Trust Me. We Can All Read.

It’s March Madness and UNC is not part of the push to the final four. No matter. In this house there is still basketball all week long and the thrill of watching college students with the passion and emotion of young men in their 20s fighting it out.

During this difficult season at UNC, no matter when we were up or down this difficult season, I found myself cheering on the amazingly composed Marcus Paige, a sophomore who is skilled in making difficult three pointers. When the frenzy of the Dean Dome seemed to block my ability to think, he would aim, shoot and bag a three pointer…. over and over again. Paige was focused, steady, and dependable. I would turn to my fellow deans with whom I sit and say – that’s my student! Yes, there was an extra pride knowing that the skilled and steady Paige is a major in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. And even more pride in knowing that he is an impressive student planning to specialize in public relations.

I was not surprised when I saw the news reports of Marcus Paige’s appearance, along with a few other athletes, at the UNC Board of Trustees this week. They were there representing the top sports: football, basketball, soccer and lacrosse- all teams who are the pride of UNC. I laughed when I saw Paige’s quote. ‘Trust Me. We can all read.” I laughed because it seemed like the kind of smart quote a PR major might turn to after he’d witnesses all the bad coverage of UNC athletics that have filled the newspapers and airwaves of late. If there had been UNC athletes who had been cheated out of a first rate education and channeled into weak courses and sham majors that didn’t’ demand much – Paige was making it clear he was not one of those athletes.

It’s been a tough season for anybody who cares about the academic integrity of UNC. Ex-Football players have gone on camera—as has an academic adviser from UNC—to say that they didn’t get the education they deserved. I wasn’t around in those days and it certainly appears that the University’s trust with its athletes was broken.

There has been some strong and important reporting done about the athletic situation at UNC and about the shortcomings of academics for athletes. Most of it I’ve admired – even when it made me uncomfortable since this is a University to which I’m now committed. The News and Observer, the McClatchy owned Raleigh-based newspaper that has seen hard times in the last decade, put its focus on UNC athletics and has not let up for three years. A few times their stories seemed thin – most of the time important and well done.

But this morning – making a puppet out of Marcus Paige in their editorial seemed simply “cheap”.

“Marcus Paige and the UNC men’s basketball team are out of the NCAA Tournament but that didn’t stop the university from leaning on Paige to score points last week. The sophomore guard, a second team Academic All America (sic), and several of the athletes were taken before the university’s board of trustees to affirm that they are getting an education at UNC-CH in addition to devoting long hours to their sports.
But the athletes’ testimony had an effect opposite to its intent. When Paige feels compelled to say of himself and his teammates, Trust me, we all can read and write,’ the heart sinks.”    
Worker-athletes, N&O Editorial,  Sunday, March 30, 2014

Did they ever think that the smart playing and hard working Marcus Paige might be simply furious? That all the reporting of past academic sins, of athletes who were illiterate, was an embarrassment to someone like him? Did they think that perhaps Paige was determined to speak out and show he was not part of some subculture of dumb athletes? That he was confident enough to turn a phrase like “they can’t read” into a weapon against those who would dismiss all athletes as unable to compete in the classroom.

I’ve spent most of my life reporting on the mistakes and sins of institutions. Men and women make mistakes and journalists hold up the spotlight to challenge those who would cheat society, individuals, and democracy.   But I’ve also seen great human kindness, witnessed those who serve society, and reported on institutions that are committed to making things better.

Good reporting on bad athletics shouldn’t include insulting a young man who has sports savvy, academic drive and a PR sense of irony. Marcus Paige deserves the N&O’s apology.






Anticipating Accreditation

Facing the accreditation of a school is not easy.  It’s a demanding process of review, discussion, fact finding and introspection and it is simply daunting.

I spent a day high over Michigan Avenue in Chicago listening to the teams of AEJMC reviewers report on the accreditation visits at 23 universities yesterday.  It began at 8:30 in the morning and they got to the last one at 5:00 as many ran to the airport for flights to university campuses across the country.  I had not looked forward to the day – I knew it would be long and somewhat tedious.  I did not expect it to be so enlightening.
I heard comments about curriculum, tenure, scholarship and skills.  I listened to the narratives of journalism programs fighting for support from administrations, of budget woes in state systems on opposite coasts, of the difficulties in shaping more diverse faculties.  It became fascinating to hear about other campus’ struggles and successes.  We all get caught up in our own strategic needs and plans for the future, but we have much in common.
I felt very lucky as I heard about some of the problems committed faculty face on other campuses.  I felt more lucky when I heard about some schools’ less than impressive scholarship or failed attempts at strengthening its underrepresented faculty numbers.  I realize how much we have in Chapel Hill and what a strong foundation this school is building upon.
That doesn’t mean the next six months will be easier as we drill down into data, articulate our strategic initiatives and prepare for a comprehensive analysis of our assessment of student learning.  This is not easy to do – but after listening to hours of discussion about the power of an academic program and thought about its importance in the lives of our graduates, I decided it is time well spent.

