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Jan. 25, 2016, 11:11 a.m.
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This is what it’s like to launch a journalism school from scratch

At Morgan State, one of the few historically black colleges and universities with a journalism school, “we not only have to provide our students the knowledge in the classroom that they need to compete, but we also have to be a provider of the practical experiences that they need.”

If you had the chance to launch your own journalism school, how would you do it? If your mind starts to run wild, tack on some limitations: Yes, you have the power to decide what the school is going to look like and focus on, but you have nowhere near unlimited funding. In fact, you’ll be operating on a shoestring and will face constant fundraising challenges — you’ll need to be very creative about finding opportunities for your students to learn. This might be a dream assignment, but it’s one that will bring you down to earth very quickly.

dewayne-wickhamThis is the challenge that DeWayne Wickham was faced with in 2013. Wickham, a longtime USA Today columnist (he stepped down from that role last year after three decades), was hired to launch a journalism school at Morgan State University. Morgan, located in Baltimore, is one of 107 historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs) in the United States, and the School of Global Journalism and Communication is only the fifth school of journalism at an HBCU. (The other four are at Howard, Texas Southern, Hampton, and Florida A&M.)

“We’re the newborn,” Wickham told me recently. “I came in as an outsider, more of a journalist than an academic. My charge was to design, conceptualize, and create a school. We went in a direction that surprised some people.”

I talked with Wickham about the creative ways that he’s building a journalism program on a shoestring (but still trying to get a professor inside NASA), at a school where 95 percent of the students are black. Programs like Morgan’s, he said, “have a unique role at a time when cities are burning, when people are demonstrating in the streets.” Our conversation, below, is edited slightly for length and clarity.

Laura Hazard Owen: You’re two years in. How’s it going?

DeWayne Wickham: It’s been a rocky ride. I came in as an outsider, more of a journalist than an academic, and into a school that had an existing department within the realm of journalism and mass communication. My charge was to lead a team to design, conceptualize, and create a school. We went in a direction that surprised some people.

We had to sell the vision of the school as a school of global journalism and communication. We even debated things like the name: Should it be, instead, the School of Communication and Journalism? I had to grow the faculty quickly. When we started, the department had 12 full-time faculty members and a small number of adjuncts. Today, we have 26 full-time faculty members and half as many adjuncts.

We’ve grown significantly in size, but not fast enough for my own purposes. The great challenge for us has not just been to conceptualize and design a school, but to make sure you can offer the programs to students in a way that they find acceptable. The pressure’s on to expand the faculty, to grow the opportunities for students.

Within our university, we’re trying to model the idea of knowledge-based journalism that was hatched at Harvard. We’re discussing a partnership with our school of architecture, our school of education, and our school of business. The basic way we perceive knowledge-based journalism is that we can get journalism students, who have been taught the basic skills of newsgathering and dissemination, to focus in on what kind of news they gather. When I started out as a practicing journalist [in the 1970s], we used to say that journalists were jacks of all trades, masters of none. Now, in our approach to knowledge-based journalism — which I think in many ways is a different approach to beat reporting — we want students to leave campus, enter the newsroom, and say, “If you make me the education reporter, I’ll be the smartest reporter in the room when I go to a school board meeting.”

Owen: Tell me more about the global part in the name of the school.

Wickham: Journalism today is a craft that’s practiced globally, and it’s very difficult to lock yourself in to one region or one nation. That we would have a global school was, for me, a no-brainer. But then how does that global school manifest itself in terms of structure and offerings?

Fortunately we have a faculty that has some global representation. We have three faculty members from Africa — one who grew up in London, two from the continent. We also have faculty members who have traveled extensively, like E. R. Shipp and Jackie Jones. It was relatively easy to get the kind of faculty focus that we wanted.

But then we had to figure out how to give the students a global experience. We’re a new school with a small budget. The last thing we were going to be able to do was pack students up in large numbers, put them on a plane, and send them somewhere.

We’ve had to be very creative. In March, we’re sending four students and a faculty member to Greece, through a relationship that we have with Penn State. Penn State has an international reporting class and we’re using that class as a vehicle to get some of our students and a faculty member into the field. They already had such a large group going that the economy of scale lowered the cost for us.

We’re sending some students to Cuba in June. And also in June, we’re sending some students to London for two weeks to take part in a film program with [actor-producer-director] Tim Reid in collaboration with the British Film Institute. Our kids will learn to shoot and to produce short documentaries.

We’ve started bringing people in to create this opportunity for global learning experiences. We created a global conference room that allows us to fit about 18 students around a table, with big-screen TVs on all four walls, and do Google Hangouts with people in as many as six different locations at one time on the screen. And have these conversations. Most recently we talked to a guy in Berlin. The conversations are recorded, the visuals are recorded, and we started increasing these many opportunities for travel.

