In creating the curriculum of CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism as inaugural Dean, Stephen B. Shepard* had to fill in many blanks. It seemed that there was no set path to becoming a journalist anymore, as it became clear that online and broadcast video classes were not created equal, international journalism tracks were unexpectedly popular, and a particularly beloved “Journalistic Judgment” course was dropped from the roster as students looked for more concrete skills to help them in the job market. Having served as Senior Editor and Editor-and-Chief at Newsweek and BusinessWeek, respectively, for more than twenty years, Shepard had observed first-hand the way news media had evolved over the past few decades, and in his book, Deadlines and Disruption: My Turbulent Path from Print to Digital (McGraw-Hill, August 21, 2012), Shepard outlines how the many shifts in the news media industry brought on by digital disruption influenced him in building a new pedagogy to meet new journalism hopefuls’ needs.
One of the biggest shifts is one that Shepard refers to as “The Great Unbundling,” or the fragmentation of media as people are able to pick and choose content from a greater whole. This has been a problem for the music industry with the rise of song downloads, and it’s also been a challenge for newspapers and magazines whose individual articles now attract narrower audiences based on readers’ interests. These articles also now compete with free niche news content generated by independent bloggers and aggregate sites. This issue is not unfamiliar for book publishers, who now compete against self-publishing options (and their hybrids), as well as digital short form titles, in a crowded marketplace.
Answers to this unbundling and discoverability problem can come in two forms: curation and new business models. Curating content available on the web is an opportunity for media to take advantage of real time reactions and to gauge a potential audience. The Arab Spring protests, for example, were born out of a video of fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in Tunisia, which was shown on Al Jazeera before becoming viral on Youtube. In this way, journalism is no longer just about creating content but also about bringing attention to content from other sources and facilitating discussion from there. This, of course, is more advantageous in the news world where “breaking” a story can make all the difference, but in a world where book publishing has found itself speeding up the process to meet readers’ demands, curation can be a powerful tool not only in finding interesting content but helping readers participate in its development, as Eric Ries did with the development of The Lean Startup (Crown).
When it comes to new business models, Shepard particularly praises the artful development of The New York Times’ multi-tiered metering system. Not only does it tie in the print edition with different platforms, from smart phones to iPads, but it also makes sure that casual readers are still a part of online conversations by making social media links exempt from the paywall. As Shepard explains, this allows publishers to both bring in revenue from their subscribers while making sure they are still getting high viewing numbers for their articles (according to Shepard, the paywall caused the website’s traffic to drop only about 10%). While a metering system isn’t necessarily applicable to book publishing and can’t even be implemented at a smaller news press the way it is at The Times, experimenting with new strategies to counteract unbundling and competition is key.
Looking to the future, Shepard warns against allowing tech and commerce companies to have too much power when it comes to analytics and data collection. Though he talks excitedly about the new possibilities that tablets and ereaders are bringing for media, some of the companies that are developing them are potential competition for publishers, particularly as they move into creating their own media content. David Carey, President of Hearst Magazines, is quoted in Deadlines and Disruption as saying “These commerce companies have moved into content. You’ll now see content companies moving into commerce.” For example, as Shepard suggests, publishers could “…seek a small cut for products sold from ads placed on their sites. Some publishers might host sponsored events for a committed audience. Or sell low-priced ads to small advertisers in local communities.”
Through the development of CUNY’s journalism program, Shepard reflects on the need for a new pedagogy geared towards flexibility and skills that are specific to the changing world of media. Similar to publishing, roles within the industry are becoming more fluid, making it even more important to understand the subtleties of all outlets. Nothing exemplifies this need more than Newsweek, Shepard’s old stomping grounds, recently announcing that they are going digital-only.
* Shepard also recently announced that CUNY’s Graduate School or Journalism, in cooperation with OR Books, is creating publishing imprint CUNY Journalism Press, which will begin releasing three to five books a year in early 2013.
An interview with Stephen Shepard from Charlie Rose