As the J-school at UNC, we have spent a year talking about direction, shaping a strategic plan called The Path Forward, and we are now challenging our curriculum to make sure it stretches our students.  I’ve decided we can expect nothing less from our graduates than they invent modern media – whether they are in news or advertising or strategic communications.

The phrases that will energize me as we systematically review our ideas and program: Is it working?  Is it consistent?  Is it assessing real growth?  Is it about learning? Is everyone involved?  Can we be better?

If it was a long day in a hotel conference room in Chicago yesterday. I realize it will be a longer year preparing and focusing staff and faculty on the process.  I look forward to next year this time when I can look back at it all. At least now I also know it will be a process that will be powerful and that can energize all we are already about.

What makes a TV Newsroom?

Personality, Passion. A sense of Purpose.

At least the good ones have that.  A few other things of course, like talented reporters, smart producers, great cameramen who thrive on news, and management who knows the difference between ratings periods and long term success.

The really good ones I’ve seen also possess grit, values, a sense of place and community.  They create a culture where competition drives a group of individuals into a bonded powerhouse that consistently wins the audience, breaks news, serves the news needs of voters and projects a team that enjoys doing what they are doing.
WRAL, Raleigh’s family owned CBS station, is that kind of station.  After 5 days inside its newsroom— as the station’s partner in the CBC UNC Diversity fellowship program—I know why they have dominated the Raleigh market for so many years.  The staff is the real thing.
A dozen young college broadcasters from across the country won admission to the second CBC UNC Diversity fellowship program this year.  They learned from a dedicated group of pros who have reached every level of success in their jobs and seemed to want to achieve one more thing: sharing the personality, passion and sense of purpose at WRAL with a new generation of broadcasters.

What does it mean to be a minority today in a newsroom – decades after the word diversity changed male dominated news organizations?  It still means being alone at times, being questioned, and being determined that you want to make it.  At WRAL this weekend, the second class of fellows met a team of managers, producers, cameramen and anchors who wants talent to thrive – no matter what their background. As every great newsroom knows, who sits around the decision table determines the strengths and weaknesses of a news team’s judgment.   Diversity isn’t a nice thing to have – it makes the difference.

On Wednesday, 12 young well educated seniors walked into the WRAL newsroom eager to put this competitive fellowship on their resume. They left the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication Sunday night with confidence after an emotional closing dinner with the WRAL brass.  They left North Carolina aware that at one top TV station, there is a commitment to quality, to the future, and to broadcast news that makes a difference.

For me, it was also the perfect partnership between a university and an industry leader.   Both of us working from our own strengths determined to build a new generation of news professionals who want to make a difference.

What’s In A Name?

As the world of journalism and communication change many of us in the journalism education field  are re-thinking what we call ourselves.  Many schools have added to their name to reflect the growing field of social media, engagement, strategic public relations, branding and advertising.

Students are joining our persuasive side of the communication house even faster than our news side.They see both jobs and a sense of excitement as the world of communication undergoes the digital transformation.

I believe we must re-imagine what it means to a be great journalism school for the 21st century. Innovation, research, experimentation and collaboration must mix with the disciplines of news and public relations and advertising to shape the future. It’s clear that new economic models are critical.  It’s also clear that students need new skills and strategies: from coding language, analytics, metrics, visual understanding, branding to consumer engagement just to name a few.

As I meet with alums on the west coast who are active in the start-ups and in jobs that might not have existed a decade ago, I find they are a bit reluctant to give up the old for the new.  They are not in the news business.   They are working for businesses and companies that are far from traditional news operations.  However, these alums like being graduates of a great journalism school even if they are not at an independent journalistic organization whose sole purpose is to inform the pubic.

They understand the power of the media, the role of a free press in a democracy, the digital revolution underway.  They have their eye on where things are going in our changing busness and they support our desire to open our doors wide enough to let business, and technology and non-profits know our students are prepared to work for them.

