Journalism program in midst of major changes

By Elizabeth Zakaim
Reviews Editor

As recent as the Spring 2016 semester, the College’s journalism website was unheard of until it was accidentally unearthed from the College’s homepage. It was just a small extension of the English department that was buried under the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

However, a decade-long dream for the journalism faculty has finally come to fruition — the journalism and professional writing major is now its own department under the School of the Arts and Communication. “I think this gives us a chance to really flex our muscles as this small, but very rigorous program,” said Emilie Lounsberry, The Signal’s adviser and an associate professor of journalism and professional writing. “We can be more visible on campus as our own department, and we’re hoping that that will enable us to grow our own program.”

Since as early as 2004, the idea of switching departments has been on the minds of the College’s journalism professors, as they were interested in attracting more students to the major, according to Donna Shaw, an associate professor and chair of the journalism and professional writing department.

The idea to move quickly caught on, and the transition began just three years after its inception in the early 2000s, according to Kim Pearson, associate professor of journalism and professional writing.

“This is the culmination of conversations that have been going on for years,” Pearson said.

Those conversations included meetings and strategic planning processes between the journalism professors and Jacqueline Taylor, the provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Some technical changes for the new department include reformatting and revising documents on journalism’s disciplinary standards that explain the program’s curriculum. The documents have to be revised to remove any references to the English curriculum, a topic discussed in the journalism department meeting on Feb. 8.

Though there was no specific timeline, the transition last semester was certainly not a surprise to any member of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences or School of the Arts and Communication.

The journalism department finds a new home. (File photo)

Since Pearson’s arrival at the College in the mid ’80s, journalism had been a track in the English department, which was run by Professor Emeritus Bob Cole and Ellen Friedman, now a literature and Holocaust studies professor at the College. By the early ’90s, it became clear to Pearson that methods of journalism were changing — the world was taking a digital turn, and it was in the school’s best interest to adapt.

Pearson began by turning her magazine writing course into an online publishing course. Her and her class began collaborating with graphic design professors to create an online magazine with their students called “unbound.”

Pearson also had a hand in developing the interactive multimedia major under the School of the Arts and Communication in order to continue infusing technology into the journalism curriculum. In the early 2000s, the College began encouraging interdisciplinary courses, from which the IMM major grew.

“We created the major for it to be a space where people interested in the online and interactive aspects of journalism could develop their knowledge and their skills,” Pearson said.

That is also why some IMM and journalism courses, such as Data Journalism and Writing for Interactive Multimedia, are still cross-listed, so students get a taste of how both majors interact in the real world. Soon enough, terms such as “mobile journalism” were a regular part of students’ vocabularies.

Shaw also acknowledged how times have changed since she started at the College in 2004.

“It was painful to leave the English department,” she said. “We were surrounded by writers.”

But journalism was turning digital, and there was little anyone could do to stop it.

“We talk much more in terms of holding audiences in the digital age. We talk about graphics and data visualization, and using social media to find sources,” Shaw said. None of which were a part of the major back in the 1980s.

With the world of higher education moving in a more modern direction, it made sense for the journalism track to not only be cross-listed with IMM, but to also move to the School of the Arts and Communication in order to have better access to the equipment the school offered students.

The journalism students were eager to get a hold of the camera equipment and experience the television and radio studio in the communication department.

During the department meeting, the journalism faculty discussed more ways to engage journalism students in more communication related events. They brainstormed a possible Brown Bag event with guest speaker and alumna Kristen Zimmerman (’05), vice president of digital programming at Nick Jr.

Kathleen Webber, an assistant professor of journalism and professional writing, acknowledged that with Zimmerman’s skillset, she would be able to give advice to communication, IMM and journalism students alike. This academic diversity is just what the journalism department was hoping for in terms of engaging students from similar disciplines and showcasing what the College’s alumni are capable of accomplishing with a journalism degree.

Shaw was seeing more students pick up either a journalism or communication studies major or minor, which indicated that the transition was in the best interest of her students.

Sophomore open options major Jamie Gerhartz had not heard of the major before her adviser suggested she take a journalism class to explore different academic areas. She is now planning on declaring a journalism major.

During her freshman year, she had assumed that journalism would be under the School of the Arts and Communication, but was surprised to learn that it was in fact under the English department at the time.

She’s glad that the major is on more students’ radars, but still small enough for her to build a relationship with her professors.

“The professors are all really passionate about journalism,” Gerhartz said. 

Benjamin Zander, a junior communication studies and journalism double major, started off college as a communication studies major, but later saw the benefits of picking up a journalism major, as well.

“I am aspiring to be a television news reporter, and I knew that journalism would pair really well,” Zander said.

He knew that the writing and storytelling skills he would learn in journalism would come in handy in a television or film career.

“One of the most beneficial classes for my broadcasting career happened to be a (journalism) topics course,” Zander said.

It was in his broadcast journalism class that he learned how to write a news rundown and format a 15-minute newscast for a television script. Zander said all of the jobs and internships he is interested in applying to look for applicants who have studied either journalism or communication, which is evidence that journalism is successfully wedging its way into a new career skill set.

Shaw hopes more students will be interested and aware of the major in the future. The goal of the transition was to not only help students interested in a career in journalism, communications or interactive multimedia, but also those who are also looking to benefit from the general skill set involved in the major.

“There are so many other businesses that need people who can write quickly and with accuracy,” Shaw said.

Those businesses can include nonprofit organizations and any corporation looking to hire new employees. Shaw said a recent study she had read surveyed CEOs from a variety of different corporations. They were asked what skill they looked for most in a potential employee.

“Communication skills –– in particular written communication skills,” Shaw said. “Journalism and professional writing teaches those.”

As the digital world expands around us, Shaw said we can’t forget about the importance of good old fashioned pen and paper.

“Students need to know how to write,” Shaw said.