Tag Archives: UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Jill Abramson

I never thought she got the big time job at The New York Times because she had an easy personality. She is not a back slapper. She is not gregarious. She is not the woman with the right word for everyone.
I figured Jill Abramson got it because her news sense is laser focused and smart. Because she has been through news wars and been victorious. Because she understood power and used it smartly. Because she loved The New York Times and realized it had to invent the modern strong news organization. Digital is its future. She was brave enough—I figured—to take the risks to make the 20th Century top newspaper the 21st Century top news organization.

The fact she was also a woman made me proud.

I figured we were finally smart enough. Tough enough. Experienced enough.

Like most women I was proud that she was offered, accepted and appeared to thrive in the most prestigious and difficult job in the news world I know – Executive Editor of The New York Times.

And this weekend I’m worn out – that it doesn’t seem to be enough. All the talk about pay discrimination. Woman as Victim. The need for temperament in management jobs.

I had trouble getting my first job in TV news because there was a debate about whether the public would believe a woman. Whether a woman’s voice was authoritative enough. No one ever asked that after I broke a few stories. They didn’t’ ask after I held my own in the newsroom or after I brought the public stories that mattered. Women liked getting their news from other women. And no one wondered whether I had authority.

Management however is a different thing. Most of the really big news and media jobs are men’s jobs. Women are in the newsroom and in the corporation. But fewer women are pulling the strings. Women’s leadership is still a matter for debate.

And being a tough leader and a demanding boss fits a man a lot better than it fits most people’s perception of a woman. Consensus building is a leadership quality that many feel women excel at. Some argue in a 21st Century economy consensus is a must. But no organization works only from consensus. You have to build consensus—but in the end if you are at the top—you must be tough. Jill was tough. No one doubts that.

I saw with amusement the back page advertisement of The New York Times Week in Review section today with the new version of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. It is called Lean In for Graduates.   The ad says: “A handbook that offers instruction and inspiration for the next generation – with six new chapters full of essential advice for entering a competitive job market.”

I am the dean of a Journalism school that is dominated by women as are most. I am at UNC where, like most institutions of high education, women also outnumber men. Women’s leadership is not a short term “hot news item.”   Women are graduating in powerful numbers and will be taking over the top rungs of every office, school, university, non-profit and corporation in American in the next 25 years. This weekend I am not sure what to tell them.
I don’t’ know why Jill Abramson was really let go. But I know it isn’t because she isn’t good at what she does. The paper is as good if not better than it was. If it is because she was too tough – that’s a problem for every newswoman I know and just about every women in charge of anything.

Lean In. Lean Out. I’m really surprised—and rather tired— that this is an issue on our agenda Circa 2014.






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.

Scrap the Final Exam

I spent a week experiencing final projects and then one night monitoring a final exam.  No doubt about it , the age-old final exam where the work of the semester is reviewed and tested is passé.  Having teams of students work on a project and present a strategic plan for some media platform or idea, for a business start up, or  a non-profit project clearly is the way to go.

If we want students to learn deeply there is no doubt that semester focused final projects bring all the ideas of a semester into a focused close that stretches students in ways that the Medieval-era academics—who invented the idea of the University—never thought about.

Pedagogy has always been a science that intimidates me.  But experimentation at  UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence  has discovered that engaging students can advance learning.  Peer learning and team interaction are tools the Center encourages professors use in the classroom.  The Center stresses the idea that practical, hands on, project-learning deepens the intellectual process. When students work in teams rather than singularly in a library setting, they master the skills and remember the concepts.

Journalism and communication has always been about doing.  To learn to write one must write.  To learn to report one must report  To do strategic communication one must strategize.  For years some called journalism simply a craft and there were debates about its intellectual core.  To have pedagogy underline the experiential power of learning is powerful.

And to experience that learning was more than powerful, it was simply exciting.

