Q&A: A study of innovation in journalism education

Jul 14 2015

Reese News Lab sat down with Kendra Benner, summer intern and recent UNC J-school graduate, to learn more about her study on innovation in journalism education.

What do you think about journalism education after you’ve done this thesis? Has your opinion changed?

It’s changed. It amazed me how wide of a range there is in what’s happening depending on if there’s a “innovator” at a school and how many resources a school has. I thought it was more homogenous, but it’s just a huge difference.

I was surprised by how much journalism education was going away from the core of journalism. I thought it would be just innovating within the traditional journalism sphere–like VR storytelling or using drones to capture footage. But it’s going into these other fields like business and data science and other stuff.

How did you define “innovator”?

When I first started, I thought innovation was just doing something new, but then I had to delve deeper into needing to define it for the methods section and I borrowed from a couple different people. A piece of my definition I made sure to include was innovation is a process that adds value. Because something can be new and cool but if it wasn’t adding value to the institution, I didn’t think it was worth studying for this paper.

One of the things you discovered was that it’s not always easy to innovate within existing systems. Can you talk a little bit about that?

One thing that I suspected before I did my thesis and then came out in the interviews was that it’s hard to innovate in journalism education. Obviously it’s not impossible, but there are some traditional mindsets in academia that just oppose innovation. Innovation moves quickly, but academia often moves slowly. Innovation seeks as many outside opinions and is really humble in acknowledging that an innovator doesn’t know everything about everything, but academia tends to be more silo-ed and proprietary.

What were your takeaways based on the people you talked to on how they were doing what they were doing?

One thing I found was that journalism educators experience something that’s analogous to what people in professional media organizations experience: When you’re focused on your daily demands of your job, it’s hard to innovate. For someone in a journalism school that looks like teaching hundreds of students or advising or writing scholarly articles. One of the participants in my study suggested that if a journalism school could remove a few people from their daily demand, like their teaching or their scholarly article publishing expectations, and assign them to figuring out what’s new for the school, then that would increase innovation. At UNC-Chapel Hill, one participant, John Clark, said that he thinks he’s able to innovate because his entire job is doing it.

Other than UNC, where were other innovators? Were there differences?

There were differences. All of these schools I only saw through the lens of who I was talking to and what program they were involved with, so there may be more similarities than I’m aware of. For example, CUNY’s entrepreneurial journalism focus is only at the graduate level, but UNC’s is really only at the undergrad level. I think some institutions had more of a focus on innovating in the entrepreneurial journalism sphere, like finding new revenue models for news orgs, but then other places were more focused on like innovating in the legacy model.

Are there any other major takeaways?

One interesting thing I found was the innovators — many of them talked about how they delve into one area very deeply. It’s interesting because in a way that’s analogous to the traditional academia of like you delve into your one scholarly article area. But what the professors found is — especially those who are on tenure track — there are so many competing job expectations like advising, producing scholarly work, and teaching and going to conferences so in that sense they don’t have one specific focus so there not as able to innovate

I think an important part is, if a journalism school wants to innovate, I would encourage them to examine why. Innovation is a buzzword. It’s trendy. I would ask them to figure out if they’re innovating because they want to better prepare students for the work force or give them a more nimble approach to work that will enable them and how rapidly the media industry is changing. If they decide they want to innovate but aren’t really sure why, they’ve just heard it’s a trend, they should really dig in to their goals and objectives. Something I found that wasn’t in the literature was there hasn’t been much study on what’s the role of evaluating when you’re innovating.

Where did your title (“Snake your way to success”) come from?

One of my participants used this phrase to describe the process of innovation. I love taking something that’s nebulous and creative and breaking it down and figuring out the system. So that participant said when he is innovating he goes in one direction and tries something for a while and when he hits a wall, he adjusts and goes in another direction. You’re constantly evaluating what you’re doing and that’s another piece that’s missing from academia. With accreditation –there’s a years-long break between that formal evaluation. That doesn’t encourage innovation because you have no idea if what you just tried worked or not, so you have to be constantly evaluating to know if you’re being successful. So he tries different things, snakes back and forth, and eventually hits success.


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