Our current seniors who have been lucky enough to compete for and win a spring break networking trip to San Francisco want to see the great new companies of the world while they are here : Google, Twitter, Pixar and EA.  They also want to meet our alum leaders in PR and magazines and news.

It’s an odd time.  We at the school push the envelope to prepare students to be deep thinkers and leaders. We want them to think critically, write with authority and clarity and to disrupt predictable ways of practicing communication. And we want them to respond to the economic imperative.

The students and alums want to go where no one has been, into the communications future.  But I am finding that they also don’t want to loose what attracted them to UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. That is a great tradition of success that has combined a commitment to journalism that serves democracy with a willingness to engage the public in debates that matter.  That’s not simply in news, but in the persuasive disciplines of networking, public relations, branding engagement, and advertising.

What’s in a name?  Both a great tradition and a challenging path forward.

Cord Cutters

I’ve been confused, amused and curious about cord cutters.  The idea that you could navigate modern monthly bills without the Cable Company seemed beyond me.  I’ve grown more dependent on the cable company.I remember free.  It was over the airwaves.  TV and radio were public goods – and free!

Now that seems like a quaint concept.

If once you could connect to the “passive” world of entertainment, news and information by simply buying a $79.00 television that would last for a decade – not so once everything has gone digital. Although today the cliché is you can get everything free – I have found I have been paying a lot more.  I now have a package from Time Warmer that includes my hard line phone (I’m of the age that I’m afraid NOT to have a landline) my Wi-Fi and my television.  It is one of my most costly monthly bills but I would never cut the cord…Time Warmer is my lifeline to the world.

Now that Time Warner will merge with Comcast, I have a new corporate relationship.  I know that of the merger is about getting bigger – they will have dominance in the negotiations about he future of information, news, video and TV.  I read about the criticism of and the case for the merger.  I want to understand it – but it feels like it is a “go.”  Both companies are sophisticated media companies that are strategic, huge and dominant.

I feel like Ma Bell is back.  I never had a problem with Ma Bell.  It controlled my childhood cord to friends and the outside world.  I kind of liked her.  I “got” the debate when the courts broke up the monopoly and creation, disruption and the modern world of communication emerged.
I love most of the world that I now live in  – phones that travel with me, news at the click of Twitter, the ability to “talk” by messaging those that really matter just about anywhere in the world.

But I know I’m paying for it.  I’m paying a pretty huge cable bill since it offers all my needs at home – and I’m paying my daughter’s college cable bill.  She meanders through this brave new digital world better than most I know, but while I’m willing to pay to cable her she isn’t cutting anything out.   We also have the family monthly wireless phone bill that keeps us all linked outside the home.

It’s great.  But it’s not free.

I remember that all I needed when I got my first job was enough money to pay the rent, the basic Ma Bell phone service and 50 cents for a subway ride to and from work.

Cable and the connection to everything the world offers is not an option in 2014.  It’s a must that every new graduate must put in his or her monthly budget.  Or is it?

Cut the cable?  Not for my life.

No wonder these very smart companies are combining forces – Comcast and Time Warner will be stronger than ever.  More indispensible.   More powerful.  More central to my life. I don’t pay for CBS or NBC or Google or Twitter.  But when it comes to anything visual and digital I’m linked to my cord.

Cord cutters?   They must just be more organized, strategic and determined than I am.  But I also wonder if they are a named group of adolescents – like middle schoolers – a phase you pass through until you become a monthly bill payer.

BBC: Bush House vs. Skyscraper

There is a power walking up London’s Regency Street at dusk when you see in the distance a blue lighted modern glass high rise cuddling an old fashioned church steeple.  It looks powerful .It looks modern.  It looks architectural.   It is the BBC’new headquarters Broadcast House. 

When I realized that this trip to the BBC Media Action board meeting would take me to a new headquarters for the BBC, I felt nostalgic and really sort of sad.  The BBC has been at Bush House on the Strand for a long as I was aware.  Whenever I came to London to visit the BBC team, I loved walking up to this old building on one of London’s most iconic streets and walking in the doors.  Not only was the location central and tied to everything old and powerful in the UK.  But Bush House—the name of the large and sprawling BBC headquarters building on the Strand—was always the term one used when visiting the BBC: I’m going to Bush House.   It was also the name one heard during radio broadcasts from strong voiced anchors: “From Bush House in London, this is the BBC.”

To give that up seemed to loose part of the history of this sprawling media powerhouse.  It seemed wrong to me for the news and media to move out of the history that it was so steeped in.  Bush House seemed a place that could not be replaced.  I was wrong.