We have to be creative about financing. I’ve assembled a board of visitors, and all the money for the London and Cuba trips has come from a single donation from a member of that board. It’s a hard effort, but I hope the students don’t see the making of the sausage — just the sausage.

Owen: You’re also sending students around the United States.

Wickham: One thing we’ve been doing, that we think is very creative and that allows us to reduce some of the burden on faculty and staff in the conceptualization of these projects, is that we’ve teamed up with other universities.

We partnered with West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media to launch our social justice reporting projects. Last year’s project was to go to Selma, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We thought it made a lot of sense to go back and look at the city behind the bridge: What happened to the city of Selma and the people of Selma? We thought it would really be creative to do it not just looking through the eyes of our overwhelmingly black student body, but also through the eyes of students at a school with an overwhelmingly white student body. We wanted to see how this experience would inform our reporting, and we created a website for all of the reporting that we did down there with our colleagues in West Virginia.

In the fall, we’re going to initiate a social justice project that looks at food deserts, again teaming up with West Virginia University. Yes, people have looked at food deserts before. But, again, we’re going to have teams from our mostly black urban university and that mostly white rural university. They will go to rural West Virginia and look at food deserts, and then come to urban Maryland, Baltimore, to look at food deserts. They’ll try to determine if there are common strains here, common impacts. What do we learn from looking beyond our own sphere of interest? What do we learn about food deserts and the commonality of people’s lives across racial lines?

Owen: So you started your school from scratch. How do you integrate a vision of digital journalism from the beginning?

Wickham: I believe that the thirst people have for news and information has never been greater. Anyone who looks at journalism today, sees the declining number of newspapers and the shrinking number of practicing journalists, and decides that this is proof that journalism is dying: My response is, you’re all wrong. The increased demand that I see today is evidenced in the growth of the kinds of delivery systems that people are buying and using in greater and greater numbers.

The recent Pew studies tell us that African Americans and Hispanics are, disproportionately, the largest users of smartphones and tablets. But smartphones and tablets are delivery systems. The question is, which apps do they use, and what do they find there? For me, content is still very much for me the most important thing. Content is the trunk of the tree. And the branches of the tree are these delivery systems.

People want news and information more than ever before. They may not want to read it in a newspaper, or watch it on TV, or even be active consumers of news and information, but they really want it. I believe that the great challenge for journalism educators and mass communications educators is to figure out how to effectively and efficiently deliver content to audiences.

Owen: Can you talk specifics, in terms of courses and so on, for how you’re looking at this overarching goal to find new ways of delivering content?

Wickham: That is still evolving. We have social media courses and courses that deal with new technology. To keep our faculty current, I send them off to places like the Poynter Institute’s Teachapalooza, and programs run by the International Center for Journalists. The ICFJ has a fellowship called Back In the Newsroom that trains minority faculty in all the current technologies. After they come back from these training sessions, we have them do a special topics course the very next semester to teach our students the newest technology.

Because we are relatively new, we’re still nimble enough, curriculum-wise, to be able to do that. We continue to talk about piloting programs, but we really have not needed to pilot a class yet because of our ability to offer new classes, in very short order, on special topics. So, for example: Our spring semester starts Monday [Jan. 25]. We just met with Tim Reid today, and we’re putting a class in place next week based on that conversation with him today. I can’t get into too many details, but the class will let students produce new content for which there is a commercial demand. We saw the opportunity, turned around, and did this right away.

Owen: And you are also doing these really ingenious, creative projects.

Wickham: We’re talking now about trying to send a faculty member off to NASA; I met with the director of NASA recently. They are working on ways to communicate across great distances.

One of my faculty members said, ‘Dean, why would we want to do that?’ My answer was: I don’t know, but what I do know is that every major form of mass communication that we’ve used in journalism over the last 200 years was created for some other purpose, some other means of mass communication. The Gutenberg press, the radio, the telephone, the television, computers and the Internet — they were all created for some other purpose that we’ve adapted to journalism.

The problem right now in journalism education is that, unlike in, say, engineering or architecture, where the researchers often set the curve for the university — in journalism, too often, we measure our progress as academics by going into the newsroom to see what they’re doing. We’re following the curve. We teach what is currently being done. Instead, can we find these novel ways of transmitting messages over great distances, appropriate that knowledge and use it effectively in terms of the transmission of news and information?

Or, how do we find new ways to do old things? Take my documentary unit. The documentary as a standard form now is 90 minutes or two hours, but most people are getting their information off of an iPhone. Am I going to create a 90-minute movie to put on one of those devices and expect someone to watch it? Or am I going to find something new and novel, or something old that we can make new? When I was a kid and went to the movies, there were serials — they’d been chopped up into 10 to 15 pieces, and each ended with what has come to be known as a cliffhanger. You wouldn’t find out what was going to happen until the next episode.

So maybe the new thing today is to make movies in 10-part pieces, of five minutes apiece, and produce an app for that as the delivery system. If you do enough of that, maybe grocery stores will put little screens on their carts, like some gas stations now have screens on the pumps.

