The Future of the University of Colorado’s Journalism SchoolPosted on October 21st, 2010 1 comment
It has been a while since I was a journalist, and truth be told most of my career has been more about supporting journalists or helping everyday people publish their stories without the aid of gatekeepers. But despite that, I am still a product of the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication (class of 1994). I received a lot of help from CU in my younger years, and because of that I will always feel a sense of obligation to help other CU students realize their full potential.
I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on the school’s advisory board for the past four years, and signed a controversial letter in the Spring of 2010 recommending the school’s closure. Many were surprised at this, but it was a nearly unanimous board decision that was made based on the key assumption that “discontinuance” was a necessary step to create a more ambitious, cross-functional entity that brings technology and media closer together.
I put my faith in the multi-headed hydra that is the University of Colorado to hold true to that promise, and I backed it with my reputation. I’m sad to say that based on how things are unfolding, CU is failing miserably at keeping that promise. But I think there is still a last chance for the school to do right by its students and alums like me.
Tonight I delivered the following message to the “exploratory committee” that is considering what to do with the pieces left behind after CU’s J-school is shut down. When I learned that the committee is considering an institute meant purely for faculty and graduate students to collaborate on projects they want to work on with no opportunities for undergraduate students, I could no longer stay silent.
My message to the committee, and to CU’s administration — especially Chancellor Phil DiStefano — is simple. Don’t allow this horribly bungled process to destroy an opportunity to create a new, world-class educational opportunity for students who may very well create the next Facebook or Twitter. And I have to tell you, you’re really close to doing that. I’m profoundly disappointed in you and the way you have handled this situation, but I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt in hopes that you can make it whole.
The rest of my message speaks for itself:
Comments to the University of Colorado Exploratory Committee for Information, Communication and Technology
Dan Pacheco, October 20, 2010
Four-year member of the Journalism School Advisory Committee
My name is Dan Pacheco, and I am a CU alum and a product of the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication (class of 1994). The education and opportunities I received at this school allowed my career to blossom in ways that have had a large and storied impact on the increasingly dynamic and cross-functional field we call “media.” While my work spans multiple industries – including journalism, but also Web technology — I’m often cited as an example to budding new journalists about what’s possible for them and their future careers.
You may have heard of or even used some of the projects I championed:
- Soon after graduating, I found a job on the team that launched Washingtonpost.com.
- I spent six years at America Online managing innovative community and user-contributed content services that were used by tens of millions of AOL members in their day.
- I pioneered the use of so-called “citizen journalism” and social networking within the newspaper industry at The Bakersfield Californian and have been invited around the world to help other newspapers launch similar programs.
- I am a past recipient of an $837,000 Knight News Challenge grant to democratize magazine publishing, and as part of that fraternity I regularly blog on the PBS Web site.
- Most recently, I have my own brand new startup off Pearl Street called BookBrewer, an e-book creation service which Borders just chose to power self-publishing for its audience of 37 million.
For these reasons and more, I’m regularly invited to speak to students about my career path as well as my views on the future of media. It’s also why I’ve sat on the advisory board of the J-school these past four years.
I’m not one of those wealthy individuals who sits on a board in order to direct the use of his millions (I have none), or because I’m looking for ways to fill my time (none of that, either!) To be honest, I’m so busy these days in my career that it’s an ongoing struggle to give extra time to CU on my own dime. Still, I give on average a few hundred dollars a year at the full discretion of the dean, and this week alone I talked to three different classes for 90 minutes.
I sit on the J-school’s advisory board for one and only one reason: I am passionate about helping afford those same opportunities to students who sit in the same chairs I did 15 years ago. And in this age of rapid change, it’s why I have increasingly advocated for different, cross-functional and ultimately more integrative approaches to journalism education.
But enough about that. Let me share with you my frustration with CU and the bungled process that is alternately referred to as “discontinuance” and “exploration.” Then, I want to clearly outline what I personally believe CU needs to do in order to prepare students for the Digital Now.
But first, let me just clarify something. I want to make it extremely clear what I as a signatory on the Advisory board’s letter supporting discontinuance intended by that action.
With one exception, we unanimously supported discontinuance because it was seen as an important and necessary step to create a more multi-disciplinary program that would afford new opportunities to primarily undergraduate students, and secondarily to graduate students. Where it included research, it would be more focused on solving the problems of today and tomorrow, and less on studying nearly-dead media models from the past.
I personally also wanted CU to be able to offer a top-notch program that was focused on experiential learning and even research and development. I wanted students from other, non-content-related disciplines such as computer science and entrepreneurship to be able to work together. Why? These are the disciplines that are currently causing the most disruption and change to media, and causing legacy media forms to fall. They are also its future, if not its present.
But I’m also an optimist. Before signing that letter, I spent four years advising the school on ways to effect such change from within. Despite a few incremental improvements, the pace of change has been abysmal when compared to what’s happening outside the halls of academia. From my perspective, change has been periodically and systematically stifled by various self-interested constituencies within the CU Journalism School and CU overall, and these groups have grown adept at routing around change. After one or two semesters of incremental improvement, the organism always inevitably settles back into its old rhythms.
So it should be no surprise that after four years, I gladly jumped at the opportunity to support an even more radical change. I and all of my advisory board colleagues were led to believe that through discontinuance, CU could take down the cozy walls that allow professors and students to maintain practices that last made sense 20 years ago, then reorganize those disciplines in a more natural way that reflects the world we live in now.