In our Advertising top level course, JOMC 491.6 Market Intelligence, that Knight Chair JoAnn Sciarrino teaches, I watched as the semester-long experience in brand positioning culminated in a face off between 5 teams of students who had surveyed, analyzed, researched and strategized about how to create a five year plan for our own School of Journalism and Mass Communication that would position the school for tomorrow. Not only were the presentations impressive – from well-conceived and creative PowerPoint’s and videos that would visualize the ideas for a brand – but the students’ poise, confidence, articulation, and salesmanship was jaw dropping.  These weren’t young students trying to impress a teacher with their final project, these were young men and women ready to take on a job and argue for a strategy.

They sounded both job ready and life prepared.

Our Visiting Professor Merrill Rose focused her PR Campaigns JOMC 434 class on creating a national strategy for a client that is San Francisco based and with  whom the class interacted since August.  Rose, a full time Public Relations executive, worked with one of the grantees of her prestigious foundation client to bring real world questions to her students and real world results to the client.   The group of young woman created a complicated Prezi presentation that broke down the dilemma for the non-profit education group and made options simple.   I watched the young women, dressed as professionals, present the strategy in a dynamic and personable way,.  They argued for a value proposition that could advance the non-profit in ways this communication director could never have advanced on is own.  His face changed from the client helping students in a final project, to a professional who realized he was the recipient of great ideas he could build on.

And then there was ReeseNewsLab.  Five  groups pitched new ideas for journalism to a crowded room of skeptics and peers.  The ideas had to be bold and out of the box, and have the possibility of finding a financial figure.  A prison newsletter to engage prisoners in opportunities for their future.  A digital news service that paid readers. A magazine with long form investigative articles on Chapel Hill for the I-Pad.

Students are not students when they are in front of the classroom presenting.    They are professionals in the making.  And they have not simply learned what a professor wanted them to learn—they have reached  past what a professor might have conceived.  They have made the ideas deeply felt, the challenges deeply thought about and the learning forever – not simply for the test.

Scrap those final exams.  Give a final project.

Re-Imagining TV News

TV News – its past and its future – has been on my mind this week.

Two giants of the TV News business began the week with a non-threatening conversation on the future of Television News. It was the centerpiece of the Wade Hargrove Colloquium put on by the UNC Media Law Center – a partnership between the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Law School here at Chapel Hill.

In one sense it was a study in contrasts: a conversation between a new leader of TV News and a veteran about to retire.

David Barrett will leave as CEO & Chair of Hearst TV, a place he has worked most of his life, at the end of the year.  Hearst, on the broadcast side, is a local television powerhouse that has won ratings and profits with an emphasis on quality and serving the community

Ben Sherwood is the president of ABC News, a subsidiary of Disney. He’s credited with the rise in ratings of Good Morning America, an ensemble morning news program that is more about the ensemble than news. Sherwood is also launching a new Latino news channel called Fusion that aims to attract new younger Hispanic viewers.  It’s a combination of news and chat and current events – much of it with edge or as they say – a sense of satire.  One public affairs program’s title is:  “No You Shut Up.”

Although the business of TV isn’t as good as it was 20 years ago when 25%+ profits were the norm, it is a business that is competitive and lucrative. Both Barrett and Sherwood were optimistic.

But I’m worried.  TV news doesn’t command the attention or the respect it once did and today it looks just like it did when I was working in it – very little of the formula has changed.

Today when the Sunday talk shows, to which I’m addicted, showed clips from TV appearances of soon to be president John F. Kennedy in the middle of the last century, I realized why I am worried.

It was fifty years ago this week that JFK was assassinated and the power of television news was experienced by a nation brought together in grief by the ability of television news to take viewers to the scene of real events in real time.  It was the event that created the TV anchorman.  Walter Cronkite held America’s hand that tragic week and created a bond with the audience that lasted his entire career.

Fifty years is a long time ago.  Except for color television and a lot more women and minorities on the set, the stuff of TV news is almost the same.  Authoritative figures sit behind a desk giving the news.  Windblown reporters on the scene hold microphones and tell what they know.  Stories about 90 seconds or less in length sum up complex ideas and issues.  News programs are mostly 30 minutes in length or in cycles of 30-minute segments.  Commercials interrupt about every 5 minutes with the promise we’ll be back with more in a minute.