We are exploring, in my school, how we deliver news and information in urban communities. In many urban communities, the most efficient method of news and information is the church. Many churches have very large multimedia operations: They stream video, they have big displays for video messaging and presentations. So we’re about to launch a project in which we cover the community and have some of that content delivered via these megachurches’ media systems. These churches reach three, four, five thousand people. We’re trying to find more ways to get information to people where they are and deliver it to them in ways that are manageable to them.

The church project is called the Baltimore Reporting Project, and we expect to get funding for it within the next 30 to 60 days.

Owen: What has your fundraising process been like?

Wickham: Funding has been very difficult for us, which is a matter of great consternation for me. A lot of funders say they have a commitment to diversity, but we’ve not seen it in terms of their funding. What they have a commitment to are their friends, people they know, people they’re comfortable with. People move from one side of the media industry to the other, and that’s how the money flows.

If everybody who has a commitment to diversity would just put a little bit of money into programs where you can make a difference, we would, I think, see greater progress in terms of the integration of newsgathering operations than we do. We’ve gotten funding from the Knight Foundation, Hearst Foundations, the Arca Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the Open Society Foundation [which is allowing the journalism school to give a $10,000 annual journalism prize, the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence]. But we have not hit the motherlode.

Here’s what’s distressing for me. I’ve got a program of almost 500 students. Ninety-five percent are African-American. Every year, my program is among the top four or five in the nation in terms of the total number of blacks who receive degrees in journalism and communication. But the programs that receive the lion’s share of the dollars in journalism education — and some of that is specifically targeted for diversity — don’t rank in the top 20, sometimes not even in the top 30, in terms of producing African-American graduates with degrees in the profession.

It wouldn’t make sense anywhere else. It wouldn’t make sense if we were talking about commodities, or oil, or selling televisions or refrigerators. But somehow, it makes sense in journalism education to put the money disproportionately into schools and programs that cannot attract and do not graduate blacks in significant numbers, at a time when everyone in the industry who looks at employment would tell me that the greatest loss of jobs over the last 15 to 20 years has occurred among African Americans.

Owen: What are some of the schools that are getting that funding?

Wickham: They’re very good schools and they all have very good programs. Arizona State: Great program. USC: Great program. What they do, they do very, very well, and I think very highly of the work they do there. But [historically black colleges and universities] have a unique role at a time when cities are burning, when people are demonstrating in the streets.

Folks are being surprised by this continuing wave of discontent in the African-American community, and one of the arguments that I make to these people, is: In 1968, the Kerner Commission told us that one of the causes of urban unrest that led to rioting in that decade was the failure of media to pay attention to the issues of black folk across this country. That continues to be the problem today. You don’t have to be black to cover these issues, but certainly, it helps to expand the diversity in newsrooms and in newsgathering and social media organizations, so that there is not only diversity among the people, but diversity of thought and consciousness. [LO: Listen to a recent Reply All episode on this exact issue.]

Owen: This is so disheartening. I’m wondering how much your students think about these issues, and how much awareness of the fundraising problems trickles down to them.

Wickham: The funding part of it is left to the administration. But listen, here’s how we try to address it from our end of this whole academy’s operation. We’ve decided that we not only have to provide our students the knowledge in the classroom that they need to compete, but we also have to be a provider of the practical experiences that they need.

That’s the teaching hospital model of journalism education. In medicine, professors teach you and then you go down to the ER and actually do the work. In our model, we teach students in classrooms and then have what we call performance centers. Each of our three departments has a performance center, a real-world environment in which our students go to work.

Denise Cabrera, who was the first black woman to serve as a bureau chief of the AP anywhere in the world, runs our digital newsroom. Students are sent out on assignments like real journalists. They’re writing stories, doing social media feeds, producing visual content so that we can post videos. We give them real, deadline-driven assignments.

We covered the gubernatorial election last year. We had a student assigned to the Maryland legislature; he had a little space in the press room and had to do regular reports. When the disturbances broke out in Baltimore last April, we had students out there in the midst of all that doing deadline-driven reporting.

In our strategic communications department, we have the Strategy Shop, run by Dana Shelley, a public relations professional who now also teaches full-time for us. Our [strategic communications] students have clients on-campus and off-campus for whom they provide services. And in our department of multiplatform production, the performance center is BEAR-TV, a student-populated television operation that produces content four hours a day, four days a week, during the semester.

We’re hustling. We’re less than three years into this. We’re doing all of this on a very short budgetary string, so I’m scrambling constantly to generate a cash flow so that we can create these opportunities, and we’re looking for even more creative ways to do what we think is necessary to make our students competitive in the job.

I don’t want the kids to worry about the [funding process]. Later, we can tell them about the sausage-making. Right now, what I want them to do is enjoy all these opportunities.

Morgan State University image by U.S. Army/Tom Faulkner used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 25, 2016, 11:11 a.m.
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