And what are the changes that I personally felt needed to be made? To anyone outside of the Armory building, they’re obvious:
- A breakdown of artificial barriers between CU’s content, technology and business programs, just like in the real business world.
- More experiential learning opportunities for students that focus not just on learning the how and the why, but providing hands-on opportunities to create new monetizable information products that are focused on specific audiences and communities of interest.
- Less focus on research per-se, and more focus on research and development. It’s long been my belief that by pairing CU’s best and brightest student programmers, business and marketing mavens, and content creators that this school would create the next Facebooks, Twitters, AOL’s, Yahoo’s, and even Googles that would change the way people send and receive information.
- And perhaps most importantly, a continuance of instruction around the civic responsibility side of content creation – which is another way of saying “journalism.” Things like truth, accuracy, fairness and media law are more important than ever in today’s fragmented media world. By including the basic training and values of journalism at the center, we could also ensure that these future platforms create the kind of change that’s good for society. That is what journalism is fundamentally about in the digital age.
That was my hope from this process. What I’m seeing does not reflect those goals in the slightest. In fact, it disgusts me.
What I see happening after the discontinuance process began is so far from the vision I and many other advisory board members shared that it makes me want to publicly wash my hands of the entire affair, set the record straight about my own intentions, and leave you to destroy what was otherwise a golden opportunity to create a world-renowned university experience.
However, as I said I am an optimist. So I reach out to members of the exploratory committee and offer my hand to help you help yourselves, and by doing so to help students. I hope that you will rise to that challenge and really help the undergraduate student body, rather than create an expensive playground for faculty and graduate students.
Let me end by putting this in the personal perspective of a father.
I have two bright, beautiful little girls, 4 and 7, the first of whom will graduate from high school in 10 years. Like many children, both are extremely interested in creating content and having other people validate it – which is to say, they are future publishers. My youngest recently used her father’s “BookBrewer” product to publish her own eBook on Amazon.com, and was amazed when she saw it not only up in the Amazon store, but that it was purchased by four people.
Ten years from now, if my daughter is still interested in media and wants me to spend her college savings account to send her to a school that will help her be successful in communication-focused businesses, what will I be comfortable paying for? Let’s say I have two choices:
- Door number 1: A program that teaches her about the latest communication technologies, and also gives her the opportunity to work with students with complementary skillsets (such as coding) to create new ways to share information, and uses business students to apply cutting edge revenue models so that those products can ultimately continue beyond their university years. In a city like Boulder, which is now a world-renowned tech startup Mecca, I know such a program would give her both the skills and experience to choose her own job, and even the working knowledge to start her own company should she so choose.
- Door number 2: A media studies program that teaches her nothing about creating anything, but sets her up to be a critic of other peoples’ work. It sits alongside a research institute that has no opportunities for her other than, perhaps, making photocopies (if copiers even exist then). She graduates with few choices other than to enroll in graduate school in hopes of getting a Ph.D. and maybe being a professor, who maybe one day gets tenure (but most likely won’t).
My challenge to you: put yourself in the shoes of my bright young daughter and look at the students who thousands of parents pay good money to send them through your doors every year. Put them first, and you will also put CU first, as well as Boulder and Colorado.
Conversely, if you sacrifice these childrens’ future for your own career goals you will end up in exactly the same boat that the Journalism school is in today. You will be even more irrelevant, you will be deemed a failure, and you will close. I will gladly put the last nail in that coffin.
One year after the second worst financial crisis in the modern world, when unemployment is hovering at 10 percent, the University of Colorado simply can’t afford to sit comfortably in its ivory tower and remove opportunities for undergraduate students to learn and grow. This state-funded institution needs to do the opposite: give students an edge in the growing field of entrepreneurial technology-driven media.
This is what I expected of you when I supported the discontinuance process. Given what I am seeing, I now regret ever signing that letter. The most I can do now is to appeal to those who have been given the ball and urge them to do the right thing for the CU student body.
Entrepreneur and Former Journalist
Thanks for you commitment to the School of Journalism and concern for providing a high-quality education for professionally-minded undergraduates.
I would point out in relation to your ‘Door Number 2′ alternate, that media studies is not the only option for undergraduates in the soon-to-be terminated School of Journalism. Undergraduates also have the opportunity to pursue the broadcasting, advertising, and news editorial study tracks. Many of the classes in these tracks are taught by adjunct faculty who currently work at papers, magazines, and online media outlets. A student should not enter the media studies track if they are not interested in critical analysis and historically relevant methods. This is what defines media studies. I feel media studies is perhaps unfairly taking the brunt of recent criticism while it is far from the only track available for undergraduates.
Dean Voakes has always been a supporter of the professionally-minded undergraduates. One of the ways he has done this is by filling the board with successful professionals like yourself. Unfortunately, this has resulted in him being out of a job and it’s yet to be seen whether students will benefit in the end. I wish the board would have taken less drastic and more effective steps toward improvements and change, but please don’t give up and wash your hands of the whole ordeal, but keep fighting for the best interest of the students.
Finally, it should be noted some of the new media outlets highly touted in your article like Twitter are contradictory to a focus on accuracy and truth. They encourage a ‘rush to publish’ mentality which often results in inaccuracy and outright falsity.