My students are not watching TV News.  They are not participating in any ceremony of news that is organized around breakfast or lunch or dinner or at bedtime.  They get information – text or video – when they want it.   They don’t need to have a formula of TV News determine what or when they can get the sports, or the lead story on the Philippines or an analysis of Obama Care.

I think they still like well-crafted visual stories that explain complicated ideas, or introduce characters.  I think they are still drawn to good storytelling and powerful video segments.  I’m just not certain they have any expectation of joining the TV schedule that I follow almost without fail because news is a habit I enjoy.

Barrett and Sherwood didn’t twitch when pushed about young viewers and their habits.  They are experimenting some, and they argued that when jobs and mortgages make young peoples’ routines more – well routine – they expected them to be back in the audience.

That worried me.  I heard newspaper editors argue that youth would grow up and find the wonders of newspapers too.

I’m now pondering whether our JOMC students, who produce great conventional television news in our classes, should be pushing the boundaries.  Not doing what I did, or what is being done today.  And, I don’t mean simply being hip or glib.  I’m talking about experimenting with how to tell stories that are important and compelling and central to our democracy.  I’m talking about experimenting with how to engage with the audience in authentic and relevant ways.

Video is not going away. There is more of it than ever: on newspaper web sites, embedded in tweets, on U-Tube.   But TV News.  That’s another question.  I want the values Barrett and Sherwood voiced.  But I also want to see something really new emerge.  Who better than students to re-imagine it?

Talking Biz

The relationship between business reporters and P.R. sources has long been the grist of journalism conferences.  But there was an interesting twist to the conversation at the Talking Biz one-day conference in Manhattan last week that was organized by UNC J-school Professor Chris Roush, the creator of Taking Biz.

Reporters in or from mainstream media made it clear no one has time to build relationships any more.  An emerging media business editor argued relationships give them an edge.

For AP’S new business editor Kevin Shinkle, the push for getting stories out, making 24/7 deadlines and feeding multiple platforms means lunch with a source is simply an artifact of the past.  “You once knew where PR professionals were coming from and they knew where reporters were coming from.  That is gone.  Now, no one has time.”

Along with Kevin Shinkle of AP, the other working business editor on the panel was at a new web based news organization:  BuzzFeed. 

Peter Lauria, who worked at the New York Post before joining BuzzFeed as business editor, emphasized the need for relationships.    A fast paced web site, Buzz Feed is building an audience that is younger than the traditional business news audience.  Lauria said they want to leverage relationships with companies – both with those in the PR arm of a company and those on the front lines.  As he put it: “We have scoops because we have relationships.”   Scoops are the currency of the realm for on-line news sites like BuzzFeed.

Lauria insisted the hardest part of his job was building the relationships with corporate leaders that Fortune and New York Times always had.  The reason: he must convince big business leaders that a new start-up site like BuzzFeed is worth the time.  “CEOs often dismiss Millennials,” who he explained are the audience for his growing site.  He argued such dismissals were short sighted since Millennials will soon be the recipients of a major transfer of wealth when the baby boom generation passes on their wealth to their children.

Business news is big business these days as computerized investing, the global market, and start-ups change the rules in how business runs.  Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters have gained profits and audience share while traditional leaders in the field have lost pace.  Being fast is critical with information giving investors an edge of seconds that can turn into millions.

The great business reporting pages were represented on the panel – Fortune, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.  However, the reporters that once worked explaining, covering and spotlighting business were now mostly on the other side advising companies about how to tell their story. Some still worked with reporters as bridges to corporate leaders.  But many of them were now turning to media they could control to influence the global market.  Reporters and business news is still important – perhaps more than ever – but in a different way.

I left with two big take-aways from the strong panel that Talking Biz and Roush put together:  old successful business journalists are now strategists for corporate America which may be a real boost for American business.  And business journalism is the new frontier for start-ups like BuzzFeed.

It wasn’t a good news/bad news, dire situation kind of a discussion – it was one that revealed all the change underway.  And, it proved the hunger for information and understanding is alive and well.

For newsies like me – that seems like a good thing.