Remix Remix is a regular segment on EducationShift, featuring interesting and innovative journalism assignments, courses and curricula. Writers will detail their ideas and work and, where possible, provide links and materials so other educators can adapt them in their own programs. If you’re interested in sharing your approaches to be remixed at other schools, contact education curator Katy Culver.

The minute I finished filing grades for the semester, I sat down with the leaked New York Times “Innovation” report, hoping it would give me insights into new thinking at the Times and ignite some fresh perspectives on my own courses. It did both those things and led me to a singular conclusion: Anyone associated with journalism education who doesn’t read this report is a fool. Whether you’re an instructor, student or funder, you pass on this one at your own peril.

Here’s why: The report takes the Times to school on digital disruption. It covers nimble new competitors, stifling cultural practices and key revenue realities. And in doing this, it provides one roadmap for where journalism education needs to head.

Sit down with the full report. Better yet, sit down with it, a highlighter and a few colleagues who care about curriculum. Highlight where key pieces of the report show up in your current offerings. Don’t worry. I’m guessing you won’t run out of ink.

The Times sees a vast array of competitors across the digital landscape.

The Times sees a vast array of competitors across the digital landscape.

Risk-taking Missing from J-schools

The troubling truth is that the kind of creative thinking and experimental risk-taking covered in the report are all too frequently missing from our J-schools. Yes, I can happily point to evidence to the contrary — people such as Cindy Royal, Robert Hernandez and Mindy McAdams come to mind. But let’s all start by admitting that structurally, the vast majority of our journalism programs do not embrace the kind of disruptive change described in this report.

If I could assign everyone homework, I would say read the report in full. At a minimum, read the smart summary of key points done by Nieman Lab. And if I might be bold enough to offer discussion questions:

  • Do your students know what “digital first” means? (Hint: This is a comprehensive strategy, not merely putting a story online before it goes in print.)
  • The report refers to the “art and science of getting our journalism to readers.” What does this mean and how frequently does the concept appear in your curriculum?
  • List the media companies the Times sees as competitors and tag the ways in which they compete. (Note: Yes, this list includes the Wall Street Journal. But it also includes BuzzFeed. Listicles, anyone?)
  • What is a strategy team? Have you used one in a class? If not, why not?
  • Do you believe in a tall and thick wall between the editorial and business sides? If so, defend your position in light of the report’s conclusions. (FYI: That’s going to be a tough proposition.)
  • Are design and user experience a fundamental and consistent part of your classes and curriculum? Why do these matter?
  • What is disruption and how might it affect higher education, specifically journalism?

Pushing Entrepreneurial Projects

But EducationShift is about giving you more than homework. We want to give you what the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton aptly labeled, “solutions journalism for educators.” To that end, let me offer you one shake-up I did in my own course, along with materials you can remix in your own class if you’d like to try it.

A few years ago, I grew deeply concerned that my introductory class — a 6-credit boot camp in journalism and strategic communication — was long on creating content and short on both why we create it and how to promote it. I threw my previous final project plan out the window and introduced a new approach. The 15 students in each lab would work together to pitch an entrepreneurial idea for a new information service. They would envision and create an online and mobile information product that could be marketed to a specific audience and then try to sell their idea to a group of supposed “angel investors.”

To do this, they report and write stories across media — text, audio, video, social, interactive. But first, they conduct market research, develop a strategy and defend it in an initial pitch session. They research and design revenue streams. They work on promotion plans. And they focus on audience needs and desires. They learn not to write a story because it interests them but instead because it adds value for an audience.

This seems like a simple concept. But I never got the idea to take hold until I designed this approach. The students do individual work and multimedia packages with partners. But most importantly, they’re split into four teams:

  • Strategy and Project Management Team: develops overall strategy, coordinates workflows
  • Platform Team: develops WordPress site for project, envisions other apps and tools
  • Content Team: coordinates all content, including assignments, editing and gathering needed assets
  • Pitch, Promotion & Revenue Team: develops plan to fund and promote project

The students get four weeks from initial idea to project completion. It’s a breakneck pace that replicates what many of them will face in the work world when they graduate. But they seem to welcome the work. They revel in both the independence given them and the creativity asked of them. My outstanding teaching assistants provide support and constructive critique along the way, helping students see holes in their ideas.

Students in J202 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are told to dream big in creating new information services.

Students in J202 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are told to dream big in creating new information services.

Go Ahead and Remix My Course

Reviews are generally positive. Our panel of alumni “angel investors” applauded this semester’s set of pitches, including “WeatherU,” a franchise-able service to bring weather updates and sell items to college students. The final sites are password-protected (so no one thinks our services are real), but you can get an idea of the approach through the corporate backgrounders the students write.

Want to try something similar in one of your courses? My materials are wide open for you to remix and adapt to suit your own needs. You can see the overarching philosophy, specific assignments to teams, troubleshooting hints and even the schedule of deadlines. If you try it, I’d love to hear how it goes and what you learned. We can never truly encourage our students to experiment if we’re not taking risks of our own. Embrace the disruption … because as the Times committee advises, it’s never going away.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver (@kbculver) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and researching at the intersection of ethics and digital media practices. Culver also serves as associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and education curator for PBS MediaShift.

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