College Communications Programs in The Digital Era

Dr. Michelle Ferrier of Elon University, right, receives research award at the 2012 AEJMC conference

 By Lillian Williams

Innovation is not just about a sexy new user interface. It’s not just about what we do. It’s also about how we do it. Innovation is about taking risks and trying things. Mistakes will be made. That’s a good thing. That’s where true learning happens.”

Those are the words of Richard Gingras, head of news and social products at Google, who delivered a keynote address to the 2012 conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass and Communication (AEJMC). The educators’ conference was held in Chicago August 9-11.

Noting transformative change in the news industry, Gingras urged educators to rethink how journalism and related communications skills are taught. Curricula and courses need constant retooling, he said, amplifying:

“These are extraordinary times. The media landscape is in the process of being completely transformed, tossed upside down; reinvented and restructured in ways we know, and in ways we do not yet know. The process of change is far from over. Indeed, it will never be over.”

Moreover, “The pace of technological change will not abate, it will only quicken. The consumer Internet is less than twenty years old. The emergence of Google and the power of search occurred only fifteen years ago. Less than ten years ago saw the eruption of the blogosphere. And only five years ago, the notion of social networks had not entered our consciousness. What will be the next startling innovation?”

When it comes to journalism and communications education, it’s time to collapse traditional walls, he advocated.

“Can we give them enough of an understanding of the business aspects so that they can actively participate in the evolution of that business model? Gingras asked. “The time is gone when one side of the organization can practice determined ignorance of the other.”

“Can we enable in our students a sense of personal entrepreneurship, not necessarily to build companies but to build and evolve their own careers? Can we inspire a mindset that is comfortable and ultimately confident in taking creative risks so that they thrive in fast-changing environments? The 40-year, one-company career is a thing of the past.”

As Gingras put it, media practitioners with an entrepreneurial mindset, along with core values and competencies, have a chance to seize the day. “With great technological change comes great opportunity,” he said, adding, “And with great opportunity comes great responsibility.”

Indeed, an array of research papers presented at the AEJMC conference demonstrates that educators understand Gingras’ message.

For example, winners of a key research competition reported their findings about emerging media issues during the conference. This competition was sponsored by the AEJMC Council of Affiliates, a group of 35 organizations with ties to the fields of journalism and mass communication.

The winners, who received $1,000 prizes, were Michelle Ferrier of Elon University; Mitch McKenny of Kent State University; Paul Steinle, professor emeritus of Southern Oregon University, and Sara Brown of Valid Sources in Seattle.

Among their findings were the following:

  • The study, “Media Entrepreneurship: Curriculum Development and Faculty Perceptions of What Students Should Know,” by Ferrier found twelve essential learning outcomes for media entrepreneurship courses. Among other outcomes, students should be able to construct and deliver a pitch; conduct market research; conduct audience analysis,  and understand the entrepreneurial landscape/start-up culture, according to the study. Read Ferrier’s entire study here .
  • The study, “Best Practices in Managing News Website Comments,” by McKenney offers ways to handle comments on news sites. Among the tips: Consider the use of Facebook to power website comments sections. However, the study warns that there are tradeoffs, including a less-active comments section, though sites likely would receive increases in referrals from the Facebook activity. Contact McKenney at for a copy of his study.
  • The study, “The Ten Percent Dilemma: The Opportunities and Challenges of Managing Newspapers in the Digital Age,” by Steinle and Brown identified key changes, challenges, and even actions that have remained the same at successful transformational newspapers. But the study also highlighted ripe opportunities for newspapers, including digital delivery networks that can be used for marketing intelligence, as well as smart ads and video ads. See the entire study here .

In addition, AEJMC offers a “Research You Can Use web page that highlights new research from refereed journals about topics of interest to journalists and others.

It’s your turn. What key research studies, or other references, would you suggest for journalism educators, reporters, news managers, and others interested in emerging media issues?

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