slowly in newsrooms too. I asked someone, ‘Name me a major newsroom that moved too quickly during the digital transformation?’ and this person couldn’t name one. Journalists, while overall we tend to have liberal political leanings, tend to be conservative in our business outlook and the way that we adapt to change. That’s true of a lot of news organizations, and sometimes appropriately so and sometimes to their detriment.

Grueskin explains why he made the move to Columbia from the Wall Street Journal:

What have been your biggest challenges there?

Grueskin: This has been challenging in a good way: The school has become more international than it used to be. About 35 percent to 40 percent of our student body (at the journalism school) comes from outside the U.S. and that’s been growing each year. In the old days, if you taught a media law class, you’d focus purely on the First Amendment, on classic cases like Times vs. Sullivan. Now imagine you’re teaching a law class in journalism school, and there are a few students from Britain, which has very different libel and privacy laws, a few students from Asia, who have a very different way of looking at these things, a few students from China, which has a very different view of press freedom. How do you come up with a class that brings that all together and isn’t just focused on what nine people sitting in room with black robes in Washington D.C. have to say about something?

[Back in 2004] we thought digital journalism was moving pretty fast. But I arrived here just as the Lehman Brothers collapse happened and whole economic collapse happened. That accelerated change in the business problems in journalism. If you looked before 2008, there was a steady diminution of the business model, then as 2008 happened, it went [on a severe down slope]. That’s been interesting to work with and adapt to as well.

You talked about taking baby steps with curriculum change, but now bigger changes are happening in the fall. Tell me about those changes.

Grueskin: In the past couple years, we’ve added a lot of classes, everything from a class taught by an editor at The Atavist called ‘Long-Form Digital Journalism’ to ‘Interactive News Design’ taught by the best interactive news designers at NYTimes.com … Everyone has to take a ‘Business of Journalism’ class that takes them through the legacy models of print and broadcast, how digital disrupted those models and what new models are emerging. For a lot of our students, that’s the first business course they’ve ever taken, so it’s a bit of an introductory course.

We made changes around the edges … but these things just added on to the existing structure of the curriculum. The curriculum has been set up for decades along the concentration-specific structure. So if you are applying for the journalism school in the fall, you would have to check off one of the concentrations: broadcast, newspaper, digital or magazine. In ways that you probably didn’t realize, when you chose that box, it predetermined what you could and couldn’t take when you got to the journalism school. Those concentrations made a lot of sense in an industry that was silo-ed by delivery form.

This came from meetings among half a dozen faculty in 2011. They felt that the concentrations were becoming obsolete and hemming our students in, and that wasn’t a great experience for them. So in getting rid of the concentrations, it really opens it all up. One of the main things it opens up is the RW1 class, the basic Reporting and Writing class* that takes up a lot of the students’ time but was concentration-specific … So we had to rethink RW1, which is a big deal here, because it’s a class that’s been taught here in one form or another since 1969. It’s been an effective way to train outstanding journalists for some time. So we adapted it to an era when students would have more freedom of choice.

So starting in the fall, you won’t have any concentrations?

Grueskin: No, there won’t be. Students applying for this fall have no boxes to check anymore.

Grueskin explains how the new curriculum will work starting in the fall, including a new mandatory class on audience engagement:

It sounds like you’re breaking the year into smaller chunks and boot camps.

Grueskin: Yes, certainly in the first semester you have a four-week boot camp, and then into seven-week half-semesters. And we’ll see how that goes. A personal confession: My oldest daughter went to Colorado College that teaches a block system where you take one course at a time for a three-and-a-half-week period for all four years. You end up taking the same number of classes as a traditional university but it can be an effective and powerful way to teach because you have the student’s almost completely undivided attention during that time.

In the spring semester, the students [at Columbia] will have a more traditional structure, taking a couple 15-week classes and their master’s project on the same deadline as before.

When people think about Columbia, they think about it being ‘old school’ — it literally is an old school. How do you change the perception about Columbia?

Grueskin: If we’re old school, and if old school means trying to ferret out the truth, trying to be fair, and be thoughtful in your journalism and write in a compelling way, then most of us would welcome that. But there are many ways that schools can show that they’re not just adapting to the times but thinking forward where things are going to be. First of all is the quality of the program and the students who are graduating from the school. Our career services said they had the highest placement of jobs or internships than ever this past spring, which was gratifying.

A reputation is determined by many things, but the fact that we graduate 325 to 350 students per year, and given that journalism is a relatively small field, we make a pretty big impact with that many people. And if they are seen as leading lights in their news organizations, that’s great for us. It’s also important to think about what the Tow Center and Brown Institute are doing. The Tow Center just had a very interesting weekend symposium on ‘sensor journalism’ and drones, and it was being tweeted like crazy and happening downstairs from my office. And we also host the Pulitzer awards, and that’s great.

This is a time of great innovation and experimentation in journalism education. We certainly don’t have all the answers here, but we have made great strides in making sure our program serves the students and the business … In the five years I’ve been here, the technological change has been incredible. Twitter was barely on the horizon when I started, and we put Final Cut Pro in every lab. Now we’re moving to Adobe Premiere. We’re looking at cameras that breach the divide between broadcast and online video. What I like to say is we like students to leave here with the intellectual dexterity to deal with unending change. That is a core journalistic skill along with learning to verify information and write it in a compelling way.

What about the rising costs of education, and for journalists in particular, it’s difficult to pay back those costs. How do you grapple with that?

Grueskin: It is a constant challenge. While our tuition has gone up a little bit [over the five years I've been here], student consciousness around this issue, around student debt, student loans and the actual net cost of this has risen much more than the price tag of our program. We try to deal with that in several ways; one is that we offer more student aid than any other master’s programs at Columbia. They get awards in the $10,000 to $30,000 range. And we try to work with them on financing, and that’s a reason our career services has been bulked up a lot. If you get hired pretty quickly out of school, you can pay off the loans faster and they won’t pile up.

It’s something we’re very aware of, and it’s not just the opportunity cost of being out of the job market for years. It’s the cost of living in New York City, which is a pretty expensive place. We’ve been really vigilant about making sure that we’re providing the kind of value that justifies that kind of cost.

Grueskin explains how Columbia J-school is integrating online education into existing classes, but not trying MOOCs:

Tell me about your incoming dean Steve Coll. He took some flack for not being on Twitter. Do you think that was justified or overblown? He’s got an amazing background as a journalist but not so much in the digital or social realm.

Grueskin: I’ve only met him a couple times. If you’re thinking about who are the best American journalists producing journalism today, Steve would show up on that list. I don’t know if you’ve read ‘Ghost Wars’ or his other books, but he is a really ambitious journalist committed to reporting and writing things that make a difference. I think he has the intellectual capacity to figure out how to use Twitter. I think it was somewhat overblown but it was a good story for about 24 hours [laughs].

*****

What do you think about Columbia’s revamp of its curriculum and getting rid of concentrations? What can they do to better prepare journalism students for the real world? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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CORRECTION (6/21/13): The original version of this story called the RW1 class “Reading and Writing 1″ but as pointed out in the comments, it should be “Reporting and Writing 1.” We regret the mistake.

UPDATE (6/21/13): Not long after this post went live, the news came out that Columbia’s Sree Sreenivasan was leaving the school to become the first Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The loss of Sree and his push for digital and social media will be a blow to the journalism school.

Mark Glaser is executive editor and publisher 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 wife Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+