After spending two days in this modern open, transparent and modern newsroom where collaboration and integration co-exist for news people working in many media, I’m sold.  Across a vast open floor and up four or five floors, the BBC has united Radio and TV and web reporters and editors with the programs for Britain, and the language programs for the Middle East, for Africa and for the Far East.

The BBC hasn’t lost its place as a voice for a country and culture, or its mission to bring independent thought and reporting to the world and it is not caught in its past; in fact it has imagined its future. Already it has built something that is flexible.  News people don’t have offices in this giant multi-floored news hub connected by a spiral staircase that goes more than three flights. They have hot desks. They plug in to their computer and log on.  All over there are small conference rooms and clusters of chairs and couches where people can talk.  But the main floor—the newsroom— that is the hub where all information arrives and is shared.

I left after our meetings impressed by the architecture of tomorrow built from the roots of a news organization that still claims the trust of the world.  I left not nostalgic for that dark and dingy rabbit warren of offices that was Bush House.  I had touched history before the BBC moved out, and I feel lucky to have walked around its storied halls.

But I’ve seen the future and it says to me that news, information, and a commitment to a media that helps a public understand their governments and societies is alive and well.

I also saw the newsroom of the future and realize this kind of hub connecting all platforms, all specialties and all communication talent, is a collaborative workspace that journalism educators must create so that old news and communication silos can come down while learning heads up.


A Journalist’s Junket

It felt like a Journalist’s junket.

To spend a day with a successful publisher talking about the news business is one of the perks of a dean’s job.  Add to it that the publisher is an alum, and his hometown of Little Rock also boasts a presidential library and you have a recipe for a day that is sheer delight.

Walter Hussman is the third member of his family to lead the newspaper business in Arkansas.  His grandfather started newspapering in the state in the early 20th century.  His father built it from there, expanding its reach to more communities. Walter with his father merged their Little Rock evening newspaper with the stronger morning paper.  The Arkansas Democrat Gazette has been the dominant news voice ever since.

I love family stories about newspapers because they reveal so much about the history of public communication, and business savvy and a community’s path to prosperity.  As we drove through town, Walter showed me the building the company owned that had housed a huge printing press that they didn’t need after the merger.  He turned it into a vibrant museum and a location for restaurants and businesses.  Like so many older cities, these strong built-to-last factories or manufacturing warehouses now are the center of vibrant downtown civic life.

But I leave Little Rock—a city that has a personality; it doesn’t feel like every other city— with two vivid take aways.

First, a picture of sitting with Walter in his spacious and comfortable office looking at apps on his I-Pad.  The company has created an app for each of the papers it owns and he reads them all first thing in the morning.  They look like the paper – laid out like the final edition.  He likes reading the paper on line: he he can increase the print; he can send the article to editors with comments. Unlike the print edition, the digital is movable and sharable.  Digital intrigues him and he is exploring how it will advance the paper.   He knows the cost of printing and trucking hard copies to smaller communities miles from “home base” is not efficient.  Digital apps will someday be an alternative to print on your driveway.  But Walter still wants to produce a product that is value added for the reader, full of information that is important and well written and edited so that the reader doesn’t have to do all the work of being informed.

Wonder still animates Walter Hussman when he talks about what he does.  Not fear.  Not naïve optimism.  Wonder.

The other take away is the power of the newsroom.  Bright and welcoming…alive with reporters at computers.  The desks are all red.  Sort of jaunty and modern though they are far from new.  Junk covers most desks and dividers and light fills the third floor newsroom from old-fashioned skylights.  It’s a place that I’d want to go to each day.  It doesn’t feel sad like many newsrooms I’ve visited in the past decade.

Here Walter admitted finances have been tough in this transition to the future.  They haven’t had to cut that many on staff, but there haven’t been raises for 5 years.  2013 was a kinder year and Walter explained that when they made a profit in the first quarter they gave reporters and editors bonuses of 2% . When they made a profit again second quarter, they did the same.  Third quarter profits – ditto.   It’s not a raise you can count on, but it says to dedicated journalists—the lifeblood of a news operation—you are important and when we make money you will too.

Believing and experimenting with digital.  Investing in the newsroom.  Those are two trends that make a dean’s heart swoon.

Uncertainty persists.  Family owned and run news companies are endangered.  But on this day in early 2014, the curiosity of Walter Hussman and the company’s belief in investting in those who create value:  the journalists, made me believe that journalism in American communities can survive.