In leadership and life, adapting to change is a given. But in journalism education, change through innovation has become do-or-die.
As widely reported, the digital revolution has radically and irrevocably changed the way people access, consume and engage with media. While people are increasingly turning to online and mobile sources for news and information, traditional newspapers and broadcast media are scrambling to find ways to re-engage with their audiences and remain economically viable.
Likewise, journalism education is struggling to redefine its role and relevance in the digital age. In an unexpected role-reversal, the media industry is now looking to the academy to provide creative solutions to its problems, and serve as an incubator for discovery and innovation.
As you can imagine, the process isn’t easy.
Universities tend to be change-adverse, bogged down by bureaucracy and multiple levels of decision-making. Faculty in my discipline are typically rewarded for conducting academic research that examines past practices, rather than exploring new methods of communication that can inform, transform and lead the industry.
University leadership — including my own style of leading — can also get stuck in the past. Just as our faculty has had to retool for an industry and academic discipline in constant motion, I have had to rethink the way I lead. My hands-on, top-down management style had to give way to a more flexible, inclusive approach to leadership.
Despite our limitations, my school has made tremendous strides in the quest to redefine journalism in the digital age.
These are a few hard-won lessons I’ve learned along the way and what I now consider to be best-practices in leading people through change:
Be patient: No matter how urgent a situation may seem, creating a culture that embraces change takes time. Before we adopted a multimedia curriculum, we watched what other schools were doing and learned from both their successes and mistakes. We took nearly two years to build consensus among faculty, including those initially resistant to converging our broadcast and print programs. Through those discussions, we created a new curriculum that teaches students how to write, report and produce news across media platforms — online, print and visual.
Seed Innovation: To incentivize faculty, I utilized my school’s discretionary funds to support professional development activities. These include a new “Faculty Innovation Grant” that provides summer salary support to faculty who create new courses, projects and research that address developments in emerging media. The school also has provided seed money for unique start-up projects, such as “West Virginia Uncovered.” Launched as a course elective with just a few thousand dollars, the project has evolved into a multimedia-training program that’s helping rural newspapers transition from print to digital and mobile.
Reward the work: Like everyone else, faculty need to know what’s in it for them. Recently, our faculty evaluation committee revisited our tenure and promotion guidelines to ensure that faculty can be rewarded and promoted for work that may not fit traditional definitions of “scholarship.” The committee determined our guidelines are flexible enough to accommodate both traditional scholars who publish in academic journals, as well as faculty who are creating new models for digital and interactive storytelling, and mobile and tablet applications.
Lead by example: To emphasize the importance of evolving with the industry, I, too, have needed to update my skills and knowledge. I’ve educated myself on media trends by reading trade journals and blogs, attending national conferences, and participating in Twitter discussions on the future of the industry. I’m also leading the development of a Web site for “WVU News,” our weekly student newscast, which will offer students an online venue to “publish” additional stories and content and engage an online audience through blogs and social media.
Share ownership: Ultimately, the main driver for change has been shared ownership of the process. In a field that’s constantly changing, no one person is the oracle or expert. As a result, I’ve engaged allstakeholders — faculty, students, alumni and professionals — in deciding how best to evolve our program to meet the demands of the 21st century media industry and the needs of an informed public citizenry.
Moving forward, I have no doubt that our curriculum and my leadership style will continue to evolve. Much like my faculty and professional peers, I must remain vigilant and forward-thinking in an industry and discipline in constant “beta” mode.